Nearly everyone in the Developed World has encountered Maize or Corn. It is a very popular foodstuff. It originated in the Americas but it’s now almost everywhere. We sprinkle it on our pizzas or stick it on our plate next to our steaks, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. A lot of maize is now grown so that it can be turned into high fructose corn syrup or HFCS. Maize is also used beyond the world of food. It is present as an ingredient in many products you wouldn’t believe it had any right to be in, such as chewing gum, embalming fluid, surgical dressings, automobile paint and foot powder.

This ubiquitous presence of maize, and its ancient origins, makes it appear to be a perfectly natural plant, something as normal as wheat or rice but it’s not. Genetically, maize is a freak. It is an extreme example of a genetically modified organism, a GMO. This is not a fantastic theory; it’s a scientific fact. Scientists have accepted, for many decades, that maize did not come into the world in any normal way. This article will look into that matter, the possible explanations for maize’s existence, and what that tells us about our world.

The cultivation of maize has been traced back to Meso-America (i.e. Mexico and nearby areas) between 3500 BC and 2700 BC, although more recent research seems to have moved it back to 8,000 BC. Whenever it was cultivated, it became a food-staple for the societies in that region. The combination of beans and legumes with maize becomes a surprisingly complete nutritional source. Somehow, those ancient farmers realised that maize, beans and a few other foods could give them almost everything they needed, nutritionally. They thanked their maize god and reaped the benefits, so to speak. So far, so nice, but this is where things get very weird.

Spawn of weed

Icon microscopeMaize has never been a wild plant. The closest wild plant to maize is the wild grass teosinte but the two plants are barely recognisable as genetic siblings. The maize plant produces a large cob on a single stalk, bulging with fat, energy and nutrition rich grains, all wrapped in a protective husk. Teosinte, by comparison, is tiny, has no husk and grows many ears. Teosinte’s nutritional content, compared to corn, is almost negligible. Somehow, in that ancient time, the local farmers decided to cultivate and selectively breed an utterly uninteresting and useless grass and turn it into a nutrition-and-energy powerhouse of a plant. What’s more, they had to help that weird plant from day one. Corn kernels do not spontaneously separate from the cobs. Someone has to physically remove them and plant them for a new corn plant to grow. What’s more, archaeologists have found no evidence of any intermediary crop. It seems that those ancient farmers somehow transformed Teosinte in Maize in one step, which is effectively impossible.

Maize’s historical, miraculous ‘birth’ spurred agricultural scientists to organise a conference in 1969 at the College of Agriculture, part of the University of Illinois. The conference focussed on establishing how maize came into existence. From what I’ve read, it didn’t go well. The more the scientists discussed the origin of maize and how teosinte might have transformed into maize, the more they argued. At least one scientist stormed out (according to the conference notes). The huge problems with finding a scientific explanation for the appearance of maize is highlighting in this paper, Studies in Archaeological Maize I: The “Wild” Maize from San Marcos Cave Reexamined, published by Cambridge University Press. Here is its abstract (it’s introduction):

Cobs of the earliest known archaeological maize from San Marcos Cave in the Tehuacan Valley were reexamined to estimate their morphological similarity to extant Mexican maize races. Cursory examination of these 7,000-year-old specimens aroused suspicion that they are not very closely related morphologically to any thus-far-described modern Mexican race. Statistical comparison of the Tehuacan specimens with 30 races of Mexican maize fully confirmed this suspicion. However, the inclusion in our statistical analysis of an extant race of popcorn from Argentina morphologically similar to the Tehuacan specimens indicated that the two were virtually indistinguishable. These findings imply that the earliest maize from Tehuacan already was fully domesticated, its cobs exhibiting a morphology one would expect had maize evolved from teosinte by way of catastrophic sexual transmutation (Iltis 1983).

In other words, the very old specimens are very similar to each other. It looks as if maize magically appeared out of nothing, all that time ago. Scientists have realised that this is completely bizarre. In an attempt to find a respectable explanation, most of them have gone for the ‘catastrophic sexual transmutation’ idea. In other words, maize appeared, in all its yummy usefulness, through some sort of freak natural event. Somehow, a weedy native grass suffers an infection, possibly a virus. This caused it to produce a seed that grew into a massively different plant, one that, by amazing coincidence, was very nutritious; a boon of a crop. Modern, industrial maize production might have its dark nutritional side but the original cultivated plant was certainly a benefit. To quote from Wikipedia:

Raw, yellow, sweet maize kernels are composed of 76% water, 19% carbohydrates, 3% protein, and 1% fat. In a 100-gram serving, maize kernels provide 86 calories and are a good source (10–19% of the Daily Value) of the B vitamins, thiamin, niacin, pantothenic acid (B5) and folate. In moderate amounts, they also supply dietary fiber and the essential minerals, magnesium and phosphorus.

