Miriam (Mimi) Fearn, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor

Department of Geology and Geography
(334) 460-6381  office
(334) 461-1487  fax 

Early corn pollen in coastal Alabama:
... While counting pollen on a core from Lake Shelby, Gulf State Park, Alabama, I found a grain of corn pollen. Corn pollen is not unusual in modern sediments; however, this grain was in a sample from 350 cm (11.5 feet) down core. The core was securely radiocarbon dated, so we knew that the sediments at 350 cm were about 3500 years old! According to the archaeological record, corn had not arrived in North America at that time. In researching the record of corn pollen in the eastern United States, I found that the microfossil record of corn pollen differs from the archaeological record of visible corn remains. The following two papers present the pollen case for an early arrival of corn in Alabama.
SEM photo of fossil corn pollen from Lake Shelby, Alabama. Dated 3500 B.P.
Publications on corn pollen include:
Fearn, M.L. and Liu, K.B. 1995. Maize pollen of 3500 B.P. from southern Alabama. American Antiquity 60(1): 109-117.
A large Gramineae pollen, positively identified as corn (Zea mays), from the sediments of Lake Shelby in coastal Alabama at a stratigraphic level securely dated to 3500 B.P. predates any other evidence for corn in eastern North America by at least 1000 years. Currently, the most frequently cited and accepted date for corn in eastern North America is approximately 1800 B.P. from macrobotanical remains; however, several paleoecological studies have reported corn pollen in older contexts. The Lake Shelby pollen adds to a growing body of microfossil evidence supporting the presence of maize in eastern North America much earlier than the macrobotanical records indicate. Corn was probably present in eastern as well as western North America by 3000 B.P.


Fearn, M.L. and Liu, K.B. 1997. Identification of maize pollen: a reply to Eubanks. American Antiquity 62(1): 146-148.
Eubanks bases her identification of the fossil pollen grain from Alabama as Tripsacum primarily on her calculated spinule density. To make those calculations, she used only our published photograph and she assumed a grain expansion of 35%. She ignores the fact that the spinule density of the fossil pollen grain is actually the same as that of similarly treated Zea mays pollen. While there is always the possibility of a misidentification or of long distance transport, the most likely interpretation remains that the 3500 B.P. pollen grain is Zea mays and that it represents limited cultivation of ancient corn in southern Alabama.


American Antiquity is published by the Society for American Archaeology http://www.saa.org/index.html
See also: Presentations with Published Abstracts
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University of South Alabama
Last modified: 1/17/98