Factors Controlling Pre-Columbian and Early Historic Maize Productivity in the American Southwest, Part 1: The Southern Colorado Plateau and Rio Grande Regions

  • Larry V. Benson


Maize is the New World’s preeminent grain crop and it provided the economic basis for human culture in many regions within the Americas. To flourish, maize needs water, sunlight (heat), and nutrients (e.g., nitrogen). In this paper, climate and soil chemistry data are used to evaluate the potential for dryland (rain-on-field) agriculture in the semiarid southeastern Colorado Plateau and Rio Grande regions. Processes that impact maize agriculture such as nitrogen mineralization, infiltration of precipitation, bare soil evaporation, and transpiration are discussed and evaluated. Most of the study area, excepting high-elevation regions, receives sufficient solar radiation to grow maize. The salinities of subsurface soils in the central San Juan Basin are very high and their nitrogen concentrations are very low. In addition, soils of the central San Juan Basin are characterized by pH values that exceed 8.0, which limit the availability of both nitrogen and phosphorous. In general, the San Juan Basin, including Chaco Canyon, is the least promising part of the study area in terms of dryland farming. Calculations of field life, using values of organic nitrogen for the upper 50 cm of soil in the study area, indicate that most of the study area could not support a 10-bushel/acre crop of maize. The concepts, methods, and calculations used to quantify maize productivity in this study are applicable to maize cultivation in other environmental settings across the Americas.


Southwest Maize agriculture Soil chemistry 



The author wishes to thank Dave Meko and Jeffrey Dean at the University of Arizona for access to some of the tree-ring data sets used in this paper. Dwayne Westfall at Colorado State University provided data on corn production for the state of Colorado. This study is based, in part, upon research supported by the National Science Foundation under grant No. DEB-0816400 and by the Arid Regions Climate Project in the National Research Program of the U.S. Geological Survey. This work supports the Village Ecodynamics Project whose objectives include agent-based modeling of the interactions between prehistoric Native Americans who occupied the Four Corners region of the American Southwest, the landscape they occupied, and the climate that impacted the region during the late-thirteenth century. Reviews of an earlier version of this manuscript were ably performed by Richard Smith and Keith Lucey of the U.S. Geological Survey and by Kenneth Peterson of the University of Utah. My appreciation also to three anonymous reviewers whose comments strengthened this study.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary Fig. 1

Weather station location map. (GIF 13 kb)

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High resolution image (TIFF 12982 kb)
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Supplementary Fig. 2

Soil pedon location map. (GIF 14 kb)

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High resolution image (TIFF 13129 kb)
10816_2010_9082_MOESM3_ESM.xls (91 kb)
Supplementary Table 1 (XLS 91 kb)
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Supplementary Table 2 (XLS 438 kb)


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© US Government 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.National Research ProgramU.S. Geological SurveyBoulderUSA

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