Corn Collections Inform Crop Understanding

Posted September 27, 2023

“Maize (aka corn) is the single most important crop in the world today. It is the most widespread, with the greatest production and use,” shared Mark Varien, former Executive Vice President of Crow Canyon’s Research Institute (retired) and lead researcher on the Maize Database Project, which he saw through to completion in 2022.

“For many Indigenous groups, maize is much more than just food. It’s part of almost all ceremonies and important to virtually every aspect of their lives. The Hopi people refer to themselves as people of corn, and corn is the foundation of Hopi culture,” explained Mark.

This overwhelming importance of maize, both historically and today, led the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office and Crow Canyon to collaborate on a research project to locate and inventory maize collections from museums and repositories throughout the U.S.

Years of visits to museums, calls to universities, and outreach to repository sites identified more than 100,000 individual maize specimens from more than 18,000 accessions (an accession is the formal act whereby a museum or other repository legally accepts objects into their permanent collection). The team also located more than 2,000 samples whose dates have been determined. “The maize in these collections represents about 5,000 years of agriculture,” shared Mark.

Funded by the History Colorado State Historical Fund, the project produced two comprehensive databases and an annotated bibliography, all publicly available on Crow Canyon’s website.

Mark is hopeful as he thinks about the future use and possibilities this project can offer others: “It enables studies of how different varieties of maize developed and spread. It also enables further study of the development of temperate adaptations in maize. And it provides invaluable resources and materials educators can use to create curricula about why maize was important, especially for Indigenous people, but also people around the world,” he shared.

Click here to learn more about the project.

Click here for a video about the project.

This story is from the 2022 Annual Report.