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In my world, an apocalypse happened, a nuclear war.

Fast forward to the future. In places like Vegas, New Fresno, and Lost Angels (post-apoc LA) I was thinking about agriculture, and after doing a little bit of research, I decided what their staple crops would be.

I planned on these settlements growing corn, beans, squash (and in some regions cabbage) as their main source of nourishment.

Here’s my question: Would this work? Could large, post-apocalyptic city-states base their civilizations on maize, beans, and squash?

Criteria

  • Each of these cities has a population of several thousand people.

  • I don’t know which livestock would work best yet.

  • They have a reduced level of technology, say late 1800s, but with less manufacturing ability.

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    $\begingroup$ this depends on size, climate, soil, and technology, but as long as they have can supplement with fish or livestock it should be fine. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 1:59
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure what kind of answer you're looking for. Of course a civ could depend on those staples. Why wouldn't they? What's your question? $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 2:10
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH: Yeah I kinda just wanted some extra reputation to bounty another question $\endgroup$
    – DT Cooper
    Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 2:12
  • $\begingroup$ You might be better off with grain, beans, and squash. $\endgroup$
    – NomadMaker
    Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ @NomadMaker: Corn is a grain $\endgroup$
    – DT Cooper
    Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 19:28

3 Answers 3

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The Three Sisters?

Aztecs had cities well over 100,000 inhabitants based on growing those three. The only thing I would worry about would be whether you had enough water to raise them.

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Whether or not large populations powered by the Three Sisters can exist is fairly well settled by all the pre-contact cities and large towns in North America which did exactly that. But could this work where Las Vegas is now?

Las Vegas was not always a concrete jungle in the middle of a desert. Human activity desertified the region. If your apocalyptic scenario reverses that (blow up some dams, screw with the weather, whatever), you should be good.

You also mention livestock, which pre-contact cities lacked. Add early 19th or 18th century technology, and you're pretty secure in terms of food supply. The question you'll eventually get to is agricultural innovations, such as certain fertilizers and pest control. For instance, is the corn you're using a variety with genetic modifications for pest resistance or high efficiency yields? Even if the tech to produce GMO crops is lost, the crops themselves might still exist, and without the likes of Monsanto cracking down on their natural spread, their natural advantages will probably let them spread very quickly until they hit geographic barriers.

The real question is just how large a population you can sustain, and that depends on loads of other factors. But Cahokia and Tenochtitlan had populations in the thousands, and the same three crops were the staples then and there. Seeing as you're suggesting better tech is available than what the Mississippian and Mesoamerican civilizations had, those should be considered a lower bounds on what's possible for your larger cities. It is, however, relevant that Cahokia is close to the Mississippi River, and Tenochtitlan was on a lake. You might have to blow up the Hoover Dam for the Las Vegas area.

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    $\begingroup$ Human activity did not desertify the area around Las Vegas. There were a few oasis areas, with springs and creeks feeding off mountain snowfall, but the larger area has been desert since at least the end of the Pleistocene. It could support small local communities in the oasis areas, like Las Vegas was prior to gambling and Hoover Dam water, but not much more. Compare to the other small towns throughout the intermountain west. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 16:14
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    $\begingroup$ Adding to what jamesqf said, if you look at prevailing westerly winds, the Sierra Nevada mountains are going to block almost all moisture coming in from the Pacific. That whole basin between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas is always going to be a dry climate no matter what humans do, with as james said pockets of water here and there. Destroy the Hoover Dam and you get 1) no more Lake Mead and 2) more frequent flooding downstream. So not sure that would be a net benefit for agriculture. $\endgroup$
    – nasch
    Commented Aug 17, 2020 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ GMO crops are (typically) engineered to be effective in an environment with lots of fertilizer, and possibly for resistance to pesticides (which means metabolical overhead with no effect because the pesticides don't exist anymore). Some of them will likely survive, but even then they'll just mix into the gene pool and not be particularly noteworthy. $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Commented Aug 17, 2020 at 16:21
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As other answers have mentioned, it is possible to have a civilization subsist on those foods, as they have been staples for Mesoamerican societies for millennia. However, there are weaknesses to using corn in particular as a staple food, since it is low in some vitamins that can lead to diseases such as pellagra. There are also risks such as fungi that leave the corn inedible.

A society that relies on corn/maize as a staple food would need to know about nixtamalization. Nixtamalization is a chemical treatment process that cleans mold-contaminated corn and improves its nutritional value. It has been used for thousands of years by Indigenous people in the Americas (the Wikipedia article dates it at 1500 BCE), and is still used today. The process can be a bit dangerous if performed improperly, so it might be an interesting bit of worldbuilding if some members of your society are having a hard time using it, while others with stronger connections to Indigenous communities are performing better.

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  • $\begingroup$ This doesn't answer the question. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Aug 17, 2020 at 20:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark I have edited the question to make my point more clear. Corn can be used as a staple food, but it has risks associated with it. Therefore, if OP wants to have a society with pre-industrial farming practices centered on corn, they should be aware of the traditional techniques that have allowed corn-staple societies to thrive $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 15:00

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