Photograph of a sculpture of the maize goddess Chicomecoatl at the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico. The photo shows The head of a woman wearing a large headdress and large decorative plugs in the lobes of her ears. In her right hand, show holds two ears of maize.

Cultural history of maize

Page snapshot: Introduction to the cultural significance of maize in human societies, beginning in Mesoamerica and eventually spreading throughout the world.

Topics covered on this page: Introduction; Maize in Mexico and Central America; Maize in past Mesoamerican cultures; Mexican and Central American food traditions; Maize in South America; Maize in the Inca Empire; South American food traditions; Maize in North American north of Mexico; Maize in the Southwest; Maize in the East; Maize as a world crop; Introduction of maize outside of the Americas; Pellagra; Food traditions beyond the Americas; Europe; Africa; Asia; Resources.

Credits: Funded by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. Some text on this page comes from a revised manuscript of the Teacher-Friendly Guide to the Evolution Maize (Carlyn Buckler, Dhyan Palanichamy, and Andrielle Swaby, 2019). Additional text and revisions by Elizabeth J. Hermsen (2023).

Updates: Page last updated April 21, 2023.

Image above: Chicomecóatl (Seven Serpent or Seven Snake), an Aztec maize deity, Museum of Anthropology, Mexico. Photo by Adam Jones (flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, image cropped and resized).


Domesticated over the centuries, maize nourished the civilizations that became the mighty empires of the early Americas, including the Olmec (1200 to 400 BC, Mesoamerica), Maya (peaking about 250 to 950 AD in Mesoamerica, but with roots in the more ancient past and persisting to the present), Aztec (about 1345 to 1521 AD, Mesoamerica), and Inca (about 1400 to 1533 AD, northwestern South America). In fact, because it was nutritious, easy to store and carry, adapted to diverse growing conditions, and provided food and fuel, maize became a staple food for many cultures throughout the Americas. After Europeans arrived in the Americas, they too began cultivating maize and spread it around the world. 

This page provides an overview of the cultural history of maize, from its cradle in Mesoamerica to its spread to become the most widely cultivated cereal crop in the world. It is not possible to cover the entire history and cultural significance of maize in depth in such a short space, so it instead this summary provides some highlights that the reader can use as starting points for further exploration.

Photograph of blue maize kernels and red maize kernels spread out on white cloths in a market in Mexico.

Maize kernels for sale in a Amecameca, Mexico State, Mexico. Photo by AlejandroLinaresGarcia (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license, image cropped and resized).

Maize in Mexico and Central America

Scientists think that maize began the process of domestication as long as 9000 years ago, when people in Mesoamerica began cultivating its ancestor, Balsas teosinte. The oldest maize pollen, about 8700 years old, comes from the Balsas Valley of Mexico, which is thought to have been the cradle of maize domestication. Additional maize pollen that is more than 7000 years old has been discovered in Tabasco, Mexico, and Panama. While the oldest maize cobs are from Peru, maize cobs that are more than 6000 years old are known from Oaxaca, Mexico. Additional maize cobs that are more than 4000 years old (the oldest is about 5900 years old) have been collected from other sites in Puebla and Tamaulipas, Mexico, as well as from the El Gigante rockshelter in Honduras.

Despite this evidence, analysis of human remains from Mesoamerica indicates that maize only became a significant part of some peoples' diets between about 4700 and 4000 years ago, shifting to a dietary staple after 4000 years ago.

Learn more about maize domestication

Maize in past Mesoamerican cultures

The Olmec civilization (1200 to 400 BC), which was located in the region of modern-day Tabasco and Veracruz, southeastern Mexico, initially flourished without relying heavily on maize as a dietary staple. About 3000 years ago (900 BC), maize began to become a much more important part of the Olmec diet and culture. 

The Mayan Civilization, which had its peak from around 250 AD to 950 AD, was centered in the same region as the Olmec civilization. Maize was so important to the ancient Mayans that it had spiritual and religious significance. According to Mayan legends, humans were created from maize. Many other Mayan legends revolve around maize, and images of maize have been found on Mayan artifacts, murals, and hieroglyphs. Key Mayan gods include the Tonsured Maize God and the Foliated Maize God. The Tonsured God’s head is shaved to represent a maize cob, with a small crest of hair to represent the tassel. The Foliated Maize God, on the other hand, symbolizes a still young, tender, and green maize ear.

3-Panel image showing a the head of a sculpture of the Tonsured Maize Deity of the Mayans in three views. The head appears to have a headdress of some sort and large earrings. The head's lips are parted slightly so that its tongue can be seen.

