A-Maize-ing Maize: The History of Corn

Corn was domesticated nearly 9,000 years ago and has a rich history throughout the Americas.

| Summer 2017

This article is Part II of Nan Fischer’s four-part series about Three Sisters crops. The first installment is “Ancient Beans for Modern Gardens” (Spring, 2017).

Corn is one of America’s favorite vegetables in the garden and on the plate. From the rainbow-colored ‘Glass Gem’ flint corn to the classic ‘Golden Bantam’ sweet corn, corn is grown in many backyards. Buttery corn on the cob is part of almost every child’s summer memories. Popcorn and movies are inseparable. Corn chowder with oyster crackers warms us in winter. Corn bread, succotash, and taco shells are a few other common ways we heartily consume corn.

Corn (Zea mays subsp. mays) is known as “maize” in Mesoamerica and many places outside the U.S. and has its origins in a wild grass from Mexico called “teosinte.” Only five genes keep teosinte and corn from being genetically identical, and teosinte is the closest relative of today’s corn. All research and hypotheses point to the domestication of one of the four species of teosinte, Zea mays spp. parviglumis, about 9,000 years ago in Oaxaca by the Mayan people. Teosinte still grows wild in Mexico and is considered a weed and a nuisance to maize farmers. Its seed heads shatter and fall to the ground, making them hard to collect. Almost unrecognizable as a relative of today’s corn, teosinte has a branching growth habit and tiny heads of less than 12 kernels, each with a hard shell around it.

It’s hard to understand why this almost inedible plant was chosen to be cultivated as food. It may have been that there were anomalies which showed potential for food, more closely resembling today’s corn. Or maybe the environmental conditions thousands of years ago were so different they produced a teosinte other than what we see today.

No matter how domestication began, over thousands of years the indigenous people of Mesoamerica bred a vast genetic diversity into maize that most crops never undergo. Maize was invented. Without human intervention, it would not be what it is today, and it would not continue to survive. Those ancient farmers were brilliant geneticists!

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