· Was there something in the Mesoamerican cultures that put obstacles to growth and development? · Did American crops such as maize, cacao beans, and tobacco, compete unfavorably with European wheat? · What did wheat have that American, African, and Asian crops lacked? Why did wheat become the ‘trademark’ of global agriculture, technology and civilization?

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    Welcome to History:SE. A good starting point would be Guns, Germs, and Steel by by Jared Diamond Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 23:23
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    The climate and its duration spring to mind : many crops favour particular areas...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 4:59
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    Definitely second Guns Germs and Steel, but keep in mind the author tends to present his explanations as universally applicable, even when there are edge cases that contradict it somewhat. For example, if you insist on discounting culture and putting all the blame and credit on local resource availability, Japan's relative success is hard to explain. Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 7:43
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    Please don't create work for other people by vandalizing your posts. Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 17:31
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    As a new poster you of course have no way of knowing this. However, we get so many questions that are routinely answered by a simple reference to Guns, Germs, and Steel, that we've jokingly toyed with the idea of making "Answered by Guns, Germs, & Steel" an official close reason. Not only was it written to address your exact question, but you can consider it on this website's suggested reading list. I highly suggest going to get yourself a copy from your nearest library or bookseller.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 17:49

1 Answer 1


In point of fact, corn/maize (from now on I'll just use the US term "corn") is the world's largest grain crop¹, well ahead of wheat (which is not that far ahead of rice): The European domination over the Mesoamerican cultures had little or nothing to do with food crops. Instead, it was the result of technology and disease resistance.

Diseases should be obvious. It's hard to put up an effective resistance to foreign invaders when a large fraction of your population is sick or dead. The reasons for the differing disease resistance between Europeans & Americans is discussed elsewhere: basically it has to do with the European population being repeatedly exposed to plagues - diseases originating in Africa and Asia. The European population was descended from those who survived the plagues and so had immune systems that could cope with them. The Americans had no such source of novel diseases.

(Of course the disease transfer was not entirely one-way, syphilis being the notable example of an American disease introduced to Europe. But its sexual transmission limited its spread, compared to the airborne transmission of things like measles & smallpox, which could quickly infect entire populations.)

Technology is a bit harder to understand. One factor is said to be the lack of draft/riding animals. (Though I have some trouble with this: the Incas &c had llamas, which are good pack & small draft animals. In Europe the Sami domesticated reindeer.)

Another, and IMHO more important, factor was the lack of workable tin deposits in the Americas. Without tin you're limited to what little you can do with native copper. No tin, no bronze, and no Bronze Age. Without a Bronze Age, it's difficult if not impossible to develop iron working, so no Iron Age.

¹ As pointed out in the comments, much of the corn grown is used for animal feed or biofuel feedstocks. However, that's simply a matter of taste and economics, Taste (which of course is at least partly cultural) because many humans prefer wheat and rice, and feed corn to their animals. Economics, because corn/maize produces more food calories per acre than wheat or rice. Animals tend to get fed on whatever's cheapest.

There are also different strains of corn grown for different purposes. For human use, there are sweet corn strains, eaten as a vegetable, and grain corn strains used for corn meal. For animal feed, often the whole plant is used, not just the grain-containing ears, making it even more efficient. See "silage" for info.

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    do bear in mind that a large percentage of maize crop is not used as food supply for humans but either to create fuel (bio-ethanol) (in the Americas) or animal fodder (in Europe). The numbers when looking at produce grown for purely human consumption shift considerably towards wheat and rice.
    – jwenting
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 5:47
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    Uh, uh. Actually, there is quite a bit of evidence that Syphilis came from the New World. And it was originally more deadly than nowadays. So it was not all one way. Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 7:33
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    @Italian Philosopher: Sure, the disease exchange was not all one way, but the effects on the Americas were much more dramatic.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 17:05
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    @jwenting: The "human consumption" is a bit of a red herring. That humans tend to prefer wheat and rice, and feed corn to their animals, is simply a matter of taste (which of course is at least partly cultural). And economics: corn/maize produces more food calories per acre than wheat or rice. Animals get fed on whatever's cheapest.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 17:11
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    Please do not discuss in comments; comments ask for clarification, clarifications should be edited into the answer. Readers should not have to read all the comments to understand the answer. Please edit the clarifications back into the answer and make it more valuable.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 17:30

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