Figure of the the head of the Tonsured Maize Deity of the Maya, ca. 550-850 AD, in three views. This head was probably a decoration on a building. Left photo, center photo, and right photo by Walters Art Museum (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license, images cropped and resized).

3-Panel image showing a figurine of the Young Maize Deity of the Mayans in three views. The figure appears to be ceramic. The bottom of the figure appears to be a cylindrical stalk, whereas the top shows open leaves from which the chest and head of a man emerge. The man's arms are crossed, he is wearing a beaded necklace and ear plugs, and has a radiating hairstyle with a ring at the top of the head.

Figure of the Young Maize Deity of the Maya, ca. 900s AD, in three views. Left photo, center photo, and right photo by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication).

Later, the Aztec civilization (about 1345 to 1521 AD), another civilization located in southern Mexico, also had maize dieties. Chicomecóatl (Seven Snake, goddess of mature maize) is depicted wearing a large headdress with rosettes and holding ears of maize. Other maize dieties include Xilonen, a goddess who represents young maize, and Cinteotl, a maize god.

The Aztec Empire came to an end in the 1500s, with the arrival of Spanish conquistadors led by Hernán Cortés. Aztec (or Nahua) society, including the maize deities and the use of maize, was later documented in the extensive Florentine Codex assembled by Spanish priest Bernadino de Sahagún from 1540 to 1585 with the help of Nahua students. 

2-Panel images of the Aztec maize goddess Chicomecóatl or Seven Snake. Panel 1: Drawing of Chicomecóatl from the Florentine Codex. The drawing shows Chicomecóatl holding an urn with two ears of maize in her right hand and a shield in her left hand. She is sitting on seven snakes and people kneel in front of her and offer her food. Panel 2: A stone figure of Chicomecóatl wearing a rectangular headdress and holding two ears of maize in her right hand.

The Aztec maize goddess Chicomecóatl. Left: Depiction of Chicomecóatl from the 1500s showing the goddess holding a vessel with two ears of maize in her right hand and a shield in her left hand. People are giving her offerings, including maize. Right: Figure of Chicomecóatl from the 1400s to early 1500s. She is holding two ears of maize in her right hand and wearing a headdress. Left image from the Florentine Codex that dates of the 1500s (Wikimedia Commons, public domain); right image by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

3-Panel image showing illustrations of men planting and tending to maize plants from the Florentine Codex, a book which dates to the 1500s. The first panel shows a man digging holes and planting kernels that he is carrying in a sack around his neck. The second panel shows a man tending to maize plants. The man is kneeling and digging the end of an elongated tool into the ground. The third panel shows two men harvesting ears of maize.

Illustrations from volume 1 of the Florentine Codex (General History of the Things of New Spain, 1500s) showing the planting, tending, and harvesting of maize. Source: Library of Congress.

Mexican and Central American food traditions

A diversity of varieties (called landraces) of maize are cultivated in Mexico and Central America, with the most (more than 60) known from Mexico.

Traditionally in Mesoamerica, and continuing today in the region, maize kernels were treating using a process called nixtamalization. The term "nixtamalization" comes from the Nahuatl word nextamalli, a word for limewater-treated maize kernels. During nixtamalization, maize kernels are steeped in limewater (alkaline water), which causes the outer walls of the kernels to separate from the grain, kills the embryos, and also frees niacin in the grain. The process changes the flavor of the kernels and also improves their storage life and nutritional value. These treated kernels can ground to make masa, the dough used to make a variety of foods, like gorditas and tortillas. Some researchers have speculated that nixtamalization is the reason that pellagra, a disease caused by niacin (vitamin B3) deficiency that occurs in people with heavily maize-based diets lacking other sources of niacin, was not prevalent in Mesoamerica.

Many other types of food are made from maize in Mexico and Central America, including arepas (fried cakes made of maize flour, discussed further below), and chorreadas (maize pancakes).

Photograph of nixtamalization of maize. The photo shows a metal pot with two handles that is filled with corn kernels. A person, mostly out of frame, is stirring the maize with a wooden spoon. The spoon has a white stain on it near the level of the pot, perhaps caused by the added lime. Cement blocks, plastic bottles, and other debris can be seen in the background.

In nixtamalization, maize grains are steeped in water with a small amount of lime. The process removes the pericarp (bran) of the maize, improves its nutritional value, and prolongs its shelf life. Photo by E. Orchardson/CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center on flickrCreative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license, image cropped and resized).

Photograph of a woman preparing tortillas in Oaxaca Mexico. The photo shows a woman using a metate and mano to grind maize and make masa. Next to her is a flat metal sheet sitting a a fire. Two circular tortillas are cooking on the sheet. In from of the table where the woman is working, a basket holds a stack of finished tortillas.

