The Amazing Journey of Maize

Four dried corn cobs that are shades of purple, orange, and brown

Alaka Wali is a Curator of North American Anthropology.

In 1621, the Wampanoag Indians and the colonists of Plymouth shared a feast that, today, is widely viewed as the very first Thanksgiving in the colonies of America. This three-day long fall festival celebrated their bountiful harvest and an alliance that would last for over 50 years. With modern traditions of turkeys, parades, and pies, we often lose sight of the true story of those early encounters between the Native peoples and the Mayflower settlers.

The stories of the Mayflower and the colonists’ first hard years of settlement in present-day New England is known to all school children. So too is the story of the role that the local Native Americans played in the survival of the colony: teaching the new settlers how to fish, extract sap from maple trees, and most importantly, grow an abundant amount of maize (what we know as corn). What may be less well-known is the backstory: how did the New England indigenous people themselves come to grow maize, and what does that tell us about the pre-European settlement of the Americas?  

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Two rows of dried corn cobs of different sizes and colors, including yellow, orange, brown, and purple
These corn cobs are from The Field Museum’s collection. They are part of the 33,000 cobs collected by archeologist Paul Martin in the process of excavating Tularosa Cave in 1950. The collection continues to be of research interest to archeologists. 

Maize (Zea mays) at the time of the pilgrims’ arrival was very different from what we grow today. It came in an assortment of colors like white, red, yellow, and blue and a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Easily stored and preserved, it was an essential crop for the Native Americans. Archaeologists and botanists long puzzled over the origins of maize domestication, and there were lively debates throughout the early 20th century. Now, the evidence seems clear that maize derives from a wild grass, teosinte. Around 9,000 years ago, indigenous people in Central America (Mexico and Guatemala) figured out how to modify the wild grass to get it to produce larger seed kernels, finally producing an edible version of the plant.  

Fairly rapidly (in evolutionary terms!), the first domesticators shared seeds along their trade routes and maize traveled both north and south. Archeologists have dated the first evidence of maize in the Southwestern United States at about 4,000 years ago. It is thought to have reached the Northeastern United States about 2,100 years ago.  

So by the time the pilgrims arrived from England on the Mayflower, the Native Americans they met had long been engaged in extensive trade networks that spanned the entire continent. The understanding of these trade networks is still a work in progress. But the remarkable fact is that the first humans to settle the Americas not only domesticated native plants like maize, squash, beans, tomatoes and more, but they also shared their knowledge of these plants with each other across vast distances.

Far from the stereotype of the “primitive” Native American encountered by the pilgrims (a stereotype still perpetuated in Thanksgiving pageants and the like), Native Americans were sophisticated societies with a wealth of knowledge about their environment and its potential to sustain a rich way of life. Indeed, the pilgrims were surprised to be greeted by Native Americans belonging to the Wampanoag Confederacy who spoke English, some having already been subjected to capture and forced enslavement in Europe.  

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Three rectangular stone slabs with smaller stones to be used as a grinding tool
Grinding stones (called mano and metate) for making coarse, medium, or fine cornmeal. Ancestral Puebloan, Arizona and New Mexico. On view in the Ancient Americas exhibition. 

Maize has always been a versatile crop. Every part of it could be used, generating no waste at all. The corn itself could be ground into cornmeal for cornbread, corn syrup, and corn pudding. It could be dried out and used to make hominy, where the dried kernels are soaked in a wood ash lye and water solution until they split open, then drained and cooked over a fire. The husks could be woven into mats or baskets or used to create dolls and other figures. Even the cobs found a use as fuel to burn, as ceremonial rattling sticks, or carved to create darts. Across the Americas, Native peoples bred different varieties and invented literally hundreds of recipes and ways to use maize. Today, maize cultivation is global, and the United States of America is the single largest producer.  

In the fall of 1621, the colonists’ first corn harvest was a major success, providing them with enough food to make it through the next winter. Governor William Bradford organized a feast in celebration of their plentiful harvest and invited the Wampanoag Chief Massasoit. Although we do not have a record of exactly what was on the menu at this feast, we can be certain that no desserts were made, as the colonists had run low on reserves of sugar at this time and did not have access to any ovens. As for the main dishes, many historians believe most were prepared using traditional Native American spices and recipes with a significant number of them involving corn.

So, as we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, let's give some thanks to the indigenous peoples who first introduced the rest of us to that essential ingredient that plays a role in the food we eat today.