A Giant-Sized History of Corn

Here continues an epic saga on grains!

In case you missed them, I previously created “Giant-Sized” histories for both Soybeans and Wheat.

I’ll be aggregating these lists in the future, but for now, let’s give the Mighty Maize its due.

These days, corn is a bad word. When one says “corn,” others immediately think “corn syrup, candy, soda, SHUGASHUGASHUGA…” But corn is so much cooler than that. Corn is an essential part of global agribusiness and pretty much always has been, at least for the western part of the world.

Domesticated something like 10,000 years ago, it wasn’t until 2002 that the true origins of corn were discovered. Read on for more…

“To really understand a plant, one has to look into its history. It became what it is now through its whole course of development.” – Luther Burbank; botanist, horticulturalist, and ag science pioneer

  • Corn was first domesticated by native peoples in Mexico about 10,000 years ago.
  • People first began to farm corn (instead of picking it wild) around 7,500 BCE in Mexico, a little later than they started to farm squash and avocados.
  • The 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.
  • Dated 8,700 years ago, stone milling tools with corn residue on them were discovered at the Xihuatoxtla shelter. This coincides nicely with the time frame of maize domestication estimated from DNA analysis.
  • Scientists believe people living in central Mexico developed corn at least 7,000 years ago.
  • A primitive corn was being grown in southern Mexico, Central America, and northern South America 7,000 years ago.
  • 6,000 BCE: Ecuador was growing corn.
  • A large corpus of data indicates that it corn was dispersed into lower Central America by 5,600 BCE.
  • Corn moved into the inter-Andean valleys of Colombia between 5,000-4,000 BCE.
  • Between 5,000 and 3,500 BCE, Mesoamericans were already planting mutant forms of corn that showed signs of the husks characteristic of modern domestic corn.
  • Archaeological remains of early corn ears, found at Guila Naquitz Cave in the Oaxaca Valley, date back roughly 6,250 years.
  • 3,500 BCE: a much improved race of corn appeared.
  • Ears of corn from caves near Tehuacan, Puebla, date ca. 3,450 BCE.
  • 3,000 BCE – 1 AD: According to a genetic study, corn cultivation was introduced in South America from Mexico, in two great waves: the first, 5000 years ago, spread through the Andes; the second, about 2000 years ago, through the lowlands of South America.
  • The Olmec and Mayans cultivated maize in numerous varieties throughout Mesoamerica, cooked, ground or processed through nixtamalization. It’s believed that beginning about 2500 BC, the crop spread through much of the Americas.
  • 2,100 BCE: Northern Flint corn descends from the flint corn introduced into the southwestern United States 4,100 years ago and provides a substantial portion of the genetic background of modern corn hybrids.
  • c. 2,000 BCE: Ah Mun was the Mayan God of Corn.
  • Sedentary village farming in Mesoamerica came into being by about 1,500 BCE. Corn (maize) was one of the most important crops.
  • 1,500 – 1,200 BCE: The people of the Ocós phase of the Pacific coasts of Chiapas and Guatemala raised a small-eared corn known as nal-tel, which was ground on metates and manos and cooked in globular jars.
  • Indigenous Americans were taught to soak corn in alkali-water, made with ashes and lime (calcium oxide), since at least 1,200 – 1,500 BCE by Mesoamericans.
  • 1,100 – 900 BCE: The people of the Cuadros phase of the Pacific coasts of Chiapas and Guatemala raised a small-eared corn known as nal-tel, which was ground on metates and manos and cooked in globular jars.
  • By about 1 CE, the Pueblo people in North America grew corn.
  • c. 200 CE: Flint corn was the predominant type of corn grown in the Eastern United States, but was not a staple crop until much later.
  • c. 800 – 900CE: Corn became a staple crop in the Eastern US.
  • When Iroquois people began to grow in the north-east part of North America, about 1000 CE, they found that the corn took too long to get ripe, and often frost killed the plant before the corn was ripe. They had to slowly adapt the plant to the northern climate by making it evolve a shorter growing season.
  • Centeotl was the Aztec deity of corn (c. 1345 – 1521).
  • When Columbus “discovered” America (1492), he also discovered corn, which people in Europe did not know about at that time.
  • When English settlers first came to North America in the 1500s, the Iroquois and other Native Americans showed the English settlers how to grow corn.
  • The English settlers of North America, circa 1500, made corn into bread similar to the wheat bread they had eaten back home in England, which we know now as cornbread.
