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You are here: Home / Plants and Crops / Milho, makka and ya mai: early journeys of Zea mays in Asia Printer Friendly Page
plants and crops
Chapter 2: Turkische Korn in Europe
View:  Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Conclusions | References

Christopher Columbus and the other explorers of the Spanish fleets first introduced maize into Europe, but we have no eyewitness records of the exact circumstances of the occasion. Although Columbus and some of his educated officers wrote logbooks and letters describing their travels, few of those documents have survived (12). The main source of information about Columbus' voyages in the Americas is the Vida del Almirante Cristobal Colon by his illegitimate son Hernando Columbus, who accompanied his father on his fourth voyage. The Vida is available in an Italian version published in 1571, but the original Spanish version is lost. Other sources are the accounts of Spanish royal historian Fernandez de Oviedo, who began publishing his multi-volume Historia general y natural de las Indias in 1535, and Friar Bartolome de las Casas, whose Historia de las Indias was begun about 1527, but not published in its entirety until the 1800s.

Columbus on Maize in the Bahamas (1492)

On his first voyage of 1492-93, Columbus and his fleet of three ships reached the islands of the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Columbus' original log-book of the voyage is lost, but apparently was used by his son Hernando and by las Casas. The only surviving original document of the first voyage is a summary account written by Columbus during his return voyage to Lisbon, which makes no mention of maize. According to las Casas, in 1492 at Fernandina Island in the Bahamas, Columbus observed that "this island is very green, flat and fertile and I have no doubt that they sow and reap Indian corn and other crops throughout the year", and in Cuba he reported that "they had seen many fields ... also of a grain like panic-grass that the Indians call maize. This grain has a very good taste when cooked, either roasted or ground and made into a gruel" (13). From their first explorations in the Caribbean islands, the Spanish adopted the Native Arawak word maiz or mahiz as one of their names for Zea mays. In 1753, when Linnaeus named maize according to his new binomial system, he combined the Greek word Zea, meaning grain, with the adopted Arawak word for the species name mays (14).

Origin of Name of Maize

Columbus returned to the Americas in 1493 with 17 ships and several thousand men, many of them in hopes of finding gold in the islands of the Caribbean Sea. On this second voyage from 1493 to 1496, Columbus reached Martinique and Jamaica, but no logbook has survived. Twelve ships of the fleet returned to Spain in 1494, carrying a letter written somewhere in the Caribbean region by Guglielmo Coma. Some of Coma's observations were included in a Latin pamphlet published in 1494 by Nicolo Syllacio in Pavia, Italy, and the plant described is undoubtedly maize, "There is also a prolific kind of grain, the size of a lupin, rounded like a chickpea. When broken it produces a fine flour, and it is ground like wheat. A bread of excellent flavor is made from it" (15). The second book of the 1511 edition of De Orbe Nouo Decades by Pedro Martir de Angleria, an Italian scholar at the Spanish court, is addressed to a church dignitary and dated at the Spanish court in 1494. This book includes an account of the second voyage and the statement "The bearer [of this letter] will also give you, in my name, certain white and black grains of wheat from which they make bread [maiz]." According to Paul Weatherwax, these two documents from 1494 are the first known records of maize in Europe (16).

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First Records of Maize in Europe

The third voyage of Columbus from 1498-1500 explored the northeast coast of South America from Trinidad to the mouth of the Orinoco River (now Venezuela). Columbus' 1498 account of this voyage includes a description of the natives of the Orinoco region "They brought in bread and various kinds of fruit and different wines. Some of it must be made from maize, which is a cereal with an ear like that of wheat. I have brought some back and there is now much in Castile. The best is apparently considered excellent and most prized" (17). On his fourth and final voyage in 1502-04, Columbus explored several locations along the mainland coast of Central America from Honduras to Panama. Although Columbus' accounts of this voyage contain no mention of maize, "his brother Diego, who accompanied him on this voyage, reported that in one place in Central America, he had traveled for 18 miles through fields of maize" (18).

