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maize in Asia before Columbus

Hu McCulloch mcculloch.2 at osu.edu
Fri Mar 13 08:46:15 EST 1998

 yuku at mail.trends.ca (Yuri Kuchinsky) writes:

> I've actually looked up this publication [recommended by Jeff Baker
as providing evidence against the arguments put forward by 
Johannessen and Parker, "Maize Ears Sculptured in 12th and 13th
Century AD India as Indicators of Pre-Columbian Diffusion", 
 _Economic Botany_,1989] in the library here.

>Chowdhury, K.A., 1990, Archaeobotany. In An Encyclopedia of Indian
>Archaeology, Vol. I, edited by A. Ghosh, pp. 6-9. E.J. Brill, New York. 

>In v. 1, p. 7, one finds the following:

>[begin quote]
>2.2.7 _Zea Mays_ (maize, makka). Imprints found at KAUNDINYAPURA in c.
>1435. Primitive (living fossil) maize in Sikkim is cytologically different
>from American of Carribean maize, supporting its pre-Columbian occurrence
>in the subcontinent, though perhaps it was reintroduced by the Arabs.
>[end quote]

>This of course refers to the work of Vishnu-Mittre which has been
>considered in some detail previously last year by me and Peter. It seems
>like Chowdhury is persuaded that this archaeological evidence is valid.

Yes, it does!  On rereading J&P, I think they 
are overly cautious about these potsherd imprints
of maize kernels and leaves from Madhya Pradesh.  They note that the 
imprints have Width/Thickness (W/T) ratio of 2.0, whereas the kernels in 
the Somnathpur temple, depicted at

   http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~carljohann ,
   http://www.globalserve.net/~yuku/dif/wmzpix.htm , and
   http://www.econ.ohio-state.edu/jhm/arch/maize.html ,

have an average W/T of only 1.3.  However, their Figure 5 shows that 2.0 
is quite typical for modern maize, and if anything it is the Somnathpur 
kernels that are atypical.  The latter are at the bottom end of the range for 
modern maize, but nevertheless within the range for ancient New Mexico 
maizes shown in J&P Table 1.  So although both the 
Somnathpur W/T and the Kaundinyapura W/T can be justified,
it's actually more of a stretch in the former case.    Madhya Pradesh
is much further north (in Central India, capital Bhopal), and so
likely has a different climate that would support different strains of
maize than So. Karnataka (vicinity Mysore, Bangalore), where
J&P's temple sculptures are found.

 >And in v. 2, there's a brief description of this Kaundinyapura site. It is
>an ancient site with a well attested Megalithic level (which in India is
>considered to have begun ca. 1000 bce). The settlement then declined by
>late medieval times. In this description one finds the following:

>[begin quote]
>Besides a few Muslim coins, the cultural data for this Pd [late medieval]
>are very meagre, the only interesting object being a potsherd bearing the
>impression of a maize cob which, along with the prehistoric maize from
>Java, constitutes the only example of the pre-Columbian occurrence of
>maize in the Old World. (Dikshit, M.G., 1968, Excavations at
>Kaundinyapura, Bombay.) 
>[end quote]

The prehistoric maize in Java is a new one on me.  Johannessen tells 
me he's aware of something there, but hasn't had the opportunity to check it 
out adequately yet.  Were the references to it authored by Chowdhury?
Perhaps we should try to contact him.

>That's all there is about maize in these 2 volumes. Not a word about the
>maize in the Hoysala temples. I found only one passing reference to these
>temples themselves.

>And there's also this reference to some precolumbian maize found in Java.
>I know nothing about this find, and the book does not explain.

>And in v. 1, on p. 163, I've found the following rather revealing

>[begin quote]
>Lower Deccan. The area now covered by Karnataka State was ruled by several
>important dynasties in the late historical period -- the Chalukyas, ... 
>the Hoysalas, etc., -- who studded the land with temples and left behind
>inscriptions and coins. But the archaeology proper of the area during this
>period [Late Historical] has been inadequately studied, with the result
>that hardly anything of the material culture is known. 
>[end quote]

>So things are rather clear now. These archaeological digs in that area
>that some here were expounding about exist only in their own minds. The
>argument from the absence of evidence is completely irrelevant in this

Good work, Yuri!  It does stand to reason that there should be lots of maize 
remains to be found if it really was as important as J&P claim it must have 
been.  The fact that none have turned up may simply reflect that there haven't 
been that many digs in the relevant area.


-- Hu McCulloch

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