Early History of Popcorn


Popcorn has a long history. Most people relate the origins of this healthy, wholesome, all-American snack to microwaves and movie theaters. But the delicious treat's heritage goes back thousands of years.

Prehistoric Popcorn

In the late 1940s, anthropologist Herbert Dick and botanist Earle Smith of Harvard University's graduate program made an incredible discovery. That is, in the Bat Cave of New Mexico where primitive cave dwellers lived thousands of years ago, the two student scientists found layers of garbage from the ancient civilization. It was a garbage dump of sorts, used for disposal of leftover food, waste and other items.

Within the garbage pile long ago buried by sediment, the scientists found 766 corn cobs which had been cleared of kernels. There were also 125 kernels of corn found in the trash. Eight husk pieces, 10 cob sheath leaves and five tassels and tassel pieces.

As the scientists kept digging more deeply into the garbage, they were able to sift through 2000 years of agricultural history. Nearest the top were the most well developed, largest popcorn ears. In digging to the bottom, they found progressively smaller and more primitive cobs. This showed that the people who lived in the cave were learning how to grow better crops with larger and more bountiful yields.

When kernels were pulled from the trash, some were found unpopped, some partly popped and others were completely popped popcorn. A few of the unpopped kernels were placed in hot oil. Those 5600 year old kernels still popped when heated.

Early Classic Period

Several discoveries dated from the 4th century A.D. provided an even broader view of natives' enjoyment of popcorn as part of daily life. First, a Zapotec funeral urn from Mexico and dated to about 300 A.D. depicts a Maize god upon it. This depiction shows symbols representing popcorn in the god's headdress.

Also in about 300 A.D., popping vessels were designed specifically to prepare fresh popcorn. These shallow containers with a small hole on the top and a handle were used by a pre-Inca culture living on the north coast of Peru.

In Utah around the 10th century, popcorn was enjoyed by the Pueblo Indians. It was in the southwest part of the state that scientists found a one thousand year old popped kernel.

Spanish American Empire

Hernando Cortes was a Spanish explorer of the 16th century. When he conquered the Aztec Empire of Mexico, he first saw popcorn as it was made by the Aztec people. He discovered that the Aztecs wore popcorn as part of ceremonial headdresses and necklaces. They also used popcorn as ornaments on statues of their gods, just as Americans later used popcorn as ornamentation on Christmas trees.

A Franciscan priest from Spain, Father Bernardino de Sahagun, researched Mexican culture while he was in the New World before his death in 1590. During a ceremony to honor the Aztec gods who protected fishermen, he noted that the tribesmen scattered parched corn before their god's likeness. This corn was called momochitl, described by Sahagun as, "a kind of corn which bursts when parched and discloses its contents and makes itself look like a very white flower." Sahagun said that the natives described them as hailstones given to the god of water.

Colonization of North America

In the 1600s, early French explorers around the Great Lakes discovered that Iroquois Indians made popcorn using a specially made vessel. Heated sand provide the heat source. Popped popcorn was then made into popcorn soup and used as part of other recipes.

There is a folk tale which may or may not be true, surrounding the use of popcorn by English colonists. It is said that during the first Thanksgiving of October 15, 1621, pilgrims enjoyed a treat of popcorn. It was brought to the celebration in a deerskin bag by an Indian named Quadequina as an offering. When natives attended meetings or negotiations with the newcomers, they were said to offer popcorn snacks as a token of goodwill.

Early colonists named the treat popped corn, rice corn and parching corn. Obviously, popped corn became the preferred name and its derivative of popcorn has remained the popular term.

Colonial cooks and housewives made the first puffed breakfast cereal from popcorn. Sugar and cream were added to previously popped corn and served just as we eat puffed corn cereal, today. Colonists enjoyed the natives' treat so much that they crafted their own popping cylinders of thin sheet iron. The cylinder revolved on a spit-like mechanism, in front of the fireplace like a small animal's cage.

Enjoyment of an Ancient Treat Today at Jody's Popcorn

Today, visitors of Jody's Popcorn in Virginia Beach experience flavorful, fresh popcorn just as the first Americans did. Little has changed in man's love of popcorn since that New Mexico Bat Cave of so many thousands of years ago. While popcorn flavors are certainly available in many more varieties than "way back when," the treat still makes a widely enjoyed snack, celebratory gift or even a peace offering, just as it did so many hundreds of years ago.

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