  • 1500’s: Introduced into Africa by the Portuguese in the 16th century, corn has become Africa’s most important staple food crop.
  • The first reference to southern dent corn came in 1705 as reported in Robert Beverly’s History of and Present State of Virginia. In his description, he describes it as having a dent on the back, “as if it had never come to perfection.” The dent on back was due to a higher amount of soft starch compared to the flint corn.
  • The most famous Sauk leader was Chief Black Hawk (1767-1838). Near the end of his life, he told his life story to Antoine Le Claire, an Indian interpreter. In part of his story, he told how corn first came to be according to Sauk and Mesquakie tradition.
  • Lorain (1813) was the first to describe the effect of crossing dent and flint corns.
  • By 1835, newspaper articles explained how to cross corn varieties and gave directions for producing hybrids.
  • In 1838, Tennessee led the US in corn production, followed by Kentucky and Virginia.
  • 1847: Robert Reid, by accident, created Reid’s Yellow Dent.
  • The western corn rootworm was first collected in 1867 while surveying for a railroad extension from Kansas to Fort Craig.
  • From 1865 to 1935, average corn yield in the United States was essentially unchanged.
  • Corn cob pipes were first manufactured in the United States in 1869.
  • By 1878, Iowa led the US in corn production, followed by Illinois and Missouri.
  • In the late 19th century, pellagra reached epidemic proportions in parts of the southern US.
  • Dr. W.J. Beal conducted experiments with corn hybrids at Michigan State in 1878. He called his hybrid mule corn since the corn was the result of a cross, just as are mules.
  • In 1892, the Corn Palace was built in Mitchell, South Dakota, with corn murals as a way to prove to the world that South Dakota had a healthy agricultural climate.
  • James Reid, son of Robert Reid, won a blue ribbon with his Yellow Dent at the Illinois state fair in 1891 and then a gold medal at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
  • 1893: George Morrow proposed new corn production methods, which were similar to those used today.
  • Before the 20th century, all corn harvesting was by manual labour, by grazing, or by some combination of those.
  • Between the 1890’s and the 1970’s, the technology of corn harvesting expanded greatly.
  • Up to 1900, no commercial corn hybrids were produced and all corn were still open-pollinated.
  • Over the past 100 years corn yields have increased five-fold.
  • In 1908, G.H. Shull proposed that corn could be improved by selfing plants to develop inbred lines, making hybrids or crosses between the inbred lines and making that seed available for farmers.
  • Started in the 1908, CIMMYT operates a conventional breeding program to provide optimized corn strains.
  • In 1908, Edward M. East worked with corn hybrids that yielded higher than 200 bu/acre.
  • The western corn rootworm was first identified as a pest in 1909.
  • The Indiana and Wisconsin Experiment Stations ran dry-lot feeding trials with swine from 1916 to 1920. In these trials they advocated that yellow corn was better for feed than white corn because of the higher vitamin A content.
  • 1917: D.F. Jones produced the Burr-Leaming double cross corn hybrid.
  • 1921: D.F. Jones’ Burr-Leaming double cross corn hybrid became commercially available.
  • Since 1927, with the discovery of X-ray induced mutations, over 2,250 corn varieties have been developed.
  • By 1929, evidence of root injury from the western corn rootworm was found in southwestern Nebraska.
  • By the 1930’s, companies such as Pioneer, that were devoted to production of hybrid corn, had begun to influence long term crop development.
  • The teosinte origin theory of corn was proposed by the Russian botanist Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov in 1931.
  • In the late 1930s, Paul Mangelsdorf suggested that domesticated corn was the result of a hybridization event between an unknown wild corn and a species of Tripsacum, a related genus.
  • George W. Beadle, while a graduate student at Cornell University in the early 1930s, found that maize and teosinte had very similar chromosomes. Moreover, he made fertile hybrids between maize and teosinte that looked like intermediates between the two plants. He even reported that he could get teosinte kernels to pop. Dr. Beadle concluded that the two plants were members of the same species, with maize being the domesticated form of teosinte.
  • In 1940, about 50% of the US corn production area was planted with hybrid seeds.
  • Early 1940’s: During World War II, 2-4-D was developed; this provided producers with their first opportunity to use selective weed control.
