March 4, 2004 - USDA: In March 1972, Anne E. Desjardins watched farmers plowing and planting maize in Lamjung district in Nepal, where she was a Peace Corps science teacher.

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Nepal: Peace Corps Nepal : The Peace Corps in Nepal: March 4, 2004 - USDA: In March 1972, Anne E. Desjardins watched farmers plowing and planting maize in Lamjung district in Nepal, where she was a Peace Corps science teacher.

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In March 1972, Anne E. Desjardins watched farmers plowing and planting maize in Lamjung district in Nepal, where she was a Peace Corps science teacher.

In March 1972, Anne E. Desjardins watched farmers plowing and planting maize in Lamjung district in Nepal, where she was a Peace Corps science teacher.

Milho, Makka, and Yu Mai

Early Journeys of Sea mays to Asia

Anne E. Desjardins1 and Susan A. McCarthy2
1 National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, Agricultural Research Service, USDA, Peoria, IL, 61604, and 2National Agricultural Library, USDA, Beltsville, MD, 20705.

Every spring in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal, farmers plow their terraced fields and plant maize (Zea mays), an American crop plant. Nepalese farmers plant yellow-seeded maize, orange, red, white, and multi-colored maize. Women grind the grain for a thick porridge to be eaten with lentils and vegetable curries at the two main meals of the day. Field workers carry popcorn and pots of fermented maize beer for their midday lunch. Farmers feed green maize stalks to their water buffaloes and goats when other fodder becomes scarce during the spring dry season. Dried maize stalks and husks are used for weaving fencing and mats. And during the ceremonies of the autumn harvest festival of Dasain, villagers wear tikas of rice and yogurt on their foreheads and pale yellow seedlings of maize in their hair.

In March 1972, I watched farmers plowing and planting maize in Lamjung district in Nepal, where I was a Peace Corps science teacher. In my two-room stone house, I sat by the wood fire and ate maize porridge with lentils and mustard greens. As I ate my maize, I wondered how an American crop plant had become a staple food in a remote region of the Himalayas. My neighbors were convinced that their maize, or makai, was "local", and only one among the many crop plants, such as rice, millet, and buckwheat, that actually are indigenous to the Himalayas. They believed that maize and other American crop plants like the chili peppers and tomatoes they used in their curries had been with them from ancestral times. After I left Nepal in 1973, I pursued a career in scientific research on fungal diseases of maize and wheat in the United States, but I also returned to Nepal on four more occasions. In 1993 I began field work on fungal diseases of maize in Nepal in collaboration with scientists at the Nepal Agricultural Research Council. But 30 years after I first saw maize being planted in Lamjung, I still had no satisfactory answer to my questions about the introduction of maize to Nepal. To answer these questions, I began a collaboration with Susan McCarthy, a plant physiologist and agricultural historian, to research the history of maize in Asia. In this article we present our first discoveries of early journeys of maize to Asia. We hope that our study will serve as a foundation for future research.

This article begins with the discovery of maize in Mesoamerica by Columbus in 1492. Subsequent chapters follow the journeys of maize eastward, as milho, makka, and yu mai, to Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. Each chapter section begins with a general description of the types of evidence we have discovered for each geographical region, then continues with specific references to maize in general chronological order. We have focused as much as possible on the earliest records from the 16th to 18th centuries, and we have included 19th century material only when earlier data are scarce. Because many of the older source texts may be difficult for the general reader to obtain and because they often contain no subject indexes, we have provided numerous direct quotations and page numbers for specific references. We have not edited quotations to correct or modernize spelling, but we have simplified some quotations by omitting capitals except on proper nouns. Within quotations, brackets indicate original material and parentheses indicate material we have added. Because neither of us has the linguistic skills to read Portuguese, Spanish, African, or Asian languages, we have relied on English and French translations of texts in those languages. Otherwise, we have made a serious effort to use direct eye-witness accounts and other primary sources.
We are grateful for the assistance of many librarians, especially Joyce Blumenshine and Michelle Yoder at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, Miguel Garcia at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, Louise Anemaat at the State Library of New South Wales and Toni Swann at the National Agricultural Library. We thank Mercedes Panizzi for translation of Portuguese material and Deepak Bhatnagar for translation of Hindi material. Field work in Nepal was conducted with support from the USDA and the United States Fulbright Foundation, with the collaboration of Gyanu Manandhar, Hira Manandhar, and other scientists at the Nepal Agricultural Research Council, and with the cooperation of the people of Lamjung district.

Several independent lines of evidence support the conclusion that Zea mays originated only in Mesoamerica. Evolutionary studies indicate that wild species of the genus Zea, which are found only in Mesoamerica, are the closest relatives of maize. Botanical studies document that maize is very widespread and extremely diverse in the Americas. Fossil records support an ancient date for domestication of maize in Mesoamerica and nowhere else. Archaeological records chronicle a long history of use of maize among Native Americans. In the historical documents of Europe, Africa, and Asia, there are no definitive records of maize prior to 1492, but there are numerous records of maize dating from the late 15th century. Although some critics have argued for an independent evolution of maize in Asia, or for pre-Columbian diffusion of maize to Asia, the evidence consists largely of folklore and interpretation of ambiguous Indian texts and sculptures. Some critics have even argued that the supposed primitive agriculturalists of Asia could not have adopted and diversified maize in only five centuries, which most experts agree gives far too little credit to the ingenuity of Asian farmers (170).
Maize is an Amerian Plant
Because maize originated in one geographical area and spread to Europe, Africa, and Asia during the past five centuries, the historical record is an important source of evidence, even though that evidence is often incomplete. Due to the authors' limited linguistic abilities, our access to the historical record has been restricted to European accounts and to English and French translations of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Chinese documents. For a complete survey of historical records of maize, we will need to develop collaborations with linguists or native speakers who are familiar with Middle Eastern and Asian languages. Due perhaps in part to language limitations, we have been able to identify few 16th, 17th, and 18th century records of agriculture or of American crop plants in the Middle East and in far-western China. In 16th and 17th century India, in contrast, many European travellers report the American crop plants tobacco and pineapple, but few travellers mention maize, even though Indian records document the presence of maize in western India in the 17th century. Perhaps because these early travellers were traders, merchants, and missionaries, they lacked the interest or the botanical expertise to distinguish maize from the diversity of sorghums, millets, and other Indian cereal crops that were unfamiliar to them.

