Maize is a Central American crop; it is now Southern Africa’s main staple. How did this come about
What crops did people eat in Africa before maize?
Currently we think sorghum was originally domesticated in the savannah that stretches from Lake Chad to the border between Ethiopia and the Sudan while millet and finger-millet trace their origins to north-west Africa. Agriculture was introduced into southern Africa around 2000 years ago, at the same time as metalworking, building houses and domestic animals. Archaeologists refer to this time period (perhaps somewhat incorrectly) as the Iron Age. Millet and sorghum were the staple food for over 1500 years in Zimbabwe, supplemented by various vegetables and wild fruits. And a bit of meat, usually goat or sheep, or beef if you were lucky!
Where does maize come from?
Though the exact date and circumstances of Zea mays’s first cultivation remain a mystery, by 1500AD the Aztec and Mayan civilisations had long called the descendants of the plant, maize, literally meaning “that which sustains life.” They claimed that the crop was flesh and blood itself. Recent genetic and archaeological research has indicated that maize probably originated as a domestic crop around 9,000 years ago in the Balsas River Valley of southern Mexico. Globally, maize was being domesticated roughly at the same time as flax, peas, barley, rice, beans, squash and potatoes.
What makes maize special?
As a food plant maize has been treated as a vegetable crop in the garden, and also sometimes as a grain in the field. We eat maize at its green, milky stage, boiled as a snack, or roasted on the cob. We eat the kernels and grind them into flour and make porridge or flatbreads. In a strict nutritional and physiological sense, maize is a vegetable rather than a grain, offering vitamins A, C, and E (some of the ways in which a vegetable is defined nutritionally), but lacks the lower B vitamins that characterise a true grain such as sorghum or wheat.
Corn is high in carbohydrates but low in useable protein, especially the vital amino acids lysine and tryptophan; its leucine content blocks absorption of niacin, a vitamin whose absence causes protein deficiency. As a grain, maize yields more food per unit of land and labor than any other. Yet, it also has a darker side. It is highly sensitive to deprivation of water, sunlight, and nitrogen; it rots quickly and easily in humid storage.
Maize monocultures are extremely vulnerable to environmental shocks, especially drought. It may also impoverish the bodies of those who depend too heavily on it for food, resulting in disease such as pellagra and kwashiorkor. Africa is distinctive among world regions in that 95% of its maize is consumed by humans, rather than used to feed livestock. In the modern economies of the US, East Asia, and Europe, however, it is the ultimate “legible” industrial raw material: agribusiness uses its starches and cellulose for fuel, fodder, paint, plastic, and penicillin.
How did it arrive in Africa?
Maize arrived in Africa after 1500 as part of the massive global ecological and demographic transformation that historian Alfred Crosby called the “Columbian Exchange.” The great irony, of course, is that the same Atlantic economy that took slaves from Africa to the Americas also reinvented Africa’s food supply.
As James McCann, whose book Maize and Grace provides much of the inspiration for this briefing, has argued, there is little evidence of what might have been a conscious process of Europeans and Africans introducing the maize plant to Africa. The importation of the maize seeds to various parts of Africa generally went unremarked, though it certainly was not unremarkable. In southern Africa, maize still had not arrived at the Cape by 1652 as Jan Van Riebeeck did not report seeing it there in that year, despite his hope to identify new local food sources.
It was initially introduced by the Portuguese to supply their trading forts. This Portuguese influence is suggested by use of names such as zaburro (in Mozambique, from the Portuguese milho zaburro), masa mamputo (in Angola, lit. “grain of the white man”), and mealie (Afrikaans, from Portuguese milho), a term used by many people in South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Does the introduction of maize link to the slave trade?
In an article published this year, US scholars Jevan Cherniwchan and Juan Moreno-Cruz tested the hypothesis that the introduction of maize in west Africa allowed for a population increase due to a better food supply. In the 1960s, American historians Alfred Crosby and Philip Curtin linked maize and other New World crops to changes in both population density and slavery during the Columbian Exchange.
Together, their observations form the hypothesis that increases in agricultural productivity created by the introduction of new crops increased both population density in, and slave exports from affected parts of Africa. Using sophisticated computer models based on a Malthusian model pitting food supply versus potential population size, Cherniwchan and Cruz concluded “that the introduction of maize simply contributed to an increase in the magnitude of the slave trades.” Furthermore, Marvin Miracle in 1965 described maize being deliberately introduced to West Africa “as a cheap staple food for slaves,” calculating on the basis of 100,000 slaves being taken a year, with 9,000 metric tons of maize grown to feed them a kilogram each a day.
Was it popular immediately?
John Iliffe, in his magisterial book Africans: History of a Continent, describes the African physical environment as overwhelming to agriculture. He argues that, in contrast to Asian floodplain agriculture or temperate cultivation in highland Latin America, “African peasant farming was a skilled craft producing numerous crops adapted to small variations of soil and climate.”
He further argues that most African farmers initially adopted maize as a niche crop, tucked within a complex cropping system that relied on intercropping, rotation, and slash-and-burn management of fertility. In these systems, shaped by Africa’s sharply defined wet/dry seasonality, averting risk demanded diversity of cropping strategies, rather than rewarding efficiencies of scale.
Regardless of how long maize may have been established in Africa, it was little observed before the end of the sixteenth century or at least it did not attract the attention of travellers, and they consistently discussed the foods of the “strange lands” they visited in their books and articles at the time. It was the shift of maize into a grain staple in the last century that changed its effects on diet and transformed African farming systems.
Didn’t Zimbabwe contribute to this development?
The first commercial single cross maize hybrid variety in the world, SR52, was developed in Zimbabwe, then Southern Rhodesia, in 1960. SR52 was the product of government research in maize which had started in 1904 at the Salisbury Research Station, with a hybrid maize programme being initiated in 1932. SR52 is a derivative of two late-maturing inbred lines, N126.96.36.199 and SC5522, which were developed from the OPVs Salisbury white and Southern Cross, adapted to Zimbabwean conditions.
By 1970, 98% of Zimbabwe’s maize area was planted to SR52, with neighbouring countries also adopting it as the variety of choice. SR52 is credited with raising African maize yields three-fold a decade after its release and Zimbabwe became a net exporter of maize for many years. From this example, the world learnt that productive inbred lines can be found that can be used to produce single crosses productively. Today, the world’s leading maize-producing countries, such as the USA, China and Brazil, use single cross hybrids.
What else was brought in by the Portuguese?
The influence of the Portuguese on the Mutapa state was certainly not benign, and indeed it could be argued to have been fatal. Portuguese interest in the African interior, whether in Ethiopia, Angola or Zimbabwe, was always a sideshow.
They were at this time also trading in Japan, China, America and India, circumnavigating the globe, squabbling with the Spanish and Dutch and colonising Brazil. None got rich from Zimbabwe. The legacy they would like to have left vanished, but they did leave one that had a long-term practical effect on the people here. This was agricultural. They introduced peanuts that are the basis of many Shona recipes. They may have introduced rice and sugar cane.
They certainly introduced guavas, granadilla and avocados. There are food plants from India too which they may have brought like pineapple, papaw, prickly pear and sweet potatoes. Tobacco and cotton also appear during their period, as do donkeys and pigs. Indeed it would be difficult to imagine a Zimbabwean farm today with none of these things, and we have to thank the Portuguese trading dynasties for most of them.