Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Maize's early days

Today on Science's online news service, ScienceNOW, I write about two papers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reporting the earliest known evidence for maize (aka corn) in the Americas. A team led by Dolores Piperno of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC and Anthony Ranere of Temple University in Philadelphia dated microscopic maize fragments to 8700 years ago, found at the Xihuatoxtla Shelter in the Balsas River valley (pictured at right.)

The link is free for four weeks from today, so please give it a read. The photo in the inset depicts the unappetizing wild ancestor of maize, teosinte, which eventually was domesticated and took on the form we eat today (the yellow ear pictured is a genetic reconstruction, from crossing teosinte with modern maize, of what the earliest maize might have looked like.)

Photo credits: (rock) Anthony Ranere; (teosinte/maize) John Doebley

No doubt about Mt. Redoubt. Wow, now that the eruption is causing havoc and cancelled flights in Alaska, I will bet Governor Sarah Palin is pretty peeved with Bobby Jindal's dissing of volcano research right about now, right? Right?

When university journalism profs do their job too well. They don't get tenure. That's what happened to Christina Kopinski at Clark College in Washington state, anyway.

1 comment:

Richard said...


There's really no reason why a variety of different factors could not be reasons for teosinte being cultivated into edible corn.

Look at coconuts:

- The sap from the flower stem is still, today, tapped off to make alcoholic tuba, coconut 'wine'. That means prematurely cutting off the flowers, that could produce coconuts full of carbohydrates and useful cooking and fuel oil.

Immediate pleasure before ultimate gain.

- Wild coconuts - see:
have very small fruits; nothing like modern human-selected and cultivated ones.

At some time, or more probably, over a very long time gradient, the starchy fruit became more valuable than the juice.

This was probably about the time when, world-wide, everybody entered the 'Neolithic Era' and started growing their own starchy food crops.

The same progression might be true of our own Western crops: