Who discovered corn

The sacred plant of the Mexican Indians

From Mexico, the corn first spread across the American continent. It was only through Christopher Columbus that it came to Europe and finally to all other continents. Today maize is the most widely grown grain in the world.

People made from corn

When the earth was still deserted, the gods took corn and made man out of it: the myth of origin can be found in this or a similar form among many Central American peoples, for example in the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Maya. "People from corn" - "Hombres de maíz" the Maya call themselves to this day. Corn is a gift from the gods and they owe their existence to him.

Corn deities were worshiped by all Indians - the goddesses of the fresh and dry corn on the cob, the god of the corn sowing and many more. Human sacrifices were brought to them according to the annual cycle in order to renew life again and again and thus to preserve the basis of life for all people. Sculptures and images of gods, of the cultivation and storage of maize bear witness to the millennia-old worship.

Prehistoric corn

Prehistoric remains of corn were found in caves in the Tehuacan Valley in southern Mexico in the late 1940s. The arid climate of the highlands preserved the pistons, which were dated between 5000 and around 3400 BC. At that time, however, they still looked different from the corn that we serve today: the cobs were a maximum of 2.5 centimeters long and had six to nine small grains per row.

The maize grew wild and offered the original Mexicans, who were still nomadic at the time, a secure food source: they harvested it twice a year and then kept it in clay pots. It was only in the course of settling down that people began to cultivate and cultivate the maize in a targeted manner: the cobs became larger and more productive, and the cultivation was carried out by hand using the simplest means.

This is proven by corn cobs that are around 5000 years old and almost seven centimeters tall. During this time people lived in small villages with a few hundred inhabitants. In addition to the corn, they also planted pumpkins, avocados, beans and chilli.

Corn is now believed to be the basis for the Central American advanced civilizations of the Maya, Aztec, Inca and Toltecs. Only minimal tillage was required to grow maize, but there was an abundant harvest twice a year. In the course of time, artificial irrigation systems were set up and the corn cobs were grown up to 50 times the size of the original, wild corn.

A larger population could be fed with the yield - the foundation for cities was laid. Since not all people were involved in agriculture, a state system with civil servants, craftsmen and priests could develop.

Corn is conquering Europe

On San Salvador, Christopher Columbus and his companions saw maize for the first time, which Columbus then thought was a type of millet. When he returned to Spain from his second expedition in 1496, he brought corn kernels with him, called "mahiz" after the Indian name.

It was not until the 18th century that the botanist Carl von Linné gave maize the name "zea mays" - "zea" for the sweet grass family.

The first maize was grown in Spain, where it flourished and spread throughout the Mediterranean within a few decades. It was cultivated particularly intensively in Turkey, where travelers to Asia discovered corn plantations at the end of the 16th century.

The original origin of the maize was almost forgotten, instead it was now called "Turkish grain" or "Turkish wheat". It soon displaced the traditional types of grain in many southern European countries and at the same time ensured a better nutritional situation for the poorer population.

In central and northern Italy in particular, the farmers benefited from the new crop: while they used to have to wait for the grain harvest in late autumn and often suffered from hunger, they could now harvest the maize in the summer months.

In northern Europe, on the other hand, it took until the middle of the 20th century before maize could be grown on a large scale. It was only when varieties that were less sensitive to the cold, as well as machines for cultivation and harvesting, came onto the market that maize began its triumphant advance in the fields.

The revenge of corn

The preference of southern Europeans for maize soon had consequences: from the late 17th century onwards, poor people in particular, who lived mainly on maize, suffered from skin rashes and dementia. Many of them died.

In the 18th century, scientists recognized that pellagra was a deficiency disease caused by the one-sided diet with corn. Why, however, the Europeans suffered from it and the peoples of Central America not, remained a mystery well into the 20th century.

In the 1970s, chemists finally discovered the cause: the discoverers of the New World brought maize with them to Europe, but not the traditional knowledge of how it was processed.

In Europe, maize was ground like grain. In Indian maize processing, on the other hand, the maize is soaked in a lime solution, simmered and then processed. Only then is the niacin broken down and the vital vitamin B released.

Corn country USA

When the first European immigrants reached America, corn had long been spread across North and South America. Again, the Europeans benefited from the grain of the indigenous people. The maize was easy to grow, undemanding, and productive.

The seeds of their own that they brought with them, on the other hand, only flourished or not at all. The settlers took over the Indian knowledge and called the corn "corn" or "Indian corn". Along with meat from cattle breeding, maize became the basic food of the pioneers.

The states of the Midwest developed into the main growing areas for the versatile usable corn: Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and parts of other states together form the so-called "corn belt", the corn belt of the USA.

Today, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations FAO, the USA produces around 360 million tons of corn per year (2018), making it the world's largest producer and exporter. Increasing mechanization, the breeding of new varieties and also the use of genetic engineering made enormous increases in yield possible.

In the 1970s, a large part of the maize produced worldwide was used in animal fattening. Even then, voices were loud that intensive cattle breeding and the feeding of maize meant that developing countries lacked the necessary grain to feed the population. In the 21st century, global corn production has risen to over a billion tons per year, around a third of which comes from the United States.

But humans and animals have a new competitor: biofuel. With its discovery as an energy crop, corn experienced a new boom. After the first shortage in the 20th century, a new crisis developed: With the increased use of maize as biofuel in the industrialized countries, many countries are again deprived of their food base.

In 1997 there were mass protests in Mexico because of the shortage and rising corn prices. In the homeland of the maize, after thousands of years of cultivation, people could no longer afford their traditional grain.