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Maize: An Ancient Grain That Keeps Getting Younger

Maize: An Ancient Grain That Keeps Getting Younger

It was probably not the intent of neolithic farmers 10,000 years ago to turn a type of wild grass into one of today’s multi-billion-dollar crops. They were merely trying to render edible the plants they found growing around them. These people were hunter-gatherers who survived on the animals they could kill and the plants they could eat without getting sick.

Although historians tell us that the Fertile Cresent in today’s Iraq was an important area in the history of agriculture, there were other people in other parts of the world who also cultivated wild plants into nourishing food. One good example is that in what is now southwest Mexico, some 9,000 years ago, a group of neolithic cave dwellers near today’s Balsas River turned a weed into an edible crop so widespread that today it is grown all over the world and has two names: corn if you live in America, Australia and a few other English-speaking countries, and maize just about everywhere else.

Although corn and maize are the same crop and share the same scientific name of Zea mays given to it by botanist Carl Linnaeus in the 1760s after the Greek word Zeia for grain or cereal, the word maize is much older. It came into use in Europe in the 1490s after Columbus encountered a tribe of Taino (pronounced ty-eno) Indians, the Lucayan, who lived in today’s Bahamas. They called the crop mahiz which in their language meant ‘source of life’. Columbus and other explorers brought maize back to Spain and it spread around Europe quickly. A few years later, the word corn derived from the German word kern which means kernel, began to be used in some areas.

The general rule of thumb is that maize refers to the crop that is eaten by people. Corn refers to food for humans as well, but can also describe everything from cattle and hog feed to literally dozens of products derived from both the kernel and the cob. But there is a lot of overlap in the way the words are used. The name corn is usually used in the United States and a few other English-speaking countries while the word maize is used in many non-English speaking countries. For example, corn in French is mais, and in Spanish it is maiz.

Regardless of what one calls it, it is a crop with many uses. Although primarily a food crop for people and animals, corn can be processed into a variety of products such as corn syrup, corn starch, soap, glue, corn whiskey, and ethanol that is added to gasoline to make it more environmentally friendly. It is one of the most versatile crops grown.

It is interesting how the word corn has entered the English lexicon. Bad jokes are considered corny. An example of a corny joke could be: “Why did the ham leave the hospital? Because it was cured.” Movie fans will remember Mitsi Gaynor singing the Rogers and Hammerstein song in the movie South Pacific about being as “corny as Kansas in August” because she is in love with a wonderful guy. Kansas is corny in August because it is one of the great producers in the “corn belt” of the United States, a group of states which produce more corn than any other area in the world. And some of us who wear shoes that don’t fit properly can get annoying rough places on our feet that we call corns. Yes, corn has enriched the English language from head to toe.

Maize is found just about everywhere that has fertile soil and adequate rainfall. In fact, maize grows from Siberia and Canada in the northern latitudes to the south latitudes of Argentina and New Zealand. A maize crop is maturing and ready to harvest somewhere in the world every month of the year.

Before there was corn or maize, there was teosinte, a type of shrub grass with several shoots or stalks about two or three feet tall coming up from one root clump. Around 9,000 years ago what caught the attention of the people living in the area where teosinte grew wild was the small cob at the top of each teosinte stalk which contained about a dozen small seeds about one forth inch diameter and that the stalks contained a sweet sap like today’s sugarcane or lemon grass.

Teosinte seeds are covered with a hard shell and not easy to eat, but the Native Americans learned that the seeds when heated popped open and could be enjoyed like today’s popcorn. So, we can picture a group of people sitting around a fire enjoying teosinte popcorn while they chewed on the sweet stalks in what was perhaps a neolithic version of today’s quick, high-energy snack. Perhaps the aura of Orville Redenbacher was with them even then.

Archaeologists have found thousands of teosinte cobs in the caves in the Balsas River valley showing that the people there consumed quite a bit of it even before it evolved into maize.

