Re: maize in ancient india: strong transpacific links are indicated

Peter van Rossum (
Fri, 3 Jan 1997 22:17:58 GMT

In article <5aj6ke$> (Yuri Kuchinsky) writes:

Yuri, I'd like to start out by thanking you for the tone of your recent posts.
I'll do my best to keep my responses on an equally high level.

>I don't know which photos you've seen. As you may know, the number of
>those carvings is huge. The photos that I've seen in Johannessen's
>ECONOMIC BOTANY article certainly look remarkably like maize to me. One
>doesn't _need_ to be a botanist to say this.
>So the pictures look like sorghum to you. In spite of the fact that
>sorghum grain grows in a panicle, and not in an ear. You're a botanist,
>and your opinion should count for something. OK, let me ask you this, If
>those carvings indeed obviously represent sorghum, how come other
>botanists -- equally as well qualified as you -- clearly disagree with
>you? Namely, they think the pictures are of Pandanus, of pomegranate, and
>of who knows what else? How come you people cannot get your story

The point here (as I see it) is that you are right - people can't get their
story straight. When different people see the sculptures they see different
things. The identification of the objects as corn is an identification that
is subject to interpretation, and different people interpret those sculptures
as representing different objects. That is why I do not accept Johannessen
and Parker's identification as definite proof of Precolumbian maize in India.

>Pre-columbian maize pollen _has been found_ in India.

This interpretation does not appear to be as clear as you suggest. I'm
working on a review of this but unfortunately the citation for one of
these finds appears to be incorrect. In the Johannessen & Parker article
they cite:
Singh, G. & D.P. Agrawal
1976 "Radiocarbon evidence for deglaciation in north-western
Himalaya, India," Nature 260:323.
I looked for this article but didn't find it. Does anyone know what the
correct citation is?

>Also, Kay, let me ask you this. As a botanist, you should be very
>knowledgeable about what the implications of a great genetic variety of a
>plant in a certain area are. This is an indication that the plant has
>been growing in this area for a long time. The varieties of corn in India
>are extremely many, and some of them are very rare. What does this
>indicate? And why all of the critiques of Johannessen that I've seen so
>far, including yours, diligently avoid this issue? I'd be interested to
>see your take on this...

Time depth is not the only factor related to the diversity of a plant in
a given area:

"Vavilov thought that areas of maximum genetic diversity represented
centers of origin and that the origin of a crop could be identified by
the simple procedure of analyzing variation patterns and plotting
regions where diversity was concentrated. It turned out that centers of
diversity are not the same as centers of origin, yet many crops do
exhibit centers of diversity. The phenomenon is real and requires
explanation. What causes variation to accumulate in secondary centers is
not too well understood, but some observable factors are:
1. A long history of continuous cultivation
2. Ecological diversity, many habitats accomodate many races.
3. Human diversity, different tribes are attracted to different races
of the crop.
4. Introgression with wild and weedy relatives or between different
races of a crop."
(Heiser 1990:137).

So we see that just because an area has a wide diversity of a specific plant
does not necessarily mean that we can in a straightforward manner adduce
exactly when it was introduced to the area. This fact led another researcher
to comment:

"Although some attempt has been made to show that prehistoric maize
reached South Asia from the west, it is much more likely that it arrived
in Asia (none of the wild relatives of maize occurs in the natural floras
of east Asia) via Spanish voyages from Mexico through the Phillipines and
so west into south China, where its cultivation caused great destruction
of natural forest cover and erosion on the hill and mountain slopes of
Yunnan. When the first maize cultigens reached the highly contrasting
monsoonal environment of north-east India (elevations 150 to 4,000 m,
rainfall 1,000 to 5,000 mm) they manifested the great diversity noted by
Bhag Singh in a secondary center of diversity." (Whyte 1985:263).

So again, just as in Greg Keyes' recent posts regarding "waxy corn" in Asia,
there are other researchers who don't seem to have any trouble reconciling
the genetic diversity in Asian corn with a relatively recent introduction.

Heiser, Charles Bixler
1990 "Seed to Civilization: The Story of Food." Cambridge: Harvard U. Press.

Whyte, Robert Orr
1985 "Annual Crops of South and Southeast Asia," In Recent Advances in
Indo-Pacific Prehistory." V.N. Misra & P. Bellwood, eds. New Delhi:
Oxford & IBH Publishers Co.

Peter van Rossum