Plants, Man and
Life, pp. 107-123 (1952)
Budgets vs. Scholarship
BY THIS TIME it is clear to me, and I should think it would be evident to the reader, that this book is getting a little out of hand. We have taken up so many side lines, we have considered the study of cultivated plants from such different angles, that about now we need some kind of a summing up to draw the thing together. Suppose, at least for the moment, we stop discussing the contributions of biological techniques to the history of cultivated plants and try to draw up a balance sheet. We find that, considered as a whole, our understanding of cultivated plants in these days is advancing rapidly, if somewhat irregularly and incoherently. Though the taxonomists, as we have seen, have practically deserted the subject which was originally the core of their own special field, this defection has been more than made up by new techniques and new insights which have come in from other fields of biology such as genetics, pollen analysis, and the like. Putting it all together, it is evident that on the biological side we know a great deal more about the history of cultivated plants and weeds than we did fifty or even twenty-five years ago and that significant new information is coming at an accelerating rate.
A rapidly expanding field of study is a fascinating one in which to work. It is not merely that new information comes in. With each new technique, new insights are gained and old facts take on new significance. Before we knew that our bread wheats were polyploids, the fact that Aegilops squarrosa was a common weed in ancient Old World grainfields was of little direct interest in the story of wheat. Now that we know that this bristly little weed is actually in all of our bread wheats, we are actively interested in knowing just where and how it grows.
The greatest difficulty is the fundamental one already apparent to a few of us, that the biological side of the problem is only one side. It is quite as much a problem in history, in archaeology, in anthropology, in nutrition, in sociology. It is difficult to find men or groups of men who can and will work effectively in several of these fields at once. Problems which fall straight across departmental and divisional lines run into administrative red tape. A whole series of coherent, fundamental questions are neglected because they do not fall clearly within the domain of any single discipline.
Take for instance a study of the development of the tomato as an important element in the modern diet. It is apparently due to the Italians but the story has yet to be worked out. The biological facts are simple enough and have been brought together in efficient and generally available monographs. The tomato belongs to a South American genus of weedy little plants with small red or orange berries about the size of currants. Out of this complex there somehow arose the cultivated tomato, differing mainly in its increased variability and in its far larger fruit. In pre-Columbian times its great value was recognized in Mexico and for centuries it has been one of the fundamentals in the Mexican national diet.
After the Conquest it was introduced into Europe where it was grown largely as a curiosity. Today it is one of the cornerstones of modern scientific diets. How, where, and when did this change come about? Over most of Europe and in the United States the tomato's virtues were very slow to be recognized. A century ago it was still being grown in small quantities as an ornamental plant for its bright fruits which were frequently said to be poisonous and hence were romantically known as "love apples." In Italy, however, the tomato became so quickly a part of the national diet that it is hard for us to imagine Italian cookery without its inevitable tomato sauces. In Italy the fruit was improved along new lines; Italian peasants either dry tomatoes in the sun for winter use or cook them into a thick paste. New Italian varieties were bred with thicker skins, smoother shapes, and meatier drier flesh and these Italian kinds have been among those used by plant breeders in breeding modern American varieties.
Our own appreciation of the tomato lagged far behind the Italians but in the last three or four decades we have nearly caught up to them. How much of this was due to Italian Americans who brought back to the New World a real appreciation of this lifesaving vegetable? In my grandmother's time, tomatoes were grown as a curiosity in the old family flower garden. When I was a small boy they had spread into the vegetable garden. During the season that they were ripe we had them chilled and sliced with vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper. A few were canned and during the winter months were served as a stewed vegetable about once a month on the average, certainly never more than once a week. A few more were made into chili sauce or catchup, which in our home were typical exotic accessories reserved for company dinners and other special occasions. The catchup bottle had already reached some restaurants but it was not almost universal there, as it is today. By the time I was in my teens tomatoes were eaten in a greater variety of ways. I remember the first time I saw one eaten fresh, like an apple; it was not until after I was married and had a home of my own that tomato juice became a standard item in the breakfast diet. England is twenty-five years behind us, and many of the Continental countries are behind her. Nor is it only in Europe that the special excellencies of the tomato have been slow to be recognized. Around the world in India, the tomato is just now making its way into market places and village gardens. Eventually it should playa great role there. India, like Mexico, is a land of villages with predominantly vegetable diets. Indian climates and day lengths are similar to Mexican and the two cuisines are incredibly alike. In another century the tomato should be as much at home in India as it now is in Mexico.
