A Brief History of Corn

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A typical supermarket store may at least contain 10,000 items, and it is said that, not less than 30% items of the 10,000 might commonly use the single source product: Corn. It is used in some form, either during production or processing. From the feed ingredients (for cows, sheep) to alcohol to processed foods to sweetened drinks, corn is everywhere. It also continues to play an ever increasing role in alternative fuels that will be utilized to power everything from automobiles to industrial equipment. But, where did this crop originate from?

Corn was the only agricultural cereal that is native to the ‘New World’ (North and South America). Other important cereal grains like wheat, barley were all brought by the early settlers. When Columbus and his group of explorers first came to New World they were surprise to see this tall grassy plant, which the native tribes called ‘Maize.’ The name “corn” was used by European explorers, which originally meant any crop grown by the local people.

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Indigenous people of Southern Mexico cultivated corn by domesticating a wild form of the crop called ‘teosinte.’ It is actually a member of the grass family. This early wild plant was less productive, provided much less seed and the seeds were enclosed with in an indelible hard covering. This ancestor crop, now extinct, was also tiny in size. Over the thousands of years (may be around 7,000 B.C. — domestication years are not exactly available), the Native Americans selectively bread corn that had desirable attributes, like larger stalks. The wild ‘teosinte’ to become a useful crop, must have undergone drastic changes in its reproductive biology, to increase greatly its investment in seeds.

Corn remained to be essential part of Native American foods. It was easily stored and preserved for the cold winter months. The husks collected from the corn cob were weaved to make masks, sleeping mats, baskets, and even for footwear. Died corns were burned as fuel and made into ceremonial rattling sticks. Corn is what said to be shared with the explorers, who came for first Thanksgiving. They gave the corn seed to Europeans and taught them how to grow it. These early settlers might have died during the first winter if not for the corn and Natives.

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The most surprising fact about corn is its variety: nearly 150 types of corn have been identified from Mexico, to South and Central America. The most important of these types are flint corn, waxy corn, popcorn, flour corn, and starchy dent corn (used for food processing and for ethanol). The modern sweet corn came from the hybrids, believed to be produced in Peru.

The vast majority of the modern day corn crop is used as livestock feed. The next largest use is for ethanol ($20 billion invested by US since 1980’s). The third largest use is for the high fructose corn syrup that has grown ever-more pervasive in the fast food diet. Corn is also used as glucose and dextrose, starch, cereal and alcohol.

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