The Spanish conquests continued with military actions by Cortez against the Aztecs in Mexico in 1521, by Alvarado against the Maya in Guatemala in 1526, and by Coronado against native Americans as far northwest as New Mexico by 1540. Maize was undoubtedly exported from Mexico, Guatemala, and Columbia, all areas with a great diversity of land races of maize. The conquest of the Inca empire of Peru by Pizarro by 1533 allowed the export of Peruvian varieties of maize, varieties that are noted for extreme diversity, including maize with giant seeds, interlocking cobs, and extremely long and flexible cobs (19). Import of Peruvian maize into Spain is supported by the use of the Peruvian word zara as an early name for maize in Spain (20).

Cassava - The Bread of Brazil

Maize probably was taken by Portuguese traders from Brazil to Europe and to the western coast of Africa after 1500, but the times and places of its introduction are not known. In 1500, the Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares de Cabral, en route to India, landed at Porto Segro on the eastern coast of Brazil. After ten days trading with native tribes along the coast, one ship returned to Lisbon while Cabral and the remaining fleet of 12 ships continued on to Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, Mozambique, Madagascar, Mombasa, and eventually to Calicut on the western coast of India. Records of this voyage are scarce and there is no information on whether the Portuguese observed maize in Brazil or carried it on their continuing voyage to Africa and India. In a letter, Cabral commented on the natives of the Brazil coast "nor do they eat anything except these manioc (Manihot esculenta, also called cassava), of which there is much, and of the seeds and the fruits which the earth and trees produce" (21). However, the Italian Antonio Pigafetta, who survived and chronicled Magellan's exploration of Brazil in 1519, included the word maiz (translating it as the Italian word miglio) in his short vocabulary of Brazil (22).

Portuguese agricultural colonization of Brazil did not begin until the 1530s and long remained confined to a coastal strip less than 30 miles wide. Manioc, rather than maize, was the staple food of both the natives and the early Portuguese settlers, and sugar and tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), rather than maize, were the main export crops of the Portuguese agricultural colonies through the 16th and 17th centuries (23). On his first voyage to coastal Brazil in 1593, the English slave trader Richard Hawkins reported cassava as the bread of the country, and pineapples (Ananas comosus) and potatoes (probably the sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas). Hawkins made no mention of maize on the coast of Brazil, even though earlier on the same voyage he had described maize in the Cape Verde Islands on the western coast of Africa (24). One hundred years later, in 1699, the English privateer William Dampier observed both roots and maize as staple foods at Bahia on the coast of Brazil (25). But even as late as 1768, on his voyage in HMS Endeavor with Captain James Cook, botanist Joseph Banks noted that cassava was the only bread of Rio de Janeiro and its fishermen, "their provision for the sea consisted of a cask of water and a bag of flour of cassada which they call farinha de pao or wooden flour, a very proper name for it which indeed tastes more like powdered chips than anything else " (26).

Maize in Spain

Maize appears to have been introduced first into Spain. In 1498 Columbus wrote that maize was being grown in Castile (27). In the 1525 edition of the Historia of Ovieda, there is mention of maize growing near Madrid (28). In a later edition of 1535, Ovieda wrote "I saw in that city (Avila), which is one of the coldest in Spain, inside a house a good plot of maize with stalks about ten hands high as stout and green and as beautiful as can be seen around here; near by was a well from which they watered it each day. I was really astounded, remembering the distance and the difference in climate of this region [the Indies] from that of Avila. The event took place in 1530 A.D." (29). In the early 16th century maize spread from Spain throughout the countries of Southern Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East that border the Mediterranean Sea, and to northern Europe. Weatherwax notes that Georg Schweinfurth in 1904 described a specimen of maize collected in Italy by Gherhardo Cibo in 1532 as the oldest herbarium specimen of the plant in existence (30).

