[Note: This is the thirty-fourth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy. I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while. My blog is home to reviews of 203 books, and you are very welcome to explore them. The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.]
Corn is a jumbo-sized tropical grass that can grow 10 feet (3 m) tall. Some exotic strains can grow to 43 feet. In many countries outside the U.S., “corn” means any type of grain, and “maize” is specific to the plant Zea mays (mays/maize). Somewhere around 8000 B.C., corn was domesticated in Mesoamerica (the region spanning from central Mexico to Nicaragua). Experts have many different opinions about when, where, and how it happened. Over centuries, the wee, humble, mild-mannered wild grass was transformed into an amazing Super Plant — and a time bomb.
Domesticated corn, cattle, sheep, and wolves (dogs), are ecologically hobbled. These mutants have little ability to survive outside the human sphere. With corn, the rugged husks securely hold the kernels on the cob, inhibiting their ability to fall to the ground and produce the next generation. If a field of mature corn is abandoned, the corn plants are likely to go extinct within two years or so.
Even the corn of colonial America was phenomenally productive. Paul Weatherwax wrote that typically, for each seed planted in Indian farming, folks could harvest 300, far better than Old World grains. When conditions were perfect, it could yield up to 2,000 seeds. Today, 33 percent of the U.S. corn crop is used for animal feed. North American tribes had no livestock to feed, and turkeys were good at foraging. Thus, essentially the entire harvest was food for humans, minus some seeds set aside for sowing next year’s crop. After the seeds were stripped off, the cobs made excellent tailpipe cleaners (tree-friendly predecessors of toilet paper).
Corn began migrating into the eastern U.S. around maybe A.D. 200, but the heat loving tropical grass did not enjoy the shorter summers and cooler climate. By 900, it had adapted to the temperate climate, and its use expanded. By 1200, the corn culture had spread from Florida to Ontario. In South America, corn expanded into regions of Peru and Chile.
Alfred Crosby noted that early white settlers in America were amazed by corn. Sowing a bushel of wheat might yield 12 to 20 bushels at harvest time. A bushel of corn might yield 200 bushels or more. Corn was a fairly reliable producer that could be grown using simple tools and unskilled labor. It could do OK on marginal soils, required minimal weeding, and could survive several frosts. It also stored well. Husks discouraged losses to birds. When mature, ears could be left on the stalk and harvested later, without risk of spoilage.
In America, both settlers and Indians were far better nourished than the feeble porridge eating commoners of Europe. Most folks in the future U.S. lived in rural areas, in low density, which discouraged epidemics. Well-fed settlers bred like roaches and many of their kiddies survived to adulthood. Folks had access to abundant land for expansion. By 1775, the U.S. population was doubling every 25 years. In 1790, half of Americans were younger than 16 years old.
Colonists brought with them a collection of Old World diseases. Those pathogens had been created by combining dense crowds of malnourished people, with dense crowds of non-human animals, all living together in conditions terrible hygiene, filthy water, streets filled with garbage and excrement, and millions of fleas, lice, and rats. Native Americans had no immunity to the deadly pathogens. Clive Ponting wrote that up to 90 percent of them died from disease. The death toll during the sixteenth century may have been close to 100 million.
Among the Indians who survived the epidemics, the corn-growing tribes were the most vulnerable. European colonists aggressively destroyed their fields and stored grain. Nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes were not chained to a place by their food supply, so they could disappear into the forest, and kill settlers when they had the strategic advantage, when they were in the mood for rough justice. But, for good reason, they often avoided contact with white folks, because the settlers were walking reservoirs of highly contagious deadly diseases.
Hominins were nomadic for four million years. More recently, humans have discovered that sedentary living provides some benefits, but they come at high cost to their health, security, sanity, their children, the environment, and so on. Jared Diamond wrote a fascinating essay on the emergence of domestication. It had a catchy title, “The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race.” He noted, “In particular, recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.”
Diamond mentioned the research done by George Armelagos, who studied the skeletons of 800 Native Americans found at the Dickson Mounds site in Illinois. The upper level (newer) skeletons were farmers, and those found lower (older) were hunter-gatherers. At birth, a hunter had a life expectancy of 26 years, and a farmer was 19 years.
Hunters enjoyed a high quality diet of wild foods. Farmers got adequate calories from starchy foods, but their corn-based diet lacked some amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. Farmers lived in greater density, which was better for sharing diseases and parasites.
