Pick from the Past
Natural History Magazine, May 1947



To many it is only a “circus treat,” but to the scientist, popcorn is
a key to important questions concerning early man in America

OPCORN, trivial though it seems, is a key to various problems. Or rather, it would be a useful key if it were not for that very triviality which has led to its being generally ignored by anthropologists, travelers, and students of important crop plants. It is so closely identified with carnivals and circuses, with neighborhood movie houses and children’s parties, that almost no one has taken it seriously. Though over one hundred varieties of popcorn have been introduced into the horticultural trade from time to time, there is not yet a published check list of their names. The very fact of there having been so many has had to be dug out the hard way by leafing through the yellowing pages of old seed catalogues.

In the last five years, by traveling and writing many letters and asking many questions, it has been possible to find out that popcorn is an ancient food of much importance in the two Americas and apparently in a part of the Orient as well. Rare indeed, however, is the anthropological work that lists it even without comment. Yet popcorn is theoretically of great importance for a variety of reasons. For one thing, if we only had a résumé of the facts about popcorn, we would be in a better position to discuss the origin of corn. Nearly all popcorns have very small, hard kernels. Primitive maize, or corn, probably was hard and certainly must have been small. If it has survived anywhere in the modern world, we are most apt to find it still being grown as a popcorn, the one use to which a small hard kernel is still perfectly suited. Likewise, it would seem that popping might have been one of the original uses of maize. A primitive people with no extensive machinery for preparing grains must have had a difficult time preparing maize for the table before any soft-kerneled varieties were developed. Eating it as green corn, sprouting it for beer, or popping the kernel with heat would seem to have been the most likely ways in which such a people could have used these stony little seeds.

For a variety of such reasons, I set out several years ago to gather as many facts as possible about the various kinds of popcorn, where they came from, and how they were used. To be sure, they were all used as popcorn. But just exactly how were they popped--in hot ashes or sand, in front of a coal fire, on a griddle, in a clay or metal pot, or in a corn popper? The information is widely scattered, and it is going to take at least another ten years before the subject can be authoritatively discussed. Meanwhile, the evidence accumulates bit by bit in the oddest and most diverse ways. Among hundreds of unpublished colonial documents, one was found which described in detail the popcorn of Sonora, Mexico. In the storage vaults of the American Museum of Natural History there are a few glass vials containing popped kernels that were found in ancient South American graves. Among hundreds of returned travelers there were two from Ecuador who not only had seen popcorn being used in the back country, but had taken accurate notes on its uses and imported actual specimens that could be grown and studied.

There are scattered bits of evidence, which all fit together nicely, about the Aztecs and their predecessors. It is certain that these peoples had a very high quality popcorn, that it had special ceremonial uses, and that their modern descendants in central Mexico are still growing similar varieties and using them in the same ways. When Manuel Gamio excavated the great pyramids raised by the Toltecs at Teotihuacán, just north of Mexico City, he discovered charred masses of corn, husked but still attached to the ear. This find has been carefully preserved and the ears are identical in size, in the shape of the kernels, and in the number of rows per ear with a pointed-kernel popcorn still being grown in the mountains around Mexico City. In many a modern corncrib in the valley of Toluca, just west of Mexico City, exact duplicates of the Toluca ears could be found today. Nor is there the slightest possibility that the Toluca varieties have been recently introduced from popcorn growing areas in the United States. They are strange looking plants by American standards. They have wide leaves, a shallow root system, and a thick, heavy tassel. They are well adapted to the climate of the mountains where they are grown but do not do well in the corn belt of the United States.

As a matter of fact, the introduction was probably the other way around, and these ancient Mexican varieties are perhaps one of the sources of the so-called “Japanese-Hulless” popcorns, introduced a few decades ago and still outstanding for their high quality. They have most of the peculiar habits of growth of

The Aztecs not only used popcorn as a food, they also used strings of it to decorate certain idols such as that of Tlaloc, who in one aspect or another was the God of Maize, the God of Fertility, and the God of Rain.
the Toluca popcorns though not to such an advanced degree, and may well have been derived from them by hybridization and selection.

From Sahagún, the scholarly monk who recorded the history and customs of the Aztecs in the early years after the Conquest, we learn a good deal about popcorn. His account can be confirmed and supplemented from other early chronicles. The Aztecs not only used popcorn as a food, they also used strings of it to decorate certain idols such as that of Tlaloc, who in one aspect or another was the God of Maize, the God of Fertility, and the God of Rain. In a similar fashion today, one may find statues of the Virgin Mary with beautiful necklaces of snowy-white popcorn in little, out-of-the-way chapels in modern Mexico.