  • A broadcast soil application of organochlorine insecticides was a common pest control tactic for corn crops beginning in the late 1940’s.
  • By the early 1940’s, the percentage of white corn produced in the US had dropped to 17%.
  • Since the 1940’s, the best strains of maize have been first-generation hybrids made from inbred strains that have been optimized for specific traits, such as yield, nutrition, drought, pest and disease tolerance.
  • Starting in 1945, a number of technological advances were adopted in corn production.
  • By the mid 1940’s, corn rootworm populations produced severe root damage in central Nebraska.
  • The use of inorganic nitrogen (N) fertilizer in corn production increased significantly starting in 1945.
  • 1946: The period after World War II was characterized by a significant shift in agriculture. With new technology available such as inorganic fertilizers, irrigation, machines, and pesticides, there was a shift to a high input approach to corn cultivation. This allowed for non-rotated corn.
  • As corn cultivation increased, it spread from Eastern Colorado into Nebraska in the 1950’s.
  • By 1950, 90% of the US corn production area was planted with hybrid seeds.
  • During the 1950’s, many public corn breeding programs were downsized, eliminated or restructured. At the same time, the commercial breeding industry saw a period of rapid growth.
  • Introduced in the late 1950’s, the triazine herbicides were perhaps the most important group of herbicides for corn production.
  • Dr. Beadle went on to make other, more fundamental discoveries in genetics for which he shared the Nobel Prize in 1958. He later became chancellor and president of the University of Chicago.
  • Atrazine was registered in 1958 and changed weed management in corn; it was significant in that it did not injure the crops.
  • By 1959, control failures were noted and resistance spread with the concurrent corn rootworm range expansion.  Resistance spread into areas where organochlorine insecticides had never been used.
  • The first nationally popular double cross corn hybrid was U.S.13, and it was used in breeding nurseries into the 1960’s.
  • Single cross hybrid corn seeds became common in the 1960’s.
  • In 1963, DeKalb XL45, a single cross hybrid with a relative maturity of 110 days was first grown commercially. It was the first early, popular hybrid released in the northern U.S. Corn Belt.
  • By 1970, the percentage of white corn produced in the US had dropped to 1%.
  • By 1970, the corn rootworm had moved as far west as Indiana.
  • By 1980, single cross hybrid corn seeds were the standard for production.
  • By 1980, resistant western corn rootworms could be found throughout the U.S. Corn Belt.
  • By the 1980’s, the corn rootworm had expanded its territory to Virginia.
  • Barbara McClintock used the “knob markers” of corn to validate her transposon theory of “jumping genes,” for which she won the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
  • Late 1990’s: Estimates of yield loss and treatments costs due to corn rootworm were around $1 billion annually.
  • In 1992, a population of western corn rootworms was found in Serbia, (Yugolsavia at that time), near the Belgrade airport.
  • The idea of a maize maze was introduced by the American Maze Company who created a maze in Pennsylvania in 1993.
  • A maize stalk with two ripe ears is depicted on the reverse of the Croatian 1 lipa coin, minted since 1993.
  • Between 1994 and 2001, the price of corn in Mexico fell 70%. NAFTA is credited with this change.
  • By 1996, reports of control failures for adult corn rootworms were reported and resistance confirmed for both carbaryl and methyl parathion.
  • In 1996, Mycogen Seeds released the first commercial Bt-corn hybrids in partnership with Ciba Seeds, now part of Syngenta.
  • GM corn has been grown since 1997 in the United States and Canada.
  • Roundup Ready corn received FDA approval in 1997 and commercial release in 1998. The release of Roundup Ready Corn was significant in that it provided the first stacked trait combination in corn. Not only was it glyphosate tolerant, but also had insect protection in the form of a Bt protein.
  • In 2000, $50 million worth of food products were recalled due to the presence of Starlink genetically modified corn, which had been approved only for animal consumption.
  • 2000 – 2013: Corn with stacked Bt traits went from 1% of total acreage in 2000 to 71% in 2013 in the United States.
  • 2002: a study by Matsuoka demonstrated that, rather than the multiple independent domestications model, all corn arose from a single domestication in southern Mexico about 9,000 years ago. The study also demonstrated that the oldest surviving maize types are those of the Mexican highlands.
