Old World maize: a twisted tale

Yuri Kuchinsky (yuku@io.org)
30 Dec 1996 19:52:44 GMT

[follow-ups are limited to: sci.archaeology,sci.anthropology,sci.bio.misc]

[Part 3 of 4]

[This is a continuation of the previous postings based on the article
U. of Texas Press, 1971, Carrol L. Riley et al., eds.]

In the following 2 posts, I will mostly summarise some of the
historical and linguistic evidence Jeffreys provides in his article.

The antiquity of corn in Asia has been suggested by great many
researchers, both modern and not so modern. Here's one testimony,

The antiquity of maize in the East Indian Archipelago had, 150
years ago, impressed Crawfurd, the British resident at the
court of the Sultan of Java in 1808. As a result of his
investigations in the Indian Archipelago, Crawfurd was
convinced that maize had been cultivated there before the
discovery of the Americas and concluded that maize was
indigenous to these islands. Crawfurd (1820: I,365) wrote:

After rice, maize or Turkey corn (Zea Maiz) is the most
important production of agriculture among the great
tribes of the Archipelago. The word, _Jegung_, which I
imagine to be purely native, is the term by which this
plant is known from one extremity of the Archipelago to
another. ... As far as a matter of this nature is
capable of demonstrating, it may be conjectured that
maize was cultivated in the Indian islands before the
discovery of America, and that the plant is an
indigenous product. (pp. 376-7)

So this report comes from 1808. When and how would have corn
implanted itself so firmly in Java? The Dutch rule began only around
1618, and they didn't control the whole island for a long time after
this. The case for a European introduction (with a native name!)
certainly doesn't make much sense...

When the Portuguese first arrived to the East Indies (towards the
end of the 15th c.), they described the crops they found there. But
there's a debate among agricultural specialists about what was the
name for maize in Portuguese at that time. This is a complex debate.
Jeffreys makes the case that the Portuguese name for maize was
_milho_. If this is so, the case for precolumbian maize in Asia is
proven. The Portuguese reported this _milho_ in many places in Asia
at contact. But I'm not inclined to engage in complex linguistic
debates at this point -- there's just too much solid evidence coming
from elsewhere... Just one quote:

Moore (1785: I,280), in his translation of the raid in 1508 by
Cunna and Albuquerque on Socotra in the Red Sea, mentioned
that "the common food is maize or Indian wheat, tamarinds and
milk." (p. 381)

And now, more historical evidence, this time from the voyages of

On March 16, 1521, Magellan, out of food, his crews starving
and reduced to boiling old bits of leather for sustenance,
reached the eastern shores of Suma Island in the Philippines.
His ships provided the first contacts that the Philippines had
had with Europeans. Magellan had never visited the coasts of
Mexico or the Caribbean Sea, and his starving crews would have
demolished any grain that he might have been conveying.
Sturtevant (1919: 616; quoting A. Adams, _Voy. Samarang II_,
424, 1824), noted that "in 1521 maize was found by Magellan at
the island of Limasava." Krieger (1942: 23) likewise was
satisfied that Pigafetta, an Italian chronicler who sailed
with Magellan in 1519, had observed the cultivation of maize
on the island of Limasava. (p. 383)

Let's go to China now. Earliest Chinese chronicles always talk about
maize as being introduced from "the west". As is well known, normal
communication between India and China in ancient times was through
Central Asia, by the Silk Road. So this "western" origin of maize in
China squares well with the introduction from India.

Hance and Mayers (1870: 523) wrote, on the assertion in the
_Pun Ts'ao Kang-mu's_ statement for the origin of maize in the
countries to the west of China, as follows:

And I may add that in my judgement, the remote date
assigned by Chinese records to its [maize's]
introduction, and the circumstances that the introducer
is unknown are irreconcilable with the supposition that
it was brought into this country by the Portuguese. (p.

Now this, from another scholar,

Heine-Geldern (1958: 369), discussing early maize in China,

"All these early Chinese reports on maize state
consistently that maize came to them from Tibet and the
western parts of China. They therefore call it, among
other names, _Hsi fan mai_, "Tibetan wheat." (p. 390)

Jeffreys concludes,

The Chinese historical evidence is clear that maize reached
China overland from the west and that maize had long been
cultivated before the arrival of the Europeans. (p. 393)

[part 4 of 4 is coming up]

Best regards,


=O= Yuri Kuchinsky in Toronto =O=
--- a webpage like any other... http://www.io.org/~yuku ---

We should always be disposed to believe that that which
appears white is really black, if the hierarchy of the
Church so decides === St. Ignatius of Loyola