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What is Popcorn? Snack Enjoyed in Prehistoric Peru

Popcorn in popcorn maker

Popcorn is one of the most popular snacks in the United States, enjoyed both at home and away, especially in movie theaters. But long before we had hot air poppers, prehistoric people in Peru were eating popcorn, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What is popcorn?

The next time you cozy up with a bowl of popcorn, think of this: you are eating a treat that was once enjoyed by ancient Peruvians, even before they had ceramic bowls to put it in.

According to Dolores Piperno, emeritus staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and curator of New World archaeology at the Smithsonian’s Natural Museum of Natural History, and other authors of the study, the coastal dwellers of Peru were consuming popcorn 1,000 years earlier than previously reported.

A research team discovered ancient corn husks, cobs, starch grains, and phytoliths—plant remains mineralized by silica—at mound sites on Peru’s northern coast. The evidence is from between circa 6700 and 3000 calibrated years before the present, during the middle and late preceramic and early ceramic periods.

Among their discoveries were the earliest corn cobs ever found in South America, and characteristics of the cobs indicated that the Peruvians had used some of the corn as popcorn as well as for flour.

Exactly how the Peruvians popped their corn is not known. They may have placed the entire ear on a fire, wrapped the ears in leaves before heating them, or removed the kernels from the cob.

“It is possible that prehistoric people used all of those methods for preparing the popcorn,” noted Piperno in correspondence with Emaxhealth.

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Today’s methods are different, of course, and include stovetop poppers, microwaveable packets, and hot air poppers, including ones that sit on the kitchen counter to larger commercial forms. And there’s a lot of popping going on: Americans eat 16 billion quarts of popped popcorn per year, or 52 quarts per person, according to the Popcorn Board.

The species or races of corn enjoyed by prehistoric people also differed from those we use today.

“The ancient popcorn races are different in a number of ways from modern varieties,” explained Piperno. “They have smaller kernels and may be differently colored.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is why corn kernels pop. Each kernel of popcorn contains a tiny drop of water inside the starch center. When the kernel heats up, the water expands and puts pressure against the outer hard hull until it bursts, causing the popcorn to explode into a puff.

Popcorn is just one type of corn, or maize. Of the four main common types of corn—dent (field corn), flint (Indian corn), sweet, and popcorn (Zea mays everta), only popcorn pops, and the reason lies in its hull, which has the right thickness that allows it to burst when heated.

The next time you enjoy a bowl of popcorn, you might think about the prehistoric Peruvians crouched around a fire, popping their corn, with no bowls to put it in. And without butter, of course.

Grobman A, Bonavia D, Dilllehay TD, Piperno DR, Iriarte J, Holst I. Preceramic maize from Paredones and Huaza Prieta, Peru. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2012. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1120270109
Popcorn Board

Image credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons