Maize in Pre-Columbian India

Carl L. Johannessen and Anne Z. Parker, "Maize Ears Sculptured in 12th and 13th Century A.D. India as Indicators of Pre-Columbian Diffusion," Economic Botany 43 , 1989, 164-80, argue that stone carvings of maize ears exist in at least three pre-Columbian Hoysala stone block temples near Mysore, Karnataka state, India. Their article provides 16 photographs of a few of the sculptures in question.

Johannessen has now made three large-scale color photographs available online at (new URL, 10/06), with a brief discussion. These photos reveal considerable detail that is lost in the reduced scale black and white reproductions that appeared in the journal article. His photos are the source of the thumbnails on appearing this site, and may be viewed full size by clicking below:


Further photographs appear in his 1998 article, "Maize Diffused to India before Columbus Came to America" (see references below).

In his 1998 article "Pre-Columbian American Sunflower and Maize Images in Indian Temples: Evidence of Contact between Civilizations in India and America" (see references below), Johannessen goes on to cite several appearances of the sunflower, another New World crop, in pre-Columbian Indian temple sculptures. To view Figure 1 from that article, enlarged and in color on his website, click on the thumbnail below:

The following review has been published in the Midwest Epigraphic Journal, vol. 12/13, 1998-99, pp. 43-44.
An earlier version appeared in 1998 on the newsgroup sci.archaeology.

Indologist Confirms Maize in Ancient Sculptures

by J. Huston McCulloch

Indologist and Ethnobotanist Shakti M. Gupta of Delhi University confirms the presence of maize and at least five other New World plants in pre-Columbian temple sculptures in India in her new book, Plants in Indian Temple Art (B.R. Publishing Corp, Delhi, 1996. ISBN 81-7018-883-0).

Maize had previously been reported in several Hoysala temples by Carl Johannessen and Anne Z. Parker ("Maize Ears Sculptured in 12th and 13th Century AD India as Indicators of Pre-Columbian Diffusion," Economic Botany vol. 43, 1989, pp. 164-180). Photos of a few of these sculptures are online at,, and

Vocal critics of Johannessen and Parker have argued that it was their lack of understanding of the intricacies of Hindu iconography that prevented them from realizing that what is depicted in these sculptures is in fact not maize, but rather something else - variously muktaphala (lit. "pearl-fruit", an imaginary fruit made of pearls), some exotic tropical fruit, or even, by one account, the Kalpavrksha, a mythical wish-granting tree (!).

Gupta’s earlier books, including Plant Myths and Traditions in India (1971), Vishnu and His Incarnations (1974), Legends around Shiva (1979), and Festivals, Fairs, and Fasts of India (1990), establish her as an authority on Indian mythology and, in particular, the role of plants in Indian mythology. Now, she has provided a definitive text identifying some 70 varieties of plants depicted in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist temple art in India.

Prof. Gupta writes,

Different varieties of the corn cob [Zea mays Linn.] are extensively sculpted but only on the Hindu and Jain temples of Karnataka. Various deities are shown as carrying a corn cob in their hands as on the Chenna Kesava temple, Belur. The straight rows of the corn grains can be easily identified. In the Lakshmi Narasimha temple, Nuggehalli, the eight-armed dancing Vishnu in his female form of Mohini is holding a corn cob in one of her left hands and the other hands hold the usual emblems of Vishnu. .... In the Trikuta basti, Mukhamandapa, Sravanbelgola, Karnataka, a 12th century A.D. sculpture of Ambika Kushmandini sitting on a lotus seat under a canopy of mangoes holds in her left hand a corn cob. Plate 223 depicting a Nayika holding a corn cob in her left hand is from Nuggehalli, Karnataka.

Temples where the sculptures of corn cobs are found are dated 12-13th century A.D. The common belief [!] is that maize originated in Mexico and came to India by the 11th-12th century. By the time these temples were constructed, maize would have been fairly common in India. (p. 176).

