An estimated 9 million to 10 million people were living in the Americas when Europeans arrived; corn was found growing everywhere. Columbus recorded seeing a corn field that stretched 18 miles. Many records from early scouting expeditions in Latin America and the Middle Atlantic states tell of marching past corn fields for days along broad, well-used native trails. Other, later records tell of European military expeditions burning miles-long native corn fields to create chaos and famine in cultures they wished to overpower.
So much of our modern view of ancient Native America has been shaped by media; even today, we often still see Indians (as writer Fergus Bordewich puts it), “through a mythic veil of mingled racism and romance.” The movie Dances With Wolves did a reasonable job of depicting the kind of equine-based, buffalo-hunting cultures inhabiting the Great Plains in the 1860s. But 300 years earlier, the Sioux were an agricultural people living in the southern Great Lakes region. In fact, in pre-Columbian America, agricultural societies far outnumbered hunter/gatherer-based cultures — because of the pervasive cultivation of corn.
As a crop, corn is unique. One can still find the wild ancestors of many modern crops that are similar enough in appearance that even the average person can see the similarity. But in terms of physical characteristics, Grandmother Corn is to modern corn, as a Chihuahua is to a hippopotamus. Paternity tests in the 1980s proved that every variety of modern corn is descended from a single variety of a wild grass called teosinte that came from the Balsas River Valley in central Mexico. About 8,000 years ago, people began growing and selecting this grain. The cultivation of gourds and squash was already well established, and within a handful of generations, teosinte began to look like a smaller version of the crop we grow today.
Corn is also unique in that its survival is intimately bound up with human behavior. Every other cultivated grain will grow of its own accord if it falls to the ground when mature and is left to fend for itself — but not corn. Authors have speculated that this is what gave rise to the enormous amount of ceremony, ritual and reverence that virtually every group of ancient “New World” agriculturalists directed toward corn.
By 1400, corn supplied as much as 80 percent of the common person’s diet among farming peoples. (We know this because of mineral deficiencies found in the skeletal remains of ancient agriculturalists, as well as oral traditions among indigenous peoples.) A rare example of farmers who also ate significant amounts of meat is the Pawnee, a buffalo-hunting people of the southern Great Plains. By and large, however, it was growing corn that enabled people in the Ohio Valley, the Southwest, the Northeast, the Upper Missouri and the Southeast to enjoy a stable and very settled existence with elaborate social and religious customs.
It’s difficult to fully appreciate how much corn was grown by agricultural-based cultures in the Americas. It took about one acre’s worth of corn to feed one person for a year. Among mound-building peoples of the Southeast and the Pueblo cultures of the Southwest, this added up to hundreds of thousands of acres of corn grown in rural areas surrounding religious and political centers such as Etowah in the Southeast and Chaco Canyon in the Southwest.
It’s worth noting that the so-called “Indian method” (adding a fish to each mound of corn) is a fabrication by a European-based culture with little concept of how much of this important crop was actually grown in the Americas. Significant archaeological work has proven that what Squanto showed the Pilgrims was a trick he may actually have learned while living in England and Spain. If there’d been enough fish to support placing one in each hill of corn each year, those native farmers would have been fishermen instead, like their counterparts in the Pacific Northwest. Depending on local conditions, ancient farmers in the Americas employed various strategies to maintain fertility, including simply allowing the land to rest by rotating fields every couple of years. People living in great forested regions practiced slash-and-burn cultivation; in the Southwest, they used irrigation; and on the middle and upper plains, fields were planted in the floodplains along great rivers.
Corn slowly spread northward from its original home as new varieties became more readily adapted to increasingly colder climates and a variety of soil conditions. What I find fascinating about the spread of corn are the increasingly complex religious and social practices that accompanied it.
About 3,500 years ago, the Mayan civilization in Latin America was experiencing a golden age. Elaborate rituals, a rigid class structure, enormous public-works projects, and job specialization were all made possible by the cultivation of corn. Corn pollen has been found at sites in northern Arizona that date back 3,000 years, but the golden age of Anasazi culture (around 1,000 years ago) didn’t come about until corn varieties had been developed that could grow dependably in cold and arid regions. Corn arrived in the Ohio Valley around 1,200 years ago, but the elaborate Mississippian mound-building culture didn’t reach its zenith for another five hundred years. And corn finally made it to the southern Great Lakes region about 900 years ago. It’s curious to think about what sort of cultures might have developed there if they’d had time for this crop to fully adapt — that is, if imported smallpox hadn’t wiped out 85 percent of the native population.
Potatoes, amaranth, tomatoes, peppers and squash are native crops of the Americas that have influenced cuisines worldwide. But corn remains the primary player — the plant that laid the basis for empires in its native land and would eventually become a world-class contender for feeding the world. Today, corn is the third largest food-producing crop on Earth — but this ancient crop of the Americas is facing major political and social challenges. We’ll talk about those in next week’s installment of the Practical Gardener.