Ear of Maize

Date: 1556
Owner: Granger Collection, The
Source Type: Images


This sixteenth century drawing of American maize shows the plant in scientific detail. Maize, along with protein-rich beans, squash, and--to a lesser extent--peppers, formed what has been called the American Indian food complex, a combination of staple foods that was far more nutritious than what most sixteenth century Europeans consumed. In lieu of the livestock that was key to European diets, this food complex supported both the great cities of the Aztec and Incan empires (with the added staple of potatoes in the latter) as well as the smaller mobile villages scattered throughout North America in lieu of the livestock that was key to the European diet. Indians supplemented their diets with game such as deer, turkey, and fish. This diverse and healthy diet contributed to the Indians' impressive height and build that was noted by many of the earliest European explorers, themselves (as evidenced by skeletons found in Europe) usually squat, malnourished, and crooked-boned as a result of dietary deficiencies.

Maize, along with other key elements of the food complex, spread throughout the world since 1492, improving the health of people and (by virtue of crop diversification) the soil of nearly every continent. Maize and manioc, a type of South American squash, are now staples in Africa, and China is the world's leading producer of the sweet potato, another New World crop. One surprising element of the food complex's migration is that Eastern, not Western, Europe has taken most to New World crops. According to historian Jean Andrews, the food complex spread from the West Indies along Portuguese trade routes around Africa to Mozambique, India, and the Ottoman Empire, from which it made it to the Balkans as early as the 1530s (Andrews 1993). To this day, southeastern Europeans enjoy the diverse diet afforded by maize and the food complex, and turkey has even become a popular dish.

CITATION: Corn, 1556. Color woodcut from Giovanni Battista Ramusio's 'Delle Navigazioni e Viaggi,' Venice, Italy, 1556. Courtesy of the Granger Collection, NY.  ID: 0009594.