Mesoamerica’s Development of Corn Still a Mystery

A piece of carved jade, circa 750, depicting two enthroned Maya deities, including the Maize God (left), sold for $62,737.50 at a September 2006 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

I recently used the term “Mesoamerica” and someone asked me to define it a bit more.

Basically, it is a non-specific, geographical area that academics use for parts of pre-Columbian Mexico, Central America and an extension into South America. The indigenous peoples of these lands have a reputation for being the greatest cultivators in history, with amazing horticultural innovations, especially corn (maize).

The interesting thing about corn is that we still do not know exactly how they did it. Modern strains of barley, wheat or rice resemble their ancient counterparts, but corn is completely different. Beyond the basic level of chromosomes, there is no genetic kinship.

Even a worldwide conference in 1969 at the University of Illinois on the origin of corn ended up in a scientific brawl and debates are still commonplace. However they did it, Mesoamericans ended up with the first fully bioengineered plant.

Even today, corn is more relevant than most people know. Corn and its derivatives like cornstarch and high fructose corn syrup go into ice cream, embalming fluid, soap, deodorants, peanut butter, automobile paint and (literally) several hundred more food products.

In Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, he claims the roles have been reversed and we have become domesticated by it. That definitely includes me … given my earlier association with Fritos and Doritos!

Having secured their food supply, Mesoamericans then invented their own writing, astronomy and mathematics … including the use of zero … probably the first in recorded history.

Hope this adds a little clarity.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Monarch Butterflies Among the Most Intriguing of Earth’s Insects

This photo card of Sitting Bull was produced in the 1890s. Look closely and you can see a Monarch butterfly tucked into the brim of his hat.

By Jim O’Neal

For every single human being on Earth, there are 200 million insects. Both in terms of species and sheer numbers, insects outnumber all other animals on the planet. More than a million different species of insects have been described and named, and thousands more are discovered each year … some estimates exceed 30 million total in existence.

Over 70 percent of all known animal species are insects and almost half of them are in the beetle category. Among the more infamous are boll weevils, which crossed into the United States from Mexico in 1892. They proceeded to destroy great swaths of the cotton grown in the South. Even today, efforts to eradicate them in both countries is problematic.

Thanks to the amazing adaptation skills of insects, they flourish in every land habitat and play a key role in the global ecosystem, recycling dead plants and animals, pollinating flowering plants, and providing food for a host of animals. In fact, insects are so vital to life on Earth, we could not survive without them.

Insects are also the most numerous of the arthropods – animals with tough external skeletons and jointed legs.

A remarkable example of biodiversity is the beautiful Monarch butterfly, which starts life as a wingless caterpillar that spends most of its time eating. Its metamorphosis into a butterfly is one of the most dramatic changes in nature. Within two hours of emerging, the butterfly is ready for flight and launches into the air to start looking for a mate so it can breed and create a new generation.

Monarch butterflies spend the winter asleep in the warm woods of Mexico and California. In spring, they awake and fly north to find milkweed plants that do not grow in the warmer southwest. Then, they lay their eggs and die. The next generation then flies further north and does the same thing. After two generations, they reach the Canadian border. Then, the fourth generation migrates all the way back south again, clear across the United States.

It’s not clear if they seek approval from the Department of Homeland Security or simply rely on special TSA exemptions for frequent flyers. Hopefully, they make it safely, since our fortunes seem to be linked in some mysterious way.

Go Monarchs!

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].