History of Corn - Where does corn come from?
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History of Corn

Corn
Corn on the cob

Corn is a kind of seed, like rice or wheat, that comes originally from a kind of wild grass that grows in Mexico called teosinte. Corn has lots of carbohydrates, but not as much protein as wheat or barley. Corn also has some vitamins, especially Vitamin B and Vitamin C.

People first began to farm corn (instead of picking it wild) around 7,500 BC in Mexico, a little later than they started to farm squash and avocados. Gradually people bred the corn plants to have more and more corn - bigger ears, with more kernels, and easier to eat - and fewer leaves. Soon - about 6000 BC - their southern neighbors in Ecuador were growing corn too. By about 1 AD, the Pueblo people in North America also grew corn.

Teosinte
Teosinte

People ate corn fresh when it ripened in summertime, by roasting or boiling the ears, or by making popcorn, but mostly they dried the kernels and crushed them into cornmeal, and then used the cornmeal to make tacos or tortillas. They filled the tacos with bean mush and vegetables. That way you could store the corn and eat it all year round. Some people also stirred cornmeal into boiling water to make pudding (kind of like oatmeal).

woman standing while a girl kneels to make tortillas
A woman teaches her daughter to make tortillas
(Codex Mendoza, 1542, now in the Bodleian Library)

When Iroquois people began to grow corn further north, in the north-east part of North America, about 1000 AD, they found that the corn took too long to get ripe, and often frost killed the plant before the corn was ripe. They had to slowly adapt the plant to the northern climate by making it evolve a shorter growing season. In the north, corn only got ripe at the very end of the summer. Because it was cold enough to need a big fire for warmth so far north, the Iroquois cooked their corn by boiling it over their fire: they ate mainly corn pudding, corn mush, or corn soup - not tacos and tortillas, which you cook on hot rocks over a small cooking fire.

Taco
A corn tortilla made into a taco

When English settlers first came to North America in the 1500s, the Iroquois and other Native Americans showed the English settlers how to grow corn too. Like the Iroquois, the English settlers ate a lot of "hasty pudding" - corn pudding. But they also made the corn into bread like the wheat bread they had eaten back home in England, which we know now as cornbread.

Today most people in North America eat a lot of corn. Some people eat cornbread. Many people eat corn that has been turned into corn syrup to sweeten things like bread or Coke or Froot Loops. But most people in this country, including modern Pueblo people, also eat corn just the way the Pueblo people did two thousand years ago, as tacos or tortillas, or as popcorn.

Learn by Doing - A Corn Project
A recipe for cornmeal crust pizza

Bibliography and further reading about corn:

Or check out this article about corn in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Corn on the Cob
Spicy Corn
Corn Pancakes
Nachos
Pinto beans
Squash
More about North American food
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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