‘Fungi in the Maya Culture: Past, Present and Future’

Chapter 17 in Guzman’s Fungi in The Maya Culture explores the fungi’s function in ancient Maya civilization.

We know that the Maya, as well other civilizations at the time (Aztec, Mazatec, Zapotec, etc…) used mushrooms for sacred rituals, medicine and food. In the Magliabecchiano Codex one can see an Aztec eating a sacred mushroom with a personage at his back. The Maya, unlike other civilizations, was spread out around the whole of Yucatan Peninsula, nearly all of Chiapas and Tabasco (Mexican states), and Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. The lack of knowledge of the Maya’s use of and thoughts on fungi is not due to an absence in their culture, but to the destruction of their written material. During the Spanish Conquest, the Friar, Diego de Landa (1524-1579), believed their codices to be the devil’s work, and burned them as a statement.

There are few reports on fungi in the Maya areas of South America. There is thought to exist around 200,000 species of fungi in Mexico, but only 6000 have been studied. Tropical regions contain 70 per cent of the fungi species. At present speed it will take about 200 years to study all the species thought to exist today.

Pozol was a Mayan beverage formed by molds. There is thought to to be over 250 fungi species around the Yucatan area, 21 of which are edible. Important species used at present are Geastrum Saccatum (looi lu um, ‘flower of the earth’), Pleurotus Djamor(xikin che, ‘ear of the woods’), Clathrus Crispus (chaaha quai, ‘colander of the medicine man’), and Ustilago Maydis (huitlacoche, related to the guard of rain).

Ustilago Maydis is a parasitic fungi which name is related to Chak, the god of rain. The fungi attacks corn, and was thought to fall onto the corn from the sky, and that it contains the concentrate of the violence from thunderbolts.