Indigenous Corn Offers Genetic Map of Southwest History
NMSU partners with Iowa and Arizona scientists to study corn
by Kevin Robinson-Avila
A few thousand ears of fresh, colorful Indian corn may help archaeologists learn more about the early history of Native American societies in the Southwest.
New Mexico State University is partnering with scientists from Iowa and Arizona to map the physical and genetic characteristics of 155 varieties of Native American corn. The research may shed light on the migratory and trade patterns of tribes from thousands of years ago, said Mick O’Neill, superintendent of NMSU’s Agricultural Science Center at Farmington.
“Anthropologists will compare the characteristics of corn varieties we’re now growing with corn samples discovered at archaeological digs that are thousands of years old,” O’Neill said. “By documenting the evolution of native corn varieties, archaeologists can track the migratory patterns and trade routes of pre-Colombian tribes. That could provide new insight into the evolution of those societies.”
Corn, or maize, originated in Mexico about 9,000 years ago and then spread throughout the Americas as tribes migrated, said Tucson-based archaelogist Karen Adams, who works with the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, Colo.
“Archaeologists need a baseline of information on modern Native American kinds of maize to better understand the maize we’ve dug up at pre-historic sites,” Adams said. “The maize from archaeological sites is often burned and has shrunk tremendously as a result, so we need to know something about the characteristics of modern maize to know more about the kinds of maize we look at from prehistoric periods.”
The data may contribute to plant breeding programs, said Candice Gardner, a plant biologist with the North Central Regional Plant Introduction Research Station in Ames, Iowa, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Iowa State University.
“Modern researchers look for genes with unique traits,” Gardner said. “As we analyze and document these maize varieties, we may identify genes that could be used to improve other kinds of corn.”
The Ames station—the USDA’s repository for all North American corn varieties— provided seeds for the project. Scientists from NMSU and Iowa State University planted and cared for the corn. They harvested in 2004 and 2005.
The Iowa researchers will now analyze and document information for each variety and then place the findings on the USDA’s Germplasm Resources Information Network. For their part, Adams and other archaeologists will compare the harvested corn with cobs from archeological sites.
“The project has provided a unique opportunity for agronomists and archaeologists from different states to work together,” O’Neill said. “We hope it leads to more joint projects in the future.”