National Geographic : 1993 Jun
ULTURES circled in a tur quoise sky as we emerged from the cactus forest in the Tehuacin Valley of central Mexico. Nothing else moved. The squat figure of Narciso Tejeda Cabanzo stood silhouetted against the midday sun. He reached back, took my hand, and we scrambled up a worn goat path to a shallow cave. A shaft of sunlight illuminated several depressions from old excavations and a few potsherds scattered about the cave floor. I sat on a rock and let my eyes adjust to the shad ows. "This is where we discovered the oldest corn known to science," Narciso recalled, scanning the ground. "It was just a little shriv eled cob, but we all jumped with joy as if this were the golden tomb of a great Aztec king." He leaned down, brushed aside some debris, and delicately picked up something too small for me to see. Then he handed me a wispish fragment about an inch long, an ear of wild corn. From diminutive plants such as these, Indians began domesticating corn as early as 5000 B.C. I looked out over the thorn scrub and cactus that stretched to the horizon and imagined what it must have been like when the first Americans roamed these lands, migrating with the seasons, hunting small game and gathering food. But the simplicity of the cave, the scene of one of the most extraordinary prehistoric finds ever made in the New World, caught me off guard. There were no tourists here, no mark ers to signify its importance. "The cave has been looted and forgotten," said Narciso, shrugging as we hiked down through clusters of prickly pear and jiotilla cactus. "No one cares about this cave and what went on here." Although the exact origin of modern corn has been passionately debated among botani cal experts, most agree that it sprang from a grass native to Mexico, similar to some of the tiny plants from the cave. "Prehistoric Indians living near the caves gathered tiny four-rowed ears of wild corn for "Husking gloves cost me 88 cents an acre," says Amish hog farmer Robert Slabaugh. They are his sole expense for 46 days of hand harvesting 60 acres near Lagrange, Indiana.