6,500-year-old popcorn and 5 other foods with ancient origins
Popcorn, ice cream, and the hamburger share something other than being American favorites — they're all much older than you think
It turns out that humans have been munching on everyone's favorite movie-time snack, popcorn, for much longer than previously thought. Scientists from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and Washington's Natural History Museum have uncovered fossilized cobs indicating that people in northeastern Peru were popping kernels as early as 4,700 B.C. — about 1,000 years earlier than previous evidence suggested. (That precedes Orville Redenbacher by more than 6,500 years.) But popcorn is hardly the only contemporary food with origins in the ancient world. Here, five other favorites:
1. Ice cream
The Chinese are credited with eating the first "ice-cream-like food" around 200 B.C. But instead of today's ubiquitous chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry, early versions were made using milk and rice packed into snow. The dish continued to evolve, and in the 7th century, King Tang of Shang kept helpers on hand to whip up a frosty concoction made of buffalo milk, flour, and camphor.
When and where was the classic Italian dinner born? "Several origin stories surround lasagna," says CNN, "and a couple point to ancient Greece as the birthplace of the cheesy comfort food." One theory states that the word "lasagna" comes from the Greek term "lasanon," or standing pot, which eventually became the type of serving dish used to bake the pasta.
It's quite likely that America's quintessential fast food was an on-the-go meal from the start. Its creation can be credited to the fearsome Mongols, who, in the 1200s, "stashed raw beef under their saddles as they waged their campaign to conquer the known world," says Serious Eats. "After time spent between the asses of man and beast, the beef became tender enough to eat." The steak tartare this inspired eventually found its way to the Germany port city of Hamburg, where it was transformed into a minced, cooked beef patty. But the burger wasn't really a burger until 1900, when a Connecticut restaurant claims to have slapped the Hamburg steak between two buns, and voilà — "America's first hamburger."
"Though modern meatloaf is an American innovation, its ancestry spans the globe, and centuries," says Nadia Arumugam at The Atlantic. In the late 4th or early 5th century, the "Roman gastronome Apicius" mentions in his cookbook, De Re Coquinaria, a dish that "features chopped meat combined with spices, bread soaked in wine, and pine nuts and formed into a patty." But it wasn't until the Great Depression that the dish became popularized in America, when it provided a cheap alternative to more expensive cuts. "The notion of meatloaf as comfort food stems from its frequent appearance in this period," says Arumugam. "It was lucky meatloaf arrived when it did."
Contrary to popular belief, Neanderthals "were not just meat-eaters," says Katherine Harmon at Scientific American. "Traces of fossilized foodstuffs" caught in their teeth reveal that these ancient humans ate a variety of plants, including legumes, date palms, and several wild varieties of grass related to wheat. Though it was a far cry from the bread we eat today, researchers found that 42 percent of the starchy plants Neanderthals ate tens of thousands of years ago came from cooked food. "Thankfully for the researchers, these early humans' tool selection did not likely include floss."