For the Mayans, corn was the vital plant par excellence and, according to the Popol Vuh, the gods created man with its dough. The first men were made of mud and the following ones of wood; Only those made with corn dough survived because they had the power to support and venerate the gods, to thank them for their creation and to be willing to serve them in everything they wanted. With white corn they molded the human figure and with red corn they made his blood. Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, recognized for having discovered the tomb of Pakal the Great in the Temple of the Inscriptions in Palenque, explains in his book The ancient Mayans that his humanized representation is “a young man, whose elongated head resembles the shape of a corncob or is surrounded by leaves”. Just that representation of the young Mayan corn god was found just a few months ago by specialists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) during conservation work in a corridor of El Palacio, in Palenque, in the state of Chiapas, south from Mexico. It is more than 1,300 years old and is the first find of a stucco head in the archaeological zone. The sculpture is a fundamental part of an offering placed on a pond, emulating the entrance of the deity to the underworld. An amazing image for the trained eyes of archaeologists. “The discovery of the deposit allows us to begin to know how the ancient Maya of Palenque constantly relived the mythical passage about the birth, death and resurrection of the maize deity,” explains INAH Chiapas Center researcher Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz.
The head of the corn god — which is 18 inches long; 16 centimeters wide and 22 centimeters high — it is identical to corncobs and its long hairs are equal to those of corn; It is a young man with an accentuated cranial deformation and without any animal features. “The sculpture, which must have been modeled around a limestone support, has graceful features: the chin is sharp, pronounced and split; the lips are thin and project outwards; the lower, slightly down, and show the upper incisors. The cheekbones are fine and rounded; and the eyes, elongated and thin. From the wide, long, flattened and rectangular forehead, a wide and pronounced nose is born”, detail the archaeologists Carlos Varela Scherrer and Wenceslao Urbina Cruz, who attended as field leaders. Due to the ceramic type of the tripod plate that accompanied the head of the ‘young tonsured maize god’ – a description that alludes to the trimmed hair of the numen, which is reminiscent of mature maize – the archaeological piece has been dated to the Late Classic period (700 -850 AD).
The deity was discovered inside a semi-square receptacle formed by three walls and under a layer of loose earth the nose and the half-open mouth of the divinity emerged, in addition, it kept an east-west orientation, a symbol of the birth of the corn plant with the first rays of the sun. According to the researchers, the pond functioned for the Mayans as a mirror of water to see the cosmos reflected. It is probable that these nocturnal rituals began in the governance of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal I (615-683 AD), and continued during those of K’an Bahlam II (684-702 AD), K’an Joy Chitam II (702-711 AD) and Ahkal Mo’ Nahb’ III (721-736 AD). Later, perhaps in the reign of the latter, they closed that space in a symbolic way, breaking a portion of the stucco floor of the pond and removing part of the construction fill, to deposit a series of elements: vegetables, animal bones –quail, white turtle , white fish and domestic dog–, shells, crab shells, worked bone fragments, ceramic pieces, three fractions of miniature anthropomorphic figurines, 120 pieces of obsidian blades, a portion of green stone beads, two shell beads, as well such as seeds and small snails.
“The placement of these elements was concentric, covering almost 75% of the cavity, which was sealed with loose stones. Some animal bones were cooked, and others have flesh marks and tooth prints, so they were surely used for human consumption as part of the ritual,” says specialist Arnoldo González Cruz. A limestone slab with a small perforation — 85 centimeters long by 60 centimeters wide, and 4 centimeters thick — was placed on top of the offering, but not before “sacrificing” the tripod plate, which was almost broken by the half and a portion, with one of its supports, was placed in the hole in the slab. Then came a semicircular bed of potsherds and small stone souls, on which the head of the deity was placed, which was supported laterally with the same materials. Finally, the entire space would be closed off with earth and three small walls, leaving the head of the young maize god inside a kind of box, where it remained hidden for 1,300 years.
As the exploration progressed, it was found that the sculpture is the axis of a rich offering that was placed on a pond with a floor and stuccoed walls, one meter wide by three meters long, to emulate the entry of this god into the underworld. in an aquatic environment. As the personification of the sown grain he performs various rites in the underworld. According to the myth, “[el dios maya] it travels in a canoe driven by the rowing gods, is dressed by young naked women, and finally germinates from the shell of a tortoise, symbol of the earth. In this last act, he appears flanked by two gods (Hun Ajaw and Yax B’alam), who are believed to be the version of the hero twins (Hunajpu and Xb’alanke) of the Popol Vuh, sons of Hun Junajpu”, explains the archaeologist. Tomás Pérez Suárez, from the Center for Mayan Studies of the Institute of Philological Research of the UNAM.
“The piece is quite fragmented. It was found in a context of humidity, so it had to be allowed to dry gradually, so that the piece would not deteriorate with such a drastic change of environment, since it was flooded with water. Now, it is already in a much drier state, to be able to start its restoration. What we are going to do is clean all the fragments, they are going to try to adhere and rescue all the ceramic fragments that are also found with the piece”, explains restorer Jorge Alejandro Coraza, who refers to the fragments of a tripod plate on which the sculpture was arranged, since it “was originally conceived as a severed head.” Such an idea arises when contrasting the iconography of the young maize god in other pieces and documents, such as a series of plates from the Late Classic period (600-850 AD), a vessel from the Tikal region, from the Early Classic period (150-600 AD ), and representations in the Dresden and Madrid codices, in which this deity or characters linked to it, appear with their heads severed.
“In the beginning, everything was on hold. All calm. There was only immobility and silence in the dark, at night”, starts the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the mayans. First, he continues later, the gods created men out of clay. It was a bust. They did not hold and, when it rained, they fell apart, on top of that they were unable to speak and reproduce. Then they tried wooden men, but they had no soul or memory; they would not remember who their creators were. Lastly, they tried a mixture of corn and blood. From the white corn they molded the human figure and with the red corn they made their blood, and this was the version that finally worked. First, it was the corn. From there were born the first men capable of accurately specifying the lunar, solar and Venusian cycles; to write and invent zero with hardly any tools. They multiplied and little by little they expanded and populated the south of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. For the Mayans there was heaven, earth and the underworld; each of them extended in four directions: four ceibas, four birds, four types of corn, four colors. The gods are one and four at the same time. The fan plays with the cardinal points, with life in space-time.
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