Teosinte vs. Maize: Scientific Debate

Introduction:

One question has perplexed scholars of plant domestication for decades: Is teosinte more or less delicious than maize (attributed to Sherouse 2008: Anthro 101 exam)? Teosinte is commonly held to be the wild ancestor of domesticated maize (Flannery 1986). It is genetically identical to maize, and was likely ground into flour by early agriculturalists in Mesoamerica (Smith 1998). However, some dissident scholars (for example MacNeish 1964, Manglesdorf 1947, 1974)* suggest that maize was instead domesticated from an ancient pod corn. I argue that, if teosinte was so delicious, to the extent that it was eaten as flour, why would agriculturalists go to the trouble of creating maize? Maize is a pain in the ass, quite frankly: it doesn’t seed itself (thus cannot survive in the wild), leaches nitrogen out of the soil (thus is frequently grown with nitrogen fixers such as beans; can you say “extra work?”), and now genetically modified maize is polluting wild teosinte populations (for example, outside of Oaxaca, Mexico). Why bother?? It would be likely that maize was domesticated from ancient pod corn, not teosinte, because teosinte was delicious enough as it was, and the pod corn was not at all delicious.

Hypothesis:

It follows that, if teosinte is in fact less delicious than maize, maize was likely domesticated as a way to improve the relative flavor of its wild relative (that being teosinte). If teosinte is more delicious than maize, maize was more likely domesticated from wild pod corn, now extinct, as a way to improve the pod corn’s flavor.

Methods:

In order to test the relative deliciousness of teosinte and maize, I sampled both wild teosinte and domestic maize, found on a Guatemalan hillside (San Mateo Ixtatan, Huehuetenango, to be exact). Unfortunately, wild pod corn is now extinct, eliminating the possibility for empirically testing its deliciousness against that of domestic maize. We must therefore extrapolate the relative deliciousness of teosinte to maize and assume that a positive result (teosinte = way more delicious than maize) indicates that maize was domesticated from pod corn.

Evidence:

I present here empirical evidence of the relative deliciousness of teosinte and maize.

sampling teosinte

Sampling teosinte.

definitely not delicious

Definitely NOT delicious.

Sampling Maize

Sampling maize.

YUM!

YUM!

Conclusions:

Maize is decidedly more delicious than wild teosinte. Thus, it is likely that maize was domesticated from teosinte, making teosinte it’s wild ancestor, in order to make teosinte more delicious and improve its flavor. As an added bonus, there are now hundreds of varieties of maize grown throughout the Americas, each with its own unique flavor and culinary attributes. Each, of course, is likely more delicious than teosinte (and some varieties may even be more delicious than other varieties!); there are so many varieties that it will take many more years of travel in Mesoamerica to sample them all. Bravo, early agriculturalists! Job well done!

Acknowledgments and Apologies:
Many thanks to Mr. Sherouse, for posing the guiding question of this paper as a multiple-choice option on an Anthropology 101 exam. You have lit the fires of curiosity in the brains of freshmen anthropology students everywhere!
Apologies to all others for my terrible sense of humor. The citations are (mostly) real, the debate over maize ancestry is/ was real, the exaggerations about relative deliciousness of ancient plants are not.
Bibliography:
Flannery (1986) Guilá Naquitz: Archaic Foraging and Early Agriculture in Oaxaca, Mexico. Academic Press, Inc. Pp 3-28.
MacNeish, Richard S. (1964) “The Origins of New World Civilization.” Scientific American. 211: 29-37.
Smith, Bruce. (1998 ) The Emergence of Agriculture. Scientific American Press. Pp 144- 181.
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3 Responses to “Teosinte vs. Maize: Scientific Debate”


  1. 1 shannon June 2, 2008 at 2:28 pm

    This is a very impressive analysis. I look forward to seeing your future work:)

  2. 2 Marcos Villatoro June 24, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    Dear Katie,

    I love your blog! I ran across it while researching teosinte. I am a novelist and filmmaker, and now working on a documentary titled “Tamale Road,” about my family in El Salvador.

    I’m showing how (possibly) teosinte was the early granddad of corn…and I was wondering, could I use your wonderful photos? This is a nonprofit company making the documentary, mostly for educative purposes (though we mean to make it a feature release). It would be fun to have your series of 4 photos in the film.

    We’re in the first cut of the film, so you never know what will make it & what ends up on the cutting room floor. But I thought to ask you early, just in case.

    To get more info on me, you can go to my website. It’ll also have a trailer of a small movie I made last year in El Salvador.

    Much thanks for your consideration. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

    Best, Marcos Villatoro

    • 3 katherine January 5, 2013 at 7:52 pm

      Hi Marcos,
      I’m so sorry it has taken me more than two years to reply– this blog has been inactive for some time, and I haven’t been checking on the comments until just recently. You’re welcome to use any pictures you’d like, though I’m guessing you are long past that stage in making the film by now. I’d be interested in seeing the final product, if it’s available!
      Cheers!


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