Maize’s nutritional benefits only add to the weirdness. This mutant was very useful and farmers spotted its potential immediately after it appeared. What’s more, before it could die, farmers cultivated it. This was an especially good piece of luck as the plant is rubbish at spreading its own seeds.

There is some logic to the ‘massive viral mutation’ idea; it explains why there is no sign of the cultivation of any intermediate crops between Teosinte and Maize. It also explains the big genetic alteration between the two plants. The only problem with the ‘virus attack’ theory is that it’s about as likely to happen, as a natural event, as the entire Ancient Greek population being wiped out by falling turtles. In truth, the only logical explanation for the existence of maize on our planet is that someone, back in our ancient past, genetically engineered it. Someone decided to make a plant to feed the people living in that area. They took some local grasses into a lab, studied their genetic code and realised that if they altered the genetic code of teosinte, they could make a plant that would supply a lot of nutritional needs. It was a GMO agricultural project. They produced maize and trained the locals in how to grow, harvest and re-plant it. They explained to the locals that maize, and certain beans, could supply nearly all their nutritional needs. Job done. This would also explain why the local people of that region are quite clear on where maize came from; it was a gift from the gods.

The origins of maize isn’t the only examples of a completely bizarre plant existing in MesoAmerica. A second plant also makes little sense and it’s one we all know well; the humble potato.

Deadly Spud

Icon pyramidMost people in the world have encountered a potato. This extremely useful tuber has kept a lot of people alive, first in South America, where it was originally cultivated, and in Europe, where it was introduced in the late 16th century, after Europeans ‘discovered’ the Americas. It contains a lot of elements of a healthy diet. To quote from Wikipedia:

A raw potato is 79% water, 17% carbohydrates (88% is starch), 2% protein, and contains negligible fat (see table). In a 100-gram (3 1⁄2-ounce) portion, raw potato provides 322 kilojoules (77 kilocalories) of food energy and is a rich source of vitamin B6 and vitamin C (23% and 24% of the Daily Value, respectively).

The vitamin C is particularly interesting, as humans can’t make their own. We have to gain vitamin C from fruit, and other sources, or we get scurvy and die. The potato is a magical addition to any society that lacks citrus fruits, or natural vitamin C sources. The B vitamins are also important to human health, but hard to come by. If you are a vegan, for example, it is a big challenge to get your needed B vitamins. The potato therefore solves two key nutritional problems for any plant-eating society.

But like maize, the potato’s wild origin is very odd. Its closest wild relative is part of the deadly nightshade family. In other words, its wild ancestor was highly poisonous. Somehow, ancient farmers in Southern Peru, around 7,000–10,000 years ago, realised that it would be a really good idea to selectively breed a killer plant, over and over again, slowly altering its genetic make-up, because it would eventually turn into a beneficial foodstuff. This makes no practical sense. How would these farmers, without modern scientific know-how, come up with such a plan? Again, a far more logical explanation is that the potato is also a GMO, like maize. Somehow studied the genetic structure of deadly nightshade and realised that they could modify it to produce a tuber that could be an excellent source of B vitamins and Vitamin C. If potato and maize were both GMO’s, then who made them and why?

Gifts from the gods

One logical explanation is that technologically advanced people wished to feed a large group of humans with a planted crop. The humans planted the crop and it kept them alive. This can be seen as a beneficial system, helping a human society develop and survive in the wilderness. Unfortunately, it can also be seen in a dark way. This technologically advanced group had turned early hunter-gatherers into a subservient ‘settled’ group, kept alive by a crop the technologically advanced group had developed. These humans would have quickly lost the knowledge for wild hunting and gathering. They’d then be trapped in a world of back-breaking agricultural labour.

There is also a positive explanation for the creation of maize and potatoes; enlightened gods wanted to turn humans into vegans. The presence of B vitamins, minerals and vitamin C in these two foodstuffs would have helped a vegan survive. Perhaps both reasons are correct? Whichever it is, I would say that these two crops are a smoking gun. Our ancient history is not the version told to us by our teachers and university lecturers. Our true ancient history is a lot stranger and much more interesting.