Iowa State Researchers Receive 2023 Bridging the Divide Grant to Investigate the Evolutionary Legacy of Maize

A team of Iowa State University researchers bringing together the fields of archaeology and genetics has been selected to receive the 2023 Bridging the Divide seed grant to tackle unanswered questions about the evolution of maize and the ancient societies that farmed it.

The Bridging the Divide program aims to holistically address societal problems by fostering collaboration among researchers in design, arts, humanities, and social sciences and researchers in STEM disciplines. The program is administered by the Iowa State University Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) in partnership with the Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities (CEAH). Assistant professor of anthropology and archaeologist Andrew Somerville, associate professor of ecology, evolution, and organismal biology (EEOB) Matthew Hufford, and EEOB Ph.D. student Heather Chamberlain-Irwin have received the annual award for 2023. They will receive $49,000 in institutional funding over two years to examine, radiocarbon date, and DNA sequence maize cobs excavated from archaeological settlements of southern Peru, with the hope of answering broad questions about corn domestication and accompanying societal change.

“The Bridging the Divide seed grant promotes interdisciplinary research, joining together diverse methodologies and novel perspectives to answer questions that transcend conventional boundaries,” said CEAH Director Matthew Sivils. “We commend Somerville, Hufford, and Chamberlain-Irwin for their important work, which investigates the complex cultural influences that shaped the early human domestication of corn, influences that have echoed across the centuries.”

Corn plays a prominent role in human nutrition and the global economy, particularly within the state of Iowa, and is widely considered to be one of the most important grains in the modern world. But despite the plant’s critical significance, how the earliest domesticated maize ultimately became the field corn that is a key nutritional component of both human and livestock diets — and how the plant made its way from its original home in Mexico to the rest of the world — remains largely a mystery.

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