Maize: One Small Plant, Huge Implications

Jason Thrope

It is easy to see how early humans had an impact on the environment.  The increase in population and the use of fire to burn the forest has had numerous effects on plant and animal life.  However, it is harder to understand how much the environment has shaped human behavior and social development. 

As population increased about 10,000 years ago, hunting and gathering techniques could no longer sustain larger groups, and farming became the main source of sustenance throughout the world.  This change did not occur immediately, but it was a slow, gradual process.  Agriculture was an advance from hunting and gathering because, “in return for greater degree of effort it can provide more food from a smaller area of land.” The population pressure on these groups forced them into farming because of their need for more food than they could obtain through hunting and gathering.  

As this change gradually occurred, “the different forms of agriculture that emerged were to have a profound effect on the development of human societies in these different areas and therefore on the course of world history.” This change to a system of agriculture was a necessary step towards the development of towns and the social evolution of human beings.  In this paper, I will focus and the effects of this change in Europe and North America.

In Europe, the change from hunting and gathering to agriculture occurred rather quickly.  Even though the shift to agriculture began earlier in Asia, Europe was not far behind.  The harsh climate in Europe posed a definite threat to agriculture.  However, the crops that naturally grew there helped the Europeans adapt: “oats and rye flourished in the cooler, wetter climate of north west Europe.” Since these grains naturally thrived in the European climate, the Europeans did not have to dramatically alter the plants. The ability to domesticate animals also helped the Europeans adapt to this new system.  By around 6000 BC, the Europeans succeeded in fully adapting to an agricultural system. 

However, in North America this transition was extremely slow.  The difficulty in cultivating maize, the main grain to be domesticated, along with the lack of suitable animals for domestication slowed down the transition to agriculture.  Maize was very difficult to cultivate because it could not be genetically altered to produce high yielding varieties.  Maize was a very small grain, and the cobs were usually chewed rather than being ground into flour.  Because of both of these problems, “for a long time it was more economic to gather food from wild plants than depend on maize.” Since hunting and gathering remained the main system in North America, societies developed more slowly. 

Eventually, in about 2000 BC, maize was cultivated and cross-pollinated successfully, leading to higher yielding varieties.  However, because the cultivation took much longer than in Europe (about 4000 years), the development of society in North America lagged behind that of Europe.  This explains the reason why Europeans who came to explore the Americas in the 16th century found primitive groups of people.  These people were not savages, as many of the Europeans believed; they were just a few thousand years behind the Europeans.  I doubt that many students of history understand that these people’s societies were less developed because of the difficulty in cultivating a simple crop called maize. 

The idea that one crop prevented or slowed an entire continent from developing is a very disturbing and interesting concept.  Not only does it explain why the Native Americans’ societies were less developed than the Europeans, but it also illuminates a more important idea: one single aspect of the environment can have a critical impact on a society.  Small changes in ecosystems can result in monumental changes.  Therefore, in trying to understand evolution, it is important for researchers to check even the smallest details of the environment, and to track their potential impacts on societal development.   

It should also change our outlook toward the future.  Any small event that changes our ecosystem today could have negative effects in the future.  Global warming and deforestation are two problems that could have a tremendous impact on the development of the human race.   Although maize in North America was a natural barrier to growth, by continually changing our ecosystem, we are placing ourselves and the development of our societies at more risk.   The smallest of environmental changes can have unanticipated impacts, distorting or even halting future development.  

A Green History of the World, Page 41

Ibid, Page 43

A Green History of the World, Page 48

Ibid, Page 51

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last updated 2/5/06