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Planting maiz on mountainside milpas is an ancient ritual

Corn is about 80,000 years old and was being harvested in western Mexico 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. Corn has cast a metaphysical spell as ancient as the appearance of the first hunter-gatherers who explored Jalisco’s llanos, cerros and arroyos as they pushed south, deeper into Mesoamerica.

pg16cAnyone inspecting the mountainsides stretching out from Guadalajara will find that tilted, stony landscape bien talachado—meaning the milpas are well-cleared and planted, prepared for the soaking rains of the wet season.

It was just outside Jalisco’s capital that, in 1978, a young University of Guadalajara botany student, Raphael Guzman, made the startling rediscovery of the “lost” chapule teocintli, the centuries-old ancestor of modern corn, which researchers had been hunting for more than a century. Chapuli teocintli is not only more disease- and insect-resistant than modern hybrids, it is also perennial. That means it has the potential to cut the cost of corn growing and meat production in Mexico by billions of dollars.

Rains traditionally due on the feast day of San Antonio de Padua, June 13, were late this year. In hundreds of dusty pueblos, campesino families squinted into the glare of an empty June sky, silently sorting their list of favorite saints, hoping for some metaphysical help to fill the heavens with rain-heavy clouds.

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