May 25, 2010

Native foods changed the world

Tracking the Ancestry of Corn Back 9,000 Years

By Sean B. CarrollThe most impressive aspect of the maize story is what it tells us about the capabilities of agriculturalists 9,000 years ago. These people were living in small groups and shifting their settlements seasonally. Yet they were able to transform a grass with many inconvenient, unwanted features into a high-yielding, easily harvested food crop. The domestication process must have occurred in many stages over a considerable length of time as many different, independent characteristics of the plant were modified.

The most crucial step was freeing the teosinte kernels from their stony cases. Another step was developing plants where the kernels remained intact on the cobs, unlike the teosinte ears, which shatter into individual kernels. Early cultivators had to notice among their stands of plants variants in which the nutritious kernels were at least partially exposed, or whose ears held together better, or that had more rows of kernels, and they had to selectively breed them. It is estimated that the initial domestication process that produced the basic maize form required at least several hundred to perhaps a few thousand years.
Comment:  Even if you've heard the origin of corn before, you may think, "How hard can it be to water a few plants and pull a few weeds?" This article hints at the tremendous amount of effort and intelligence that went into corn's domestication. Was that the work of savages? I don't think so.

Food made civilization possible

Also note this passage:For most of human history, our ancestors relied entirely on hunting animals and gathering seeds, fruits, nuts, tubers and other plant parts from the wild for food. It was only about 10,000 years ago that humans in many parts of the world began raising livestock and growing food through deliberate planting. These advances provided more reliable sources of food and allowed for larger, more permanent settlements. Native Americans alone domesticated nine of the most important food crops in the world, including corn, more properly called maize (Zea mays), which now provides about 21 percent of human nutrition across the globe. I'm not sure what the nine "most important food crops" are. One website coincidentally (?) lists nine Native foods that changed the world: potatoes, tomatoes, chili peppers, peanuts, cassavas (manioc), chocolate, vanilla, sweet potatoes, and corn.

So Indians are responsible for a minimum of 21% of human nutrition. The food site also says, "Of the world's top 26 crops by tonnage, eight originated in the Americas." A simple percentage gives us 31% of the crops by tonnage. (This is only a rough estimate because we don't know if the eight crops are at the top or bottom of the tonnage list.)

So the Native contribution to human nutrition and crop tonnage may be in the 30-40% range. Without this massive amount of food, many people would've died or never been born. Same for their cultures and civilizations: without the necessary crops, they'd never have grown or flourished.

The Indians' impressive role

Indians make up perhaps 1% of the world's population, but they've contributed much more than their share to global civilization. We can thank them for making a third or more of this civilization possible. Your food is arguably a more fundamental contribution to the world than Greek philosophy, Roman law, or Renaissance art. Without it, Europe's imperial expansion might not have happened and the world would be a different place: a third less colonized or populated.

And that's only food. It doesn't include the long list of contributions such as tobacco, rubber, and medicine. The Native role in our global civilization is bigger than I thought.

For more on Native agriculture, see New Sacagawea Dollar Released and Native Agriculture on Dollar. For more on Native contributions to civilization, see 100 Amazing Indian Discoveries and Multicultural Origins of Civilization.

Below:  Teosinte and corn.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Besides corn, there's also beans, which are one of the few things American cuisine nutritionally gets right. And of course manioc and potatoes. Then you get to the tomato, bell pepper, chiles, and so on. And the health nuts have wild rice, amaranth, and quinoa as a result, not to mention buffalo. So there's something for everybody.