Archaeologists replicate ancient corn harvests.
Using experimental gardens and historic climate data, archaeologists are able to predict the size of past corn harvests, providing new insights into how big droughts affected ancient people's food security.
Evidence of corn's importance to Ancestral Puebloan life can be found throughout cliff dwellings and other archaeological sites today. Pictured here are the impressions of corn in mortar at Kodak House, located in present-day Mesa Verde National Park.
Much to the surprise of many visitors, corn and corn cobs preserve very well under the right conditions in the American Southwest. If protected from elements such as sun, wind, and moisture (as well as scavengers such as rodents, or even humans looking for a souvenir), these corn cobs and kernels can remain intact for hundreds of years.
Today in the inner courtyard of the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum at Mesa Verde National Park, rangers sometimes plant and tend to corn grown similar to the crops that would have grown here hundreds of years ago. The resulting plants are much smaller than what most present-day Americans expect corn cobs and stalks to be, and require less water and attention, as they grow from a more drought-resistant species.
In order for corn to produce a good yield, the seeds must be planted much deeper than present-day corn: 10-12 inches as opposed to the 1.5 to 2 inches today. This allows the roots to establish closer to the water table.
Not only were the corn stalks grown in the Mesa Verde region smaller, but the ears themselves measured about half the size of today's varieties.
The soils of the Colorado Plateau make for excellent farming, however the landscape requires a more strategic approach to farmland than the massive, neat acres of corn rows found in the Plains and Midwestern states today. Using naturally occurring drainages, the Ancestral Pueblo people constructed what are called check dams, to collect and pool water, resulting in farming terraces for growing crops. These are similar to container gardens or raised garden beds, which are common today. Listen to Episode 1: Revealed by Fire for more information about the study of check dams within Mesa Verde National Park.
Photos: NPS and Kayla Eiler