A Story of Corn (or A Corny Story)

Corn is such an important part of our daily lives; we eat it, feed it to livestock, make fuel and oil from it;  it is a substance in plastics, papers, medicines and many, many other everyday products.  We forget its humble beginnings.

Primitive corn (Image from the University of Illinois)

Corn is a tropical plant, first domesticated about 7,000 years ago in what is now central Mexico.  The early domesticated corn looked much different from those giant cobs we enjoy on the 4th of July.  Small grassy seed heads fed countless people in Mesoamerica as the domesticated corn traveled from central Mexico to as far south as Peru and to the southwestern part of North America.  And, there it remained for thousands of years.

Just over a thousand years ago, Woodland Indians from the Ohio River Valley began to migrate west and north, following the great rivers through the plains.  They brought corn with them and settled along a small creek in what is now South Dakota.  Prior to their arrival at this location, corn did not grow much farther north than Missouri.  These people, the ancestors of the Mandan Indians, were able to do something that modern science has not improved upon: they were able to take this wonderful tropical food plant and adapt it to the very short growing season of the upper plains.  By the time Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World in the late 1400s, corn was growing as far north as southern Canada.

Although the inhabitants of the Prehistoric Indian Village had been able to adapt the corn to grow here, it was still quite small.  And that is what makes this story all the more impressive.  At any given time during the history of this village, there were up to 200 people living here relying on just a few basic food sources.  Hunters brought in game such as deer, bison, birds and fish.  The farmers raised several crops: beans, squash, sunflower, amaranth and, most importantly, corn.  The corn ears were not much bigger than a man’s thumb, yet these people had to raise enough to sustain them until the following year’s harvest.

This story, then, becomes one of not just a people who were able to develop a corn that would grow in such a short growing season but of a people who were growing corn and other crops on such a large scale that they could not be called “primitive” farmers.  While they did succeed for a time, ultimately they were forced to move on, perhaps after depleting this area of natural resources.