A woman grinding maize, making masa, and cooking tortillas in the traditional way, Oaxaca, Mexico, 2020. Photo by Eduard Ruiz Mondragón (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license, image resized),

Photograph of tortillas being prepared. The photo shows a flat grill sitting on a fire, with five tortillas sitting on the grill. A person is picking up one of the tortillas, which has been slightly browned on the visible side.

A person making tortillas in Urique, Mexico. One of the traditional uses of maize is to make masa, a type of dough used in tortilla making. Photo by Eli Duke (flickrCreative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license, image resized).

Maize in South America

Maize has long been cultivated in northern South America and may have reached the continent by 7000 years ago. Some of the oldest popcorn ever found, dating to about 6800 to 6500 years ago, was discovered in coastal Peru. Depictions of maize appear on ancient artifacts, like those from the Nazca Culture (northwestern South America, ca. 200 BC to 600 AD) and Moche Culture (coastal Peru, ca. 1 to 700 AD). Many varieties of maize continue to be grown in the Andes today. 

2-panel figure showing photos of ancient ceramics from Peru featuring maize. Panel 1: A vessel shaped like a stalk of maize with two ears. Panel 2: Vessel shaped like a rodent nibbling on an ear of maize.

Ancient ceramics depicting maize from Peru. Left: Vessel shaped like a maize plant, Nazca, 1 to 600 AD. Right: Vessel shaped like a rodent with an ear of maize, Moche, 50 to 800 AD. Left photo by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, right photo by the Cleveland Museum of Art, both photos CC0 1.0 Universal/Public Domain Dedication.

Photograph of an ear of popcorn from the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. The photo shows an ear of maize with brown kernels. The ear is about 7 centimeters long.

An ear of popcorn from Tarapacá in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. This ear is between 930 and 350 years old. Source: Figure 9 from Elgueta et al. (2019) PLoS ONE 14(1): e0210369 (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license, image resized).

Maize in the Inca Empire

The Inca civilization covered a vast distance in northwestern South America, from north of present-day Quito, Ecuador, to south of Santiago, Chile, and from the coast of northwestern South America into the Andes Mountains. The empire lasted from about 1400 to 1533 (ending with Spanish conquest), although its origins near Cuzco, Peru, extend deeper into the past. Multiple types of crops made up the Incan diet, which included staples like maize, potatoes, and quinoa (a pseudocereal, or a non-grass grain crop). 

Photograph of a terraced field built by the Incas. The photo shows a field of concentric circular steps, with the central circle the lowest and the outer rings the highest.

Incan terraced field, Cusco, Peru. McKay Savage (flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, image resized).

Photograph of ears of maize from Peru. The photo shows relatively short ears of maize with kernels in a variety of colors, ranging from light brown to orange to pink to deep red.

One traditional use for maize is to make chicha, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented maize kernels. Chicha played a role in Incan ritual sacrifice, called Capacocha. Ritual sacrifice involved high-ranking women or children. Evidence from the 500-year-old mummy of a girl found in the Andes showed that she was given coca (the plant from which cocaine is made) and chicha in the time leading up to her sacrifice. These substances may have been given to her in part as a means of keeping her calm. Chicha is still prepared and consumed in the Andes today.

Photograph of the mummy on an Incan girl who was ritually sacrificed in the Andes Mountains of Argentina. The photo shows a girl who is slightly slumped over with bend legs. Her hairs is in small braids and she is wearing a cloth dress with woven belt and a shawl.

An Incan mummy found on Llullaillaco, Salta Province, Argentina. Individuals chosen for ritual sacrifice consumed chicha and coca near the end of their lives. Photo by Pedro Groover (flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license).

2-Panel figure showing two aryballos, ceramic vessels for holding chicha or other drinks or foods. The vessels each have a flared neck and ovate vase with two side handles. One vase is highly decorated with abstract designs, whereas the other has minimal decoration.

Aryballos, Incan vessels that were used to hold chicha, other drinks, and food. Peru, 1400s to 1500s. Left photo and right photo by Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license, images cropped and resized).

South American food traditions

Diverse maize varieties (called landraces) are grown in South America, with Peru having the most recorded diversity, followed by Argentina and Bolivia. Maize is used in many ways in South American cuisines, so only a few examples will be given here. Cancha, chulpi, or maize tostada is made from toasted kernels of a large-kerneled variety of maize called chulpe. Cancha pops like popcorn, but the starch does not break through the outer kernel wall.

