Corn on the Cob

Digging up America

“The dust rose in suffocating clouds. The archaeologists wore dust masks which, in the murky light of the cave, made them look like pig-snouted monsters. But the workers did not seem to notice the penetrating dust. They dug steadily with trowels and whisk brooms. At the lower levels of a series of layers of dry grass and dirt, one of the excavators pulled a withered husk from the crumbling bank in front of him. The thing looked like the dried stalk of a large plant which had a pod on its stem. The archaeologist, Dr. Herbert Dick, gave a muffled cry through his dust mask. This shrunken piece of ancient vegetation might have been a golden treasure to judge from the way in which the other archaeologists crowded around to view it.

What archaeologist Dick had found in 1948 in the dusty levels of Bat Cave, New Mexico, was indeed a treasure, at least by scientific standards. This withered stalk and pod was one of the most important clues toward the solution of the major American mystery of all: Where and when did American agriculture begin?

Following the days of the hunters of Ice Age animals in the New World, there came a time of adjustment. At the end of the glacial period, when the large animals which had been characteristic of former times became extinct, big-game hunting was also no longer possible. Indeed, had the earliest Americans been any less adaptable, they might have become extinct also. But we human beings are omnivorous. We can eat almost anything if we have to. In the difficult centuries following the end of the great Ice Age, the early Americans turned more and more to vegetable foods.

Even the early hunters had undoubtedly discovered that there were many roots, berries, and nuts which were edible. By a series of experiments, they must have discovered which varieties were nutritious, which poisonous, and which merely filling. During post-glacial times, small groups of early Americans lived by gathering these vegetable foods and hunting such small animals as they were able to trap or kill. During this period of adjustment, human beings came to rely more and more on plants.

The actual cultivation of these plants marks the beginning of a new era. Cultivation involves not only the artificial care of certain plants but also changes produced in plants through man’s purposeful activity. Actually, some of the original food gatherers may have had private berry patches which they protected from destruction or intrusion, and yet this was not true cultivation. When these early Americans realized that by taking the very best berries and planting them they could produce fruit of an improved kind, then they began agriculture in the truest sense.”

“When later European explorers came to American shores, they found the Indians here growing a plant called maize. Columbus found the Indians growing corn on all the islands of the West Indies and on the mainland of Central America. Diego, the brother of Columbus, reported that in one place he walked through an Indian corn field for 18 miles. This plant, Indian maize, the Europeans mistakenly called ‘corn.’ Actually the word ‘corn’ means a kernel. Thus we have a ‘peppercorn’ which is a kernel of pepper and ‘corned beef’ which is beef prepared with corns or kernels of salt. To be correct, a diner in a restaurant should ask for ‘maize on the cob.’”