Central Americans may have initially utilized teosinte for its elevated sugar content, by chewing its stalks that bear a resemblance to sugarcane, a practice that continues among current western Mexicans. In the Neolithic period, people transplanted specific teosinte plants to their basic ‘forest gardens’ and cared for them by watering and weeding as they began to grasp the idea of farming. They likely utilized the seeds for sustenance, however their small size made it challenging to gather them in large amounts. Teosinte is a plant with high variability, leading to mutants with characteristics such as four rows of kernels instead of one and the beginnings of a protective sheath of modified leaves similar to modern corn ‘cobs’, preventing seed scattering upon ripening.

The new strain was infertile unless intentionally sown. This is the presumed sequence of events. The Neolithic farmers would have seen these favorable differences and chosen their seeds for the following year’s planting. They would have increased the likelihood of spontaneous cross-breeding between selected kinds in the process. The initial farmed maize varieties originated rather quickly, but the crop always relied on human cultivation for its existence.

The early maize ears differed significantly from modern corn cobs. They were short and slender. The kernels were firm and granular. Zea mays has a significant amount of variation and is highly promiscuous. In agriculture, mutations known as sports frequently arise, resulting in kernels with variations such as color, size, arrangement, or sugar content. Some of these would have been intentionally chosen for cultivation. On the outskirts of communities, further variations would have emerged due to spontaneous cross-pollination or back-hybridization with wild teosinte. Maize spread geographically over central America and subsequently into the northern and southern regions of the continent. Different kinds of maize were favored and promoted to cater to various tastes and cultural requirements. The spread of maize through human and genetic environments has been a lengthy and intricate process of amateur plant domestication, made feasible by maize’s genetic ingenuity.

Central Americans may have initially utilized teosinte for its elevated sugar content
Maize eventually spread to Amazonia and the slopes of the Andes. The first sweetcorn emerged at this location. This type differed significantly from its current offspring, the plump cobs we consume when they are unripe and green. The ears featured little, shriveled kernels that had higher sugar levels than starch content. They become unpleasantly sticky when cooked. In Peru and Bolivia, maize was highly valued for its use in fermenting chicha, a type of maize beer, which held significance in religious rituals and as a leisure beverage. Contemporary Peruvian sweetcorn used for making chicha is an unusual crop in comparison to regular corn. The cobs are nearly spherical, about the size of an orange, with multiple rows of uneven kernels that taper to a point. They range in color from light lemon yellow to dark Chinese crimson. The subtleties emerged in the early fields and forest gardens of South American Indians before spreading northward to enrich the maize gene bank of Mesoamerica.

Forest gardening can be seen as an intermediate stage between hunter-gathering and full agriculture, however the gardens are self-sustaining. They persist in pre-industrial communities worldwide and share a fundamental structure regardless of their location. A small section of the forest is cut down, and some of the fallen wood and leaves are left in place, along with any valuable or culturally significant species such as brazil nut and coca. The remaining lumber is burned and the resulting ashes are used very selectively as a fertilizer. Staple crops like manioc and yam are sown inside this matrix of decaying wood, green bushes, and charred branches. In the Amazon rainforest, maize is consistently cultivated in clusters around the garden’s perimeter due to its distinct life cycle compared to indigenous crops.

There might also be a mixture of green vegetables, pineapples, and plants with leaves that are crushed and used in rivers to numb fish. The Tukano Indians of Colombia do not view their gardens as clearings in the jungle or as cultivated oases in a harsh environment. They are referred to as a ‘safe-hold’ by anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, serving as a temporary secondary residence where crucial plants can be cultivated with the help of the forest. The Tukano people’s perception of fecundity in the jungle aligns with that of ecologists. The organic detritus from the canopy is an essential element for agriculture.

The nutrients found in the soil are supplemented by additional energies from above, which help the farmed species interact with the forest environment. Many modern agronomists do not yet comprehend the concept that fertility in rainforest ecosystems resides in and is distributed through the vegetation rather than the soil.

The gardens are carefully weeded, keeping any potentially beneficial seedlings, making them perfect locations for identifying and propagating new variations of maize growing in the open soil. Forest gardens likely originated from disturbed areas near temporary settlements of nomadic hunter-gatherers, fisherfolk, and early pastoralists. These areas accumulated edible plant waste and animal dung, creating conditions favorable for the development of new plant varieties. Renowned American botanist Edgar Anderson formulated a notion called the ‘refuse heap’ idea to explain the beginnings of agriculture, drawing from midden sites. Prehistoric garbage dumps were locations where edible plants collected from various settings might grow together in random proximities due to their discarded seed remnants, which would not naturally occur in the wild. Luck may lead to the creation of spontaneous hybrids, which would be more likely to survive in the disrupted open area rather than in the established vegetation of a forest or grassland. Perhaps the minor interacting events of generation in these mounds – such as spitting forth seeds, dumping dung, tilling the soil, and noticing unfamiliar beings – sparked the concept of horticulture.

Edgar Anderson studied the migration patterns of various types of corn in America during the mid-twentieth century. Traveling north along the Andes, he discovered many beverages crafted from roasted sweetcorn meal, some of which were fermented while others were not. In western Mexico, sweetcorn, also known as maíz dulce, was still utilized as a sugar source. He discovered a well-known regional delicacy known as ponteduro, which is a type of ancient cracker crafted with toasted maize kernels, squash seeds, and peanuts. In the same area, a distinct kind of green corn known as ‘corn on the cob’ had tall, narrow ears and large blue or red-purple kernels.

Color appears to have played a crucial role in influencing the choosing process. Single kernels typically range in color from white to yellow but can also be seen in different hues of orange and red. Anderson often discovered ears with kernels that were not uniformly red or white, but instead speckled with streaks and patches of different colors. In Mexico, these are referred to as “sangre de Cristo,” which translates as “blood of Christ.” He observed that while most Mexican corn was white, there were usually a few ears with varied colors at the seed stores. When he conversed with the local farmers, he learned that a small number of striped seeds were sown in each field as a charm, a symbol of fertility, or a symbolic offering, even though most farmers claimed they did not partake in this practice. Anderson realized that economic necessity did not always dictate the selection and cultivation of novel plant species, with Sangre de Cristo serving as a key clue. The motivation could be from magical symbolism, community esteem, or mere trendiness.

Anderson worked in the fields literally. He journeyed around Central America, examining different varieties of corn in each field. In several regions of Mexico, he saw a significant variation in the characteristics of the local corn, even within a distance of a hundred miles. Individual fields were frequently dedicated to a specific kind. Common types were numerous varieties of popping corn. Popcorn, known as maíz reventador in western Mexico, is not a contemporary creation but rather one of the earliest and most rudimentary types of maize. Anderson describes a typical specimen’s ears as narrow, resembling a cigar in shape, and slightly larger than a tiny white kernel, arranged closely together like tiles in a pavement.