Apparently, as more people began to enjoy the plant, a few enterprising neolithic farmers started to cultivate it as a crop. It has been estimated that it probably took about one thousand years of selective cultivation before the genes in teosinte mutated enough to form a primitive variety of maize. Mutated genes caused changes such as the plant having one large stem instead of several small ones, as well as increasing the size of the cob and the number of seeds on the cob. Also, since teosinte seeds fall off the plant when they are ripe, it was fortunate that a mutated gene allowed the cob to hold onto the seeds, a trait which makes maize easy to harvest and to consume as delicious ‘corn on the cob’. Another fortuitous gene mutation removed the hard cover from the seeds making them much easier to eat. Scientists have noted that a small number of genes have made a big difference as teosinte became maize.

It has been a long and interesting biological journey for maize over the last 9,000 years with teosinte having gone through two major changes to become the maize we know today. The most profound change was the result of the natural tendency for a few regulatory genes to mutate when given enough time in the right conditions. Teosinte went from a wild grass to edible maize without input from scientists or geneticist. The Balsas Valley Indians cultivated teosinte because they acquired a taste for it, and over time nature did the rest.

Although teosinte was native to only one area of southwestern Mexico, by around 4,000 years ago the fully developed maize had become a staple crop for many Native American tribes across much of the Western Hemisphere. Before long the innovative Indians were growing a three-part crop called the “three sisters” which consisted of maize, beans, and squash growing out of the same mound.

It was an ingenious system of symbiotic planting in which the plants helped each other to flourish. The maize plant grew tall and became a trellis for the beans, the beans added nitrogen to the soil which made the corn more productive, while the squash vine spread out on the ground to keep down weeds. It is interesting that this method was used long before scientists knew about nitrogen, but the Native Americans figured out that something in the beans helped the maize be more productive.

While maize spread from tribe to tribe, a way of preparing it called nixtamalization spread along with it. It seems that the process might have had its beginning when heated chunks of limestone were put into a bowl filled with maize and water to bring it to a boil. The process made the maize kernels softer and much easier to turn into such things as tamales, hominy, and tortillas. Apparently, the ancient cook who first tried it liked the results and told others about it. Although unbeknownst to the cook, it turned out that since the minerals in the hot limestone made the water more alkaline, the process also enhanced the nutrition of the maize by allowing the release of niacin which is needed in the human body to prevent pellagra, a serious skin disease that if not treated can lead to dementia or even death.

Heating maize to make it easier to process it into a variety of foods is a common practice today. But instead of using hot chunks of limestone, the modern cook uses calcium hydroxide, hydrated lime, or pickling lime to make the water alkaline.

Maize was not only a vital part of the Native American diet, it turned out to be a critical food for early European settlers. History tells us of many instances at settlements up and down the coast of North America in places like Roanoke Island in the 1580s, Jamestown in the early 1600s, and Charlestown in the 1670s when settlers traded such things as knives, axes, metal pots, mirrors and beads for maize and other Indian crops. Many Indians were friendly and helpful such as the Pawtuxet Indian Squanto who in the 1620s helped the Puritans who came to Massachusetts to survive by showing them how to grow maize. Settlers soon learned to plant maize and become less dependent on their Indian neighbors. It is unfortunate that as more settlers arrived in America, the relationships between settlers and Indians deteriorated.

The maize or corn crop was so important that several Indian tribes developed a feast called the Green Corn Ceremony, or Busk by some tribes. Held in late summer when the maize was ready to harvest, the large gatherings usually lasted three or four days and for some tribes it was the most important ceremony of the year, not just to celebrate the corn harvest, but as a time of purification and renewal for each individual. It was a time when most grievances were forgiven and a new sense of community was established. The Cherokee and a number of other Native American tribes still celebrate the Green Corn Celebration today.

The other major changes to maize have been from human intervention. Each of the three parts of the kernel, the endosperm – made up mostly of starchy carbohydrates, the germ or embryo — the living part of the kernel which contains the vitamins and genetic information, and the pericarp or outer covering have been used to manufacture a plethora of products.

For decades, the importance of maize as a food crop as well as a source of income has drawn the attention of a number of prominent scientists who have turned each part of the maize kernel into useful products. Scientists including George Beadle, John Doebley, Dolores Piperno, Richard MacNeish, Walton Galinat and others have studied every aspect of how neolithic farmers turned a basically hard and inedible seed into a crop that much of the world depends on for food or economic well-being.

