Corn history – Where does corn come from? (Teosinte)

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Corn on the cob: Corn history

Corn history: Corn on the cob

Teosinte and corn

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.

Farming corn: 7500 BC

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.

Corn tortillas, tamales, polenta, and popcorn

Teosinte - wild corn

Corn history: 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).

A woman teaches her daughter to make tortillas

Corn history: A woman teaches her daughter to make tortillas (Codex Mendoza, 1542, now in the Bodleian Library)

 

Growing corn further north

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.

Corn soup and corn pudding

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. They didn’t make so many tacos or tortillas, which you cook on hot rocks over a small cooking fire.

Spanish take corn to Europe, Africa and Asia

When the first Spanish and Portuguese explorers came to Mexico in the late 1400s, they saw lots of people eating corn. Traders brought Mexican corn to Europe, where they grew it mainly to feed cows. And they brought corn to West Africa and sold it to farmers there. By 1540, corn was already a main food for West Africans. In the 1600s farmers were also growing corn in Ming Dynasty China, Mughal India and all down the coast of East Africa.

A corn tortilla made into a taco

A corn tortilla made into a taco

English settlers learn to grow corn

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.

Tisquantum

In 1621, when the Pilgrims arrived in Cape Cod, a Native Patuxet man named Tisquantum greeted them. A few years earlier, English traders had kidnapped Tisquantum and brought him back to England, where he learned English. In 1620, Tisquantum finally got home again, only to find out that everyone he knew – his whole town – had died of smallpox or measles they caught from the English traders. Tisquantum was lonely and sad, and when the Pilgrims arrived and settled down in his empty village, he showed them how to farm the abandoned corn fields there.

Americans today: corn syrup, cornbread, tacos, and popcorn

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.

Did you find out what you wanted to know about the history of corn? Let us know in the comments!

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

Bibliography and further reading about the history of corn:

Or check out this article about corn history 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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By |2017-12-31T17:48:18+00:00June 21st, 2017|Central America, Food|20 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Corn history – Where does corn come from? (Teosinte). Quatr.us Study Guides, June 21, 2017. Web. December 16, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. 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, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

20 Comments

  1. loyalty royalty December 4, 2018 at 12:45 pm - Reply

    when and where did native american … started to cultivating corn

    • Karen Carr December 4, 2018 at 1:04 pm

      The answer is right there in the article. Some Native Americans in what is now the United States were growing corn by around 2000 years ago (1 AD). Gradually more and more people started to grow corn, further away from Mexico and further north. The Iroquois started to grow corn about 1000 years later.

  2. Lily April 25, 2018 at 8:19 am - Reply

    When were the Europeans first introduced to corn?

    • Karen Carr April 25, 2018 at 9:19 am

      Europeans first ate corn when Columbus reached the Caribbean in 1492. But most Europeans still think of corn and cornbread and tortillas as pretty exotic foods, even though they are common in the United States. In Europe, most of the corn goes to feed cattle, not for people to eat. (Actually, even in the United States, about 40% of our corn goes to biofuels and another 30% feeds animals, so we only eat about 30% of our corn.) https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/time-to-rethink-corn/

  3. Lily April 12, 2018 at 8:14 am - Reply

    when was corn first discovered

  4. Lily March 29, 2018 at 7:36 am - Reply

    One more thing, when was corn first made.

    • Karen Carr March 29, 2018 at 10:47 pm

      I’m pretty sure the answer to that is in the article?

  5. Lily March 29, 2018 at 7:35 am - Reply

    Why is corn so important in southern mexico?

    • Karen Carr March 29, 2018 at 10:47 pm

      It’s a traditional source of carbohydrates, from back when people in Mexico didn’t have wheat or barley or rice or millet.

  6. Lily March 28, 2018 at 8:21 am - Reply

    How did people come up with the name”Corn”?

    • Karen Carr March 28, 2018 at 8:33 am

      That’s a great question, Lily!

      In the 1400s, when English-speaking people first ate corn, “corn” was the English word for any kind of grain – wheat, barley, rye, millet. So “corn” was just their way of saying “grain”. (And it still is, in England, where they call our corn “Maize”).

      That word, “corn”, comes originally from a Yamnaya word meaning something like “ripened” or maybe “ground up” (nobody is sure). The word “maize” comes from the Arawak word for corn. (More about the Yamnaya here: https://quatr.us/central-asia/who-were-the-indo-europeans.ht and about the Arawak here: https://quatr.us/south-america/arawak-south-american-history.htm)

  7. Lily March 27, 2018 at 8:26 am - Reply

    Who were the first people to grow corn?

    • Karen Carr March 27, 2018 at 11:26 am

      I’m sorry, I don’t have a name for those people. All I know about them is that they lived in southern Mexico.

    • Lily March 29, 2018 at 7:32 am

      Thanks Karen. I was asking because we are doing a project in class were we have to research corn and find out a way to grow corn on mars.

    • Karen Carr March 29, 2018 at 10:46 pm

      Good luck! I don’t know if it is possible to grow corn on Mars, but if there is a way I hope you find it!

  8. larry January 29, 2018 at 12:58 pm - Reply

    settler did things wrong.

    • Karen Carr January 29, 2018 at 9:28 pm

      The European settlers did a lot of things wrong! Some of them were just things anybody might do wrong who was trying to learn how to live in a new country. Some of the things they did wrong were because they didn’t think you had to treat people right if they weren’t white.

  9. jesus December 8, 2017 at 12:03 pm - Reply

    where did the native americans first teach english settlers how to harvest corn

    • Karen Carr December 8, 2017 at 3:24 pm

      English settlers first learned how to plant corn (then later how to harvest it) from a Pawtuxet man named Tisquantum, in 1621. Tisquantum had been kidnapped by earlier English traders and lived for several years in England, so he spoke English. He had managed to get home to America only to find out that his entire family and village had just died of smallpox or measles – diseases brought by the English traders. He was trying to figure out what to do next when the English settlers showed up and settled into his old village, where the houses and fields were still there, but all the people had died.

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