May 2016

Deep Seeds and First Foods


Centers of Origin and Diversification of Maíz in the Río Arriba

and the Survival of Heritage Cuisines


Devon G. Peña, Ph.D.



For several decades, farmers, eaters and resilience advocates have made impassioned calls to reorient our food systems toward local and slow foods. From an indigenous vantage point, this also means remaining mindful of what I call “Deep Food” or what my friend and mentor, Delbert Miller, calls “First Foods,” by which we wish to designate the heritage cuisines that arise in a place-based manner as a result of a long duration process of indigenous agroecological, ethnobotanical and ethnogastronomical knowledge and practices that are true sources of bioregional foodsheds.


Valuing this link between land, seed and food, in 2010 UNESCO designated the heritage cuisine of Michoacán, México, as a major contribution to world cultural heritage. The report notes that Michoacán and other indigenous communities in México are homes to heritage cuisines that have been…

…preserved since ancient times through oral transmission of skills and knowledge between generations; through symbiosis among cookery, cosmogony and environment, and…in the complex cultural system encompassing rituals, ceremonies and celebrations… that is a powerful factor in social cohesion and…identity. 

The symbiosis between “cookery, cosmogony and environment” mentioned in the UNESCO report is more than mere poetic language. It reflects an interest in and desire on the part of conservation advocates for us to understand how foodways and actual farming practices are inextricably connected and must therefore be protected together. The foundation of a unique heritage cuisine is, in the end, good healthy soil and a diverse inventory of native landrace crops. UNESCO outlines the inseparable links between land and cuisine in its exposition of the Michoacán paradigm:

Traditional Mexican cuisine—and in this case, the Michoacán paradigm—is an integral part of the ancient cultural system based on corn, beans and chili…[and includes] unique farming methods like the milpa (self-sustainable field of corn and other crops) and chinampa (man-made farming islets in lake areas). Besides its originality, [this system] is ancestral, collective and communitarian in nature…(2010, 3; brackets added)


The Río Arriba or Upper Río Grande bioregion is also home to heritage cuisines that bear the marks of deep place-based origins. One especially iconic indigenous food of the Río Arriba is chicos del horno, listed by Slow Food USA in the Ark of Taste, a compendium of rare, endangered and disappearing foods and foodways. Chicos are made from the roasting—and pressure-cooking—of native white flint maize in adobe ovens and are a good example of local, slow and deep food.


The acequia farmers of the southern San Luís Valley (SLV)—Costilla and Conejos counties, in Colorado—are among the heirs and successors of the oldest nontribal indigenous family farmers in the United States. They produce renowned place-adapted, heirloom landrace maize, bean and pumpkin/squash varieties. These crops are considered part of the extended Mesoamerican Center of Origin. The concept of “center of origin” was first developed by the Russian scientist, Nicolai Vavilov, who identified several distinct biogeographical regions across the globe that are home to the wild ancestors of crops domesticated and diversified by indigenous farmers over millennia and remain places where the co-evolution of crops and wild ancestors persists as a direct result of surviving indigenous cultural selection and agroecological practices [our emphasis].

Noted ethnobotanist Gary P. Nabhan followed Vavilov’s travels across vast stretches of northern México and the U.S. Southwest, where Vavilov searched for and identified dozens of native landrace crops sustained by indigenous farmers and cultivated since well before European invasion and conquest (Nabhan 2011). Centers of origin are also centers of diversity. Nabhan appears to include the Upper Sonoran Desert country of the SLV as a northern periphery subbasin of Aridoamerica (1988: 393). More recent scientific research involving new field accessions squarely places our valley within the center of origin and diversification of maize. See map in Fig. 1, Matsuoka, et al. (2002, 6081).


As a center of origin and agrobiodiversity, the Culebra watershed acequia farms are recognized for contributions to heirloom maize diversity and for sustaining several vanishing artisan production methods and practices involving the use of native crops. This is especially true of a maize white flint variety known as “maíz de concho.” The Upper Río Grande Hispano Farms study (1995–99), supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH Grant RO-22707-94) and the Ford Foundation, included what is likely the first scientific field and lab research on the local white flint maize grown by acequia farmers in the Culebra watershed of Colorado. Maize geneticist Ralph Bertrand-García, of Colorado College, collaborated in the 1995 field study and found that the white flint maize produced by the Corpus A. Gallegos family in San Luís is a highly inbred parent line. This implies genetic purity and the absence of transgenes from commercial, conventional hybrid or genetically engineered (GE) maize. The 1995 field study was done before commercial plantings of genetically modified (GMO) maize in the United States when the associated transgenes were not yet a threat.


Bertrand-García once suggested to the author that Culebra concho may share morphological qualities and possibly genome qualities associated with ancient Anasazi corncob remnants found at sites across the desert Southwest, including Mesa Verde, Chaco and Grand Gulch. This inquiry supports oral histories in Costilla County, which declare that concho originally came from Anasazi ancestral maize populations via modern-day Taos, San Juan, San Ildefonso, Picuris and other northern pueblos.[1] Seed exchanges among indigenous farmers from these communities continue today. Some of the concho varieties may have also evolved out of seed stocks from northern México (Sonoran) populations, as an examination of the CIMMYT (Centro Internacionál de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo) online library of Mexican landraces appears to suggest.


