Popcorn paved the way for the Aztec Empire

In the beginning, there was teosinte, the wild ancestor of modern corn.  Its kernels are too tough to eat or grind into flour.  It was consumed not as corn on the cob or as a torilla, but instead as popcorn.  As NPR describes,

Dolores Piperno, a paleobotanist with the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Insitute, says corn, and specifically popcorn, helped lay the foundations for the Aztec Empire.

“When you have a very highly productive crop like corn, that makes the rise of high civilizations possible,”she says.

“All early corns were popcorns… They were around for millennia before these other forms of corn.”

After a couple of thousand years, the Mesoamericans managed to cultivate varieties of corn that were good for flour, but they still ate popcorn. The Aztec language even has a word for the sound of many kernels popping at once — totopoca.

Too often our textbooks present the agricultural revolution as a single event that occurred somewhere in the Middle East and spread outward, instead of as an event that has happened again and again – insights and techniques devised independently by civilizations around the world.  Who knew that popcorn, which seems to be the epitome of a frivolous snack, was another way to look at the agricultural revolution from outside of the traditional narratives in our textbooks!

In June I will be conducting a research trip to central Mexico.  Look for original lessons and a unit on the Aztec civilization later in the summer on Openendedsocialstudies.org.  Open Ended Social Studies collects and presents original and dynamic classroom materials focusing on parts of the world neglected by traditional world history textbooks in the United States. The middle and high school lessons hosted here aim to foster critical and historical thinking, greater cultural awareness, and a sense of wonder about the world and our place in it.

In the meantime, check out lessons on the history, culture, cuisine, and art of Mexico’s southern neighbor, Nicaragua.