Early Confusion on Origin of Maize

Because many of Columbus' contemporaries still believed that the Americas were part of the Asian continent, they erroneously thought that maize originated in Asia. The Ottoman Empire of Turkey dominated trade in the Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East at that time, thus maize often was called Turkische korn or Turkish wheat in the European botanical literature, or Herbals, of the 16th century. Maize was first described in the 1539 first edition of the Herbal of the German botanist Jerome Bock, who believed that the plant probably came from India. Bock described maize ears with silks, husks, and eight to ten rows of kernels, and with kernels of red, brown, yellow or white, but included no illustration of maize in the first edition of his Herbal (31). Then, in 1542 another German botanist, Leonhard Fuchs, published his Herbal De historia stirpinum, which included a beautiful woodcut of an entire maize plant with ears and tassels, the first illustration of maize in Europe (32). Fuchs wrote that maize was growing in all gardens in Germany and described ears with eight to ten rows of kernels, and with kernels of red, white, yellow or purple, but he still believed that the plant was brought into Germany from Asia by the Turks (33).

Early Diversity of Maize in Europe

After Magellan's circumnavigation of the world in 1522 and the publication of selected literature of American exploration, European botanists began to question the Asian origin of maize. The Italian botanist Pierandrea Mattioli appears to have had access to the Historia of Oviedo and the works of others who had traveled in the Americas (34). In his 1565 Herbal, Mattioli wrote "Among the kinds of wheat may be counted that grain which some erroneously call Turkish. Erroneously, I say, because it ought to be called Indian, not Turkish, for it came from the West Indies, not from Turkey or Asia as Fuchs says" (35). Mattioli described maize ears with eight to ten rows of kernels and kernels of red, black, white, brown, purple or yellow, and also described some maize plants that required 40 days for maturity and others that required two months (34). In his 1950 text Maize in the Great Herbals John Finan documented the precision and detail of the descriptions of maize in the collection of European Herbals in the library of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Finan concluded that botanists of the 16th century observed, described, and illustrated a great diversity of types of maize: ears of different shapes; ears with different numbers of rows of kernels; ears with kernels of different colors such as black, purple, red, blue, gold, yellow, and white, and with speckled and other mixed-colored kernels; ears with kernels of different shapes such as flat, round, long, or pointed kernels; plants with and without prop roots, plants with single stalks or with multiple stalks, plants with different numbers of ears, and dwarf plants and other unusual types (36).

The development of molecular genetic markers provides new tools for understanding the introduction and spread of maize from the Americas to Europe and to other parts of the world. A comparison of genetic markers of American populations and European populations of maize revealed that several different types of American maize contributed to the establishment of the main races of maize in Europe (37). Maize populations from southern Spain were closely related to Caribbean flint populations, which is consistent with the historical record of their introduction by Columbus. In contrast, orange flint maize from Italy was more similar to populations from Peru and Argentina, and maize populations from northern and eastern Europe were more similar to flint maize from the eastern coast of the United States and Canada. Thus, maize genetic evidence supports the historical evidence for diverse early introductions of maize to Europe.

Diverse Opinions of Maize

Maize was first grown in European gardens as an agricultural curiosity, and early Herbals differed considerably in their opinion of the grain as a human food. In 1597 the English botanist John Gerarde published his English translation of the Latin De frugum historia of Rembert Dodoens. In his Herballe Gerarde added some new material including a description of maize, "Turkey wheate doth nourish far lesse than either wheate, rie, barly or oates. The bread which is made thereof is meanly white, without bran: it is hard and dry as bisket is, and hath in it no clammenes at all: for which cause it is hard of digestion, and yieldeth to the body little or no nourishment" (38). In contrast, John Parkinson wrote in his 1640 Theatrum Botanicum that "although the grain be dry, yet the meale thereof. hath in it some clamminesse, which bindeth the bread close and giveth good nourishment to the body, for wee finde both the Indians and the Christians of all nations that feede thereon, are nourished thereby in as good manner no doubt as if they fed on wheate in the same manner" (39). In certain regions of southern and eastern Europe, maize became established as an important food grain by the end of the 17th century, giving rise to diets based on maize breads and on maize porridges such as the polenta of Northern Italy.

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