When the conquistadores burned the Mayan and Aztec temples, the libraries contained within them were almost completely lost. One of the items that survived was the inventory of an agricultural tribute paid to Montezuma, listed in order of importance. On this list the first item was corn, second was beans and third was amaranth. This last crop, amaranth, played a major role in the agriculture and spiritual lives of native Mayans. Amaranth seeds are a complete protein, like soybeans, and its leaves are edible as well. It was domesticated for its seed harvest. The plants form large floral heads containing thousands of small seeds. Early gatherers collected small black seeds, but domesticated varieties are white seeded. While crops grown by native cultures were a process of natural selection, they are based on one principle: these foods kept them alive. Every native, agrarian culture around the world shares this pattern of eating a grain and a legume — together they sustain life.
Because of its use in native religious ceremonies, amaranth was outlawed, under penalty of death, by the conquistadores. This pushed it to the edge of extinction. Dr. J.D. Sauer, a leading researcher on amaranth, said that there was no viable seed of white Amaranthus cruentus of the type native to Guatemala.
The search was on as we traveled around working with farmers and visiting market days in different towns. Dr. Sauer said that our best chance was to find someone selling “niguas” in the market and then backtrack it to the grower for seed. Niguas are candy confections that are one of the traditional ways of eating amaranth. The seeds are heated and popped like popcorn, bound with corn syrup, and sold as a candy. I had seen them for sale but they were always made from sesame seeds. One day we were in the town of San Martín, where we had been working with the local farmers. They were having their market day, a market I had been through many times on previous visits. On this particular day, I was just looking for some lunch. An older man had a basket of niguas for sale and something made me stop for a closer look. These niguas looked different and did not appear to be made with sesame seeds. The seeds were smaller and rounder white balls. I started sweating as I asked the vendor what these niguas were made of. He said, “bledo,” the Spanish word for amaranth!!! I was so excited that I started feeling faint. I asked where he got the bledo seeds. He said he grew them. Now I am freaking out, but I still manage to find out where he lived and I ask if we could visit him and see the amaranth. His name was Claro and he lived in one of the outlying aldeas from San Martín called Choatalúm. We arranged to meet one week later during the harvest. Amado, Michael Cook, and I made the trip to Claro’s home where we got to see his amaranth growing and watch how he began the harvesting process. He let us ask all the questions we wanted and was more than happy to sell us some seed. My favorite question was when I asked where he got the seed and he gave the best answer; he got the seed from his father who got it from “his” father who also grew it to make niguas to sell in the market.
It was confirmed by the United States Department of Agriculture that this was white seeded Amaranthus cruentus, the native Guatemalan amaranth of the Mayas. The chance encounter I had with this farmer will hopefully keep this precious crop from extinction. Seed was sent to the USDA to be kept and maintained in their seed collection, and to CATIE, a seed bank in Costa Rica specializing in the crops of Central America. We also sent some to Rodale Press, one of the leaders in organic farming at the time, who were doing experiments with amaranth because they believed in its nutritive value. The idea was to grow most of the amaranth for seed and get the seeds into farmers’ hands so this nutritious ancient crop would be reintroduced and kept from going extinct. It is the perfect fit. Mayans knew about amaranth before we did and had been growing it for centuries. Unfortunately, our time in Guatemala was cut short and the dream of an amaranth reintroduction program still hangs heavily on my heart.