In Peru, chicha morada is a non-alcoholic beverage made using a variety of maize with dark kernels (maize morada or Peruvian purple corn) and spices, sugar, and other fruits. Another variety of corn, choclo, can be served on the cob with cheese (choclo con queso) or in other dishes, like soup. Arepas are a traditional food in Panama and northern South America. Arepas are small, pan-fried cakes made of masarepa, a type of precooked maize flour. They are served topped or stuffed with meat, beans, vegetables and/or cheese.

Photograph of a bowl of cancha, large kernels of toasted maize. The photo shows cancha in a bowl, with one kernel held between a person's thumb and forefinger.
Photograph of maize morada from Peru. The photo shows ears of maize with nearly black kernels in a bag made of red plastic strands.
Photograph of arepas on a grill. The photo shows round, flat, yellow cakes showing brown and black marks from charring.

Maize in North America north of Mexico

Native Peoples living in the regions of the present-day United States and southern Canada often planted maize, squash and beans together, a system called the “Three Sisters.” Together these foods constitute a nutritionally complete diet, and when grown together (sometimes called “companion planting”), the three crops also benefit each other. The squash acts as a ground cover, preventing weeds and retaining moisture in the soil. The maize provides a structure for the beans to climb, and the beans add nitrogen to the soil. Similar systems are still used today, both in the Americas and around the world.

Illustration of the three sisters method of companion cultivation, where maize, beans, and squash are grown together. The bean plant is shown twining up the maize stalk, and the squash forms a ground cover.

An artist's illustration of the three sisters plant technique with maize, beans, and squash. Illustration by Anna Juchnowicz (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license, image cropped and resized).

Maize in the Southwest

Ancient peoples of what is now the Southwestern United States cultivated maize and other crops. Agriculture started in the region thousands of years ago. The oldest maize remains from the Southwest come from the Old Corn Site in New Mexico, dating to about 4200 years old. Additional maize remains from sites in Arizona are also dated to more than 4000 years old.

Some well-known ancient cultures that cultivated maize in the Southwest include the Hohokam (about 450 to 1450 AD) and the Ancestral Puebloan Peoples (from about 7000 years ago to Spanish exploration and colonization around 1540 to 1600 AD). The Hohokam lived in what is now central and southern Arizona and used an extensive network of irrigation canals to water their crops. The Ancestral Puebloan Peoples lived further north and include the peoples of the ancient Chaco culture in New Mexico and Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado, as well as many other settlements. Unlike the Hohokam, Ancestral Puebloan Peoples were dryland farmers. In some areas, like Mesa Verde, they lived in dwellings built into cliffs and cultivated the land above. People in this region ground maize into flour using a metate (a stone with a depression in the middle) and mano (a handheld stone used for grinding); similar grinding stones were used in Mexico and Central America.

Modern Puebloan Peoples live mostly in New Mexico (the Hopi People live in Arizona), and each pueblo is today a sovereign nation. Some people in the region still practice dryland farming and use the metate and mano to grind maize. 

Photograph of a canal built by the Hohokam and re-excavated by Mormon settlers in Arizona. The photo shows a canal running from the top left to the lower right of the image. Berms occur on either side of the canal, and trees and other vegetation can be seen in the distance. Some small plants form a ground cover on the floor of the canal.

A Hohokam canal that was re-excavated by Mormon settlers, Park of the Canals, Mesa, Arizona, U.S.A. Photo by Tony the Marine (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license).

Photograph of the ruins of a stone building at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. The photo shows the base of a building made of stone bricks held together with mortar. On the ground next to the base of the building are two metates with manos in them. The metates have deep grooves in their centers showing that they were well used.

Ruins of a stone building with grinding stones (manos and metates), Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, U.S.A. Photo by Al_HikesAZ (flickr, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical 2.0 Generic license, image resized).

Photograph of eight ears of maize on a black background from Triangle Cave in Utah, U.S.A. The ears are from between 900 and 1300 AD and look much like modern maize ears, although the kernels are burnt orange in color.

Ears of maize from Triangle Cave, Utah, U.S.A., an Ancestral Puebloan site, 900 to 1300 AD. Photo by Daderot (Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication).

Black and white photo of a young Hopi woman grinding corn taken around 1909. The photo shows a young woman wearing a shirt or dress and a shawl. Her hair is in a squash-blossom hairstyle, with one bun on each side of her head. She is using both hands to press down on an oval stone, using it to grind maize. In front of her sit bowls of maize flour and a whisk broom.

Maize in the East

The earliest clear evidence for maize in eastern North America are kernels that are about 2,000 years old from the Holding Site near St. Louis, Missouri. Slightly younger remains are known from two other sites, one in Tennessee (about 1800 years old) and one in Ohio (about 1700 years old). The conversion of maize into a staple crop in the East, however, took at least 1000 years and coincided with the rise of Mississippian Culture.

