Earth Notes - Early Corn

Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: Early Corn

As food and as sacred symbol, corn has long served as the staff of life for Native southwesterners. Now archaeologists have found that this grain has been around this part of the world for a very long time indeed.

On the Colorado Plateau, people have been farming corn for at least 4,000 years. That's the date obtained on kernels and cobs from a site south of Zuni, New Mexico, where some of the earliest known maize in the Southwest has been found. The cobs were small and grew on bushy plants strikingly different from the giant-stalked varieties we have today.

Researchers on the Fence Lake Project didn't set out looking for the corn. They discovered it unexpectedly at what was soon called the Old Corn Site, and were surprised by the early dates.

What they gained is clear evidence for the presence of early "farmer-foragers" who supplemented their diet of wild plants and animals with domesticated corn.

Once corn arrived from Mexico, it spread rapidly and was grown from the deserts of southern Arizona to the Plateau's highlands. Certainly by about 2,000 years ago, people throughout the Pueblo world were staying put and cultivating, storing, and preparing corn.

Only a handful of sites with early corn are known. But Carla Van West, principal investigator of the New Mexico project, believes that more will be found, and that the dates will probably be pushed back even farther. "The land," she says, "still has many stories to tell."

-Rose Houk