The many teosinte cobs found in several caves in the Balsas River valley have been studied in great detail in determining how the wild grass evolved genetically into maize so quickly after it was begun to be cultivated. Dr. Delores Piperno has also analyzed microfossils or phytoliths from the stone implements used to grind the seeds into a type of flour and has determined that the transition from teosinte to a primitive form of maize was occurring as early as 8,700 years ago.

Gregor Mendel’s work with peas in the 1860s led to the study of genetics and the influence genes have on plant traits. Using genetic research, a number of scientists and breeders, such as Edward Murray East and Donald F. Jones, James Beal, Cyril Hopkins, George Shull, H.K. Hayes, Eugene Funk, Henry Wallace – a large-scale corn grower who was also United States vice president under Franklin Roosevelt, and many others have worked on hybridizing corn plants to improve such things as resistance to pests, drought tolerance, and to generally improve the productivity of the crop. Most of the corn seeds sold today are a hybrid of one kind or another.

A large percentage of the world’s corn becomes animal feed. It is high in carbohydrates and is used to fatten animals before they go to the slaughterhouse. About ten pounds of corn feed adds one pound of meat to a cow, while three pounds of corn adds one pound to a chicken. Corn is great if you are raising animals but tends to be avoided by people on a low carbohydrate diet.

However, in spite of its high calorie content from its carbohydrate-laden starch, maize contains enough nutrition to make it a healthy food for most people. For example, maize contains dietary fiber, vitamin C, vitamin A, folate or vitamin B-9, potassium, antioxidants, a small amount of protein, as well as lutein and zeaxanthin — carotenoids which are believed to help prevent age related macular degeneration.

With all of it various uses, people, animals, and industry need lots of corn. In fact, in the United States alone, over 91 million acres or over 36.8 million hectares of corn were planted in 2024, and many more millions of acres in other parts of the world, such as China, Brazil, India, Argentina, and several other places.

Generally speaking, this is a good use of land. But keep in mind that nearly all agricultural land in the world was once forest. And feeding a world population of 8 billion people requires a lot of land. But as our planet warms, we also see a need to preserve as much forest land as possible because of its ability to capture and hold both soil and atmospheric carbon. So today we see the necessity of maintaining a balance between land for agriculture and the carbon captured by trees.

And that is why there is concern about the seemingly wanton destruction caused by the practice of “slash and burn” agriculture. A farmer wanting to grow corn or soybeans or any other food crop on a parcel of land cuts down all of the trees on it and burns the wood. Crops are grown on the land for a few years until its nutrients are used up. But rather than fertilize the land to restore its ability to produce good crops, it is abandoned and the farmer finds another forested area to cut, or slash, and burn. The cut areas should eventually recover from their destruction, but that usually takes several years, and complete recovery could take many decades. Obviously, this is not a sustainable way to farm, but some farmers with families to feed see it as a way to survive.

The debate is on as to how much more population our fragile Earth can maintain before we reach a point where the level of hunger becomes even more widespread than it is today. Not that we are on the verge of a Malthusian disaster where billions of people starve to death. But there is hunger in various places caused by natural influences such as drought and pest infestations, and too often by wars that turn fertile fields into bloody battlegrounds and disrupt food supply lines.

The Native American farmers in what is now southwest Mexico left the world a great legacy, and we’ve certainly made good use of it. A staple crop of Native Americans has now become a staple crop around the world. The story of maize follows right along with the rise of technical advances in agriculture, transportation, the development of fertilizers, as well as improved methods of storage such as warehousing and refrigeration.

So, it would not be too corny to say that maize and modern human culture have grown up together. In fact, scientist Dr. Walton C. Galinat called corn our “symbiotic partner”. Corn needs people to propagate it, and people need the nutrition and versatility of corn. Maize is an ancient crop that keeps us healthy while we keep it young by creating new hybrids to make it ever more productive. Maize, corn, and people live happily together. So, as sophisticated as we think we are, all of us are downright corny at times, which is not a bad way to be as long as we are nice about it.

Ted McCormack

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