If we attempt to see this problem of the expanding use of the tomato, to learn how and where and why the Italians led the Western world in finding out that this curious fruit was not poisonous but was tasty and nutritious, we find that there is almost nothing in print on the subject. Certainly as far as modern Italy is concerned, the Italian discovery of the tomato is as important as Garibaldi or Victor Emmanuel. Yet the subject seems never to have been looked into, apparently because it is partly a sociological study, partly historical, partly ethnological, partly nutritional. The problem of the Italian discovery of the merits of the tomato is typical of scores of problems which are either neglected or imperfectly pursued because they fall across departmental lines. If the study of cultivated plants is to advance as it should we must find ways to fuse interdepartmental interests over a broad front. Knowledge is all of one piece but universities (by tradition and for budgetary reasons) are divided into departments.
Similarly, in trying to work out the origin of a cultivated plant we may hope to find part of our clues botanically in studying the origin of the plant, part anthropologically in studying the origin of its uses. One may think of its whole history as a complicated fabric, the warp of which is made up of all the varieties of the crop, the woof, all the various uses to which it has been put. In trying to unravel the history sometimes it will be best to begin with a thread from the warp, sometimes with one from the woof.
Take for example the early history of sweet corn. The botanical facts do not offer us much of a clue. Sweet corns differ from normal varieties of maize by their inability to build sugar up into starch in the kernel. 'The mature seed, instead of being plumply filled with tightly packed starch grains, is a shrunken, wrinkled irregular mass of dried.down sugar. This is a simple inherited abnormality, a condition reported for several other crop plants as for instance the garden pea. It could apparently turn up in almost any kind of maize once in so many million times. It produces, however, a strange new kernel, one which is more difficult to ripen, more difficult to grind into flour, more difficult to store and to germinate, but one which is definitely sweeter. The North American Indians had found that it made superior green corn and we took it over from them and made it into our most distinctive American table vegetable.
So exclusively have we Americans used sweet corn as green corn (i.e., as a vegetable boiled on the cob before it is fully ripe) that American maize experts just took for granted that only in such ways might sweet corn be used. They established the fact that nowhere in Latin America were sweet varieties used as green corn and then published their conclusions that sweet corn must have originated among the North American Indians. One of these experts sat in a hotel in Guadalajara, Mexico, and wrote out a report that there was no sweet corn in Mexico. From the roof of the hotel in which he sat down to write one can see three Indian villages in which Dr. Isabel Kelly, the ethnologist and archaeologist, collected native varieties of sweet corn. They were not coming into the market in Guadalajara, they were not being used for green corn, but with them as a clue it has been possible to work out the history of sweet corn in the Americas, partly by collecting native varieties of sweet corn and studying them, partly by collecting information as to its native uses. It is a simple and straightforward story if one uses both kinds of evidence.
Sweet corn as a distinctive and appreciated variety apparently originated somewhere in South America. Among the high civilizations of the Andes, some agricultural genius realized that these abnormal, wizzled kernels had more sugar in them. He did not use the new freak for green corn. There are special varieties bred for that purpose in Latin America and of long standing; one of them, for instance, is identical with one of the ceremonial sacred corns of the primitive Huichol Indians of Nayarit, Mexico. In western Mexico there are long, narrow-eared varieties with big blue or red-purple kernels which are widely grown as green corn. Their common name is maíz de elote, that is to say, corn which is for eating green on the cob. The ethnologist Lumholtz collected them among the aboriginal Huichol Indians in western Mexico in the early 1890's, when he found them being used as one of the sacred varieties in their religious ceremonies. They make excellent green corn but they do not store sugar instead of starch like our own table varieties. On the background of Latin American corn, which is already fairly sweet, the freak starchless kernels of sweet corn make a product which is unpleasantly gummy when cooked green on the cob. When I asked about it in Mexico I was told "Ah, senor, se pegen los dientes." No, when sweet corn turned up in pre-Columbian highland South America, it was in a civilization which did not have sugar cane. The new product was therefore prized as a source of sugar and used in several special ways. In highland Peru and Bolivia one can still collect the ancient variety of sweet corn which the Incas used in making their high-quality maize beer or chicha. Chicha is still a common drink in these regions; nowadays when the fermentation reaches a certain point it is accelerated by adding a little brown sugar. In pre-Columbian times when there was no brown sugar, they added instead a meal made from ground toasted sweet corn to increase the sugar content and give the chicha its extra kick. Among a few conservative groups this special sweet corn is still grown and still used as a sugar source in making chicha. To eyes accustomed to the long cylindrical maize ears of the American corn belt, this Peruvian sugary corn is a strange-looking variety. The ears are nearly as wide as they are high, as big as an orange, with a thick heavy cob, numerous irregular rows of kernels, tapering to somewhat of a point at the tip and smoothly rounded into a basin at the butt. They may be pale lemon yellow, orange yellow, and various shades of orange red, up to a deep Chinese red.
