The Early Rise of North America’s Dominant Crop

August 27th, 2019

How have early agricultural practices shaped and altered the environment of the Mississippi? This research project turns to the cultivation of maize to tackle this question.

The farming of maize, or corn as it is more commonly referred to, plays a fundamental role in today’s industrial agriculture of the Midwest but the cultivation of this crop dates far back in time. How did maize spread across the North American continent and what influence did it exert on regional ecologies?

The Anthropocene is conventionally associated with two important stages of human intervention, the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century and the Great Acceleration in energy and resource use that began in the mid-twentieth century. Yet there is persuasive evidence that this distinctly human epoch has a far older history. Long before the twentieth century, agriculture and domestication fundamentally altered the ecological composition and function of vast tracts of land, and this is a story that can only be told with the tools of archaeology.

Today, maize has become a staple crop, the basis of a sixty-billion-dollar annual industry that imposed a distinct ecology on the former prairie landscape of the Midwest and conditioned the diets of North America and, following the Columbian exchange, the world. This crop’s transformative rise began more than 5,500 years ago, at which time the evidence suggests that a strain of wild grass from Mexico, teosinte, underwent morphological changes because of human cultivation, indicating domestication. The crops eventually went on to dominate farming systems across the Americas before the first Europeans arrived. The rapid dispersal of this semitropical crop into the temperate regions of North America is still not fully understood and has long been a contentious topic. Archaeobotanical remains attest to its presence in the North American Southwest two millennia ago. Yet scholars do not agree upon when it spread across the rest of North America and, more importantly, when cultivation of it intensified to eventually replace the traditional small-seeded crops of North America—causing the disappearance of the ancient “Lost Crops.”

This project attempts to demonstrate how maize transformed North America’s ecology in a distinct way by linking the extant archaeobotanical record with a new, purpose-built database. Using collagen gathered from fragments of bones and tooth enamel, mapping the timing and location of maize consumption will be possible by tracing specific isotopic forms of carbon that result from its consumption. Collating and analyzing this evidence of human development, hand in hand with extant data on environmental change, this project expects to produce a detailed visualization, revealing the rate, dispersal, and paths taken by this important biostratigraphic indicator.