Heirloom Technology — Handy Tricks from Guatemala

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I recently visited Guatemala with my mother, hosted by an amazing NGO (non-governmental organization) called Common Hope (commonhope.org). The oldest archeological evidence of maize cultivation, 3,000-plus years ago, is found here. Many families have been cultivating it ever since. They’ve come up with some ingenious tricks and tools.

Monica and her brother Cristobal Jesus (pictured above) guide us up the side of the volcano Agua, near the town of Antigua Guatemala. The trail is steep. People have dug many pits along the trail and at the end of each row of corn beside us. In the rainy season the water runs into these pits instead of washing the trail away.

Monica and her brother are ethnic Maya, like most Guatemalans. And like most families, they grow corn. Corn and beans. The corn depletes the nitrates in the soil. The beans put nitrogen back in with the help of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the root nodules. Beans supply the diet with amino acids lacking in the corn. The bean vines climb up the cornstalks. It’s a perfect system.

The cornstalks grow to 10 feet or more. To harvest the corn, they cut the stalk with a machete overhead. This makes the top fall over so they can reach the ears.

Cornstalk House

Monica and Cristobal live with their family in a traditional Mayan house with walls made from corn-stalks (Figure A). The walls are more substantial than you would expect. Handfuls of cornstalks are lashed to a crosspiece with wire. The crosspiece is another bundle of cornstalks. They build fences the same way.

Corncob Tool Handle

Here’s a file handle made from a corncob (Figure B). My farm relatives in Illinois also use corncobs for tool handles. A good corncob handle can last a long time and can be very comfortable in the hand.

Ceramic Griddle

Monica makes tortillas on a hot ceramic platter called a comal (Figure C). The pat-pat-pat of flattening tortillas is one of the domestic sounds of Guatemala. The family grew the corn for these tortillas right here, halfway up the volcano.

Greasewood Kindling

Their father, Don Filiberto, showed me the pitch-pine sticks he uses to kindle the fire (Figure D).

Tump Line

We met this gentleman named Senso Seis coming down the trail. He’s carrying his corn in a net bag with a “tump line” over his forehead, which is their traditional method (Figure E).

Ergonomic Clotheslines

The clotheslines hang down low for ease of hanging clothes. Then long, diagonal poles are used to prop the clotheslines up high out of the way, where they get more sunlight and breeze (no image).

Mule Muzzle Made from Wire

Here are two of Monica and Cristobal’s brothers. The wire thing hanging from the tree is a muzzle to keep a mule from biting its passenger (Figure F).

Possum Catcher

Don Filiberto explains how his father used to catch small animals. He’d prop a box or basin up on an avocado pit or another round object. He’d rest a weight such as a board on top of the box (Figure G).

The animal would go inside, tug on some bait, and the box would fall down. Then his father would slide the box around until the animal’s tail was poking out and grab it by the tail. I’m not sure what happened after that, but it must have been fun to watch.

Chemical Transformation of Maize

One day I was on a construction crew building a prefab house for a family not far away. The lady of the house, Maria Luisa Garcia, explained how maize is prepared. The chemistry is pretty interesting.

First, mineral lime, aka calcium oxide (cal in Spanish), is steeped in water to make alkaline lime water. This lime water is added to a pot of water and used to boil the corn kernels. It makes the endocarp (skin) of the kernels split and come loose. The alkaline solution releases the niacin that’s locked up in the kernels. It gives them a nice, nutty flavor and adds a lot of calcium to the diet. I didn’t see any sign of osteoporosis in anyone there, even old women.

Then Maria Luisa strains the prepared corn kernels, called nixtamal, and rinses off the loose skins (Figure H). If she has chickens or other livestock around, she feeds them the skins. Removing the skins also removes any fungus and associated toxins such as aflatoxin. Then she takes her basin of corn down the street to the miller, who has a power grinder. That’s her tortilla dough for the day.

This alkaline reaction process is called nixtamalization. It’s very important to prepare corn this way. Otherwise maize can’t be eaten as a staple.

Ugali in Africa is an example of a maize-based, nonnixtamalized staple food. People who subsist on this without other good sources of niacin get deficiency diseases such as pellagra and kwashiorkor. In some parts of Africa aflatoxicosis occurs, which could be prevented by removing the skins as the Maya do.

3 thoughts on “Heirloom Technology — Handy Tricks from Guatemala

  1. Linda Kauk Lansdowne says:

    Where are the figures?

  2. Cypherpunks (a public account) says:

    Isn’t nixtamal the same as hominy? Hominy is traditionally prepared using lye to treat the corn kernels and take the skins off. The coarse ground result is hominy grits, a staple in the Southern United States. Its origins are also Native American, so I suspect this practice is quite ancient.

  3. gladlylearn says:

    Those of us old enough to remember clotheslines in the US will remember that every line had a “clothes pole” to lift it up after the garments were on the line. Among other reasons, wandering dogs, etc. wouldn’t mix it up with the flapping clothes. It was a lot of work, but the clothes smelled wonderful after a few hours in the fresh air and sunshine.

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Tim Anderson

Tim Anderson is the founder of Z Corp. See a hundred more of his projects at instructables.com.

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