Farmers had almost 50 percent more tooth enamel defects, four times more iron-deficiency anemia, three times more bone lesions, and more spinal damage, probably from hard physical labor. James Scott mentioned that women who regularly ground corn while squatting on their knees had deformed toes.
Forty years after Diamond’s heretical essay, Peter Ungar published a book that included newer research on changes in bones and teeth over the centuries. He noted that in the New World, the average caries rate (tooth decay) for corn eaters was five times higher than for hunter-gatherers. Also, corn eaters had far more caries than folks who ate Old World grains.
Importantly, Ungar did not forget to mention that even corn eating Indians had far better teeth than modern Americans who, for no good reason, consume staggering quantities of a devilish health-thrashing substance known as sugar. It helps bacteria stick to the teeth, making it easier for them to colonize, accumulate, and produce lactic acid. Sugar took away my mother’s teeth before I was born, and later gave her diabetes (which I got too).
And then, the choir sat down, and Michael Pollan stepped up to the pulpit, and proceeded to deliver a ferocious hellfire and brimstone attack on the Devil’s food — sugar. Americans are getting as fat as heck, and their kiddies are likely to have a lower life expectancy than their mommies and daddies. The old proverb says, you are what you eat. Thus, literally, what Americans mostly are is processed corn.
Most of the excess calories we consume are made of corn. Traditional table sugar (sucrose) is made from sugar cane or sugar beets. In 1970s, the new kid on the block appeared — high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). A bushel of corn (35 l) can produce 33 pounds (15 kg) of HFCS. Junk food made with HFCS is extremely cheap, one dollar can buy 1,200 calories of body rotting garbage. HFCS is commonly used in making processed foods, breakfast cereals, and soft drinks. By 1999, the average American was annually devouring 37.5 pounds (17 kg) of HFCS, in addition to table sugar. In 2018, we consumed 62.4 pounds of sugar (both HFCS and table sugar).
Of the world’s primary grains, corn has the most nutrient deficiencies. In unprocessed corn kernels, the niacin is not in a free form, so your body can’t utilize it. Niacin (vitamin B3) is an essential nutrient. Also, corn has some protein shortcomings — too little tryptophan or lysine (important amino acids). Native Americans eventually figured out how to address these two challenges.
For the niacin issue, the solution is called nixtamalization, which is a happy bouncy word for the process of treating corn with an alkaline solution — lime or wood ash, plus water. The corn is soaked and cooked in the solution. This softens the kernels, loosens their hulls, and transforms the niacin into a free form that your body can use. Hooray!
After the processed kernels are washed, their hulls are removed. The softened kernels (hominy) are easier to grind. Ground hominy is called masa, which can be made into a dough, unlike ground corn that has not been processed. Masa is used to make products like tortillas, tamales, and tortilla chips.
As non-Native Americans became corn eaters, many did not know about the niacin quirk. Poor folks whose diet majored in cheap untreated corn meal often got pellagra. In the 1880s, 100,000 poor Italians suffered from it. In 1916, 100,000 Americans had pellagra, and the disease killed 7,500 every year, mostly poor southerners. It affected twice as many women as men. Without treatment, folks with pellagra can die in four or five years. The way to prevent pellagra is also the way to cure it — shift to a diet that is at least slightly better (added milk, eggs, meat, legumes, greens, etc.).
For the protein issue, beans came to the rescue. Beans provide amino acids missing in corn. Eating corn and beans together can provide higher protein content. One source recommended a blend of three parts beans to seven parts corn. Also, squash seeds can contain 30 percent protein. A popular Native American delicacy was succotash, a mixture of corn, beans, dog meat, and bear grease.
On a side note, Lynn White mentioned that folks in Europe also discovered magic beans (peas, lentils, beans). Prior to beans, the diet of commoners majored in carbs from cereals, and was deficient in protein. By the tenth century, the addition of beans to the crappy traditional diet spurred a surge in the growth of population and cities. Wheat provided an adequate source of niacin. Nutrition is big juju! Nutrient deficiency diseases like pellagra, beriberi, scurvy, kwashiorkor, and so on, are essentially unknown among hunter-gatherers.
Big Mama Nature does a wonderful job of nurturing optimal stability in the family of life. She does this over the passage of countless millennia, guiding ecosystems to find ways of adapting to ever changing conditions. On the other hand, cultures of tropical primates that participate in domestication-based cultures have a habit of being as clumsy as a mob of hyperactive two year olds.