Agriculture was a large part of Mississippian Culture, which was centered in the region now encompassed by the eastern United States. The Mississippian Culture began to flourish during a warm interval that began about 950 AD, which also saw expansion of and heavier reliance on agriculture to provide food. The peoples of the Mississippian Culture cultivated the three sisters of maize, beans, and squash. They also built major settlements, the biggest of which was Cahokia, located in southern Illinois, U.S.A.

While the largest Mississippian settlements had been abandoned, Mississippian agricultural traditions and smaller settlements were still present when Spanish explorers came into direct contact with the Native Peoples of the Southeast in the 1500s. The Native Peoples of this region typically ground their maize using wood mortars and pestles, rather than the stone mano and matate used in the Southwest and Mesoamerica. Many Native Peoples of the Southeast celebrated (and continue to celebrate) the Green Corn Dance or Green Corn Ceremony, an important ceremony of renewal.

Photograph of Monks Mound at the Cahokia site in Illinois, U.S.A. The photo shows a large earthen mound with two tiers covered with grass. Steps run straight from the base to the top of the mound.

Monk's Mound, the tallest mound at the Cahokia site in Illinois, U.S.A. At its peak (ca. 1150 AD), Cahokia may have had a population of 10,000 or more, but the city was abandoned by the time Europeans were exploring North America in the 1500s. Cahokia is the largest known Pre-Columbian city north of Mexico. Photo by Skubasteve834 (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license, image cropped).

An illustration of the village of Secotan in coastal North Carolina from the late 1500s. The image shows rectangular buildings with rounded roofs arranged along a street. Trees and other plants are shows on the left side of the illustration. On the right are fields of maize in various stages of maturity. In the lower right, people appear to be playing a ball game. Other people can be seen in the main street and in other parts of the image.

Depiction of the village of Secotan, inhabited by Secotan People, in coastal North Carolina, U.S.A., 1590. The illustration shows plots of maize on the right side, including recently planted maize (H), partially grown maize (G), and mature maize with a platform for a person to watch over it (F). The Secotan were Algonquian-speaking people. Image by Theodor de Bry (Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

2-Panel image of Seminole women pounding maize using wooden mortars and pestles. The photos each show a women dressed in a long skirt, wearing a shawl, and with her hair pinned up. The woman is using two hands to pound a long pestle into a cylindrical wooden mortar.

Seminole women using wooden mortars and pestles to process maize. Left: Woman preparing sofkee (a type of maize soup, discussed below) on the Hollywood Reservation, Florida, U.S.A., 1960. Right: Woman grinding maize, Brighton Reservation, Florida, U.S.A., 1989. Left image by Donald J. Marks, right image by Jill Guttman (Florida Memory, public domain).

North American (north of Mexico) food traditions

Once many Peoples in North America began to rely on agriculture to supply a substantial portion of their food, maize became very important in their diets. Some varieties of maize were traditionally grown in North America, like Hopi Blue Corn from the Southwest, Cherokee White Eagle from the Southeast, and Seneca Red Stalker from the Northeast.

Photograph of Cherokee White Eagle maize kernels. The photo shows maize kernels in a blue-patterned bowl. The kernels are purple and white in color.

Kernels of Cherokee White Eagle maize. Photo by Lance Cheung (U.S. Department of Agriculture on flickr, public domain).

In North America north of Mexico, maize was cooked and eaten fresh, dried and stored, and ground into corn meal, corn flour, or, in the Southeast, ground into corn grits (course-ground maize kernels that may have been nixtamalized). Cornbread, another characteristic food of the Southeast, also has its roots in Native American cuisine.

One distinctive use for maize was to make a dish called succotash, a maize-based stew that originated in the region of present-day New England and typically includes beans and other ingredients. In the Southeast, some Native Americas Peoples (like the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole) made sofkee. Sofkee is a type of maize soup typically prepared with lye made from wood ash. Peoples of North America north of Mexico also prepared nixtamalized maize, eating it in the form of hominy, which may have been used as whole or ground kernels.

One of the maize-based foods from the Southwest is piki, a Hopi flat bread made from maize flour, ash, and water that is prepared for special occasions. 

Photograph of a meal at a restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A. The photo shows a round white plate with pieces of breaded, fried chicken, a bowl of breaded, fried okra, and a bowl of grits sitting on it. 

A meal of fried chicken, breaded and fried okra, and grits served at a restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A. Grits are now considered to be a traditional part of the cuisine of the southeastern U.S.A. Photo by DJLamar (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license, image cropped and resized).