If one goes northward along the Andes, in primitive communities he finds survivals of various ancient drinks, made out of ground toasted corn, some of them fermented, some unfermented. In highland Guatemala occasional ears of sweet corn have been collected in such communities. Since the brewing of homemade alcoholic beverages is illegal, finding out all the special ways these special varieties are used would take tact, time, and ingenuity. In western Mexico sweet corn is almost a commonplace in little villages and on old haciendas from Jalisco and Nayarit northwards almost to the border. It is called maíz dulce and is used in various ways as a source of sugar. The mature kernels are toasted and mixed with peanuts and squash seeds in a kind of primitive crackerjack called ponteduro. Or they are made into pinole by being toasted, ground into a fine powder on a metate, flavored with anise or chocolate or cinnamon, and stirred up into a sweetish drink. The pinole powder may also be eaten dry, though I know of nothing drier, and the country people have amusing proverbs testifying that native reaction is the same: "He who has the most spit, eats the most pinole"; "One cannot eat pinole and whistle."
Maíz dulce is widely grown in western Mexico, but it is conspicuously unlike the ordinary maize of that part of the world. Maize in western Mexico traditionally has a long narrow ear of eight to twelve rows of kernels. It is most frequently white or pale yellow, though as I have said, red-purple and blue-purple varieties are frequently grown for green corn. Maíz dulce gives every indication of being directly derived from the ancient South American variety which had spread northward in pre-Columbian times. It still has the same set of colors from old gold to Chinese red. The ears are not narrow like the maize of western Mexico, though they are longer and more tapered than were the South American originals. They still have crowded kernels in irregular rows, they are rounded off smoothly at the butt; they look like the original South American variety with just enough Central American maize mixed into it so that, unlike varieties brought straight from Peru, they can succeed under Mexican conditions. In South America the high row number, the big cobs, the rounded butts, and the varied intensities of Chinese red are common in many other kinds of maize as well. In Mexico they are found only in this one special variety, grown for these special purposes. As one goes northward in Mexico, maíz dulce becomes gradually more and more like Mexican maize so that in Sonora and Chihuahua it has ears nearly as long and a cob nearly as narrow as those of other local varieties, though it still retains its distinctive spectrum of unusual kernel colors.
It might be supposed that this distinctive special-purpose sweet corn, spreading up from South America would have been swamped by the common corn of the countries it traveled through. Maize is so naturally cross-pollinated, pollen blows so freely from field to field that this has happened many times in the introduction of new and alien varieties. There are technical reasons why it did not happen to maíz dulce. In the language of genetics, sweetness is a recessive character. If a kernel of maíz dulce is fertilized with pollen from ordinary field corn, that pollen brings in with it the ability to make starch. That kernel and any others of similar ancestry are as plump and well filled with starch as any ordinary kernel. No observant gardener, primitive or modern, would plant it with his sweet corn. Hence a sweet corn may be grown in the same fields with a starch corn; as long as one takes the precaution of planting only wrinkled kernels no direct crossing can take place.
