Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


By Hugh Murphy

Zea mays

genus: Zea

Common names:  Maize

Corn or “Maize” is arguably the most important food crop to be cultivated in North America.  The summer corn harvest was so important to the indigenous peoples of North America that many tribes held religious ceremonies to pray for a successful crop.  It was and continues to be central in the arts, culture, health and lifestyle of many American Indians from New Mexico to Massachusettes. 

Beginning as a combination of wild grasses in Mesoamerica, maize was bred and hybridized over and over to create the plant we now recognize as corn.  Early hybrids produced only a handful of tiny ears measuring approximately one inch in length (Davidson, 470). 

The earliest documented remains of corn cobs date back over 7,000 years to the Tehuacan Valley in Mexico (Davidson, 470).  Maize began to move North over the next 1,000 years.  Cobs discovered in a New Mexico bat cave suggests that corn was cultivated in the present day United States as early as 3600 BCE (Niethammer, 126). 

Maize had a profound effect on the lifestyles of many tribes.  Once nomadic, tribes of the American Southwest transformed into sedentary farming communities with the arrival of corn.  The switch from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a sedentary, agricultural lifestyle allowed more free-time for communities who no longer wondered where there next meal would come from.  This free time gave people the ability to further develop their tribe’s art and culture (Niethammer, 126).

Agriculture based communities were not without their downsides, however.  Drought, crop failure and raids from rival tribes kept farming communities on their toes (Berzok, 3).  Corn crops stripped minerals from the soil, which farmers combated through crop rotation and fertilization.  Water was always a factor, especially in the southwest where the Pimas and Maricopas developed complex irrigation systems (Niethammer, 127). 


Maize or Indian corn as it is sometimes referred to, comes in a wide variety of sizes and colors.  While large yellow ears are the most common variety today, early American Indians grew fields of blue, black, red, white, yellow, purple and speckled (multi-colored) corn (Frank, 18).  Different colors had different flavors and nutritional qualities and as a result, were grown for different purposes.  Blue corn was perhaps the most popular thanks to its nutritional value (Frank,18). 

Corn ears vary in size from a few inches up to a foot in length.  Several ears grow on bamboo-like stalks, which may reach heights of seven to ten feet high.  Each ear contains thick tufts of fine threads or silk covering the ear and its 150-400 kernels.  The silk and kernels are then tightly bound with a cover of large, green leaves. 

Maize ripens in mid-summer in most regions.  Ears can be eaten raw at this point or left on the vine to dry. 



Maize is a highly versatile food and was eaten at almost every meal by the tribes that produced it.  Large quantities were eaten fresh during the summer.  It was eaten raw from the stalk, roasted in the coals of a fire or baked into soups and breads (Niethammer, 135).  Excess corn was dried on the stalk or picked and hung to dry in the sun.  Dried corn was ground into cornmeal and added to soups or baked into tortillas and tamales (Frank, 18).  Some tribes stored enough dried corn to feed the community through two crop-less years.  


While corn was not a major medicinal plant, it did have a profound effect on the health of the communities that grew it.  Corn crops produced a greater food yield than could be achieved by hunting or gathering.  As a result, agricultural communities had a lower infant mortality and lower levels of malnutrition than non-farming communities (Berzok, 3). 

Corn protein lacks the essential amino acid Lysine.  American Indians solved this problem by eating corn alongside Lysine-rich beans, thus reducing the need for animals as a source of protein (Niethammer, 126).  Beans plants were also intermixed with corn plants to help balance the soil’s nitrogen levels (EOG, 254).  



Berzok, Linda Murray. American Indian Food.  Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press, 2005.

“Corn.” The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. Rodale, 1968.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 

Niethammer, Carolyn.  American Indian Food and Lore.  New York:  Macmillan Publishing Co., 1974.