  • In 2003, a significant new tool was made available to producers with the introduction of corn expressing the Cry3Bb1 protein. Cry3Bb1 corn expresses a protein derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that is toxic to corn rootworms.
  • In 2005, Duvick found that 50% of corn yield increases since the introduction of commercial hybrids in the 1920’s had been the result of breeding, with the other 50% coming from improved agronomic practices.
  • In 2005, research by the USDA Forest Service suggested that the rise in corn cultivation 500 to 1,000 years ago in what is now the southeastern United States corresponded with a decline of freshwater mussels, which are very sensitive to environmental changes.
  • In 2005, the US National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) formed a consortium to sequence the B73 corn genome. The resulting DNA sequence data was deposited immediately into GenBank, a public repository for genome-sequence data.
  • Cry34/35Ab1 was registered for commercial sale in 2005.
  • From 2005 to 2007, global corn production was 736 million metric tons, surpassing wheat and rice by 122 million and 92 million metric tons respectively.
  • mCry3A was registered for commercial sale in 2006.
  • The Consumer Price Index shows that there is virtually no correlation at all between monthly average corn prices and retail food price changes since 2007.
  • As of 2007, the western corn rootworm had been reported in 20 separate European countries.
  • High fuel prices in mid-2007 led to higher demand for ethanol, which in turn led to higher prices paid to farmers for corn. This led to the 2007 harvest being one of the most profitable corn crops in modern history for farmers.
  • Primary sequencing of the corn genome was completed in 2008.
  • By 2009, Bt-trait based rootworm controls met resistance. The Western corn rootworm has proven highly adaptable to control measures, including rotation.
  • In 2009, Cry3Bb1 resistant rootworms were found in Iowa.
  • 2009: Genetically modified corn made up 85% of the corn planted in the United States.
  • By 2010, genetically engineered crops were planted on 140 million hectares in 29 different countries.
  • 86% of the US corn crop was genetically modified in 2010.
  • In the 2010/2011 marketing year, about 29.1 million tonnes of DDGS were fed to US livestock and poultry.
  • Genetically modified (GM) corn was one of the 25 GM crops grown commercially in 2011.
  • 32% of the global corn crop was GM in 2011.
  • As of 2011, herbicide-tolerant corn varieties were grown in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, El Salvador, the EU, Honduras, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Philippines, the Russian Federation, Singapore, South Africa, Taiwan, Thailand, and the US.
  • As of 2011, insect-resistant corn was grown in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, Egypt, the EU, Honduras, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines, Romania, Russian Federation, South Africa, Switzerland, Taiwan, the US, and Uruguay.
  • Drought tolerant corn was approved by the USDA in 2011 and commercialized in 2013 as DroughtGard.
  • When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rejected a request to waive the Renewable Fuel Standard in November 2012, it examined a wide variety of evidence, including modeling the impact that a waiver would have on ethanol, corn, and food prices.
  • R&D expenditures for biofuels in the U.S. amounted to approximately $1.7 billion in 2012.
  • State and local governments benefited from the economic activity supported by the ethanol industry, earning $3.9 billion in 2012.
  • The economic activities of the ethanol industry put more than $30 billion into the pockets of Americans in 2012.
  • The ethanol industry used 4.8 billion bushels of corn on a gross basis in 2012, valued at more than $33 billion. In the absence of an ethanol industry, demand for corn would fall, prices would decline and farmers would plant and produce less corn. Land would be shifted from corn to soybeans, wheat, cotton, or other crops.
  • When the direct, indirect and induced jobs supported by ethanol production, construction activity, agriculture, and R&D activities are considered, the ethanol industry supported more than 380,000 jobs in all sectors of the US economy in 2012.
  • The combination of GDP and household income supported by the ethanol industry accounted for nearly $4.6 billion of the revenue received by the Federal Treasury in 2012.
  • The ethanol industry spent nearly $40billion on raw materials, other inputs, and goods and services to produce 13.3 billion gallons of ethanol during 2012.
