That’s a tough question. Probably it makes more sense to ask where corn comes from, since it’s a sure bet that tamales came along quite soon after corn became a staple crop among Mesoamericans, around 10,000 years ago. There’s no way to know who came up with the idea of wrapping up small portions of cooked corn gruel in husks or banana leaves, though it seems clear that originally the tamal was a proto-fast food idea, a sort of Mesamerican meal-on-the-run type of affair. It might have been developed for travelers or traders, maybe for military purposes. One guess is really as good as another here.
What we know for certain is that it wasn’t long before the basic idea spread widely among indigenous peoples from Mesoamerica to Central and South America. There’s even evidence that North American peoples like the Cherokees had versions. Like the sandwich, it was an idea whose simple utility gave it a near-universal appeal.
All that said, there’s a significant difference between pre-Colombian tamales and post-Colombian tamales. That difference is lard. Lard comes from pigs, and pigs didn’t show up in the New World until Hernando de Soto herded a small drift of them onto a Florida shore in 1539. Today lard is a nigh-inseperable part of the tamal flavor profile. Oh yes I know there are more than a few of you out there who are a little (or a lot) uncomfortable with the idea. All I can say is we’ll cross that gang plank when we come to it…probably Monday. Until then have a delightful weekend. If you can, spend some of it contemplating swine.