Saturday, January 19, 2013

That's Some Really Old Popcorn!

Popcorn! by Andrew Rivett

January 19

Popcorn Day

Popcorn! Get your freshly popped popcorn! I just love popcorn. Popcorn has played a large part of my childhood. I grew up in Marion, Ohio where the weekend after labor day the town celebrated the Marion Popcorn Festival. The festival was started in 1981 and has been going strong ever since. It has been named as one of the top 100 events in North America by the American Bus Association. Every year the festival holds parades, pageants, concerts and more.  One year I even watched Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine at the festival. Marion, Ohio is also home to the Wyandont Popcorn Museum. 

Popcorn was not brought over by the Europeans but was discovered by the indigenous cultures. 

A Peruvian Delight
Corn was very important to the Native American diet and was one of the Three Sisters. It was first cultivated in Mexico and then spread throughout the Americas. The indigenous people of Central and South America were eating popcorn long before they came into contact with Europeans. Dolores Piperno, curator of New World archaeology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and emeritus staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, wrote in her January 18, 2012 paper, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Corn was first domesticated in Mexico nearly 9,000 years ago from a wild grass called teosinte. Our results show that only a few thousand years later corn arrived in South America where its evolution into different varieties that are now common in the Andean region began. This evidence further indicates that in many areas corn arrived before pots did and that early experimentation with corn as a food was not dependent on the presence of pottery.”

Doloros Piperno was part of a research team led by Tom Dillehay from Vanderbilt University and Duccio Bonavia from Peru’s Academia Nacional de la Historia, who studied the archaeological  mounds sites of Paredones and Huaca Prieta, located on Peru’s arid northern coast. Researchers found within the mound sites corncobs, husks, stalks and tassels (male flowers) dating from  6,700 to 3,000 years ago. They also found corn micro fossils: starch grains and phytoliths. The corn micro fossils are the oldest micro fossils in South America. The evidence had been unearthed in 2009 and took three years of study before the finding were released in January of 2012. What is so remarkable about this discovery? It changes everything researchers had thought about popcorn. The evidence indicates the inhabitants were using corn in a wide variety of ways including as popcorn and corn flour. That means the indigenous Peruvians at Paredones and Huaca Prieta were consuming popcorn 2,000 years before researchers had believed popcorn was first consumed.  

Bat Cave, New Mexico
The oldest popcorn ears in the United States was found in 1948 and 1950 at the Bat Cave archaeological site in Catron County of New Mexico. That Bat Cave site is a series of rock shelters that overlook an ancient lake bed known as the Plains of Saint Augustin. The site lies 6,924 feet above sea level and consists of several caves. The largest cave showed evidence of human habituation while the smaller caves contained evidence of kernels and corncobs. The popcorn ears were discovered throughout the three layered midden bed and measured anywhere from penny size to two inches. The ears were carbon dated to be around 6,000 to 4,000 years ago. The discovery of the corn in New Mexico supports the claim that corn had made it's way to the United States during the Archaic period. In fact, archaeological evidence supports that corn was being cultivated throughout the American Southwest by 1,550 and 1,050 BC. You can read more about Bat Cave at

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