  • Despite the largest number of corn acres planted in more than 50 years, corn production for the 2012-13 marketing year fell nearly 13% resulting in record corn prices. Reflecting these challenges, total ethanol production in the U.S. fell nearly 5% to an estimated 13.3 billion gallons.
  • In 2013, eCry3A was released pyramided with mCry3A.
  • In 2013, the U.S. ethanol industry helped support nearly 390,000 jobs.
  • In 2013, the U.S. ethanol industry contributed more than $44 billion to GDP and added $30.7 billion to household income.
  • In 2013, the U.S. ethanol industry generated more than $8 billion in tax revenue for federal, state and local governments.
  • In 2014, 36 million hectares were planted to corn in the United States; 3.7 million of those were in Nebraska.
  • In 2014, approximately 40% of the US corn crop was used for ethanol.
  • In 2014, total world corn production was 1.04 billion tonnes.
  • In 2014, the United States produced 35% of the world’s corn.
  • In 2014, China produced 21% of the world’s corn.
  • In a 2015 testimony to Congress, the U.S. Congressional Budget Office stated that food prices would be similar whether the RFS was continued or repealed.
  • In 2015, the value of corn production was over $49 billion in the United States
  • A pound of corn consists of approximately 1,300 kernels.
  • The origin of corn is told in the stories of many Indian groups. These tales were preserved as they were told and retold over many generations. Today, many of the stories that only existed through oral tradition have been written down… How Corn Came to the Earth
  • Flint corn, also known as Indian corn, has a hard outer shell and kernels with a range of colors from white to red. Today, most flint corn is grown in Central and South America.
  • Sweet corn is often eaten on the cob or it can be canned or frozen. Sweet corn is seldom processed into feed or flour. Sweet corn gets its name because it contains more sugar than other types of corn.
  • Corn is used in such products as glue, shoe polish, aspirin, ink, marshmallows, ice cream and cosmetics.
  • Popcorn, a type of flint corn, has a soft starchy center that is covered by a very hard shell. When popcorn is heated the natural moisture inside the kernel turns to steam that builds up enough pressure for the kernel to explode.
  • Dent corn, often called “field corn” is often used as livestock feed. It is also the main kind of corn used when making industrial products and various foods. It can be either white or yellow.
  • The textbooks you study from and the books you check out of the library are bound with cornstarch.
  • The ink used to print books contains corn oil.
  • An ear of corn averages 800 kernels in 16 rows.
  • Over 55% of Iowa’s corn goes to foreign markets.
  • Corn is produced on every continent of the world with the exception of Antarctica.
  • 100 bushels of corn produces approximately 7,280,000 kernels.
  • The “Corn Belt” in the U.S. includes Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Michigan, Missouri, Kansas and Kentucky.
  • Each year, a single U.S. farmer provides food and fiber for 129 people – 97 in the U.S. and 32 overseas.
  • Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and Minnesota account for over 50% of the corn grown in the U.S.
  • The origin of corn is told in the stories of many Indian groups. These tales were preserved as they were told and retold over many generations. Today, many of the stories that only existed through oral tradition have been written down… The Hermit, or The Gift of Corn
  • Fluctuations in corn prices do not significantly affect consumer food prices.
  • By applying basic laws of genetic inheritance, Beadle calculated that only about 5 genes were responsible for the most-notable differences between teosinte and a primitive strain of maize.
  • The Maize Genetics Cooperation Stock Center, funded by the USDA Agricultural Research Service and located in the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is a stock center of maize mutants. The total collection has nearly 80,000 samples.
  • Internationally important seed banks such as International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the US bank at Maize Genetics Cooperation Stock Center University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign maintain germplasm important for future corn crop development.
  • Corn “futures” are traded on the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) under ticker symbol C. They are delivered every year in March, May, July, September, and December.

Products derived from the corn plant.

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