Maize crossed Asia within 100 years
The historical record supports the conclusion that maize spread from west to east across Eurasia and reached China within 60 years of its introduction to Spain soon after 1492. Historical documents and linguistic evidence support the hypothesis that the earliest introductions of maize to eastern Asia were along overland routes of trade between Asian populations and not the result of direct introduction by Europeans. Once maize was introduced from the Americas to the Mediterranean region, it could move rapidly across the west to east axis because it was already adapted to the latitudes and climates of the regions in which it was spreading. For example, the Bahama Islands where Columbus first landed are at the same general latitudes as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Yunnan in southwestern China. The spread of maize across Eurasia in the 16th century echoes the well-documented spread of wheat and barley several thousand years ago from the Middle East to Ireland in the west and Japan in the east (171). Accounts of 16th century Muslim and Christian travellers document maize in Ethiopia by the year 1526, and on major trade routes of the Middle East by the year 1574. By the early 17th century, maize was being recorded in western India as makka or grain of Mecca, the Muslim holy city in Saudi Arabia. Even three centuries later, variations of grain of Mecca remained as vernacular names for maize throughout the Middle East and South Asia. This linguistic evidence supports a role for Muslim traders in disseminating maize from the Mediterranean region to India and further east. Records of the Ming Dynasty document extensive trade missions in the 16th century from the Middle East and South Asia along the northwestern trade routes of the Silk Road through far-western China. However, we have not found specific references to maize among the trade goods listed in translations of the Ming documents. We have not found any eyewitness reports of maize cultivation along the Silk Road until the early 19th century when the first British agents were permitted to enter far-western China. Although Ming Dynasty agricultural histories support the overland introduction of maize from western regions of China by 1550-1570, evidence is not sufficient to determine the relative importance of the northwestern trade route from the Middle East and the southwestern trade route from northeastern India.

Maize travelled by sea and overland
During the 16th century the Portuguese built a network of trade settlements in Brazil, Africa, and Asia. They discovered Brazil in 1500 and introduced maize, from Brazil or Europe, to the western coast of Africa by 1520-1550 and to the eastern coast by 1620. Variations of the Portuguese name milho for maize survive in several African languages. They established the capital city of their Estada da India in Goa on the western coast of India in 1510 and small trade settlements at Bengal on the northeastern coast in 1536. Although the Portuguese coastal settlements are a likely point of introduction of maize, we have found no mention of maize in descriptions of these settlements by 16th and 17th century European travellers. Furthermore, we have found no evidence that the Portuguese name milho for maize has survived in any South Asian language. If maize were introduced from Portuguese settlements into the Mughal Empire of northern India, then it could have spread northward to the major trade routes into China. In their eastward search for spices, the Portuguese also established trade settlements on Sumatra, Timor and other islands of the southeast Asian archipelago, where they introduced maize and other American crop plants. Among the natives of these islands, the Portuguese name milho for maize has survived. As they continued east, Portuguese traders reached the southern coast of China in 1517, but they did not build a permanent trade settlement until 1557, which postdates the first record of maize in inland China. Fifty years ago, Charles Boxer determined that supposed records of maize in coastal provinces of China in the 16th century are mistranslations of the original Portuguese and Chinese documents. Thus, we have found no reliable historical record of a maritime introduction of maize to China by the Portuguese during the 16th century, whereas the 16th century overland introduction of maize into China is well-documented.

Adaptability of Maize in Asia
The rapid spread of maize in 16th and 17th century Asia was facilitated by its prior adaptation to the latitudes and climates of the region and by the presence of long-established networks of overland trade. The historical record indicates that maize cultivation initially did not displace the long-established and productive irrigated rice systems of coastal India and eastern China, but instead utilized marginal or new agricultural lands. Maize was adopted first by aboriginal tribes and other land-poor farmers in mountainous regions of South Asia and western China. As Buchanan noted in his surveys of South Asia around the year 1800, while the natives of the southern city of Bangalore thought it absurd to consider maize as a cereal grain, the poor farmers of the Himalayan mountains in Kangra and Nepal were already living "much on maize". The extraordinary diversity and versatility of maize contributed much to its success as a new crop in complex Asian agricultural systems with extreme variability in altitude, slope, rainfall, soil, and agronomic practices. As a result, in Nepal today, maize is grown on more than 800,000 hectares comprising 30% of the total cultivated land and remains the staple food of populations in the hill regions (172). Yields of maize in Nepal, however, remain very low, averaging less than two metric tons per hectare, as compared to more than eight metric tons per hectare in the United States. The main challenge to maize research in Asia today is to increase the productivity and nutritional quality of an American crop plant that feeds many of the poorest human populations in Asia and throughout the world.

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Story Source: USDA

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