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"The History of Corn" probably sounds like a topic too esoteric to be anything but a good sleep aid. The history of corn is in fact an interesting and inspiring one. Corn as we know it today is not a product of the natural world, but rather the culmination of thousands of years of human ingenuity and applied horticultural knowledge. Generation upon generation of selective breeding has produced one of the most important food crops on Earth, with more corn produced worldwide every year than any other cereal product and corn being the number one agricultural product produced in the United States. This global super crop can trace its humble begginings back to central Mexico, where it originated from a diminutive grass called teosinte. [photo credit: John Doebley, https://teosinte.wisc.edu/images.html]
At first glance, teosinte appears about as different from modern corn as a wolf from a pomeranian. The most obvious difference is its branched growth, with each branch ending in a single female flower which produces a kernal. These may eventually develop into small ears, formed of a single stack of unfused kernals. Also unlike the ears of modern corn, those of teosinte are not husked and only about one inch in length. Before cultivation, these plants would typically produce just one "ear" at a time. It was around 10,000 years ago that early farmers began to notice that some plants produced more kernals than others, or that some kernals were tastier than others, and so they began to save and replant only the seeds of those plants with these decidedly superior fruiting habits. This selecting process continued over thousands of years, eventually resulting in plants which could produce multiple ears at a time, each several inches long and containing numerous large, fused kernals. These plants are what we know today as corn, or maize. Teosinte still exists in its native range to this day, but it is endangered and the number of individual plants is dwindling.
From Mexico, corn spread northward to what is presently the Southwestern United States, and southward to what is presently Peru. In North America, selective breeding (via cross-pollination) continued for many more generations to produce corn plants suitable for colder climates. These plants were bred to produce ears within a much shorter growing season. Eventually, by crossing and selecting plants that produced ears earlier in their growth, Native Americans developed corn plants which matured within three months after planting. By the time Europeans first made the voyage to North America and encountered its native residents, corn was already a major part of the native diet. You probably know the fabled story of the first Thanksgiving, but did you know corn was likely served as a porridge sweetened with molasses?
From the New World, corn was one of numerous crops traded between Native Americans and European settlers starting with Christopher Columbus. Today, corn is grown around the world and exists in a number of forms such as the sweet corn grown for human consumption, field corn grown for animal feed, and colorful flint corn (also known as Indian corn or ornamental corn), of which popcorn is a variant. Corn, so important to the diets of the Native Americans who first cultivated and developed it, is now ubiquitous to many cultures.
Aside from its food value, 40% of the corn produced in the United States is used to make corn ethanol. It is mainly used as an additive in gasoline, and some vehicles are capable of running on 100% ethanol. Corn is also used to make numerous industrial products including pharmaceuticals, fabrics, makeup, explosives, paper goods and paints.
The history of corn continues with genetically modified varieties which accounts for 85% of all corn planted in the United States as of 2009. These varieties are engineered to tolerate damage from herbicides, insect pests, diseases, and drought.
The story of corn is a significant piece in the story of humanity. When our ancestors were hunting and foraging in the harsh wilderness of several continents, corn's own ancestor was growing wild and free. Then came our shared journey into the world of agriculture leading to the rise of modern civilizations. Now, man and corn walk leaf-in-hand into the world of tomorrow. This holiday season, remember all that we and corn have been through together, all that corn has given us, and offer corn the respect it is due.
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