Image 1 - Ancient Popcorn Found In Peru
January 19, 2012

Ancient Popcorn Found In Peru

A new study suggests that people living along the coast of Peru snacked on popcorn 1,000 years earlier than previously believed, based on corncobs recently found at an ancient site.

In the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, study coauthor Dolores Piperno, curator of New World archaeology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, and an emeritus staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, reports finding corncobs at the site dating back to 4700 BC, the earliest ever discovered in South America.

The corncobs, husks, stalks and tassels discovered date to between 6,700 and 3,000 years ago, and were found at Paredones and Huaca Prieta, two mound sites on Peru´s arid northern coast.

The research group, led by Tom Dillehay from Vanderbilt University and Duccio Bonavia from Peru´s National Academy of History, also found corn microfossils, starch grains and phytoliths.

Characteristics of the corncobs indicate that the sites´ ancient inhabitants ate corn in several different ways, including popcorn and flour corn. Even so, corn was not a significant part of their diet at that time.

Maize was first domesticated in Mexico around 9,000 years ago from wild grass.

“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,” explained Piperno. “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.”

Understanding the subtle transformations in the characteristics of cobs and kernels that led to the hundreds of species of corn known today, as well as where and when each were developed, is quite a challenge. Corncobs and kernels were not well preserved in the humid tropical forests between Central and South America, including Panama -- the primary dispersal routes for the crop after it first left Mexico about 8,000 years ago.

“These new and unique races of corn may have developed quickly in South America, where there was no chance that they would continue to be pollinated by wild teosinte,” she added. “Because there is so little data available from other places for this time period, the wealth of morphological information about the cobs and other corn remains at this early date is very important for understanding how corn became the crop we know today.”


Image 2: Some of the oldest known corn cobs, husks, stalks and tassels, dating from 6,700 to 3,000 years ago were discovered at Paredones and Huaca Prieta, two mound sites on Peru´s arid northern coast. Credit: Tom D. Dillehay


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