Gupta does not stop with maize, but goes on to identify sunflower, pineapple, cashew, custard apple and monstera, all new world species, in pre-Columbian temple art.

She finds Sunflower (Helianthus annuus Linn.), a native of Central and South America, in the Rani Gumpha cave, Udaigiri, 2nd century B.C. (p. 30). Johannessen independently reports sunflower in his article, "Pre-Columbian American Sunflower and Maize Images in Indian Temples: Evidence of Contact between Civilizations in India and America" (in Davis Bitton, ed., Mormons, Scripture and the Ancient World: Studies in Honor of John L. Sorenson, FARMS, Provo UT, 1998).

Pineapple (Ananas cosmosus [Linn.] Merrill), a plant indigenous to Brazil, is, according to Gupta, "clearly depicted" in Udayagiri cave temple, Madhya Pradesh, circa 5th century A.D. (p. 18). Cashew (Anacardium occidentale Linn.), a native of Brazil, is depicted in a Bharhut stupa balustrade relief, circa 2nd century B.C. (p. 17). Gupta finds custard apple (Annona Squamosa Linn.) sculpted at Bharhut, circa 2nd century B.C., and at Kakatiya, Karnataka, 12th century A.D. (pp. 19-20). According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, this plant is native to the New World tropics and Florida. And finally, monstera (Monstera deliciosa Liebm.), also known as split leaf philodendron, a large evergreen climber native to Central America, appears in Hindu and Jain temples in Gujarat and Rajastan from the 11th to 13th centuries (pp. 108-9).

According to Gupta, the chili pepper (Capsicum annuum Linn.) is mentioned in the Siva and Varmana Puranas, circa 6-8th centuries A.D. Unfortunately she does not give page references or indicate the term used for it there, and the only temple carving she has found of it dates to the 17th century A.D. This very important native of Mexico and Latin America deserves further investigation.

The naga lingham, the flower of the South American and West Indian cannonball tree (Couroupita guaianensis Aubl.), was, according to Gupta, "cultivated in India from very early times." In her timeframe, this would mean very early pre-Columbian times. She notes that it figures into the worship of Shiva at several temples. Nevertheless, the only sculpture of it she shows again dates from the 17th century A.D. This plant also merits further research.

Gupta’s book contains a wealth of evidence for pre-Columbian contacts between the New World and the Old, despite the fact that she is not particularly interested in, or even aware of, the possibility. She does repeatedly reject reports that such-and-such plant was introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century, but in her conclusion suggests that perhaps plants such as the pineapple and custard apple "were indigenous to India." Despite the "common belief" (evidently Johannessen and Parker’s) that maize was brought to India from Mexico prior to the construction of the Hoysala temples, she reports that "Maize is also believed to have an Indian origin..." It is my understanding that this is botanically impossible, although it is quite conceivable that maize was present in the subcontinent for many centuries before the Hoysala dynasty, and that distinctively Asian varieties were developed early on.

Despite Gupta’s confirmation of maize in the Hoysala sculptures Johannessen and Parker discuss, she argues that the similar but distinctly squatter objects that appear in earlier sculptures are not maize but rather Citron (Citrus medica var. Limonum of Watt.) or Lemon (Citrus limon [Linn.]), both Old World plants (p. 53). Perhaps so, but it is noteworthy that the "citron" she says is held by a Yaksha in an 8th century A.D. sculpture from Aihole has kernels aligned in maize-like rows. A citron looks like a large lemon with a deeply puckered skin, but the puckering is random, and does not simulate maize kernels as in her very clear photograph.

Unfortunately, Gupta makes no mention of Johannessen and Parker or their predecessors, or of the lively debate that surrounds the "maize ears." She also makes no mention of "muktaphala," or "pearl-fruit," the Sanskrit name said to be associated with these objects. My own hunch is that this was actually a name that was used for maize.