Photograph of succotash. The photo shows a mixture of cooked maize kernels with other ingredients in a white bowl with metal tongs resting in it.
Photograph of hominy. The photo shows hominy, wet, white maize kernels, in a tan bowl sitting on a white cloth with a yellow-striped pattern on it. 

Maize as a world crop

Today, maize is the most widely grown crop in the Americas, with 70 to 100 million acres grown annually in the U.S. alone, accounting for about 30% of the all maize grown in the world. It is a versatile crop, and can be grown in a number of different environments; it is grown on every continent except Antarctica. Maize is higher yielding than many other grains; its average yield is 160 bushels per acre but it can reach over 300 bushels per acre (27 tons per hectare), making it less expensive to grow (relative to yield) than other grains. Together with wheat and rice, maize is one of the three most important grain crops in the world.

World map showing maize production in 2020. Countries are shaded lighter green to indicate less production, darker green to indicate more production. The top producers (dark green countries) are the U.S.A., Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Ukraine, India, and China.

World map of maize production in 2020 by country. Map from Our World in Data (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license, image resized).

Introduction of maize outside of the Americas

The first known contact that Europeans had with maize was through Christopher Columbus in the late 1400s, who encountered the plant in Caribbean, and brought seeds back to Europe in 1493. In fact, the word maize is taken from the Taíno language, then spoken by the Taíno People of the Caribbean.

The plants that produced the seeds the Columbus brought back to Europe were not selected for the more temperate climates of eastern and northern Europe and cultivation in Europe was limited. Sometime in the early 1500s, seeds or plants from further north in North America were introduced to Europe. These varieties were selected for cooler climates, allowing maize to be successfully cultivated further north in Europe. Maize also reached China by the 1500s, Africa by the 1600s, and India by the 1700s or earlier. Maize was introduced to these regions by European traders and colonizers and/or by overland spread from regions where maize had already been adopted.

Photo of a still life painting feature an ear of maize. The image shows a large blue bowl decorated with flowers and filled with grapes and peaches. A bunch of grapes, an ear of yellow maize, and other fruits (maybe plums) sit on a table in front of the bowl. A smaller bowl of red fruits sits to the right of the painting.

Still life with fruit and porcelain by Jacob van Es, ca. 1630. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).


Maize was quickly taken up as a staple crop in many regions. It had the advantages that it provided many calories per plant, the kernels could be dried and stored for long periods of time, and the kernels were relatively easy to process. However, widespread adoption of maize had downsides. One of these was outbreaks of pellagra, a disease caused by niacin (vitamin B3) deficiency. Symptoms of pellagra include skin lesions that develop on areas of the body that are exposed to the sun (like the hands and upper chest), gingivitis and a swollen tongue, diarrhea, and dementia. In severe cases, people die of disease. In the past, people suffering from dementia caused by pellagra were sent to asylums.

Two-panel image showing plates illustrating pellagra symptoms from a book published in 1814. Panel 1: Illustrations of two hands showing skin with rashes or plaques. Panel 2: Image of a person's neck and chest showing spotting, particularly on the lower neck and upper chest, indicating pellagra.

Illustrations of symptoms of pellagra affecting the skin of the hands, chest, and neck of sufferers. Pellagra causes rashes and plaques to develop on sun-exposed skin. Images from Saggio di ricerche sulla pellagra by Di Vincenzio Chiarugi, 1814 (Wellcome Collection, public domain).

Pellagra sufferers were often poor with a diet that had limited variety, either seasonally or year-round. Many people with maize-based diets that lack other sources of niacin developed pellagra when maize was adopted as a staple crop. Pellagra was once common in Egypt, Europe, and the southeastern United States, and still occurs in some areas of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Some researchers think that, historically, nutritional problems developed in these populations because they did not nixtamalize maize. Nixtamalization increases the amount of niacin available in maize kernels, making them more nutritious. Other practices, like refining maize (removing the bran and germ), can further reduce its nutritional value.

Pellagra was first documented in Europe in the early 1700s, and a major treatise was written on it in the late 1700s. Nevertheless, the cause of the disease was not understood for more than 100 years after that. When pellagra became widespread in the southeastern U.S. in the early twentieth century, Dr. Joseph Goldberger proved that the disease was caused by poor nutrition and showed that protein-rich foods like meat and eggs could alleviate its symptoms. Nevertheless, eating these expensive foods was beyond the means of many pellagra sufferers.

Today, maize products in the U.S. are fortified with niacin, which helps to prevent the disease, and pellagra is rare. People worldwide who suffer from pellagra today often face food insecurity for a variety of reasons, like poverty or displacement (for example, refugees).

