Domestication of Maize in Mesoamerica

One of the most basic needs of a human being is that of food. We most eat and drink to survive. Subsistence is a natural thought which consumes every modern humans day. What will I eat for breakfast? What will I take for lunch or will I eat out? Should I take something out for dinner or pick something up on the way home? All of these questions seem at times quite complicated, however are without a doubt, much simpler than what may have crossed the minds of prehistoric humans. Just as it is today subsistence was the center of each cultures world. Whether you were nomadic or sedentary each group of hunter-gatherers had to eat. It is the survival of these societies which allows us as archaeologists a peak into the past. The process of gathering enough food in which to obtain a sufficient amount of calories was first and foremost in everyday life. The process of domestication of certain plants eventually led to more nucleated settlements. Let us keep in mind Morgan’s theory of culture, if this is correct, that cultural progression is lineal; than it is safe to assume that the only natural progression for prehistoric humans was to transition from the hunter gather stage of obtaining subsistence to a more agricultural life style. One cultigen in particular was “maize”, now referred to as “corn”. In this paper an attempt will made to properly explain what maize is, how maize became a major staple in prehistoric people’s diet, and lastly how has maize been detected in Mesoamerica through evidence in the archaeological record.

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What is maize? It is a large species of American grass of the genus Zea (Z. Mays) widely cultivated as a forage and food plant; known as Indian corn ( Maize is a cultigen; this is a crop that cannot propagate in the wild without human intervention. Plant domestication can be defined as the human creation of a new form of plant, dependent on human intervention, harvesting and planting for survival. Maize has a distinct planting season, growing season, and harvesting season.
There is a worldwide importance placed on “corn”. In the Western Hemisphere it is by far the most important human food crop (Beadle, 615). It is still the most important crop in all of Latin America. On a worldwide basis it is the third most important human food crop, with an annual production of some two hundred metric tons (Beadle, 615).
When Columbus arrived from the Old World and stumbled upon this strange crop on the island of Cuba, essentially all major races of maize-some two to three hundred- were already in cultivation and had been disseminated from its place of origin, probably southern Mexico (which will be explained further in the paper), to mid-Chile in the south and to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in the north. The passage below from a science magazine will further help explain the definition of maize.
Corn, also known as maize (from the Spanish maiz) was first domesticated nearly 10,000 years ago from teosinte, a wild grass that looked quite different from our modern crop. Teosinte grew in Mexico and Central America as a bushy plant with many spikes, the precursor to our familiar ear of corn. The small teosinte spikes had only two rows of nearly inedible kernels, or seeds, each enclosed by a hard covering. These seeds separated individually at maturity and were dispersed widely. In probably less than a thousand years, the tiny spikes of ancestral teosinte transformed into larger ears with edible kernels that remained on the cob for easy harvest. How these dramatic changes occurred has been a puzzle for over a century. Geneticists are now convinced that humans living in the Balsas River region of Mexico were foraging teosinte seeds when they noticed rare aberrations-likely caused by random mutations-that increased spike size dramatically. Seeds were propagated from these bigger spikes, and thus the remarkable events of domestication began. By studying the maize genome, researchers have now confirmed that mutations in single genes, such as Teosinte glume architectural (Tgal). Alter kernel and plant structure and that changes in many genes influence complex developmental traits, such as the time to flowering. As human populations migrated throughout the Americas, new varieties of maize were selected to grow in local environments. Some varieties were maintained as so-called landraces, each growing in ecological niches in Mexico and South America. Now, these varieties and landraces hold a wealth of genetic diversity, which is being tapped for both basic research and as traits for crop breeding(
How did maize become a major staple in prehistoric people’s diet? Where there other uses or maize other than subsistence? New research shows that there is unequivocally four major independent centers of plant domestication; the Near East, China, Eastern North America and Mesoamerica. (Smith 1989: 1566) The America’s is believed to provide the clearest record there is of agriculture origins anywhere in the world, providing new understanding of the process involved in this key transformation in human history. However, the process is believed to have started in Mesoamerica.
