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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.

Evolution of seeds
When did grasses evolve?
Central American food
All our Central America articles

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.

What are carbohydrates?
Why do we need protein?

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.

More about squash
And about avocados
The Olmec in Mexico

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.

Where do pinto beans come from?
All about chili peppers

They filled the tacos with bean mush and vegetables like chili peppers. 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. Often frost killed the plant before the corn was ripe.

Who were the Iroquois?
Iroquois food
Native American environment

Iroquois people 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. And if the summer ended a little early, sometimes the corn didn’t get ripe at all.

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.

Corn, beans, and squash growing together

Corn, beans, and squash growing together: the Three Sisters

The Three Sisters

By this time, a lot of Native and Mexican and South American people had figured out a way to save space when they were growing corn. They grew the corn in the same field as beans and squash. People called these three plants the Three Sisters and there were stories about these three plants in Native American religion.

The Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash
Three Sisters in Native religion

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 farmers 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.


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
Pinto beans
More about North American food home