All life depends, directly or indirectly, on essentials like sunlight, water, oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and so on. In a healthy wild ecosystem, these essentials are continuously recycled by plants, animals, and the billions of wee folk who work on the composting team. It’s a beautiful celebration of life that can happily continue until the sun burns out. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what is known as sustainability, in its genuine and sacred form (prior to the era overhunting, overbreeding, extinctions, etc.).
In domestication-based cultures, some essentials are depleted, at various rates, which weakens the health of the ecosystem. Phosphorus depletion is likely to reach crisis stage ahead of the others, since the output of global phosphate mining peaked in 1989, and what remains is of declining quality. Phosphorus is transferred from the soil to the corn, from the corn to the hog, from the hog to the human, flushed down the toilet and sent to the sea, lost forever.
Poop is precious. Remember that. In 1588, Anzelm Gostomski, a Polish gentleman, once proclaimed an eternal truth: “Manure is worth more than a man with a doctorate” (a great slogan for a snarky tattoo). In the modern world, every trainload, boatload, and planeload of food that moves from the countryside to consumer land is carrying away essential soil nutrients on a one-way ride to a sewage treatment plant, or to the nearest body of water. This is a pattern that has no long term future.
In the Old World, in the era of low tech, muscle-powered, organic agriculture, every farm and village had livestock, poultry, and tropical primates that were highly skilled at producing generous amounts of excellent homemade fertilizer. Everyone religiously returned the nutrient rich treasure to the soil, because this was more fun than depleting the soil and starving. Farming and grazing also injured the land in other ways, which makes the sweet dream of sustainable agriculture very close to impossible in the long run, no matter how much hopium we snort. Wild hominins lived happily for several million years, and it never occurred to them to chop down the forests and wreck the soil — so they didn’t.
Even modest sized cities could indulge in holy shit rituals. In 1909, Franklin Hiram King visited Kyoto, Japan. While traveling down a road one lovely morning, he observed a long caravan of men pulling cartloads of fresh night soil from town. They were in the process of returning the treasure to the fields that fed them. Each cart carried six 10-gallon (38 l) covered containers of aromatic plant food. King noted that he passed 52 of these carts. Then, on the return trip, he passed another 61 carts. Other caravans moved down other roads. He estimated that 90 tons of waste were hauled out of town on that morning. I wonder if this was a daily routine.
Over in the New World, in better times, there used to be millions of large herbivores, some of which (like horses) may have been suitable for domestication. Sadly, many of them had gone extinct by maybe 12,000 years ago. Consequently, most corn farmers owned zero livestock. In the Andes, some folks owned domesticated llamas and alpacas. They were beasts of burden, and meat animals. Nobody rode them or milked them. One source asserted that these two animals were not kept in large numbers. Another source mentioned one herder who alone owned 50,000. When I worked at a technical writing business, there was a slogan on the bulletin board, “Remember: If it’s in writing, it’s true!”
Similarly, in grade school I was taught that Native Americans buried two or three herring or alewives in each mound that corn was planted in, for fertilizer. James Axtell wrote that this was semi-fake news. Indians didn’t traditionally do this. Squanto, a Pawtuxet woman, had previously been kidnapped by terrorists and taken to Spain. She learned the fish fertilizer trick in Europe.
She managed to escape and return home, where she taught the Cape Cod Pilgrims how to plant corn. For no good reason, Pilgrims chained themselves to specific plots of private property, and then proceeded to deplete the soil. New England colonists were delighted to learn that one or two herring buried in a planting mound could sometimes triple the yield. The natives, on the other hand, had no wheeled carts, and were not bewitched by daffy ideas like private property. When their current fields were depleted, it was far easier to simply clear new fields. Hauling lots of slippery fish around in baskets was not pleasurable work.
Paul Weatherwax wrote about early Native American agriculture. Several societies along the Pacific coast utilized a super fertilizer called guano (bird poop). At some locations there were enormous deposits that seabird colonies had created over many centuries. The Inca civilization prohibited killing birds in these colonies. During the nesting season, nobody could visit the treasure islands. Law breakers were executed.
In 1585, one observer in North Carolina reported that Indian farmers used no manure or other fertilizer. In 1635, someone made the same comment about Indians in Virginia. In the Cuzco Valley of Peru, folks dried human excrement, pulverized it, and stored it until planting time. In some regions, manure from alpacas and llamas was also used. In the history of poop, many chapters have yet to be written.