The Native Americans were still in the stone age when the Europeans arrived, but they had developed two crops that would profoundly reshape European society. One was the potato. The other was corn. It was a crop developed in the Central Valley of Mexico sometime around 5,000 BC and spread thrrougout North and South America to be grown by most native American people. The Maya even called themselves the "Corn People". While the Spanish were after gold, these two crops have had an infintely greater economic impact. Corn became a staple in Western Europe and even more so in the United States. Americans have thought little about corn until the ethenol craze of the early 2000s, but in fact corn was the central crop of American agriculture. Not only were many foods made from corn, but corn was used as not only a feed stock for animal rearing, but a wide range of industrial products. One estimate suggest that American super markets stock about 45,000 different items and about 25 percent of those items contain corn in one form or another.
The Native Americans were still in the stone age when the Europeans arrived, but they had developed two crops that would profoundly reshape European society. One was the potato. The other was corn. Native Americans in Meso-America began using corn about 8,500 (6,500 AD). It was perhaps the greatest feat of genentic engineering in human history. This is because developing modern corn from available grrasses was much more difficult than developing wheat and millet. But we know virtually nothing about how this process occurred or how long it took, although the arrival of Native Americans in Meso-America establishes some prameters. Native Americans domesticated corn from grasses. Researchers have identified te corn genes that were Native Americans selected in the process of domesticating corn. The Native American cultivators bred the grassy plant teosinte for hardiness and better food quality. [National Science Foundation] This occurred thousands of years after grains were domesticated in the Fertil Cressesnt (Mesopotamia) giving rise to civilization. One researcher argues that the availavility of wild edible plant species suitable for domestication (wild wheat and pulse species) was one reason civilization first rose there. The difficulty of domesticating corn from teosinte was part of the reason that civilization in the Americas lagged the other important centers of civilization. [Diamond] The other reason that corn was important is that it is the most efficent plant convering sunlight into carbohydrates. We know more about where corn was developed--Meso-America.
For years anthropolgists believed corn was developed in the Central Valley of Mexico. That is fairly well established by both archeological nd DNA evidence, but in recent years the origins of corn has moved south from the Central Valley to the southern coast. It seems likely that it was the people who became the Zapotecs that first developed corn. Corn did, however, have the same impact in America, It was in Meso-America that civilization first developed in the Americas--basically because of the development of corn-based agriculture. The Maya even called themselves the "Corn People". Not only did corn expand harvests, it was also a more mobile food resource. This meant it could be nore easily traded whic promoted commerce. It also mean that it could sustin conquering armies into distant lands.Corn gradually spread thrrougout North and South America to be grown by most native American people. Civilization had developed in the Andes of South America based on an entirely different crop--the potato. It took some time for corn agriculture to spread south along thecoast of South America. But when it reached the coast of Peru it significantly increased agricultural productivity. The potato did not do well in warm, low elevarions. Corn did not do well in cold high Andes. But the two together enabled Native Americans in Anderan areas to better ustilize the available agricutral land. The major beneficiaries of this would be the Inca until the rrival of the Europeans. It would be the Inca that estanlished the greatest of all the Native American empires. While the Spanish were after gold, these two crops have had an infintely greater economic impact.
Most histories of the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the New World, after reporting on Columbus establishing contact, focus on Cortez and Pizarro and their
conquest of the Aztecs and Incas. Chief among the accounts are those involving the Conquistadoes and gold. The new colonies brought emense quantities of gold
and silver and helped make Spain the most powerful country in the world. In the long run, however, it may have been the humble potato that wss the most significant
item brought back to Europe. While the Spanish were after gold, but it was the potato that was to change Europe even more than the treasure ships laden with gold and silver. The population of Europe was still quite small at the time of the Spanish conquest of the Inca in Peru during the mid-16th century. The Spanish Conquistador Pedro Cieza de Leon in his “Chronicle of Peru” is the first European known to describe the potato.
No one knows when corn was first brough to Europe and planted. Of course corn was waiting for the English settlers when they arrived in America (17th century).
Corn became a staple in Western Europe and even more so in the United States. Americans have thought little about corn until the ethenol craze of the early 2000s, but in fact corn was the central crop of American agriculture. Even more so it is the principal way which may converts sun energy into food on earth. This is because few plants so efficently convet sun light and water into organic material. Not only were many foods made from corn, but corn was used as not only a feed stock for animal rearing, but a wide range of industrial products. The industrial use of corn are much more recent and in fact date from the post-World War II period. American industry significantly expanded the output of munitions during the War. After the War the Goverment sought to deal with the huge stocks of amonium nitrate and plants producing amonium nitrate. One of the largest munition plants in America was located at Mussle Shoals, Alabama. That plant shifted production to fertilizer (1947). One estimate suggest that American super markets stock about 45,000 different items and about 25 percent of those items contain corn in one form or another. Corn is used in a multitude of products that the consumer does not associate with the grain: wallboard, joint compounds, linooleum, fiberglass, adhesives, and countless other products.
This was one of the many contributors to the European Industrial Revolution. As European agriculture became more productive, farmers could support the increasingly large numbers of industrial workers in Europe's rapidly expanding cities. Here the potato was probably more important, but in the 20th century corn was to come to play an increasing role in both agriculture and industry.
Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997).
National Science Foundation. "Scientists trace corn ancestry from ancient grass to modern crop," Press Release 05-088, May 27, 2005.
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