There’s nothing like popcorn in progress: the snapping kernels, the warm buttery smell, and the knowledge that a delicious snack will be ready in minutes. It gives you some good time to think and wonder: how did humans first start doing this?
To find out where popcorn came from, I visited my friend Erin Thornton, an assistant professor of archaeology at Washington State University. Archaeologists study how humans lived in the past—including the things they ate.
To learn the story of popcorn, we have to trace the history of maize.
Long before maize, there was a plant called teosinte (tay-oh seen-tay). If you saw teosinte in person, you probably wouldn’t guess it’s the grandparent of your popcorn. “It doesn’t really look like modern maize at all because it lacks large cobs—instead it looks more like a weedy grass,” Thornton said.
We don’t know exactly who first discovered that popcorn can pop. But it’s a process that would have happened when people first started mixing dried kernels and heat.