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[ ] The Age of Man in the New World continues to be seriously underestimated.—Carl Sauer to Mark Harrington, 1946 8 The Farthest Corridors of Human Time During the 1940s Sauer trod a speculative and controversial pathway of research into human origins in the Americas, still a topic of lively debate. What especially engaged Sauer were the domestication of New World crops and the antiquity of initial human entry into the hemisphere. The origins of the first crops and of the first Americans—the “paleogeography of man,” as he called it—became a consuming passion throughout his remaining years, leading eventually to a grand synthesis of global agricultural domestication and diffusion. In the late 1930s Sauer realized that his long-sought cultural corridor, from central Mexico up the west coast to the southwestern United States, was chimerical. While the Mexican work had led to his bombshell conclusions about pre-Columbian population numbers, it had not provided the “missing link” between Mexico and the north, the main rationale for his lengthy fieldwork.1 Crop Diversity Yet the years in the field had left him increasingly impressed by the rich variety of crops in the peasant repertoire. The staples—maize (Zea mays), squash (Cucurbita), and beans (Phaseolus), and to a lesser extent tomatoes 116 to pass on a good earth (Lycopersicum) and potatoes (Solanum)—displayed enormous variation from place to place. Had the different varieties evolved naturally or had the Indians carefully selected and bred types that best suited certain locales? Did some crops, like maize, have social or religious significance, as Eduard Hahn had suggested? In any case, it was clear that cultivated plants were artifacts and cultural traits of great antiquity, just as surely as were pots, weapons, and buildings. The shift in Sauer’s research interests profoundly affected his intellectual life. In his previous work, the help and approbation of anthropologists Kroeber and Lowie had been indispensable. Once Sauer moved into the study of plants these links became less important than those he forged with botanists and geneticists such as Edgar Anderson at Washington University in St. Louis and Paul Mangelsdorf at Harvard, both concerned with the origin of maize. Sauer saw the genetic and ecological separation of cultivated plants from wild flora as a tremendous realm of “neglected enquiry” for understanding the origins and spread of culture. Domesticated species might yield evidence that contradicted the conventional records of archaeology, linguistics , and ethnology. They might also help to date the diffusion of native peoples in the Americas. Moreover, obscure native strains of common crops could hold the key to the breeding of better-yielding strains that would help solve global food problems, provided they were not extirpated by blundering agricultural modernization. In this he was critical of what became the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s.2 The Pursuit of Maize As Sauer embarked on his 1942 tour of Andean South America for the Rockefeller Foundation, he realized how ill equipped he was for tracing interrelationships among climate, soils, and plants.3 He had a sharp eye and abundant curiosity, but no genetic training. What, Sauer asked Anderson, should he and Jonathan be looking for in South America? In Sonora he had seen, but ignored, many exotic varieties. He was keen that this should not happen again. “Tell us, what we can do to provide you with corn materials.” Anderson was precise: the Sauers should get as many samples as possible of tasseled corn from specified areas. Because corn was a cross-pollinated The Farthest Corridors of Human Time 117 crop, one had to see the whole adjacent stand of twenty to thirty plants in order to make sense of what was going on. Anderson needed to know the number “of nodes above the upper ear, number of ears, maximum leaf width, length and width of ear, number of tassel brushes, length of pedicel and pediculate spikelet, and length of spikelet” of each plant.4 Sauer also asked Anderson whether genetic analysis of the different types of maize that Isabel Kelly had gathered in western Jalisco could throw any light on cultural differences. Anderson happened to be working on another maize collection from Texas and Cuba and was keen to collaborate. He fully backed an interdisciplinary approach, and regretted that maize geneticists were unaware that “primitive” strains survived in out-of-the-way places. Indeed , he told Sauer, he had recently had a paper rejected for labeling some Papago corn a “real” variety when every right-thinking geneticist knew it was...


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