When we think of technology and corn together, these days, we generally think of ethanol — the nominal (and, I would argue, completely bogus) “clean fuel” of the future.
For all the hoopla about using corn as a source of bio-fuel — a hoopla shamelessly fronted by Barack Obama, who hails from the corn-fed state of Illinois — the real ecological and economic value of producing ethanol from corn is still very much open to question.
What is not in question is the huge ecological and economic impact of corn itself (a plant which, for reasons of clarity, I will hereafter refer to by its alternate, more correct term of maize).
The truth is, the presence of huge worldwide maize crops today is the fruit a highly sophisticated and durable agro-technology now more than 9,000 years old — and a technology we owe to the American Indian.
Just how maize came into existence remains an archeological mystery and controversy, since there is no plant in the wild that bears any obvious resemblance to it.
It would appear that it was not so much domesticated as invented, by thought processes and methodologies long since lost and forgotten, by the Indians living in the Oaxeaca valley in western Mexico.
What those long-ago Indians came up with was a high-production, sustainable agricultural technology that has no equal in the world, and which potentially has lessons for us in the agribusiness of tomorrow.
We do not know who arrived at the combination, and when they discovered it, but the maize-raising technology that came to dominate most of the Americas was a clever technique of co-planting maize with beans and squash.
This made good agricultural sense, since the beans could use the corn stalk as a support as they grew, and could add nitrogen to the soil, needed by the corn, while the squashes provided ground cover to ward off weeds and slow evaporation.
The combination also made very good dietary sense.
Maize provides most of the basic nutrients needed for human subsistence, but lacks some vital amino acids, which are provided by the beans; the squash, meanwhile, adds an array of vitamins not present in the maize or the beans.
These “three sisters,” as they came to be known in the native tradition, constituted a robust, self-replenishing triumvirate called a “milpa,” and it was in this combination (with some occasional regional variants) that it spread out across North and South America.
Throw in a little fish or wild meat now and then, and you have a diet unquestionably more balanced and healthy than the one available to most Europeans of the pre-Columbian era.
It is notable, in fact, how often the first Europeans to deal with the North American native populations remarked on their physical beauty and fitness.
The natives, on the other hand, seem to have found the Europeans scrawny, stumpy, and foul-smelling little creatures.
The technology-transfer that happened between these two populations — the transfer of the idea of the milpa — is both the glory and the tragedy of the Native American people.
This technology transfer probably happened a number of times in a number of different places, but the most famous instance, of course, is when Tisquantum (or Squanto, as the Englishmen called him) showed the Puritans how to put a milpa together after their first, very lethal winter in the colony of Plymouth — the fabled “first Thanksgiving.”
That act of technology transfer, celebrated every fourth Thursday of each November in the USA, actually commemorates a story both noble and devastatingly tragic.
Tisquantum was not making the technology transfer to the smelly, incompetent, disease-ridden white men because he liked them.
He was helping them survive because his tribe, almost rendered extinct by the white man’s viruses, needed these white men as allies to ward off incursions by competing native tribes.
Though he could not have known it at the time, and though Tisquantum actually gained some considerable short-term political advantage for himself, he was making a bad Faustian bargain with a very nasty, if inadvertent, devil.
It did not take long before the white man’s diseases killed him (he was dead — of what the Englishmen called “Indian fever”— within a year of the famous first Thanksgiving) and, ultimately just about all his native friends and enemies, too.
The healthy, corn-fed natives of America, though enviably fit and healthy, had nothing to counter the bad bugs spread by those stumpy, smelly, diseased Europeans.
To compound the tragedy, it was the export of maize-growing to Africa (along with other American native crops, like potatoes and squash) that probably made possible the population explosion in Africa — which, in turn, made possible the slave trade from Africa to America made necessary by the overwhelming destruction of the local native population.
Fraught though it may be with sadness and inhumanity, though, that moment of technology transfer — the teaching of the concept of the milpa — may still have salutary effects on agribusiness in the future, as we move from the environmentally unsustainable mega-farms of the so-called “green revolution” to more locally-scaled, sustainable agricultural production centres of tomorrow.
Good ideas, like good cornfields, can be counted on to bare fruit more than once.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.