Rajendra Agricultural University

Antiquity of maize in India
--M. Kumar and J. K. S. Sachan

Post-Columbian introduction of maize into India by the Portuguese in the 16th century or later has been accepted by most of the maize workers. However, the peculiar features of maize being grown in remote northeastern Himalayan tracts adjoining Burma and Tibet have stimulated an interesting discussion among maize workers on the possible pre-Columbian introduction of maize in these hilly tracts of the Himalayas. This curiosity has led to extensive work on various aspects of the NEH maize. Some observations on ethno-botany (Stonor and Anderson, 1949; Marszewski, 1968, 1978), plant type (Mukherjee et al., 1971; Singh, 1977, 1989; Sachan and Sarkar, 1982), pachytene analysis (Gupta and Jain, 1971; Dash et al.; 1986, Pande et al., 1988; Kumar and Sachan, 1992), chromosome banding (Mohan and Raut, 1980; Sachan et al., 1982; Pande et al., 1983) and biochemical assays (Pereira et al., 1983) have been reported.

Jeffreys (1965) has suggested that maize had been introduced by the Arabs and not by the Portuguese, in the pre-Columbian era. The Indian names for maize, like Makka jouri (Mecca sorghum), Makka jola (Mecca sorghum), Makkai (grain of Mecca), Mukka Cholam (Mecca sorghum) etc. provide evidence for such a hypothesis. Kuleshov (1928) reported that varieties similar to those described from the Naga tribes are widespread in Central Asia from Persia and Turkestan to Tibet and Siberia. However, Ashraf (1990, personal communication) has discounted such a diffusion of maize in India by the Arabs, and instead cited the mention of maize as "Markataka" in ancient Sanskrit religious texts, 'Vishnu Purana' and 'Apasthamba Saruta Sutra'. Etymology of this terminology and subsequent derivation of the term "Mak" or "Maka" appears to be convincing (Ashraf, 1990). Further depiction of so-called maize "ears" in Indian sculptures in Somnathpur and other Hoysala temples of 12-13 century A.D. as well as some other older Hindu and Buddhist temples has been cited (Johannessen and Parker, 1989) as evidence of pre-Columbian diffusion of maize in India. However, depiction of maize "ears" in Hoysala temples was refuted by Sachan and Payak (Nature, 1989).

Stonor and Anderson's (1949) contention of uniqueness of maize grown by various ethnic groups of erstwhile greater Assam is further supported by the presence of four new knob forming positions at 1Lb, 2Lt, and 9Lb in these NEH strains (Kumar, MNL60, 1992) which are hitherto unknown in maize of the West Hemisphere. It is interesting to note that these knob positions, though absent in maize, are present in Mexican teosinte. Similarly, some new knob positions in two Sikkim Primitive strains, SP1 and SP2, have been identified earlier also (Gupta and Jain, 1971). These knob positions, 7L, 8S, 8L and 10La, were not present in evolved varieties. Hence, it can be concluded that there were two sets of maize introductions in NEH (a) in prehistoric times through a sea/land route much before the discovery of America by Columbus in 1492, and (b) in the post-Columbian era by Christian missionaries, material which essentially resembles Caribbean germplasm. Presence of both low and high knob number groups of maize strains in the NEH region of India further suggests two possible lineages (a) Nal-Tel-Chapalote complex, (b) Confite Morocho and to some extent Palomero Toluqueno.

The pre-Columbian introduction must have taken place through trans-Pacific routes. Otherwise, there would have been traces of this kind of maize along the trade routes during the post-Columbian era. The absence of such traces suggests that pre-Columbian introduction of maize into the Himalayan region might have taken place through routes across southeast Asia and the Pacific islands (Sachan et al., 1978; Ashraf, 1985, 1987).

Deep involvement of maize in the customs, tradition and economy of tribal people in the centre NEH further supports the prehistoric introduction of maize in these areas (Thapa, 1966). Also two written records, namely Tien, non Pen tS'ao (Chinese) and Vamsavali (Nepalese) support the view that maize was cultivated in the Arunanchal, Bhutan, Sikkim and North Burma in the pre-Columbian time (Marszewski, 1978). 

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