Maize or Corn

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Maize or corn (Zea mays L.)

Maize or corn, a crop (a grass) most closely identified with modern Iowa, is an interloper, domesticated first in central Mexico about 7000 years ago. A genetically diverse plant adapted to many different climates, corn was grown in desert to high altitude regions and from coastal areas north to the Great Lakes.

Corn is easily recognized, and is reported at Iowa sites more than any other crop. The cobs, including cupules and kernels (two to a cupule), are the most commonly preserved elements. Early dates on corn at Rainbow (13PM91) in Plymouth County, Cormorant (13MA387) in Marion County, Sweeting (13WS61) in Washington County, and Hadfield’s Cave (13JN3) in Jones County—probably represent Late Woodland contexts. No conclusive evidence exists in Iowa prior to A.D. 1000. Undisputed and abundant corn occurs at Great Oasis, Mill Creek, Glenwood, and Oneota sites.

Paleobotanists can identify several varieties of corn used in the Midwest based on the size of the cob, number of rows, and the size and shape of the kernels and cupules. Varieties include sweet, flour, flint, dent, and pop corn. Cupules preserved in archaeological sites can provide an idea of the size of the cob. The wider the cupules and the more closed, the larger sized the cobs.

Corn is what is called a C4 plant. During photosynthesis, all plants take up carbon in the form of CO2. Some plants use a special enzyme to metabolize carbon into a molecule with four carbon atoms. Such plants are called C4 plants. Because they also metabolize almost all of a heavy form of carbon, (13C), C4 plants retain more 13C in their tissues. People who eat substantial quantities of these plants, or the animals that eat them, have more 13C in their bone collagen than those who do not. A study of bone chemistry from human skeletal remains can identify those populations who have added significant amounts of corn to their diet due to the high levels of 13C in their bone collagen. Dental health often declines in populations eating large quantities of corn due to its high sugar content.

Corn was, first and foremost, an important food plant, although cobs may also have been burned for fuel. Corn is high in carbohydrates with small amounts of protein and fat. Fresh ears of green corn were eaten boiled or roasted. Green and dried corn was also shelled, pounded, boiled, and made into corn cakes and bread. Varieties of dried corn were parched, roasted, and ground into meal or flour. Corn was also cooked with fat, meat, and other garden produce especially beans and squash. Boiled and parched corn was made into hominy. Dried—shelled and unshelled—corn was stored in woven bags and pits for overwinter, and kept as seed for the following season’s crop.

Corn smut was also eaten and used for medicine as were other parts of the plant including the stalk and pollen. Corn pollen had symbolic significance, and with other parts of the plant, was used in ceremony.

Many Late Prehistoric Iowa communities grew substantial amounts of corn and other garden crops on a grand scale creating acres of ridged gardens and fields of corn hills close to their settlements. At the Litka and Double Ditch Mill Creek sites in O’Brien County, remnants of such features still exist. Archaeologists uncover clues to the scale of prehistoric farming when they find specialized gardening and food processing implements and numerous subterranean cache pits used to store and protect garden surpluses. At the Wever Oneota site in Lee County, over 1500 such pits were uncovered.

Major References

Adair 1994, 2003, 2010
Adrain, 2003
Asch and Green, 1992
Benn, 1980, 1981
Cutler and Blake, 2001
Dunne 1995a; 2005
Gartner, 2003
Green, 1990
Powell, 2005
Moerman, 2002
Wilson, 1917
Zalucha, 1999

Map of Iowa with light yellow dots that indicate prehistoric sites known to have cultivated maize or corn
Iowa Sites
Site NumberMajor ReferenceFamilyGenus and SpeciesIowa Culture
13AM00Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea mays? cf. O
13AM1Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysO
13AM50Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysO
13AM103Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysLW/O
13AM200Finney and Hollinger, 1994GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysO
13AM210Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysLW/O
13AM403Powell, 2005GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysLW/O
13AM404Powell, 2005GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysLW/O
13AM405Powell, 2005GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysLW
13BN103Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysGO
13BN110Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysGO
13BV1Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysMC
13CK15Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysMC
13CK21Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysMC
13CK62Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysGO
13CK402Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysMC
13DA110Dunne, 1995GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysGO
13DA264Asch, 1996GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysGO
13DK1Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysO
13DM140Hollinger, 1999GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysO
13JN3Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysLW
13LA1Asch and Green, 1992; Hollinger, 2005GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysO
13LA27Wright, 1999GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea mays
possibly present
LW
13LA84Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysO
13LE59Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysO
13LE110Asch and Green, 1992; Zalucha, 1999; Holinger, 2005GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysLW/O
13LE117BZalucha, 1999GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea mays
possibly present
ELW
13LO2Asch and Green, 1992;
Green and Tolmie, 2004
GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysO
13MA30Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysO
13MA207Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysO
13MA208Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysO
13MA209Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysO
13MA387Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysELW/LLW
13ML00Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea mayscf. G
13ML9Adair, 2010GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML12Adair, 2010GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML34Adair, 2010GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML79Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML119Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML121Adair, 2010GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML124Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML126Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML128Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML129Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML130Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML135Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML136Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML137Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML138Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML139Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML175Adair, 2010GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML176Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML203Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML236Adair, 2010GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML361Adair, 2010GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML429Adair, 2010GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13ML637Adair, 2010GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysG
13OB2Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysMC
13OB4Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysMC
13OB7Nepstad-Thornberry, 1998GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysMC
13PK1Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysO
13PK165Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysLW
13PK407Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysO
13PM1Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysMC
13PM4Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysMC
13PM25Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysGO
13PM50Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysGO
13PM61Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysMC
13PM62Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysGO
13PM91Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysMW?/LW
13VB455Asch and Green, 1992;
Zalucha, 1997
GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysLW
13WA2Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysO
13WA105Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysO
13WD6Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysO
13WD8Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysO
13WD88Dunne, 2005GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysGO
13WS61Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea maysLW
13WS122Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEZea mays?

 

Key
MWMiddle Woodland
ELWEarly Late Woodland
LWLate Woodland
LLWLate Late Woodland
GOGreat Oasis
MCMill Creek
GGlenwood
OOneota

Photographs of corm plants, ears of corn and a jar of charred corn from the Cowan site (13WD88), Great Oasis

Crop ridges, agricultural field, Litka site (13OB31), Mill Creek

Topographic map of agricultural field, Litka site (13OB31), Mill Creek

Artist's reconstruction, bird's-eye view of early Great Oasis farming hamlet

Early variety of maize or corn

Corn-filled storage pit

Early variety of maize or corn

Woman grinding corn

Excavating a storage pit

Bison horn scoop

Early variety of maize or corn

Corn hills

Wittrock village site (13OB4), Mill Creek

Image Credit:
Wendy and Michael Scullin
UI-OSA Photo Archives
Melanie Riley and Mary Kathryn Rocheford, OSA (map)