Maize has many uses; food, feed for live stock and energy for industries. As a food, the whole grain, either mature or immature, may be used; or the maize may be processed by dry milling techniques to give a relatively large number of intermediary products, such as maize grits of different particle size, maize meal, maize flour and flaking grits. ( These materials have a significant number of applications in a large variety of foods. Maize grown in subsistence agriculture continues to be used as a basic food crop. In developed countries more than 60 percent of the production is used in compounded feeds for poultry, pigs and ruminant animals. In recent years, even in developing countries in which maize is a staple food, more of it has been used as an animal feed ingredient. “High moisture” maize has been paid much attention recently as an animal feed because of its lower cost and its capacity to improve efficiency in feed conversion. The by-products of dry milling include the germ and the seed-coat. The former is used as a source of edible oil of high quality. The seed-coat or pericarp is used mainly as a feed, although in recent years interest has developed in it as a source of dietary fiber (Earl et al., 1988; Burge and Duensing, 1989). Wet milling is a process applicable mainly in the industrial use of maize, although the alkaline cooking process used in manufacturing tortillas (the thin, flat bread of Mexico and other Central American countries) is also a wet milling operation that removes only the pericarp (Bressani, 1972). Wet milling yields maize starch and by-products such as maize gluten, used as a feed ingredient.
It is this flat bread or tortilla that is speculated to have been used in pre-historic times. This is not the tortilla that we think of today, however, the basic concept is rudimentary and could have been used even 10,000 years ago. George W. Beadle’s research shows that the probability of maize being similarly used as what we refer to as “popcorn” is high. This high probability points to the use of teosinte, which has been argued among scholars as an un-usable product, therefore not an ancestor of maize. Beadle’s research has proven that even the triangular kernel of teosinte could have been heated on heated sand, hot rock or fire and would have popped.
There is speculation that in prehistoric time, maize had a religious and ceremonial purpose. It is written that in the height of the Incan empire maize was used in ritual and ceremonial gatherings in the form of beer. (Fernandez-Arnesto; 243) There isn’t anything to indicate any different anywhere else that maize has turned up within the archaeological record. With a better understanding of maize and its possible functions, let’s address where maize originated.
Blake, Clark, Chisholm, and Mudar consider the transition to agriculture in the Formative period of coastal Mesoamerica (from approximately 1500 B.C. to the birth of Christ), specifically along the Pacific coast of Chiapas, Mexico. These scholars review the evidence from this area in terms of two competing hypotheses: the competitive feasting model of Hayden (1990) and the interaction of plants and humans as described by Rindos (1984) and Flannery (1986).
MacNeish’s work in the Tehuacan Valley has shown that the origins of maize and its integration into a system of agricultural production that included a variety of plants began as early as 7000 B.C. The earliest people to use and domesticate these plants were not sedentary, instead, they were nomadic foragers who incorporated these domesticates into a complex seasonal pattern of hunting and collecting (MacNeish 1967, 1972; Flannery 1968; Flannery 1986). It has been believed that from Formative times forward that maize is typically seen as the main staple crop in Mesoamerican prehistory. Agricultural advancement has long been thought of as the cornerstone of early sedentary village life and one of necessary conditions for the development of complex society (MacNeish 1972). Maize yields a high amount of caloric intake which is necessary in the process of sustaining the level of activity that prehistoric people in Mesoamerica needed to survive.
A recent re-analysis by Farnsworth et al (1985) of archaeological data from the Tehuacan Valley, including a stable carbon and nitrogen analysis of the human skeletal remains, suggests that a heavy dependence on grains, including maize began as early as the Coxcatlan phase (ca. 5000-3000 B.C.). In Oaxaca, excavated macrobotanical remains show that domesticates, including maize, beans, squash, and avocados, were in use and consumed both before and after the appearance of the first sedentary villages (Flannery 1976, 1986). Kirkby’s (1973) study of agricultural production suggests that the main staple, maize, was cultivated and relied upon from the Early Formative Tierras Largas phase (1400-1150 B.C.) onwards. She suggests, however, that maize did not reach a threshold of productivity, until about 100B.C. when larger varieties allowed greater yields per cultivated hectares of land. The assumption is that as maize cob size grew, and the plant became more productive, then early villagers came increasingly to rely on it as a subsistence staple. Both the Tehuacan and the Oaxaca data suggest that after agricultural products, particularly maize, became important in the subsistence system by the Late Archaic period, the trend towards increasing reliance on these plants continued through time.