Black-and-white photograph of two women sitting at a small table. The woman on the left sits in a chair and holds of a jar of food while speaking to the other woman. The woman on the right sits on a chair placed against a wall and behind the small table. Greens, eggs, a jar of milk, and another jar of food sit on the table.

Original caption: "Nurse Shamburg gives Viola Pettway instructions and help about her diet in treatment of pellagra. She has been sick about four years and is a little better now. Her mother has thirteen children and twenty-five dollars a month for all. Table top is made from cheese box. Gee's Bend, Alabama." Photo by Marion Post Wolcott (Library of Congress Reproduction Number LC-USF34-051535, no known restrictions).

Food traditions beyond the Americas

Now that maize has become a staple crop outside of the Americas, it has become part of the food traditions in other parts of the world. This section will give a taste of some of the unique ways that maize is used on other continents.


Outside of the Americas, Europe has the longest history of growing maize, beginning in the late 1400s to 1500s. Maize is traditionally part of the diets of people in the countries of the Iberian Peninsula, in Italy, and in Eastern Europe. Maize bread is made in Portugal and Eastern Europe, where it is known by a variety of names, including broa in Portugal, projain Serbia, and mamaligain Romania. In the Basque region of Spain, people make a type of tortilla or flatbread out of maize flour that is called a talo. In northern Italy, ground maize is used to make polenta, which is served as a hot porridge or allowed to cool to make a solid dish.

Photograph of cornbread from the Iberian Peninsula. The photo shows a round loaf of bread from above. The bread has a cracked brown crust.

Original description: "Cornbread, typical of the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula (Atlantic climate): north of Portugal and Galicia (Spain). It is cooked in the leaf of a cabbage." Photo by María Alabau (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license, image modified).

Photograph of talos cooking on a flat metal griddle. The photo shows flat, round, uncooked flatbreads made of maize flour cooking on a black metal griddle.

Talo, tortilla-like flatbread made of non-nixtamalized maize, being grilled, Basque region of Spain, 2014. Photo by Ordiziako Jakintza Ikastola (flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, image cropped and resized).

Photograph of polenta. The photo sows half of a round cake of polenta sitting on a wooden cutting board. The polenta has been cut into two halves, with a thinner slice also cut from the side not facing the viewer.

Polenta, a dish made from ground maize from northern Italy. Photo by Dorothy61n1 (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license, image cropped and resized).


Although it is not native to Africa, maize has become an important crop on the continent due to its nutritional qualities and ease of cultivation. Now it is the most widely grown staple crop for over 300 million Africans.

Maize is used in many different ways in Africa. One common way to prepare maize is to make maize porridge or maize meal (corn fufu, called by many names, for example ugali in Kenya, nshima in Zambia, and pap in South Africa). This porridge or meal may be eaten alone or served as a starch to accompany other foods. Other maize-based foods made in Africa include bread, dumplings, and alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. Maize kernels are sometimes cooked with beans and other ingredients in a dish called githeri (Kenya) or mutakura (Zimbabwe). Notably, although nixtamalization is not practiced in Africa, maize is sometimes prepared with ash or sodium carbonate salt to make soup, somewhat similar to making sofkee in the southeastern United States.

Photograph of a plate of food from Tanzania. The photo shows a white plate with pieces of beef, two bowls of sauce, and a lump of cornmeal on it.

A meal with beef, sauces, and ugali, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Photo by Chen Hualin (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license, image resized).

Photograph of a bowl of maize porridge from South Africa. The photo shows a white bowl filled with porridge that appears to have syrup on it. A spoon is resting in the porridge.

The continent of Asia, like other areas of the world, includes many different cultures and cuisines. Maize is used in various ways, including in porridge, in soups, and as a vegetable in various dishes. In India, maize is sometimes used to make a flatbread called makki ki roti

Maize is used in desserts in parts of Asia. In the Phillipines, binatog is a dessert made with boiled maize kernels, sugar or salt, and shredded coconut. In Laos and Vietnam, maize puddings are made (nam van sal lee in Laos, che bap in Vietnam). In parts of China, whole sweet corn kernels are mixed with corn starch and fried using hot oil to make a crunchy pancake or fritter, which may be topped with sugar.

Baby corn is not a specific variety of maize, but rather is maize that is harvested when immature and consumed as whole cobs. Baby corn is grown in Thailand, and it is used in various Thai dishes as well as exported to other parts of the world.