Gupta’s book is a little hard to find in the United States. I had to have the Ohio State University libraries order it specially, and at present it has one of only two copies in the entire Ohiolink university library consortium. At $110 it is a little pricey, but it is informative, attractive and well done. The photos are good but almost all black and white. All the illustrations are well annotated.

The following comments first appeared in 1998 on the newsgroup sci.archaeology.

Comments on Andrews (1993)

by J. Huston McCulloch

A 1993 article by Jean Andrews, "Diffusion of Mesoamerican Food Complex to Southeastern Europe," Geographical Review 83: 194-204, is pertinent to the issue of the timing of the introduction maize and other New World crops into the Old World.

Andrews' purpose is to explain how New World maize, capsicum peppers, beans, squash, and turkeys came to be introduced into Europe in the 16th century from the Turkish domains to the East rather than directly from Iberia, whose navigators had supposedly just discovered the New World for the first time in 1492.

A particularly tight squeeze is the Mexican pepper, Capsicum annuum var annuum. Cortez did not penetrate Mexico until 1519, yet Fuchs' herbal of 1542 (written as early as 1538) already has it established in Central Europe, presumably through Turkish influence.

This problem was already described in 1958 by E. Anderson, she says, as the "Anatolian Mystery": "Oddly, the Ottoman Turkish Empire, especially Anatolia, rather than Iberia became a center of diversity for squashes, pumpkins, popcorn, and possibly other American crops..."

Her solution is that the Portuguese, not the Spanish, introduced these crops to the Old World, and then not to Portugal but rather to their African colonies. From there they took them to India, where they became established and eventually passed through Persia or Arabia to Turkey, then to the Balkans, and finally to Central and Western Europe.

She admits this scenario is "improbable" (p. 194, 198, 203), and requires some "remarkably" fast transmission (200). Indeed, any quarterback who carried the ball twice the length of the field to make a touchtown rather than simply step across the line would receive a double Heisman trophy! (Either that or be penalized for Unsportsmanlike Conduct...)

A further problem is that the Portuguese were barred by the Treaty of Tordesillas from the Mesoamerican source of most of these crops. This limitation she dismisses as "more theoretical than real in the early sixteenth century."

Her principal area of expertise is capsicum peppers. Her solution to the early Turkish possession of the Mexican variety C. annuum var annuum, rather than the West-Indian South American - Brazilian C. chinese, aka aji, is that, contrary to most opinion on the subject, the former must have in fact been present in the West Indes when Columbus arrived.

(Note that early botanists thought that even the aji originated in the Orient, whence C. chinese.)

It seems to me, at least, that a far simpler solution is Johannessen and Parker's -- that there was some contact between India and Mesoamerica before Columbus. This would explain both the sculptured maize ears in India, and miscellaneous evidence of Oriental influence in Mesoam as noted by Michael Coe. At the same time, it would give these crops more time to variegate and spread from Asia into Europe.

If Andrews in 1993 was aware of the 1989 J&P article, she makes no mention of it. She does cite three papers by M.D.W. Jeffreys, upon whose suggestions J&P built, but only as an authority for the presence of maize in Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Principe as early as 1502. She makes no mention of the fact that Jeffreys firmly believed that maize was present in Africa and/or India ten crucial years before that. The papers she cites do not include his piece in the 1971 Man Across the Sea volume, where he most forcefully makes his case.

New Evidence on Maize in China

Uchibayashi (2005) reports an illustration of maize in a 1505 Chinese herbal entitled Bencao Pinhui Jingyao. He deems it unlikely that maize could have diffused all the way to China in just 13 years after 1492, and hence interprets this as "clear evidence" that maize must have been in China "at least a few decades before 1505."

Uchibayashi also reports the use of the word yumi (maize) in the poem Youwu zashu, written by Xie Yingfan circa 1368. Two additional references, to yumai-zi or corn-silk, appear in works dating to the 15th century, though it could not be ascertained that these were not later additions to the original works.

