I am at work on an essay about a chef at the center of a regional food economy, and my reading includes Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. From the chapter "The Plant: Corn's Conquest":
Long before scientists understood hybridization, Native Americans had discovered that by taking the pollen from the tassel of one corn plant and dusting it on the silks of another, they could create new plants that combined the traits of both parents. American Indians were the world's first plant breeders, developing literally thousands of distinct cultivars for every conceivable environment and use.
Polllan moves on from this observation because he has other work to do, but I stalled on a question: How? How did an Indian, or two or three who were always hanging out together, figure out that "by taking the pollen from the tassel of one corn plant and dusting it on the silks of another" they could produce a useful hybrid? Why would they dust the silks of corn plants with tassels? To amuse themselves on an idle afternoon? A game? Because an elder told them to as part of a farming practice that forebears had developed? I worked for Johns Hopkins University, I know how scientists work. But what were these ancient Indians up to?
And who noticed that new plants with traits of both parents were the result? Did someone who was paying attention remember a previous generation of corn plants and think wait a minute, something's different here. This is interesting. I presume there were no written records, no field notes, for reference by the tribe's agronomist. There would have been only the knowledge stored in memory and passed on orally.
Just seems like the damnedest thing to me.