How then could a little Central American influence have filtered in? By a much more indirect route. If the sweet corn can be fertilized by the field corn, it is equally possible for pollen from the sweet corn to fertilize the field corn, but since the latter carries the dominant starchy condition the crossing will not be apparent. If some of these mongrel seeds (field corn pollinated by sweet corn) were planted as part of the crop of field corn, they would produce hybrids between South and Central American maize and part of their pollen grains would be without the factor for starchiness, though carrying some other Mexican traits. Whenever pollen from one of these mongrel grains fertilizes a kernel of maíz dulce it would produce an embryo seed whose inheritance is approximately one quarter Mexican and three quarters of the original type. The kernel looks like a normal kernel of maíz dulce but it carries a mixed inheritance. If such a seed is planted, a little ordinary Mexican germ plasm is carried into the sweet variety, and probably produces some plants which are a little more able to survive in Mexico. They are a little more likely to be used for the next crop and as the diluted Mexican influence gets worked into the variety it tends more and more to endow its descendants with increased chances of surviving under Mexican conditions. For these technical reasons an ancient South American variety has been able to move slowly north, century after century, mixing with the ordinary corn of the country enough to adapt itself to the new conditions and yet so protected by its inherent recessivity that in all these years it has not yet lost a11 of its distinctive South American appearance.
If we now study the sweet corn varieties of the American Indians, we find two more intermediates between our table corn and the ancient chicha strengthener of the Incas. Among the Plains Indians are varieties (Nuetta sweet corn, for instance) which are almost like our Golden Bantam except that their kernels are a variety of dilute Chinese reds, some of the same colors as maíz dulce. The sweet corn of the Hopi shows even clearer indications of its long journey from South America. This is particularly significant because the Hopi are naturally conservative; due to their isolation they have retained as much of their ancient culture as any Indians in the United States. For their great summer festival they have four sacred varieties of corn, and one of these traditionally is a sweet corn. I have had this sacred sweet corn collected for me in several Hopi pueblos, in quantity from two of them. In color it varies from a pale lemon yellow to yellow overlaid with various shades of red, though none that I have seen quite match the distinctive Chinese reds of maíz dulce and the South American sweet corns. The rowing tends to be more irregular than in other Hopi varieties; in some of the collections the number of rows is as great as in maíz dulce from Mexico. In many of the ears there is still a strong resemblance to the gently and evenly rounded butt of the original South American variety. On the background of Pueblo maize, the sweet kernels are no longer too gummy to make a good green corn and the Hopi eat their sacred sweet corn on the cob just as we do Golden Bantam and similar kinds. If we list all the ways in which maíz dulce is used in western Mexico (ponteduro, pinole, etc.) we find that they can be summarized as five special processes. If we do the same with the uses of sweet corn among the Six Nations of New York from whom Americans first obtained their sweet varieties,we can summarize them under seven headings (boiled on the cob, roasted on the cob, grated and scraped, etc.). Now it is a curious fact that all of the seven ways in which the Six Nations use their traditional festive crop are different from the five ways in which sweet corn is employed in Mexico. The Hopi, however, use it in various ways, some of them the same general ways as in western Mexico plus some of the ways it is used by the New York State Indians.
When we put all our facts together, the recessivity of sweet kernels, the distinctive kernel colors and ear shapes, the various culinary and ceremonial uses, we emerge with a clear picture. Sweet corn originated in the highlands of South America. It spread northward along the mountains through Central America and western Mexico, after maize was already established there, but in pre-Columbian times. Its original type was gradually changed until finally, apparently somewhere in the Great Plains, in everything but its sweetness it lost all resemblances to the original variety.
With all these kinds of evidence at our command, it is easy to work out a simple coherent history which satisfies botanical, genetical, and anthropological criteria and integrates all the information from these various fields. If we are to make any real progress in understanding the transported floras in which we spend our lives, the work will have to be done by men or by groups of men whose understanding embraces these several disciplines. The relative importance of genetical and ethnological information in working out the history of a crop will vary greatly from one crop or from one variety to another. For sweet corn as we have just seen, the genetic change necessary to produce sweet corn is slight; the changes in the way the new variety is used are tremendous. Therefore, for sweet corn, ethnological data are of primary importance. On the other hand, for Old World versus New World cottons, the genetic differences are tremendous; a whole new set of chromosomes has been added. The crop itself is virtually unchanged and is used in practically the same ways. Therefore, in cotton the genetical data are of much more primary importance than the ethnological in working out the history of Old World and New World cottons. In the Old World, however, the ancient Indian and African cottons are very similar. It is probable that cotton was used for other purposes before it was taken over finally as a fiber. A careful dredging of primitive communities in Africa and India might bring unique data for interpreting the early Stone Age uses of these ancient plants.