In the Gallegos concho parent-line, Bertrand-García identified three adaptive responses to conditions in high-altitude cold deserts characterized by short growing seasons and late spring and early fall frosts. These include 1) rapid development with average of 74–80 days to maturity (between sowing and harvesting); 2) resistance to desiccation and tissue damage from intense ultraviolet (UV) solar radiation at high altitude and early or late frosts; and 3) adaptation to diurnal temperature extremes with a daily average range between upper 30s to low 40°F and highs of 80°F during the growing season. These are significant traits in the context of today’s climate-change challenges and should qualify the genomic integrity of the Culebra bioregional landrace maize populations as a national agrobiodiversity conservation priority.


Miguel Santistevan (2003) has also described the specific heirloom white flint used by acequia farmers as maíz de concho. Adopting the scientific name Zea mays clibanus for this population, he notes that the heirloom variety is grown in rotation or intercropped with maíz de diente, another local flint, so named because farmers describe the kernels as “horse’s teeth.”


There is a wide range of distinct inbred parent lines, as well as a constantly shifting mosaic of native chimera varieties incorporating adaptive morphological, forage/biomass, nutritional, and culinary qualities valued by acequia communities. Some chimeras of two or more parent lines from local landraces often have features expected separately in dent and flour corn landraces. One of our local heirloom varieties, gifted to The Acequia Institute, in 1998, by the late Corpus A. Gallegos, can be described as a “floury flint.” Depending on the timing of harvest, it can be used to produce chicos or pozol (hominy). But left on stalk to develop as seed corn, it can be used for making cornmeal or masa harina after nixtamalization.[2]


The Slow Food USA listing of chicos as an endangered food in the Ark of Taste project includes concern for disappearing artisan craft skills involved in constructing and maintaining the crucial adobe ovens and place-based knowledge required to prepare the oven-roasted chicos for consumption or sale. Despite the scarce number of producers, chicos remain a living icon of heritage cuisine and the center of acequiera/o foodways and farming practices. Like the Michoacán paradigm, the production of a heritage cuisine like chicos del horno requires the unity of land, water, seed and cookery. It also involves our religious heritage and spirituality, as evidenced by continuing observance of the Feast Day of San Isidro across northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, when chicos are still traditionally served along with other bioregional foods.


The maíz de concho varieties sown by acequia farmers bear living evidence of genetic affinity with wild ancestral forms. During the 2010 harvest cycle of maíz de concho at Almunyah de las Dos Acequias, the home of The Acequia Institute, we sowed a seventh generation of Gallegos heirloom white flint from the same parent line studied by Bertrand-García. We found two stalks produced the tunicate florescence instead of whole cob alignment of maize kernels.


Two images: First is a diagram depicted in Figure 1 from the study by Noble Laureate geneticist George W. Beadle (1979) on “The Ancestry of Corn.” In Beadle’s diagram, (a) and (b) are designated “teocintle”; (c) is designated as a “tunicate,” that is, a mutation in which individual kernels remain aligned in separate single- or double-file formation, instead of clustered on a cob; (d) is designated as a “primitive” ear; and (e) is designated as “modern” maize.

Second is a photograph of a tunicate florescence that we keyed as an example of a tendency in our own maíz de concho to revert back to wild ancestral forms. These occurrences are indicative of the close genomic affinity the local inbred landrace varieties have with wild and intermediary relatives. The photograph in Figure 2 shows the tunicate white flint mutation from our accession of the Gallegos family parent line of Culebra maíz de concho and was collected during the 2010 harvest at Almunyah de las Dos Acequias Farm in Viejo San Acacio. Comparing this mutation with Beadle’s 1979 diagram suggests that the occurrence depicted in here is an example of the regression/mutation of a local landrace to an intermediate wild stage. This is substantive evidence of the legitimacy of center-of-origin landrace status for Costilla County maize varieties like the Culebra-Gallegos maíz de concho because this can occur only in landrace, inbred parent lines with close wild ancestors.


UNESCO policy seeks to protect the “intangible” cultural heritage of humanity including the conservation of food, foodways and farming practices as unified wholes. Acequia farmers, including Native Americans and Chicana/os, are among those who integrate farming practices like permaculture, soil biodynamics, seed saving and exchange and plant breeding with culinary and gastronomical traditions comprising our heritage cuisine. Protecting acequia water and land rights; conserving the genomic integrity of the diverse seed stocks of native corn and other crops; respecting the artisan knowledge of culinary recipes and ethnobotany handed down over generations; remaining committed to mindful farming through indigenous regenerative practices—all are critical to the resilience and flourishing of a unique heritage cuisine based on the cultural and ecological integrity of the homelands. Such protection has never been more urgent than in the era of GE corn like the “transgenic” and “gene-edited” events being imposed willy-nilly across indigenous, cultural, ecological landscapes by settler colonial farmers buying into invasive, risky and harmful technologies sold by Monsanto, Syngenta and their accomplices.

Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is founder and president of The Acequia Institute, a non-profit research and education foundation dedicated to the protection and preservation of the acequia way of life. He is also professor of anthropology and American ethnic studies at the University of Washington. His next book is Mexican-Origin Foods, Foodways, and Social Movements: A Decolonial Reader, forthcoming from the Univ. of Arkansas Press in October 2016.










[1] Corpus A. Gallegos interview with Devon G. Peña, July 18, 1996; archived at The Acequia Institute.

[2] A process for the preparation of maize in which the grain is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater, and hulled; the process makes the lysine and other essential amino acids available to the human digestive system, maximizing the nutritional value of maize consumption, a point overlooked by many scientific specialists studying maize who repeat the mythic refrain about the malnourished state of so-called maize-dependent consumers.

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