Much has been said and written regarding the origin of the corn plant known as maize. However, there is no unified consensus regarding this issue. According to the FAO, maize was first domesticated between the years 10,000 and 7,000 B.C., though the place where maize first spread its roots has yet to be determined.
Many theories have come up ever since. For example, a theory arose back in the 1940’s (Anderson) stating that maize had its origin in Asia, in the Himalayan region. However, this statement did not receive great support from the scientific community.
Others suggested that maize found its origins in the Andes. According to Mangelsdorf and Reeves, maize could have been cultivated in the high Andes of Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. The main justification for this hypothesis was the presence of maize in South America and the wide genetic diversity present in Andean maize, especially in Peru’s highlands. A serious objection to this hypothesis is that no wild relatives of maize, including teosintle, are known in that region.
A third theory states that maize may have originated in Mexico, where maize and teosintle coexisted since ancient times and where both species present a very wide diversity. (Wheatherwax, 1955, Iltis 1983, Galinat 1988, Wilkes 1989). The discovery of pollen fossils and corn cobs in caves and in archaeological sites seriously take this position into consideration.
New evidence supporting this latter theory has been found. In the 1960’s a group of US archaeologists found a piece of elote or corn cob inside a cave of the Tehuacán Valley in Puebla, Mexico, and identified it as “Tehuacan162”. This ear of maize has been dated to be from the year 5310 B.C. Even though even older elotes than this one have been found, this vestige was barely contaminated by bacterial DNA. This condition, allowed scientists to sequence its genome, and recently published the results in Current Biology.
Jazmin Ramos Madrigal, leading author of research conducted at the Geogenesis Center of the Natural History Museum of Denmark, commented that, “Although from the morphological point of view, it is much smaller and less grainy, “Tehuacan162” already has genes that are important in the process of the domestication of maize.”
Scientists have stated that this specimen’s DNA (“Tehuacan162”) is halfway between teosintle and maize, which would help support the theory that maize and teosintle, may have originated in Mexico. Whether maize originated from teosintle or teosintle and maize originated separately, it is an undisputed fact that teosintle germplasm was extensively introduced into that of maize during its evolution and domestication in Mexico.
This evidence may finally help to elucidate the origin of maize, leading to an appreciation of the ingenious invention of the milpa, a system involving the simultaneous sowing of many nutritious plants around the base of the corn plantation, such as squash, beans, chilies and other edible herbs and insects, making this combination in a single area, one of the most important contributions to the world’s food chain production, and a fundamental staple of the Mexican people to this day.