Thursday, November 3, 2011


By Juan Montoya
 In Homer’s The Odyssey, Ulysses, trying to make his way back to Ithaca, lands on an island in the Aegean Sea.
As he walks along the road toward a local village in that distant island, he comes upon women grinding corn and men tending cattle.
Also, in Everyday life in Babylonia and Assyria, a book written about Sumerian civilization, the writer W.F. Saggs notes that the Assyrian army provided its horses with corn, and further notes that threshing of corn was performed by dragging an instrument over the ears.
What makes these two examples noteworthy is that corn never existed in the times of Homer, or of the Assyrians, for that matter.
“That is a misconception that has been overlooked by countless English teachers,” said Dr. Tony Zavaleta, and anthropologist with the University of Texas-Brownsville. “I don’t know how many generations have gone through English class and heard the same mistake.”
And although linguists say that the word “corn” is a generic German word for grain or millet, the fact remains that anthropologists say that the origin of corn or maize was in México.
A wild grass, Teosinte (Zea Mexicana) is the ancestor of all known species. Native Americans living in what is now Mexico began domesticating teosinte, or "grain of the gods," more than 6,000 years ago. By selectively breeding each generation, ancient farmers drastically changed teosinte's appearance, yield, grain quality and hardiness, culminating in today's corn.

Teosinte grows wild in remote areas of Mexico and Guatemala. The oldest known remains of corn were discovered in México’s Valley of Tehuacan, and dated at 7,000 years old. The earliest corn cob found was from 5,000 B.C. and was unmistakable. The cob was enclosed in a husk-like casing. This meant that corn was dependent upon man to open the husks and disperse the pollen.
Corn is monoecious, having male flowers on top of the plant and female flowers (silks) at leaf axis along the main stem. The male flower, called the tassel, can produce up to a million pollen grains. The pollen begins to shed several days before the female silks emerge, but continues to produce pollen and mature for many days.

Even today, in order to insure that the corn is pollinated, farmers still have helpers "tassel" the plants.
In other words, corn depended on man for its dispersal as well as for its domestication so its fruit would improve into the plant that we know today.
Corn spread from its center of origin, México, north to the U.S., and south to Central and South America. Almost 300 diverse forms of corn have been described from these regions. Corn has proven to be one of the most climatically adaptable members of the grass family.

The Native Americans grew maize, which is the broad category of all corn types. They were probably the first breeders of corn selecting the best plants and saving seed from season to season. By the time Columbus discovered America there were hundreds of forms or types of maize (corn).
Columbus is attributed with bringing maize back to Spain on his return voyage in 1493. Its cultivation spread quickly following the trade routes of Portuguese in the early 1500’s. One account has maize reaching the Philippine Isles from the west before Magellan arrived from the east in 1521.
The Native Americans had been cultivating flint (or field) corn, sharing many different kinds with the colonists. Sweet Corn was an American favorite food even as early as the 1880’s.
Corn has a long history of being used for more than just animal feed or food for humans. The British Parliament tried to encourage American colonists to turn corn into sugar with the Molasses Act in 1733. Today, over one third of the sweeteners consumed by Americans comes from corn or another feed grain.
Corn has also been used in the production of alcohol for many years. There is evidence Native Americans used corn to brew beer before Europeans arrived in the Americas. The 1792 Whiskey Rebellion in the United States came about when efforts were made to tax corn whiskey. At the time, it was not easy to move large quantities of corn so western farmers converted the corn into corn whiskey, which was much easier to transport to customers.
Long before the automobile became the common for of transportation in the United States, corn was being converted into ethyl alcohol, or ethanol. Many of the earliest engine prototypes were designed to run on ethanol. Ethanol is a growing market for corn.
The United States fuel ethanol industry is based largely on corn. According to the Renewable Fuels Association, as of October 30, 2007, 131 grain ethanol bio-refineries in the United States have the capacity to produce 7.0 billion US gallons (26,000,000 m3) of ethanol per year. An additional 72 construction projects underway (in the U.S.) can add 6.4 billion US gallons (24,000,000 m3) of new capacity in the next 18 months. Over time, it is believed that a material portion of the 150-billion-US-gallon (570,000,000 m3) per year market for gasoline will begin to be replaced with fuel ethanol.

Corn has become the largest crop in the United States, both in terms of acres planted and the value of the crop produced. The top 3 corn producing states are Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska. Together, the top 3 states produce almost 50 percent of the corn in the United States.
Corn is the most widely distributed crop in the world. Corn can grow at altitudes as high as 12,000 feet in the South American Andes Mountains and as low as sea level. It can also grow in tropical climates that receive up to 400 inches of rainfall a year or in areas that receive only 12 inches.
Either way we look at it, in the cultural exchange that took place more than 500 years ago when Columbus stumbled on the American continent, the world got a better deal than did the natives who greeted the three boat loads of lost Europeans.


Anonymous said...

Actually, this article demonstrates that "corn" pre-dates even Mexico. Thus, Mexico inherited "corn" from Native American tribes or civilizations. To say "corn" is a gift from Mexico is is a gift from hundreds of native groups that populated this hemisphere.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Zavaleta should do some research before putting down English teachers or Homer. While "maize" is surely of American
origins (MesoAmerica...and predates "Mexico",,,,the word "corn" means wheat in some English speaking nations and grain in others. The Greek Goddes Demetre was the Goddess of Agriculture and grain. She is often called the Goddess of Corn. The translation of Homer's works to English likely uses "corn" as grain (wheat, barley, or other nutty grain). It is rude of Zavaleta to criticise English teachers and it even more ridiculous that as an anthropologist....he gives Mexico credit for something that predates Mexico.

Anonymous said...

Corn causes more problems than it solves. It is one of the contributing factors to adult onset diabetes. It is also one of the reasons people in the Valley are so fat. This myth has been perpetuated too long. Maybe corn is one of the reasons the Mexican indogenous people were so weak and had such primitive immune systems.

Anonymous said...

Archaeological remains of early maize ears, found at Guila Naquitz Cave in the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico, date back roughly 6,250 years which predates the Greek Gods. However, archaeobotanical studies published in 2009 now point to the lowlands of the Balsas River Valley Mexico, where stone milling tools with maize residue have been found in a 8,700-years old layer of deposits. It seems very clear that it came from Mexico. We can also thank them for Cocoa another gift from Mexico to the World!