Uchibayashi (2005), which reports the new finds, is in English. Uchibayashi (2006a) is a Japanese extension of Uchibayashi (2005). Uchibayashi (2006b), also in Japanese, is a survey of earlier work on the pre-Columbian maize issue.


Jean Andrews, "Diffusion of Mesoamerican Food Complex to Southeastern Europe," Geographical Review 83 (1993): 194-204.

Shakti M. Gupta, Plants in Indian Temple Art, B.R. Publishing Corp, Delhi, 1996. ISBN 81-7018-883-0. See review above.

Carl L. Johannessen, "Indian Maize in the Twelfth Century [AD]," Nature 14 April 1988, p. 587.

Carl L. Johannessen, "Distribution of Pre-Columbian Maize and Modern Maize Names," in Shue Tuck Wong, ed., Person, Place and Thing: Interpretative and Empirical Essays in Cultural Geography Volume 31 of Geocience and Man . Geoscience Publications, Louisiana State Univ. Dept. of Geography and Anthropology, Baton Rouge, 1992.

Carl L. Johannessen, "Maize Diffused to India before Columbus Came to America," in D.Y. Gilmore and L.S. McElroy, eds., Across Before Columbus?: Evidence for Transoceanic Contact with the Americas prior to 1492, New England Antiquities Research Association, Edgecomb, Maine, 1998, pp. 109-24.

Carl L. Johannessen, "Pre-Columbian American Sunflower and Maize Images in Indian Temples: Evidence of Contact between Civilizations in India and America," NEARA Journal vol. 32 #1 (Summer 1998), pp. 4 ff., and also in Davis Bitton, ed., Mormons, Scripture and the Ancient World: Studies in Honor of John L. Sorenson, FARMS, Provo UT, 1998.

Carl L. Johannessen and Anne Z. Parker, "Maize Ears Sculptured in 12th and 13th Century A.D. India as Indicators of Pre-Columbian Diffusion," Economic Botany 43 , 1989, 164-80.

M. Kumar and J.K.S. Sachan, "Antiquity of maize in India", in Maize Genetics Cooperation Newsletter 1993 (vol. 67), p. 98. Click here for text.

M.M. Payak and J.K.S. Sachan, "'Maize' in Somnathpur, an Indian Mediaeval temple," Nature 27 October 1988, pp. 773-4.

M.M. Payak and J.K.S. Sachan, "Maize Ears Not Sculptured in 13th Century Somnathpur Temple in India," Economic Botany 47 (2), 1993, pp. 202-5.

Uchibayashi, Masao, "Maize in Pre-Columbian China," Yakugaku Zasshi (Journal of the Pharmaceutical Society of Japan) 125 (7), July 2005, pp. 583-586. In English.

Uchibayashi, Masao, "Maize in Pre-Columbian China Found in Bencao Pinhui Jingyao," Yakugaku Zasshi (Journal of the Pharmaceutical Society of Japan) 126 (1), Jan. 2006a, pp. 27-36. Expanded version, in Japanese, of Uchibayashi (2005).

Uchibayashi, Masao, "The Presence of Pre-Columbian Maize in the Old World -- An Overview," Yakugaku Zasshi (Journal of the Pharmaceutical Society of Japan) 126 (6), June 2006b, pp. 423-427. In Japanese.

T. Veena and N. Sigamani, "Do Objects in Friezes of Somnathpur Temple (1268 A.D.) in South India Represent Maize Ears?" Current Science 25 Sept. 1991, pp. 395-7. See also fine photo on front cover of issue.

Note that although Sachan's article with Kumar (1993) provides genetic evidence for the antiquity of maize in India, thus independently corroborating the Johannessen and Parker hypothesis, the same Sachan (with Payak, 1988, 1993) curiously remains one of the most outspoken critics of J&P's identification of the sculptures.

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