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
Copyright 2003 Northern Arizona University.
page was authored by Levi Wickwire