Nor is this true just of the early history of Old World cottons. The importance of fusing anthropological and biological concepts increases tremendously as we work backwards towards the actual origin of a crop plant from its wild or semiwild progenitors. We cannot understand the origin of a cultivated plant until on the one hand we know the plant and the kind of changes which have accumulated between it and its wild progenitors and until on the other hand we understand something of the attitude towards plants and the needs of plants by those who originally domesticated them. There has been far too much armchair speculation by those who knew a little of one of these phases of the problem and there has not been enough careful searching for combined botanical and ethnological evidence which bears directly on particular problems.
There is a close analogy here to studies on the origin of music and musical instruments. The classical armchair theorists told us how man listened to the beautiful sounds in nature, the wind in the trees, the singing of the birds, and then sought to imitate them. Curt Sachs, a realistic exponent of a more modern school, set out with the premise that one cannot understand primitive music without understanding something of the mind and spirit of primitive man. He accordingly spent time in the field studying the most primitive peoples he could find, learning what kind of musical instruments they had, and to what purposes they put them. Among these peoples he found himself in a world of superstition, magic, and taboo. He emerged with the concept that musical instruments originated for magical and religious purposes, like the twanging bowstring, and for signaling, like the drum, and that it was only after there were many musical instruments of various general types already in existence, that very gradually there evolved the idea of combining instruments for the purpose of making beautiful and interesting sounds. Musical instruments are vastly older than instrumental music!
Someone will have to make the same kind of carefully detailed investigations of the attitudes of primitive peoples towards plants before we will be ready to consider seriously the actual origins of our ancient crops. From the little evidence already at hand it is evident that magic had quite as much to do with primitive domestication as with primitive music. Body paints, of magical or religious significance, charms, rattles, magic cure-alls, certainly had as much to do with the origins of food plants as the utilitarian need of food which the armchair experts have stressed in their pronouncements. For all we know now, some of our ornamental plants may have as ancient a history of domestication as any major crop plant. Many primitive peoples plant brilliant flowers around their homes. Inquiries by understanding anthropologists demonstrate that these gaudy plants are not just for ornament, they are for magic: they are scaring away devils. Coxcomb and amaranth are planted in primitive grainfields for the same purpose; who is to know from our present evidence which is the older use, the plant grown for food, or the plant deliberately grown for protection against evil spirits?
A plant which primitive man is known to have held in awe and to have used in his most solemn ceremonies, was not a plant to his way of thinking and not always to ours — common everyday yeast. We still seldom think of it as a domesticated crop, though for nearly a century we have understood that yeast was a living (albeit microscopic) plant. It is one of our oldest domesticates. Modern man uses it for various purposes from brewing and baking to biological engineering and vitamin tablets. Yeast, when grown with a mixture of grain and water, splits up sugar into carbon dioxide and alcohol. In making bread we utilize the bubbling carbon dioxide to raise the dough and let the alcohol escape. In making industrial alcohol we keep the alcohol and do away with the carbon dioxide. In brewing we keep both products; beer gets both its alcohol and its fizz from the activities of yeast.
We do not know when men first began to brew or to bake, but it was a long time ago, and he may well have been a brewer before he was a baker; the histories of brewing and baking are curiously intertwined. Imagine, however, what strange and interesting attitudes a primitive society must have had towards a preparation which could produce alcohol, but only through a set of special incantations. Some of the most primitive yeast sources are various curious mixtures of yeast and fungi and bacteria, which are fairly easily kept alive and may be traded from person to person like a modern yeast cake. Imagine the aura of magic and divinity which must have hedged round these primitive products! They had to be treated in certain ways to be kept potent, they had to be revived by a curious system of adding this and that substance, but when the magic was in them, they transmuted ordinary grain into a beverage which gave one magical power, immunity from discomfort, heavenly visions, as well as headache and nausea sent the next morning by jealous evil spirits. Only a yeast expert and a perceptive anthropologist working together in some of our most primitive existing societies, could get anything like the full story of this fantastic interrelation between yeast, the mind of primitive man, and the origin of civilization.