Photograph of a plate of maize flatbreads and cooked lentils from India. The photo shows a black plate with two yellow flatbreads on it, with one thin green peppers arranged at the top and the bottom of the plate. Next to the plate, a small copper pot holds cooked lentils with a pat of butter on the top. The plate and pot sit on a patterned cloth.

Makki ki roti (maize flatbread) with lentils. Photo by Garvit arya (Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license, image cropped and resized).

Photograph of a stir fry with waxy corn. The photo shows a yellowish porridge of waxy corn with beef and green peppers in the center and an elongated green pepper (perhaps a hot pepper) sitting on top.

Stir fry with bell peppers, onions, beef, and waxy corn porridge, Bulacan, Philippines, 2020. Photo by Judgefloro (Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication).

Photograph of binatog, a maize-based dessert from the Philippines. The photo shows a clear, plastic, conical cup filled with white boiled maize kernels with a white plastic spoon standing upright in the kernels. 

Binatog, a Philippine dessert made from boiled maize kernels. Photo by Judgefloro (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal/Public Domain Dedication).

Photograph of an Indian dish with paneer (a type of cheese) and baby corn.

An Indian dish with paneer (a type of cheese) and baby corn. Photo by Er.vishalmehta83 (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license, image resized).


Web resources

Ancestral Puebloan (Science of the American Southwest, National Park Service):

Cancha: Andean toasted chulpe corn (Marian Blazes, The Spruce Eats):

Cultural History of Southern Arizona (Arizona State Museum):

Dr. Joseph Goldberger & the War on Pellagra (National Institutes of Health):

Origins of agriculture (Archaeological Research in Oaxaca, Mexico, University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts):

Small urpu (Jar) [Incan, from Peru] (The Met Museum):

Sofkey. (P. S. Wallace, The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture):

Articles & books

Blake, M. 2015. Maize for the gods. University of California Press, Oakland, California.

Chen, A. 2017. 1,000 years ago, corn made this society big. Then, a changing climate destroyed it. The Salt, February 10, 2017.

Clark, L. 1998. The sacrificial ceremony. NOVA, November 24, 1998.

Coclanis, P. A. 2023. The golden fuel. Aeon, 10 January, 2023.

Ekpa, O., N. Palacios-Rojas, G. Kruseman, V. Fogliano, and A. R. Linnemann. 2019. Sub-Saharan African maize-based foods-processing practices, challenges and opportunities. Food Reviews International 35: 609-639.

Hall, R. N. 2009, last updated 2022. Native American Foodways. Encyclopedia of Alabama.

James, I. 2020. 'Everything depends on the corn': As crops wither, the Hopi fear for their way of life. Arizona Central, November 30, 2020.

Orchardson, E. 2021. What is nixtamalization? CIMMYT, March 23, 2021.

Peres, T. M. 2016. Malnourished: Cultural ignorance paved the way for pellagra. Gravy, Fall 2016.

Turner, A. 2019. Gallery: making piki bread with the Native American Hopi tribe of Arizona. The London Economic, May 10, 2019.

World Health Organization. 2000. Pellagra and its prevention and control in major emergencies. WHO/NHD/00.10. PDF:

Selected scientific papers

Cherniwchan, J., and J. Moreno-Cruz. 2019. Maize and precolonial Africa. Journal of Development Economics 136: 137-150.

Guzzon, F., L. W. Arandia Rios, G. M. Caviedes Cepeda, M. Céspedes Polo, A. Chavez Cabrera, J. Muriel Figueroa, A. E. Medina Hoyos, and T. W. Jara Calvo et al. 2021. Conservation and use of Latin American maize diversity: Pillar of nutrition security and cultural heritage of humanity. Agronomy 11: 172.

Revilla P., M. L. Alves, V. Andelković, C. Balconi, I. Dinis, P. Mendes-Moreira, R. Redaelli, J. I. Ruiz de Galarreta, M. C. Vaz Patto, S. Žilić, and R. A. Malvar. 2022. Traditional foods from maize (Zea mays L.) in Europe. Frontiers in Nutrition 8:683399. doi:

Smith, B. D 2017. Tracing the initial diffusion of maize in North America. Pp. 332–348 in N. Boivin, ed. Human dispersal and species movement. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K.

Tenaillon, M. I., and A. Charcosset. 2011. A European perspective on maize hisotry. Comptes Rendus Biologies 334: 221-228.

Wilson, A. S., E. L. Brown, C. Villa, N. Lynnerup, A. Healey, M. C. Ceruti, J. Reinhard, C. H. Previgliano, F. Arias Araoz, J. Gonazlez Diaz, and T. Taylor. 2013. Archaeological, radiological, and biological evidence offer insight into Inca child sacrifice. PNAS 110: 13322-13327.