DESCRIPTION: Maize is one of the most versatile plants known to humans and as such, it defies simple categorization. It grows in every suitable region on earth; from the semiarid plains of Russia to the subtropical coast of Colombia, and from the Caspian plain below sea level to the Andean mountains at elevations over 12,000 feet. Not only are its cultivation zones highly variable, so too is the plant itself. Maize is found in five basic kinds: dent, flint, sweet, flour, and pop. Within these categories, kernels exhibit a variety of colors, cobs exhibit a variety of sizes, and plants exhibit a variety of sizes, morphologies, and maturation cycles. However, despite these myriad differences, all of the varieties of maize are readily hybridized, and most hybrids remain fertile.

Although the exact circumstances are somewhat unclear, archaeologists believe maize was first domesticated in the Tehuacán Valley of Mexico around 5050BC. Once domesticated, it quickly spread throughout the New World and eventually became the backbone of many indigenous societies. Agricultural systems centered on maize yielded huge food surpluses and facilitated the growth and diversification of such large and complex populations as the Aztecs, Maya, Inca, and Mississippian Moundbuilders. As the food staple of these imperial giants, maize was prepared in a number of different ways, but it was most often prepared as masa. After soaking dried kernels in water overnight, the food preparer ground them using a mano and metate until they acquired the consistency of moist dough. This dough, or masa, was then flattened into tortillas, rolled and filled to make tamales, or eaten without modification as a gruel. The archaeological record is rich with evidence of corn grinding and its importance in the everyday activities of these societies. Beyond its utility as a food, maize was useful because moist husks could be woven into basketry, dry husks could be used as kindling, and cobs could be fashioned into pipes.
With the arrival of the Spanish in the New World in the sixteenth century, maize was “discovered” and exported to the Old World. It has since become one of the most important food crops in the world, and it continues to sustain large human populations.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Barreiro, José, ed.
1989 Indian Corn of the Americas: Gift to the World. Columbus Quincentenary Edition, Northeast Indian Quarterly. Cornell University.

Mangelsdorf, Paul C.
1974 Corn: Its Origin, Evolution, and Improvement. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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Zea mays
This page was authored by Levi Wickwire