Did cavemen sit around the fire stuffing their hairy faces with popcorn? After analyzing recently unearthed ancient corncobs, researchers say people in what's now Peru were eating popcorn 2,000 years earlier than previously thought -- up to 6,700 years ago, National Geographic reports.
Previously, evidence of corn as food before about 5,000 years ago had come from only microscopic remains that didn't reveal exactly what kind of corn was being eaten. Using radiocarbon dating and other tests to examine the newfound corncobs -- along with husks, tassels and stalks -- scientists determined that the oldest cobs were popcorn. The really, really stale corn remains were unearthed at the Paredones and Huaca Prieta archeological sites on Peru's northern coast.
Research indicates the corn was cooked several ways: wrapping a cob (in an undetermined material) and resting it on coals, roasting a cob directly over a flame, or cooking a cob in an earthen oven, said study co-author Dolores Piperno, curator of New World archeology at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and emerita staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. Her research appears this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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According to the archeological findings, corn was likely a delicacy or a minor supplement to the diet -- it was not eaten in large quantities.
Corn was first domesticated in Mexico about 9,000 years ago from a wild grass called teosinte, according to Piperno. It was brought to South America a few thousand years later, where farmers bred it into hundreds of varieties. What surprised Piperno most about her new discovery was the diversity of the corn--from cob shapes to kernel colors.
"Farmers like to experiment," she told National Geographic, "and grow cool things."
But there is one unanswered question: What did they use for butter?