The lost libraries

G Magazine

As modern lifestyles take over, some cultures aim to cling to their knowledge of traditional ways.


Pablo and Francesca Santos are a Mayan couple living on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.

Credit: Richard Cornish

- Advertisement -

Pablo and Francesca Santos are a Mayan couple living on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. They live in a small village on the great limestone plains dominated with low woodlands and punctuated by great pyramids. Here they grow their own beans and corn, raise a few pigs and turkeys and traipse the forest hunting wild deer and boar. I had been invited, as part of a research trip, to cook with them. We made pollo pib bil – chicken tamales cooked in plantain leaves in an underground pit. As we cooked together I began to learn that their skills went way beyond the culinary. Like many of the first peoples of the world they had a vast knowledge of the world in which they lived. By living their traditional way they protect the country that nurtures them.

While we waited for the pib bil to cook, Pablo took out a piece of venison, salted and dried, and passed it around, while Francesca served atole – a thin, sweet corn porridge. Pablo lamented that the young men in his village were losing their traditional ways. He picked up a plastic water bottle. “See this,” he says. “I have to use these now. The old trees supplied us with natural water bottles,” he said, referring to a gourd-like fruit from the trees that can store water. “Well the young people now chop those trees down and sell them for firewood. The natural water bottles kept the water cool and the water from them always tasted sweet.”

He then went on to list the other trees that were being chopped down. There were the legumes, the leaves of which covered the chicken tamales as they were laid on top of the hot stones, protecting the food while imparting a sweet bean-like aroma. He showed us around his small home, a single room dwelling made of wood and mud. Apart from the hammocks between the beams it looked very similar to the wattle and daub homes built in Australia by the pioneers. “I need hardwood to build the walls and roof,” he said. “That too is chopped down. I now have to build more home for my children and grandchildren from bricks and they are very expensive, and I don’t have money. If I need money I have to cut firewood.”

As the steam rose from the underground oven he regaled with tales of hunting; how they would dress as the deer or the boars and dance like them after they had hunted them. He reeled off names of plants used as food and medicine that, through proper harvesting techniques, were still abundant in the forest. Soon lunch was ready – great loaves of corn meal stuffed with chicken smothered in annatto sauce. It was delicious.

As we ate Pablo said, “I am sorry this is all I can give you. I am a poor man.” In response I replied – in bad Spanish – “Pero tu tienes una biblioteca de la campo en su cabeza”. (“But you have a library of the bush in your head”). I thought for a moment Pablo didn’t understand my sentiment. Then he smiled broadly and said. “Si, cierto.” (“Yes, true.”)