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Re: maize in Europe and India: a twisted tale
I will be up-front about the thesis of this little essay. I will even put
it in caps:
YURI HAS NOT FOUND HIS "SMOKING GUN", BUT RESEARCHING HIS ARGUMENT HAS
REVEALED WHAT SEEMS OT BE A LEGITMATE, ONGOING DEBATE ABOUT THE ANTIQUITY
OF MAIZE IN ASIA.
1. The research here is based on a few hours of library work and does not
pretend to be exhaustive or perhaps even adequate.
2. I am entirely unqualified to critically evaluate much of what I read,
particularly the details of genetic analysis.
My points will be as follow:
1. The articles by Jeffreys and Johannessen are deeply flawed and have
been well rebutted, even by those who still favor a pre-Columbian maize in
2. The maize races of Asia are still poorly researched understood and
their lineages thus uncertain.
3. Some races of maize in India are suggestive of pre-Columbian
I went to the library and read the following sources suggested by Yuri and
Domingo in earlier posts:
Johannessen 1988 "Indian maize in the twelfth century B.C." Nature
(note that the date was worng: should have said A.D.)
Payak and Sachan 1988 "Maize in Somnathpur, an Indian medioeval temple",
Nature 335: 773-774
Johannessen and Parker 1989 "Maize ears sculptured..." Economic Botany
Veena and Sigamani 1991 "Do objects in friezes of Somanthpur temple (1268
in South India represent maize ears?" Current Science 61:395-396
I then did index searches on the most current books on maize genetics I
could find, searching in particular for current findings on the origins of
Asian maize, genetic distance from other types of maize, "waxy" maize,
Sikkim maize, etc.
I combed through two sets of journals dedicated to the study of maize
genetics. They were unindexed, as far as I could tell, so I went to the
tables of contents. These journals were MAIYECAE (I may have mispelled
this. I found nothing of note and forgot to write down the title) and
the MAIZE GENETICS COOPERATION NEWSLETTER. The first I scanned back to
1980, the second (which was more voluminous) back to 1990.
In more detail:
1. Jeffrey's linguistic arguments and his presentation of "waxy" maize in
the Phillipine and elswhere remain unconvicing for reasons that
Mangelsdorf pointed out in 1971 and which still remain valid, so far as I
can tell. The supposed sculptures of corn discussed by Johannessen have
been thoroughly rebuted and have little currency in the debate I allude
to. In response to the "analysis" of traits that the sculptures were
subjected to by Johannessen, Veena and Sigamani respond:
"Johannessen and Parker conclude, on the basis of several intricate
details, including kernel-like carvings, that these structures
morphologically represent the maize ear. their conclusions are, however,
based on gross comparisons of MLS and maize ear, for qualitative traits
such as the shape of MLS and kernels, curving at the tip of MLS, and
arrangment of kernels. Most of the characters for which they made
comparisons are subjective and not quantifiable, and hence not amenable to
statistical analysis. Indeed, in the quantitative trait they recorded
(width.thickness ratio for the bead-like structures or 'kernels' of MLS),
MLS were significantly different from maize ears. Payak and Sachan
examined 50 friezes in Somnathpur and concluded that the objects resemble
some kind of beaded ornamentation characteristic of the Hoysala tradition
and they did not represent maize ears. However, their conclusions also
are not based on quantitative data. Hence the present study (Veena and
Sigamani pg 196).
In other words, both earlier studies basically "eyeballed" the icons in a
subjective and highly interpretive fashion. J and P "saw" ears of corn
while Payak and Sachan "saw" nothing of the kind.
Veena and Sigamani then proceed to do a systematic morphological study
with statistical analysis and conclude that these icons -- whatever they
might have represented -- do not likely represent corn. This kind of
analysis is crucial in the study of iconography -- and for that matter,
unknown scripts. Otherwise, something can look like whatever you want it
Anyway, I refer all to the article. The only thing we can say about the
MLS is that some think they look like corn, but that analysis which
considers the larger iconographic context (rather than the studied
de-contexualization of Johannessen, or say, Von Daniken when he intepretes
Mayan iconography as spaceships) suggest that this is not a representation
maize. This is no smoking gun.
By the by, though Sachan (along with Kumar) also disputes Johennessen's
assertions, he makes his own, more cogent argument for an old variety of
maize in India.
2. Goodman and Brown, in CORN AND CORN IMPROVEMENT (Sprague and Dudley,
eds. 1988) sum up what seems to be the consensus on Asian varieties in
their chapter "Races of Corn":
"This report contains no reference to corn found outside of the Western
Hemisphere. There are many reasons for this, the foremost of which is the
limited information available on the variability of corn of Europe,
Africa, and Asia. In our opinion, much more information is needed before
a complete and orderly classification of the corn of the Old World is
possible (Goodman and Brown pg 39).
In other words, while the maize races in the New World can be grouped
into lineages based upon genetic evidence (the rest of their chapter) we
cannot yet do this with Old World maize.
3. I found two articles by Sachan and Kumar in the "Maize Cooperation
Genetics Newsletter. In the first, from 1992, they examine some genetic
peculiarities of some maize in the Himalayan region, mostly to do with
"knob" positions on chromosomes. They note:
"The presence of some new and unusual knob positions in NEH maize,
hitherto unknown in American maize races, have been identified in the
present study (1992: pg 84)"
What they suggest is that this maize has many "primititive"
characteristics of Teosinte. In 1993, they go farther, arguing that this
could be explained by a very early form of maize coming across in
pre-Columbian times (I took notes on this article but seem to have
misplaced the photocopy, so I cannot quote from it -- I'll get it again,
if anyone is interested). A study of Sikkim maize produced more
equivocal results: they allow that it might be related to the Confite
Morocho (Peruvian) Toluqueno or Nal-Tel_Chapalote complex of Mexico (1992
pg 84). This latter point of view was held by Mangelsdorf.
I am in no position to support or refute the claims of Sachan and Kumar --
I do not frankely understand much of their data and analysis techniques --
and in my brief research period I found no rebuttle to their postion on
the Himalayan corn. In their 1993 paper, they admit that most corn
researchers do not buy the early corn theory, but that in itself doesn't
mean anything. These two seem to be of a small handful of expert
researchers in the area of Indian corn genetics (going by the other papers
in the six years of issues I looked at) -- which handful does not include
Jeffreys and Johannessen, it seems.
My department is engaged in a cooperative venture with the National germ
plasm banks, which is where crop DNA is now being sequenced, evaluated,
and stored, so if I get a chance I will seek the opinion of one of those
people. In the meantime, I can only conclude that the question of the
antiquity of maize in Asia is unsettled.