The History of Corn

Corn is a grain, a member of the grass family―along with wheat, rye, oats, barley, and rice. Also known as maize, corn is one of the oldest grains found on Earth. Scientists have discovered tiny ears of corn, which they claim to be over 5,000 years old, in a cave in southern Mexico. Other scientists claim to have found evidence that corn is even older.

Corn’s ancestor has been traced to a plant named teosinte that still grows wild in Mexico. Indigenous people nurtured these native, scrawny teosinte plants, which produced stems with tiny grains. From each crop, they planted the best grains and―generations later―the plants began to resemble cornstalks with tassels and silks. The plants continued to evolve and, eventually, fertilized themselves. The pollen from each cornstalks’ tassel fell onto its own corn silks and traveled down each thread of silk to the cob to produce kernels of corn.
Ancient Native Americans in Central and South America found that these kernels could be stored for long periods of time and that eating these healthy kernels physically sustained them. Maize became their main food source.

Meanwhile, sometime prior to 2100 BC, maize made its way northward into the Southwest. The earliest evidence of corn being grown in this country was found in New Mexico and Arizona. Corn became a staple for the Anasazi, early inhabitants of the region. Growing corn may be the very reason some Indians settled down and formed pueblos―so they could grow corn.

But years of drought dried up the cornfields in the Southwest. And when the corn was gone, people moved. Now, unfortunately, less and less corn is being grown by descendants of its earliest native farmers.

In 2010, Robert Mirabel and Nelson Zink established Tiwa Farms at Taos Pueblo to revitalize pueblo agriculture and farm corn. According to Mirabel, the people have an important relationship with corn. Although corn fertilizes itself, it cannot re-seed itself. Corn depends on people to prepare the ground, plant the kernels, pull the weeds, and water the plants.

In turn, corn provides people with nutritious food and food products. Corn provides feed for livestock. And left in the field, corn serves as mulch for the soil. Cornstalks support the vines of beans and squash. Cornhusks are used in weaving and making dolls. Ornamental corn is used for decoration.

Mirabel says, “Grow some corn―it’ll change your life.”

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