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The Origin of Corn: Of teosinte? Most certainly. Created by selective breeding? Definitely. Hybridization? For sure. Proto-corn that migrated south from its birthplace, developed independently, and returned to Mexico converging with its ancestor line that never left, creating the fully domesticated corn we recognize today?… A strong possibility. What it took to create maize was nothing less than science in action - science put into action by some of America’s original Peoples. Theories have evolved over the decades, and with the implementation of modern DNA analysis, we are, little by little, getting to know the full story of how corn evolved into the grain we know today. There are still unknowns, and the actual process has yet to be replicated or fully proven by researchers. It’s truly a grain that defies our conventional explanations, yet the history and origin of corn is certainly known and understood among those who cultivated Her first. ------------ Corn’s Native history is one that speaks to its other worldly design, whether introduced to humans by Selu (Corn Mother aka Corn), or to have first sprouted from the grave of Sky Woman’s daughter, or be a gift to us all from benevolent Hare (one of the dueling twins). Make light of Corn’s spirit, offend Her in some manner, or take Her for granted, and you may find all corn to disappear. And while some tribal histories speak of famine in Her absence, imagine if She was to leave us now in a world that relies so much on corn. Still unknowing much of corn’s earthy start with all our “advanced technology,” this plant has proven itself to be no less than what the Native histories have already told us… absolutely miraculous.
“…Onesta [corn] is more than a food to the Haudenosaunee. It is the measure of the health and spiritual well-being of the people.” – Doug George-Kanentiio, Mohawk Journalist
The First Corn to Come to the Woodlands
Corn made its first real impression as a crop east of the Mississippi at about 200BC, later becoming widely adapted in the Woodlands by 900AD. A very early variety of corn to be found in some Eastern North American archaeological sites is North American Pop. This type appears to come from earlier species like Small Cob (of Mexico) and Chapalote (of the American Southwest). Pop corn has its positives, particularly in its ability to be stored almost unmolested by animals and pests that found the shell to be too hard to mess with, while humans need only grind or of course “pop” the shell with the application of heat, to make the seeds edible. But the Pop corn just wasn’t very convincing for Woodland horticulturalists to fully adopt the new plant. While some Pop corns have been found among a few early sites of the East just before the major adoption of corn, the variety appears to be more of a passing trend that doesn’t calculate into the later widespread corn agricultural complex of the Eastern Woodlands (Important Note: the popcorn we know, both common and many heritage types, were post-historic introductions to North America and not of these early type recovered archaeologically… including the infamous heritage Strawberry Pop which, according to botany researchers Culter and Blake, are part of a Pop variety introduced from Mexico within the last few hundred years). Later a variety called Midwestern 12-Row makes its way to the lower Mississippi Valley until it’s replaced by the dominant Eastern 8-Row of later (which then spreads from east to west, to the Rockies). Another variety of corn to make its way east was Pima-Papago. It spread from the southwest to the western edges of the Eastern Woodlands too. However again, it just doesn’t make the lasting impact on Eastern farmers as their soon-to-be beloved corn species, Eastern 8-Row (including Northern Flint). Eastern 8-Row reaches as far north and east as Ontario, Canada by 800AD, and by 1000-1200AD, it dominated the corn scene from inland Mississippi River settlements to Atlantic coastal Nations.
The Corn of the East
It was the breeding of the new Eastern 8-Row corn, and not earlier corn types introduced from across the Mississippi, that convinced Eastern Woodland farmers (who had been cultivating squash, greens, sunflowers and tobacco for a few thousand years already) to commit in dominating their fields with the grain and embrace a high corn diet from then on. And it was Eastern 8-Row/Northern Flint corn in which Europeans first encountered in the fields and bowls of Native Woodland farmers. It was a popular variety for many reasons: It was hardy and quick to mature, giving Native farmers the ability to cultivate corn in regions with shorter growing seasons such as the northern regions of the Great Lakes, New England and adjacent areas of Canada. It was hard - it’s pericarp or hull was tough and made it a hardy grain for storage. Yet, even with a hard hull, it was edible and tasty with modest processing – it was ground into flour, parched and cracked, or soaked in lye to produce hominy. And it gave great return for the work put into cultivating it... it was an amazing grain uniquely qualified (bred) to grow in the Woodlands.
