The History of Corn

Corn is a human invention, a plant that does not exist naturally in the wild. It can only survive if planted and protected by humans. Many scientists believe people living in central Mexico developed corn about 7000 years ago. It was started from a wild grass called teosinte. Teosinte looked very different from our corn today. The kernels were small and were not placed close together like kernels on modern corn. It became known as maize and Indians throughout North and South America depended upon this crop for most of their food.

From Mexico, maize spread north into the Southwestern United States and south down the coast to Peru. As Indian people migrated north to the eastern part of North America, they brought corn with them. By the time Europeans made contact with the natives, corn was a major part of most native people's diet.

The domestication of maize is of particular interest to researchers — archaeologists, geneticists, ethnobotanists, geographers, etc. The process is thought by some to have started 7,500 to 12,000 years ago (corrected for solar variations). Recent genetic evidence suggests that maize domestication occurred 9,000 years ago in central Mexico, perhaps in the highlands between Oaxaca and Jalisco. The crop wild relative teosinte most similar to modern maize grows in the area of the Balsas River. Archaeological remains of early maize ears, found at Guila Naquitz Cave in the Oaxaca Valley, date back roughly 6,250 years (corrected; 3450 BC, uncorrected); the oldest ears from caves near Tehuacan, Puebla, date ca. 2750 BC. Little change occurred in ear form until ca. 1100 BC when great changes appeared in ears from Mexican caves: maize diversity rapidly increased and archaeological teosinte was first deposited.

Perhaps as early as 1500 BC, maize began to spread widely and rapidly. As it was introduced to new cultures, new uses were developed and new varieties selected to better serve in those preparations. Maize was the staple food, or a major staple, of most the pre-Columbian North American, Mesoamerican, South American, and Caribbean cultures. The Mesoamerican civilization was strengthened upon the field crop of maize; through harvesting it, its religious and spiritual importance and how it impacted their diet. Maize formed the Mesoamerican people’s identity. During the 1st millennium AD, maize cultivation spread from Mexico into the U.S. Southwest and a millennium later into U.S. Northeast and southeastern Canada, transforming the landscape as Native Americans cleared large forest and grassland areas for the new crop.

It is unknown what precipitated its domestication, because the edible portion of the wild variety is too small and hard to obtain to be eaten directly, as each kernel is enclosed in a very hard bi-valve shell. However, George Beadle demonstrated that the kernels of teosinte are readily "popped" for human consumption, like modern popcorn. Some have argued that it would have taken too many generations of selective breeding in order to produce large compressed ears for efficient cultivation. However, studies of the hybrids readily made by intercrossing teosinte and modern maize suggest that this objection is not well founded.