The movement of a relatively small amount of maize from established agro-ecology over long distances into a new environment is equivalent to an evolutionary bottleneck or a founder event (King, 1987; Mayr, 1963). Because only a small portion of the population is represented after one of these events, sampling error will result in, among other things, changed gene frequencies, breakdown of co-adapted gene complexes, and sometimes increased additive genetic variability (Cheverud and Routman, 1996). The above mentioned on page 2 and 3 of this paper attempted to explain the process of genetics when involved in the process of advancement of a plant. We can refer to this as agricultural evolution.
Farming in modern day seems to be, from an outsider looking in; “hard work”, “dirty work”, and “monotonous work”. If with modern equipment farming is difficult what would it have been like in prehistoric Mesoamerica? Why farm at all? We look at hunting game now in present day society as romantic and sportsman like. There is a challenge to the “game”. There is fancy equipment purchased and well kept. Hunters tell stories that are passed on from generation to generation, hunting stories in prehistory had to be just as exciting and the stuff of which myths were made. So, again why farm at all? Many scholars have argued that without agriculture societies would not have existed. Only agriculture, with its pattern of population growth, urbanization, and economic surpluses has produced civilizations (Reed, 5). Thus helping to explain why agriculture led to complex societies.
Varying conditions such as altitude, rainfall, soil, and seasonal temperature rand and latitudinal differences in the length of day during growing seasons led to the eventual diffusion of maize northward into North America, however for the sake of this paper the focus will remain on Mesoamerica. The research indicates that the evidence in the archaeological record states that the coastal areas show maize before any other area. Coe and Flannery until the 1980’s were the only two researchers to report domesticates at Early Formative cities along the Pacific Coast of either Chiapas or Guatemala. Other than these few incidences relatively few sites have produced macrobotanical evidence of cultigens among their subsistence remains.
Richard “Scotty” MacNeish conducts what he called “the great corn hunt” in 1958. MacNeish believed by tracking pre-ceramic caves in the southern part of Mesoamerica, namely, in the caves of Copan and the Comeagua Valley of Honduras he would have a better chance of tracking the corn (MacNeish 1962). His search extended to Zacapa Valley of Guatemala in 1959, as well having brief visits in Oaxaca and the Rio Balsas Valley of Guerrero. In 1961 MacNeish and his team started the Tehuacan project which yielded to be a great unbelievable success. Among many question with this project MacNeish and his colleagues were able to solve the problem of the origins of corn and were able to attack the how and the why of many other domesticated plants in highland Mesoamerica. According to MacNeish the amount of artifacts (50,000 lithics, more than 100,000 plant remains, over 10,000 bones and some 250 human feces) found in the 454 sites gave the team a time span that roughly stretched from 20,000 to 2000 B.C. Since MacNieshs’ research and excavations there have been over 1000 sites found and more archaeological evidence to support his original findings.
In conclusion, the topic of “maize” is one that has intrigued and puzzled archaeologists for many years. The domestication and evolution of maize in and of itself causes much debate. It is because of great archaeologists like MacNeish and his unwavering curiosity of the “great corn hunt” as to why we have the information that we have today. The mere evidence of 454 sites becoming 1000 in a matter of years speaks for itself. The fact remains that there are 4 major independent centers of plant domestication, the Near East, China, North America, and Mesoamerica. It is the intent of this paper to have clearly introduced even the novice of person’s to what exactly is the definition of maize, how maize became a major staple in prehistoric people’s diet, and how maize has been detected in Mesoamerica through evidence in the archaeological record.