Nixtamalization: A Tortilla a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Today is National Taco Day, and although I must admit that I neglect most of these “para-holidays” this occasion happens to intersect with one of my passions: Meso-american History.



My interest in tacos, however, is focused on one particular, indispensable ingredient: tortillas. Tortillas are important: they may have saved the lives of millions in the last 5,000 years. How so? Well, it all has to do with how the corn is prepared in the Tortilla-making process.

Corn has been a staple crop in Mesoamerica for at least 5,000 years. Earliest evidence of its domestication dates back 8700 years . It can be planted on steep hillsides, in semi-arid rocky environments, in very hot places, and in pretty cold places. The resilience of corn has made it indispensable in the highly variable terrain and climate of Mesoamerica. The only problem is that corn is naturally low in a chemical called niacin, and the low levels that are present in corn are chemically bound.

Niacin is important to many chemical processes in the body. Severe Niacin defficiency is called Pellagra, and has some nasty side effects. Known as the “three D’s”, the symptoms include dermatitis, diarreah, and dementia. Pellagra was reported in low-income populations throughout the American South and in parts of Europe in the late Nineteenth Century, after corn began to spread to areas outside of Meso-america as a cheap and low maintenance food source. 

Interestingly, Pellagra was not reported as commonly in Mexico, even though a large, rural peasant population, dependent on corn for their diet, persisted. Why is this so? Tortillas! Tortillas require corn to be ground to a very fine consistency, to achieve this it was ground by hand in metates (stone grinders) up until the late nineteenth century, and is still partially hand ground sometimes today. 


In preparation for the laborious process of grinding the corn, the kernels would be soaked in a lime solution (not the fruit lime, but the calcium oxide kind) to soften them up. The resulting, softened mix is called nixtamal, and it has been essential to the tortilla making process for thousands of years. Unknown to the ancients, though, was the fact that the alkaline solution that broke down the cell walls of the kernels also released the niacin chemically bound inside those cells. 

So, while other cultures were struggling to adapt their diets to this miracle crop (corn is now the most abundant crop in the world, thanks to its resilience) the people of Meso-america were enjoying the delicious and nutritious treat inherited from their ancient ancestors. Even today, their descendants still do!mano-and-matate1

Who were the Maya? Who would you have been in ancient Mexico?

Who were the Maya? I’ve become interested in Mayan civilization for various reasons. One, it’s 2012, and there are the obvious accompanying prophecies of the apocalypse. Two, I grew up listening to stories about the Maya as part of my culture.

The Maya people are widely regarded as a civilization ahead of their time — an ancient culture who built great pyramids, created a calendar using the stars, and continue to thrive in the cold, mountainous regions of Guatemala and Southern Mexico as well as in the rainforests of Northern Guatemala and Southern Belize.

2012 Mayan_30x402012: Mayan Prophecies is currently showing in the HMNS Planetarium

But who were the Maya, really? In the 1500s when the Conquistadores arrived in the New World, they came looking for gold, land, and other riches. After colonization they brought religion in the form of Roman Catholicism, and in time, there was a fusion of the old and new worlds. The Maya soon became immersed in the Spanish Empire.

Even though the Olmec are not considered Maya, they did influence the Maya people as they developed and perfected their spectacular architecture of step-pyramids and sacred buildings, beautiful artwork and pottery, and a complicated mathematical and astronomical numerical system.

IMG_1816A Mayan step pyramid

There are three different periods of the Maya culture: The Pre-Classic period (c.1700 BC-250 AD), the Classic period (250-900 AD) and the Post-Classic (900 AD-1546/1697 AD) period.

Pre-Classic Period Maya were modest farmers whose primary crops were corn, squash and beans grown in their gardens. Their houses were mud-covered with thatch roofs.

In the Classical Period, complex cities, architecture, astronomy, mathematics, and timekeeping developed. The collapse of the Maya towards the 8th and 9th Century AD left many cities abandoned, while others continued. What incited the Maya’s downfall — and how some cities survived while others fell — remains a mystery. Some hypothesize drought, natural disasters, famine, plagues, disease or possibly war.

Tulum Temple of MuralsThe Tulum Temple of Murals

Post-Classical Period cities in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula and in the Highlands of Guatemala, like Chichen Itza, still flourish. It was also during this time that the Maya people started using a simpler timekeeping version of the Mayan Calendar.

Did you know how that the same ancient calendar that has us stockpiling for the apocalypse also helped Mayan babies get their names?

The day a baby was born on the Sacred Calendar would also be their first name. A child’s full name was a combination of the Sacred and Solar Calendar. If you are curious about what your name would have been, there is a kiosk located in our Hall of the Americas where you can enter your date of birth and discover your Mayan name.