“Flint corn is called by the Choctaw Indians Tanchi Hlimimpa. It is the only kind of corn the Choctaw Indians in Mississippi had when the white people found them.” -Peter Hudson
About Eastern 8-Row/Northern Flint Corn
Even if most, or all, were 8-Row Corn type, they were still a diverse grouping of corn types. Sub-varieties came in different colors including red and blue (also described as purple or black historically), however, according to early historical observations, most varieties were yellow or white in color. A few types were speckled too (later speckled varieties often referred to as calico corn), however it appears that corn varieties upon first contacts were not generally as multicolored as modern decorative Indian corn is today (note: the general speckled decorative "Indian corn" is of recent modern breeding, like "sweet corn," and does not reflect all the qualities of Eastern corn from pre-, proto-, or early post-contact times).
“Pagatowr a kinde of graine so called by the inhabitants; the same in the West Indies is called Mayze : English men call it Guinney wheate or Turkie wheate... The graine is about the bignesse of our ordinary English peaze and not much different in forme and shape: but of [different] colours: some white, some red, some yellow, and some blew.” -Thomas Hariot, Explorer, Speaking of the Carolina Native Peoples, 1585-86.
Eastern 8-Row corn came in shorter or longer cobs (sometimes 10 or more inches in length), however the cobs tended to be slim. As its one name "Flint" might indicate, it is considered hard (the pericarp), and often sported 8 rows of kernels, however not always. Some had 10, or less commonly 12 rows. Besides a hard pericarp, the kernels of the Eastern 8-Row/Northern Flint corns present no dents (like modern Field corn) due to the makeup of its starch, and the kernels are generally crescent in shape, not long. Colors could vary (as covered earlier), though most the color was in the hull of the kernel (along with much of its nutritional content). Those of blue had a slight grey hue to their meal when ground, while some of the palest white produced a very light flour, though most produced meal of a pale yellow to golden shade.
And just like the corn sub-varieties varied in characteristics, its intended use did too. Often certain corn types were thought of as better for one product or another… one type preferred for flour use (dried or parched), one type preferred for hominy (hulled corn), one type preferred for whole or cracked parched corn, and one type preferred for green corn (or what we would think of as sweet corn, however, the sweet corn we eat today is of modern breeding). Horticultural communities often grew more than one type of corn, some growing several varieties.
“Corn is their chief produce, and main dependance. Of this they have three [s]orts ; one of which hath been already mentioned. The [s]econd [s]ort is yellow and flinty, which they call "hommony-corn." The third is the large[s]t, of a very white and [s]oft grain, termed "bread-corn." The first kind is mentioned previously: “the [s]maller [s]ort of Indian corn, which u[s]ually ripens in two months, from the time it is planted.” -James Adair, Indian Trader, speaking of the Southern Nations 1735-75.
To keep strains separate (colors, textures, and other characteristics), each sub-variety had to be grown separate of each other, spaced by either distance or sowing time, or both. This will not keep all from cross-pollinating, however Native farmers presumably picked their seeds for next year’s planting season carefully, disregarding those kernels from ears with unfavorable traits (ie consuming them), and keeping those kernels from ears with wanted characteristics for seed. By this method, corn strains could be manipulated to change, or remain true. Selectively breeding corn is as old as corn’s man-made introduction itself.
Eastern Corn in the Post-Contact Era: “The corn of the east was bred and spread, whether spread through trade or warfare. Selective breeding and the sharing of seeds only continues after first European contacts, adding to the breadth of corn varieties through the post-contact period. One particular newcomer will forever change the history of corn in North America - Southern Dent. Dent corn gets its name from the concave surface at the top of every kernel... This variety is native to Central America and appears to be introduced to Eastern North America by way of Europeans. The first description of Dent corn in North America comes shortly after 1700. And it’s not till the 1800’s that the crossing of introduced Southern Dent with native Northern Flints (Eight-Row Varieties) is widely practiced. A now trendy heirloom variety born of Eastern North America - "Bloody Butcher" - probably originated in the mid 19th century, the same time crossing Northern Flint and Southern Dent corn types became commonplace. In fact the testimony from the family who the seeds were confined to for generations speak about it’s introduction to West Virginia from Tennessee. Well as it turns out, Tennessee was the center of the “corn belt,” leading in corn production for the nation in 1838. It was probably here (and Kentucky and Virginia) that much of this hybrid corn was created, and where Bloody Butcher likely got its start. Today the “corn belt” may be a little further west, but the field corn that dominates North American commercial farms is still a hybrid of Eastern 8-Row/Northern Flint and Southern Dent varieties.”
