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Belize
Backgrounder


Pre-Columbian Belize

Scientists believe Maya priests of what is now Belize studied celestial movements. A prime function performed in the elaborate temples (built to strict astronomical guidelines) may have been charting the changing seasons and deciding when to begin the planting cycle. Farmers used the slash-and-burn method of agriculture (and the Maya still do today). When the time was propitious (before the rains began in the spring), Maya farmers cut the trees on a section of land, leaving stumps about a foot above ground. They spread downed trees evenly across the landscape to burn uniformly; residual ash was left to nourish the soil. At the proper time, they made holes with a pointed stick and dropped precious maize kernels into the earth, one by one. At each corner (the cardinal points) of the cornfield, they left offerings of pozole (maize stew) to encourage the gods to give forth great rains. With abundant moisture, crops were bountiful and rich enough to provide food even into the following year.

The Maya knew the value of allowing the land to lie fallow after two seasons of growth, and each family's milpa (cornfield) was moved from place to place around the villages scattered through the jungle. Today's Maya follow the same ancient pattern of farming as their ancestors. The government is suggesting more efficient management of the land with less destruction to the rainforest; this "alternate" farming method reuses a plot of ground, with the help of fertilizers, after it's been left fallow for a short time. Education, intended to teach the indigenous people alternatives to slash-and-burn, is beginning to take hold.

Maize

Corn was the heart of Maya nutrition, eaten at each meal. From it they made tortillas, stew, and both alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages. Because growing corn was such a vital part of Maya life, it is represented in drawings and carvings along with other social and religious symbols. Corn tortillas are still a main staple of the Maya people. The Maya's combination of corn and beans provided a complete protein; they did not raise cattle, sheep, or pigs before Spanish times. They did include in their diets turtle, manatee, iguana, fresh seafood, and many small animals that roam the jungle.

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