The spread of agriculture
, specifically maize cultivation
, is a subject often debated among scholars, however, when examining myth
we find a simple and yet plausible explanation of how maize agriculture travelled throughout the Western Hemisphere
. Not only does myth explain how one form of agriculture spread, but it offers a glimpse into the trade and ‘international relations
’ between the different societies living in this hemisphere.
The development of maize as a domesticated crop has been difficult to explain as all specimens of primitive maize known from archaeological sites are domesticated forms. The Orthodox Teosinte Theory says that maize was derived from the wild grass teosinte (Zea mays mexicana). In some classifications annual teosinte is treated as a separate species (Zea mexicana). The basis of this argument is that teosinte is the closest known relative of maize. Some reject teosinte as the direct ancestor because the very minute ears of teosinte seem unlikely to have been transformed into the modern huge ears of maize by means of human selection. Recently, considerable support for teosinte as the direct ancestor of maize has accumulated as a result of DNA. These investigations have revealed such a high degree of similarity between teosinte and maize that a close relationship must be a matter of fact. We can assume that maize cultivation began first in Mexico because Tehuacán, in the central highlands of Mexico, has yielded the oldest remains of cultivated maize in Mesoamerica, dated to 5050 BC. (Betz 1999)
The Anasazi, which means 'ancient stranger' or 'ancient enemy' in the Navajo language, was used by the Navajo people to name the early pueblo dwellers who once lived in the Colorado Plateau or Four Corners Area. The Hopi who are the likely descendants of the Anasazi called these predecessors the "Hisatsinom" (Rassmusen 1997). Kokopelli is a Hopi symbol of fertility for all life, of water, of regeneration and the crops. Hopi legend tells us that upon their entrance onto this, the fourth world, the Hopi people were met by an Eagle who shot an arrow into the two "mahus"; insects which carried the power of heat. They immediately began playing such uplifting melodies on their flutes that they healed their own pierced bodies. The Hopi then began their separate migrations and each "mahu" would scatter seeds of maize onto the land as they followed the Hisatsinom. Over the seeds, each played his flute to bring warmth and make the seeds grow. His name -- Koko for wood and Pilau for hump (which was the bag of seeds he always carried)-- was given to him on this long journey (Rassmusen 1997).
Myth goes on to explain that Kokopelli was a man/god and he used to travel between villages long ago. He carried a bag of maize seed on his back, and taught the people to plant maize. At night, while the people slept, Kokopelli roamed the maize fields, playing his flute. The next morning villagers would arise to find the maize four feet tall and Kokopelli gone (Bertola 1996).
Some Hopi legends suggest that Kokopelli was an ancient Toltec trader who travelled routes between Mexico, the west coast, the Southwest, and possibly even as far as the eastern areas of the United States. Research has found dentalium shells, which are only found in certain coastal areas, and macaw feathers from Mexico have been unearthed in northern New Mexico and Arizona far from their origins (Betz 1999). What is important to note, is that the Toltec were not a society in the way the Maya or the Mexica are. Toltec is a Mayan word meaning ‘talented ones’. It is believed that the Toltec were a group of people who belonged to all of the Empires in southern Mexico and Central America. It is also thought, however, that the Toltec were Maya living on the very western part of the Empire and were thus influenced strongly by the Mexica. Therefore, it is difficult to guess from which society (Mexica, Maya, Olmec, or Nahuatl) the trader came.
There is little evidence of a Kokopelli figure in the mythologies of the peoples living in Central America. In Mayan mythology Yum Kax is the god of crops, fertility, water, regeneration, and maize (Recinos 1991). This is similar to the description of Kokopelli however there is no mention of his flute nor of his wanderings. The reason why we know so little of Yum Kax is because all of the Mayan texts, except for the four books of the Chilam Balam and the Popol Vuh, were destroyed by Bishop Diego de Landa in the 1560s (Perry 1988). This same problem exists in the other societies living in Central America. Thus we can find examples of maize gods, it is interesting to note that they are all gods not goddesses, in the mythologies of the four societies, but we cannot find more than the mention and literally no examples of myth or the stories associated with that god.
It is unfortunate that no clear link can be made, at this time, between the Central American societies and the Hisatsinom in regards to the spread of maize agriculture. However, that is not to say that the Kokopelli myth should be disregarded as fiction.
As in most cultures other than our own, myth and history are not clearly distinguished. Recently, the reality of the history/myth separation, and the value of making it, has been questioned by some, who feel that since the ancient sources made no distinction between the two, history is always coded into myth and inseparable from it. Even a distinction as sharp in the West as one between man and god is not clear in Indigenous myth. Leaders were seen, both in their own lifetimes and after, as incarnations of deities, their acts mirrored those of the deity in his present and future forms. Thus a series of leaders might bear the same name or title, and at least in theory perform some of the same deeds (Christensen 1997).
It is logical, based on this understanding of myth and history, to assume that Kokopelli was a real man who travelled in the modern-day Mexico and South-western United States area. Indeed just as Johnny Appleseed was a real man travelling around spreading apple cultivation in North America, Kokopelli exists as an earlier example of how important agriculture is to societies. While these cultures do not seem to share a common myth in the Kokopelli form, they all have maize gods, and this reflects the importance maize played in their society.