Eastern Corn in the Post-Contact Era
The corn of the east was bred and spread, whether spread through trade or warfare. Selective breeding and the sharing of seeds only continues after first European contacts, adding to the breadth of corn varieties through the post-contact period. One particular newcomer will forever change the history of corn in North America - Southern Dent. Dent corn gets its name from the concave surface at the top of every kernel. It’s because of this that Dent corn was also known as “tooth corn” among some Eastern Native peoples, as the dent resembled the impression on grinding side of a molar. This variety is native to Central America, and appears to be introduced to Eastern North America by way of Europeans. The first description of Dent corn in North America comes shortly after 1700. And it’s not till the 1800’s that the crossing of introduced Southern Dent with native Northern Flints (Eight-Row Varieties) is widely practiced. A now trendy heirloom variety born of Eastern North America - Bloody Butcher - probably originated in the mid 19th century, the same time crossing Northern Flint and Southern Dent corn types became commonplace. In fact the testimony from the family who the seeds were confined to for generations speak about it’s introduction to West Virginia from Tennessee. Well as it turns out, Tennessee was the center of the “corn belt,” leading in corn production for the nation in 1838. It was probably here (and Kentucky and Virginia) that much of this hybrid corn was created, and where Bloody Butcher likely got its start. Today the “corn belt” may be a little further west, but the field corn that dominates North American commercial farms is still a hybrid of Eastern 8-Row/Northern Flint and Southern Dent varieties.
Some Further Reading:
-Crop Domestication in Prehistoric Eastern North America. By David L. Asch and John P. Hart
-Evolving the Three Sisters: The Changing Histories of Maize, Bean and Squash in New York and the Greater Northeast. By John P. Hart.
-Plants of the Past. By Leonard W. Blake and Hugh C. Cutler.
To cite this article:
Diemer-Eaton, Jessica. (2018, November). The Corn of the Eastern Woodlands. Retrieved from http://www.woodlandindianedu.com/cornofeasternwoodlands.html
The Following from a WIEP “Native Foods November” Extra Social Media Post…
Juice from Cornstalks
It’s true that roasted cob corn and baked cornbread is quite the treat, but did you know cornstalks also have something to offer the taste buds? Chewing cornstalks makes for a refreshing treat in the fields, as is noted in Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) tradition. Why? Well the stalks contain some sugars - sugars used to grow its sweeter turned starchier grain. If the stalk was pounded, pressed or chewed before the corn “fruit” fully matured, more sweet juice could be extracted.
Corn plants whose ears are plucked well before maturity retain more sugar in the stalks, and some hypothesize that the Indigenous caregivers of early maize may have benefited more to pluck and eat the young tender ears, harvesting later the sugary stalks. Taken very early and peeled, it’s obvious the stalks are tender enough to eat fully, not unlike peeled spring shoots of the cattail... only with a refreshing corny taste (not a slimy, cucumber taste like cattail shoots). Harvested later the fibrous stalk could be “juiced,” not unlike that of sugarcane (though not containing the same high sugar content). Many societies in Central and South America did just that, extracting the sugars largely for making syrup, fermenting and alcohol-making activities.
And so maize’s early appeal may come just as much from its stalks as its kernels. When first created, corn provided very little kernels per plant, and so the sugars stored in the stalks may have been a real driving force in spreading the new domesticate. However by the time corn spread and was fully adopted in Eastern North America, the fruit (bred bigger and better), and not the stalk juice, was the prized food source. Native farmers here were more interested in growing corn to maturity for the nourishing and plentiful grain... not that a cornstalk treat wasn’t enjoyed from time to time.
Native minds bred corn into the sustaining food we know it to be... From a sweet grass to a grain that feeds the world over, maize would likely not be the grain we know today without the drive and direction, the instruction and intelligence of Indigenous women.
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