Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

History, science, and good snacky fun

by Holly Hartman

Tens of thousands of years before there were movies, there was popcorn.

Stone Age Snack?

Archaeologists have found 80,000-year-old corn pollen below Mexico City. Because this pollen is almost exactly the same as modern popcorn pollen, researchers believe that "cave people" most likely had popcorn.

Popcorn probably grew first in Mexico, though it was also used in China and India hundreds of years before Columbus reached the Americas.

Tasty Fossils

The oldest popcorn ever found was discovered in the "Bat Cave" of central New Mexico. It is thought to be about 5,600 years old. In tombs in Peru, archaeologists found ancient kernels of popcorn that are so well preserved that they can still pop.


Sometimes, conditions can preserve ancient popcorn so perfectly that it still looks fluffy and white when the dust is blown off of it. In a cave in southern Utah, researchers found surprisingly fresh-looking 1,000-year-old popcorn.

Popcorn was probably an important part of life in the ancient Americas. On a 1,700-year-old painted funeral urn found in Mexico, a corn god is shown wearing a headdress of popcorn. Decorated popcorn poppers from around the same time have been found in Peru.

An Explosive Discovery

Europeans learned about popcorn from Native Americans. When Cortes invaded Mexico, and when Columbus arrived in the West Indies, each saw natives eating popcorn, as well as using it in necklaces and headdresses.

Native Americans brought a bag of popped corn to the first Thanksgiving. A common way to eat popcorn at that time was to hold an oiled ear on a stick over the fire, then chew the popped kernels off it. Natives throughout the Americas also made a popcorn beer. Some made popcorn soup.

After learning about the fluffy food, colonists began enjoying the first puffed breakfast cereal—a bowl of popcorn, served with cream or milk.

Popcorn and Americans: True Love

Popcorn was very popular in the United States from the late 19th century through the middle of the 20th century. It was available in parks, from street vendors, and near theaters.

During World War II, when sugar was rationed, Americans changed their snacking habits—they ate three times as much popcorn as they had before. Perhaps the favorite place to eat popcorn was at the movies. When television took off in the 1950s, popcorn sales dropped for a while.

Today, the average American eats nearly 70 quarts of popcorn a year. But the United States isn't just a land of popcorn lovers—it's also the land of popcorn. Most of the world now gets its popcorn from Nebraska and Indiana.

Pop Secret

Popcorn Classification
Kingdom Plantae plant
Phylum Anthophyta produces flowers
Class Monocotyledonae each seed produces a single leaf
Order Commelinales the leaves are fibrous
Family Poaceae has blade-shaped leaves, like grass
Genus Zea mays produces fleshy, one-seeded fruits
Species mays "corn"

A popcorn kernel is actually a seed. Like other seeds, inside it has a tiny plant embryo (a life form in its earliest phase). The embryo is surrounded by soft, starchy material that would give the embryo energy for growing into a plant. A hard, glossy shell protects the outside of the seed.

The soft, starchy material holds some water. When the kernel is heated to a high heat (400 degrees F), the water inside the kernel turns into steam. The pressure from the steam causes the kernel to explode. The soft starch inside bursts out at about 40 times its original size, turning the kernel inside out. This creates the fluffy white area of a popped kernel.

The ideal popcorn kernel contains about 14 percent moisture. If the popcorn is much drier, it will not pop. Popcorn kernels should be kept in a tightly sealed jar so that they will not dry out.

  Popcorn Balls

3 quarts plain popped corn (about 1/3 cup kernels)
1/4 cup butter
10 oz. bag marshmallows
food coloring (optional)

Put popped corn in a large bowl. Set aside.

Melt the butter and marshmallows in a stovetop pot, stirring constantly. When they are melted, take off the heat and allow the mixture to cool until it can be touched. If you like, stir in a few drops of food coloring.

Using a wooden spoon, gently stir the melted mixture into the popcorn. Next, butter your hands and work quickly to form popcorn balls. Place balls on waxed paper to cool.

After the balls are cool, you may use warm corn syrup to stick gum drops or other candy decorations to the popcorn balls. The popcorn balls may be stored in sandwich bags.

This makes enough for about 15 two-inch balls, but you can make them any size or shape you like!

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