Learning to farm from native drylanders
Puebloan cultures perfected early domesticated corn
Jim Mimiaga/Cortez Journal
The Hopi Tribe is assisting researchers at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center on ancient corn-growing techniques and understanding the crop’s history in the Four Corners.
The Pueblo Farming Project is attempting to recreate Puebloan styles of growing corn at five different gardens on the Crow Canyon campus, west of Cortez.
“Since 2008, the Hopi have been using their traditional ecological knowledge to teach us about dryland farming of corn,” said Mark Varien, research and education chair at Crow Canyon. “It has been an honor to work with them and very inspiring to learn from their experiences.”
The Hopi are experts at desert farming, and continue the practice today on Black Mesa in Arizona as they have done for generations. Where others have failed, the Hopi are proficient at growing corn, squash, beans, and melons.
“For the Hopi, corn is not just food, it is a metaphor for life. Their people were created from corn,” said Paul Ermigiotti, a researcher and educator at Crow Canyon.
An audience of 50 people listened to a presentation on the Pueblo Farming Project Wednesday night at the Crow Canyon campus as part of the Four Corners Lecture series.
“The Hopi relationship with corn is different than me going to the grocery store to buy it,” Varien said. “It is central to their identity, and they think about it in a different way.”
There are five basic varieties of corn: popcorn, flint (or Indian corn with colorful kernels), dent, flour and sweet corn. The oldest corn cob dates to 6,500 years ago. Domesticated corn arrived in the Southwest 4,000 years ago. It is derived from a wild grass called teosinte, which first began to be cultivated as corn 9,500 years ago.
Domestication of corn signals the beginning of the more stationary Pueblo Indian culture and a move away from hunting and gathering practices more dominant during the Archaic Period. By 500 B.C. during the so-called Neolithic Revolution, corn became a main calorie source for people.
Scientists have been able to date domesticated corn from the Four Corners to 2,000 B.C.
The earliest dated flour corn variety is from A.D. 0, found in the cave outside Nucla. Ancient corn from the Fall Creek site near Durango dates to 300 B.C.
“The dry conditions in the cave preserved the evidence of corn excavated under layers of soil,” Ermigiotti said.
New studies on ancient human bones can determine corn intake. Corn migrated to the Southwest from what is now southern Mexico.
Mike Coffey farms 2,000 acres around Dove Creek without irrigation. The Hopi visited his farm and were impressed, talking agriculture for hours and trading tips. They agreed on limiting soil amendments.
“It could be good but I have not amended the soil because the results are so hit and miss,” Coffey said.
The Hopi are vigilant about keeping moisture-robbing weeds away from their corn and also are not known to amend their soil. Like any good drylander, they focus on planting in areas that naturally have favorable soil and moisture conditions.
During surveys with the Hopi collaborators on where to plant the older corn varieties, Varien keyed in on their technique.
“I kept noticing an area where the sagebrush was four times higher than others. We picked the spot for a garden and after we cleared it away, we discovered an ancient check dam there,” he said. “We were farming where the early Puebloans were.”
Virtual farm simulation
Crow Canyon is using computerized simulations called the Village Ecodynamics Project and comparing the results to yields from their gardens.
Data about ancient droughts, landscapes, soil conditions, precipitation and populations between A.D. 600 and 1.300 for the Mesa Verde area are inserted into the program.
“Two-hundred families were entered into a simulation and we recorded how much they produced by farming. We compared our yields with the those earlier years that have similar precipitation and found our corn production was not terribly off,” Varien said.
The Hopi grow their corn in clumps of six, spaced well apart, to conserve limited water and to mitigate wind damage. They use planting sticks, and drop 10 to 12 seeds in one hole, which typically produce 12 plants, and the best six are kept growing.
“The modern Hopi still maintain 12 distinct varieties of corn that have been sustained for thousands of years,” Varien said. The Hopi have 18 different words for the development of corn, including three when it is still underground. One stage, translated to “toddler,” is when the leaves fall over and touch the ground before the plant reaches maturity.
The history of how corn was domesticated, its different varieties and its origins gives new meaning to modern food and its original cultivators.
“We teach students that the stereotype of Native Americans only hunting and gathering is not true,” Ermigiotti said. “They hunted as well as farmed. They were actively farming the landscape.”
Crow Canyon has been regularly working with a group of 10 Hopi men over the years. The collaboration has been a “profound” experience for Crow Canyon researchers and students, and the Hopis’ positive attitude and sense of humor is uplifting, Varien said.
“They joke around a lot when farming, saying things like ‘My digging stick is bigger than yours.’ And women, they talk a lot about women,” he laughs. “They don’t go to the field unless they have a pure heart, with nothing troubling them.”
Says Hopi farmer Donald Dawahongnewa, “We see corn as our children. When we go to the field we sing a song and the corn grows, just like you do to your children.”