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article imageStudy suggests ancient Peruvians indulged in popcorn

By Leigh Goessl     Jan 19, 2012 in Science
A new discovery in Peru suggests early inhabitants ate corn 1,000 years earlier than previously thought.
An unearthing of ancient corncobs, husks, stalks and tassels were unearthed and date back approximately 6,700 to 3,000 years ago.
What is also remarkable is the ways ancient civilizations ate corn, including popped corn.
According to a press release, a new paper has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), which outlines findings that provide a little bit of insight of how corn was eaten thousands of years ago.
The work was co-authored by 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, and the paper outlines findings that illuminate how corn was used thousands of years ago in Peru.
The group of researchers onsite was led by Tom Dillehay from Vanderbilt University and Duccio Bonavia from Peru's Academia Nacional de la Historia. The group found cornfossils, starch grains and phytoliths at two mound sites along Peru's northern coast, at the archeological sites of Paredones and Huaca Prieta.
Experts say their discovery of the cobs, noted to be the oldest found in South America, are a sign the region's ancient population ate corn in many forms, including popcorn and flour corn, and was in practice prior to the use of pottery.
"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," Piperno elaborated in the press release.
"Corn was first domesticated in Mexico nearly 9,000 years ago from a wild grass called teosinte," said Piperno.
Teosinte is considered to be the "ancestor" of modern forms of corn. Yet the link to how modern corn came to be has not yet been filled with the knowledge needed to fill in the blanks of history. To date scientists have yet to link when and where corn became domesticated and part of a routine human diet.
"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," said Piperno.
Piperno noted that since there is very little data available from other places during this ancient time, and "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." Not much is understood about how the hundreds of different corn types today came to be. Examiners did note, however, at this time, corn was not yet an "important part" of a daily diet.
Mongabay observes the dates of these ancient corn remnants would have been at a time woolly mammoths graced the lands on Earth. The article notes this latest discovery of the ancient husks and corn food items helps "add pieces to the puzzle."
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