It is in such fields as this that the barrier of the budget is one of the greatest perils not only to scholarship but to our national culture. At the present time, anthropologists and applied biologists are so far apart in their thinking, that they seldom realize they have any problems in common. When fate throws an agronomist and anthropologist together, in such ways as by giving them adjoining homes in a faculty apartment house, their conversation is usually restricted to general fundamentals — the Brooklyn Dodgers or the personal idiosyncrasies of the Dean of the Faculties. The blame for this deep gulf is about equally distributed. American anthropologists suffer from that inability to distinguish clearly between sophistication and erudition, which once spread cancerously through American universities, so frequently by way of English departments, that I assume Charles Eliot Norton must have been the original affecting source.
Let me give a concrete example of just what this confusion of sophistication and understanding does to a scholar's sense of values. Most of our abler young anthropologists would think that an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was a cultural advantage they ought not to miss if they chanced to be in the vicinity. On the other hand a visit to a corn show in Omaha or Kansas City would never occur to them, and an anthropologist who went out of his way to attend any such exhibition would be looked at with surprise if not with suspicion. Now if one is truly an anthropologist charged with interpreting man and his ways on the North American continent, understanding what corn is in the lives of modern Americans and what it has meant to past civilizations is certainly close to the root of several of his main concerns. This lack of interest in the humble everyday mainsprings of one's own existence is mandarinism. We know mandarin attitudes to have been a sure sign of decay in past civilizations; it probably is such a sign in our own culture. Anthropologists, of all people, should be helping arrest cultural decay instead of speeding the process!
As a further and more specific example of how this dry rot has operated to sterilize anthropological techniques, consider the fate of plant materials in many so-called scientific archaeological excavations. Bushels of prehistoric corn tassels from our own Southwest have been burned by professional archaeologists in their haste to assemble every possible pot and potsherd. They were two thousand years old and more, they were a biological index to vanished civilizations and capable of being analyzed with precision, they were literally just "old corn tassels" to the archaeologists who dug them up and burned them. This burning has now ceased in the Southwest, but the general attitude persists, even in high places. When Junius Bird started back to Peru to investigate the incredible waste heaps of ancient cities in the Viru Valley, one of our greatest American anthropologists told him, "You'll just be wasting your time. I've been all over that site and it isn't worth the trouble." He was speaking not as an anthropologist in the true sense, but as a glorified scientific pothunter. His naturally keen judgment had been warped into confusing artistic excellence and scientific significance. Fortunately Bird was not dissuaded and even though he expected no beautiful pottery, he tunneled into these mounds of ancient litter, preserved for study by a fortunate combination of one of the world's driest climates and salt spray from the adjacent coast. His incredible haul of broken utensils, discarded nets, and thousands of squash rinds, corncobs, and the like, is giving us a definitive understanding of early civilizations in South America.
As for the agronomists and other biological super technicians, their minds are quite as sealed to the notion that contact with anthropology might be professionally rewarding. Many of them have a determined yahooism, a resistance to any kind of elegance which is one of the remnants of our frontier tradition.
It would be a healthy thing for scholarship if these barriers between the humanities and the sciences could be broken down more frequently. Scientific work needs background and foreground and perspective; by its nature it must deal intensely with the minutiae of restricted problems. Effective co-operation with the humanities would give it understanding, would lessen this American impulse to do something far the sake of the doing rather than because the end results are desirable. The humanities could benefit quite as much from the interchange. They still operate under the dead hand of medieval scholasticism. Historians, literary scholars, even social scientists, approach many problems as they do, not because that is an effective way, but simply because that is the way which has been followed since medieval times. They have a terrible impulse to begin an investigation as did the scholastics by saying "Now, let us define our terms." The more fruitful scientific attitude is to say, "Here is something peculiar; let us study it. Definitions can wait until we know more about the phenomenon." This is particularly true in biology, where two of our most fundamental units, the species and the gene, are still undefinable in any strict sense, though there has been enough general agreement about them (they can he defined by example if in no other way) so that we work co-operatively towards their eventual definition.
A bringing together of men in different disciplines for the study of cultivated plants and weeds, an active co-operation of historians) anthropologists) and ethnobotanists would have as its immediate aim the advancement of understanding in that particular problem. Its greater ultimate effect would be the catalytic transfer of techniques and attitudes from one field to another.