Thousands of years ago, Native Americans gradually left behind the nomadic lifestyle and focused on the domestication and cultivation of crops. Two of the most important crops they cultivated were corn and sweet potatoes, and both came a long way from their Central American origins to become a staple food in North America and later, all over the world. This is recorded on the Bible Timeline Poster with World History during 1000 AD.
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Teosinte, the first corn, was discovered and cultivated thousands of years ago in Central Mexico, particularly near the ancient city of Teotihuacan. The plant yielded cobs as tiny as a human thumb. Over the years, Mesoamericans started the selection of breeds that yielded bigger corncobs and more corn kernels. By 900 AD, it had spread to North and South America where the plant adapted to its environment to withstand drought and frost.
For the Native Americans, corn or maize (Zea mays) was more than just staple food as its cultivation was entwined with their myths and religions. For example, the Omaha people “sang” to the corn as the plants grew, and paired them with beans during planting as they considered both plants as holy. The Ancient Puebloans venerated the White Corn Maiden and the Blue Corn Woman (heroines of Native American legends) as important parts of their culture; they also cleaned the storage bins before bringing in the corn they harvested to keep it “happy.
The Pawnees set aside a “holy” breed of corn that they never ate and used only in religious ceremonies, while the Mandan people had their own corn priests. Zuni newborns received corn as a gift, and they were christened with a “corn name” afterward. Additionally, a deceased Zuni person’s heart would be replaced by a corncob before the burial as a symbol of the cycle of life. The Iroquois and other Native American peoples considered corn, squash, and beans as the Three Sisters.
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy adopted corn as a staple crop in the eleventh century and began its large-scale farming. They also converted the Iroquois into adopting the cultivation of corn after another tribe brokered a peace treaty between them in 1142 AD. This resulted in the Iroquois’ acceptance of the matrilineal social structure and peaceful consensus-based political system.
The Maya of Mexico and pre-Inca cultures of Peru had a long history of cultivating sweet potato. Evidence of this could be found on their ceramics. Sweet potato or camote possibly originated from Yucatan Peninsula-Orinoco River delta, but another location for its origin was the Peru-Ecuador border. It was also grown in Polynesia and New Zealand even before the Europeans reached the Americas after Pacific Islanders sailed to South America in as early as 700 AD.
Picture By John Doebley – http://teosinte.wisc.edu/images.html, CC BY 3.0, Link
Johansen, Bruce E. The Encyclopedia of Native American Economic History. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Johansen, Bruce E. The Native Peoples of North America: A History. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005.
Welbaum, G. E. Vegetable Production and Practices. CABI, 2015.
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