In the west of Mexico from Sonora to Jalisco, a totally different kind of popcorn is grown, and it is called by another name, maiz reventador, literally, “exploder corn.” It is a tall, handsome plant with long, wiry tassels and tough, narrow leaves, practically the extreme opposite of the little rice popcorns of Toluca. It has a long, narrow ear and tiny kernels, and the hulls are tough when the corn is popped, though the flavor is excellent. It is an ancient variety in this region, seldom seen in the big cities, not too common in the towns, but almost universal in little villages away from the main roads. It is used for popcorn balls and for ponteduro, a kind of brittle made with popcorn and various other goodies such as peanuts and squash seeds. As one travels north toward Sonora, maiz reventador becomes increasingly important as one of the main sources of pinole, a meal prepared by parching or popping the kernels, grinding them to a fine powder, and mixing it with sugar and various flavorings such as anise and cinnamon.

In Jalisco the use of pinole is more or less incidental. There it is the kind of thing country children fill up on in between meals, but in the back country of Sonora it becomes more and more important until it not only equals the famous Mexican tortilla, but may even outrival it in popularity and become the actual staff of life for the people. Apparently pinole made from maiz reventador has been the main food in this region for a very long time. In the beautiful public library of Guadalajara, among many other unpublished documents, there is an official account prepared in 1776 of a town in Sonora named San Miguel de Sahuaripa. It describes maiz reventador, calling it by that name, and goes on to say that it is used for pinole, which was made by toasting and grinding the aforesaid maize and was the common food of the land (“para pinole que lo asen tostando dicho Maiz y mlindolo y es el Bastimento corriente de la tierra”).

Significantly, it is in Ecuador, one of the most purely Indian of Latin-American countries, that popcorn still takes an important place in the diet. Two members of the wartime cinchona mission, Dr W. S. Steere and Dr. W. H. Camp, have brought back sample ears and detailed notes about its uses in the highland country around Quito. This Ecuadorean popcorn or canguil, to use the native name, is still quite another kind of maize than either the rice popcorn of Toluca or the maiz reventador of western Mexico. It has pointed kernels like the Toluca corn, but they are much bigger and are swollen at the base, tapering off abruptly to a sharp point. The ears are much longer and have fewer rows; if anything, they have more of the ear-shape of the reventador popcorns. The tassels of the Ecuador popcorn are different from both of the Mexican kinds. They are large and very much branched, with very small glumes. We are certain that this popcorn has been grown in Ecuador for a very long time, just as the other two kinds have in their regions. Similar ears of corn have been recovered from pre-Columbian graves in various parts of the South American highlands, and, as mentioned above, there are even some instances in which kernels of popped corn have been found with these ancient burials.

These three very different popcorns do not exhaust our catalogue of pre-Columbian varieties. The excavations of Junius Bird of the American Museum have unearthed a fourth and equally distinct type, from the coast of northern Chile. As a matter of fact, from the lowest level of his excavations at Arica, nothing but one small-kerneled variety was found. While we cannot be certain that it was popcorn, it is closely similar to popcorn types still grown at oases in that region, and it is significant that storage bags of pinole or some similar substance were recovered from these same levels.

For the present, such facts as these raise more questions than they answer. Instead of one primitive, small-kerneled variety, we have found at least four, three of them definitely tracing back to A.D. 1200 or earlier. The fourth variety is apparently just as old, but definite proof is not yet at hand.

The exploder corns of western Mexico accent some of the puzzles in tracing relationships between the American southwest and the civilizations of Mexico. We know these types are common in the

If all or part of the contacts between Mexico and our Southwest took place up the narrow Sonoran Corridor between the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Gulf of Mexico, why were none of these distinctive popcorns carried on into Arizona and New Mexico?
Sonora back country and that they have been there since the time of the Spanish Conquest — probably much earlier — yet they are almost completely lacking in Arizona and New Mexico. If all or part of the contacts between Mexico and our Southwest took place up the narrow Sonoran Corridor between the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Gulf of Mexico, why were none of these distinctive popcorns carried on into Arizona and New Mexico? They are very rare there today and completely absent in most areas, nor have they as yet been found at any of the various archaeological sites in that dry country. The contacts therefore must have been mainly through the mountains or by some very indirect route.

The popcorns of the Orient raise an even larger question — that of contacts between the Old World and the New. Various popcorns are grown in the Orient, mostly among very primitive peoples. How and when did they get there, and by what route? Professor H. H. Bartlett, of the University of Michigan, has brought back from Sumatra herbarium specimens of a small pearl popcorn that is grown by the peoples of Sumatra. It even has a ceremonial name, which would ordinarily indicate considerable antiquity. In northern Burma and south China, small-kerneled, flinty varieties are grown by primitive, pre-Chinese peoples; and in northern India there are accounts of such varieties being used in the preparation of a meal that sounds suspiciously like pinole. Can it be possible that corn, like the sweet potato, crossed the Pacific in primitive times, and if so in which direction did it travel? Our first survey of the facts about popcorn has brought together enough information to raise these questions. When a careful survey of the world’s popcorns has been completed, we shall be able to answer some of them.

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