A Brief History of Corn

Corn, as I’ve written before, is a New World crop. It’s been said that corn is to the Americas what wheat is to Europe and rice is to Asia. More than just a food, it’s practically part of our DNA. Ancient Mesoamericans liked to describe themselves as “corn people” or “corn walking”. Art from the period depicts stern Mayan faces peeking out from inside corn husks where the cobs should be. It’s very neat stuff.

The plant, so it’s thought, didn’t “evolve” in the typical sense. Rather it appeared very suddenly — virtually out of nowhere — about 10,000 years ago, a freak mutation of the teosinte grass. But it was a mutation that the people of the time (ancestors of modern-day Mexicans) quickly seized upon. In fact pre-Columbian peoples were so good at growing and hybridizing corn, northern Native Americans were cultivating at least six distinct strains by the time the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock. It’s no exaggeration that had it not been for corn, the early colonists would never have survived in the New World. The wheat they brought with them was very poorly adapted to New World conditions. Corn had the home court advantage.

It’s interesting to think that for thousands of years, even through the industrial revolution, corn cultivation in America didn’t change all that much. People by and large treated corn the way the Indians did. Right up until the early 20th century, per-acre yields were about the same as they were before the colonists arrived: roughly 20 bushels per acre. But it’s amazing the difference 100 years can make. Today, in a very good year, yields can exceed 200 bushels per acre.

How is this achieved? Not by sowing plants that give up more ears. Individual corn stalks grow but one ear each. No, the tremendous increase in yield has come from learning how to grow more stalks in closer proximity to one another. In days past it wasn’t possible to grow corn in the dense-pack we do today. For while pre-industrial corn may have been tall, it’s roots were weak. Which meant a strong wind could blow a stalk right over. Not a big deal if you’re talking about just one stalk, but if its neighbors were too close, they’d fall down like dominoes.

Today’s hybridized corn has far stronger roots. Not only that, it can get by with far less water and is naturally resistant to more types of pests. Though that’s just the beginning of what modern farm technology has achieved — even for organic growers. But I’m getting ahead of myself. More on this soon.

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