60-Second Science

Corn's Influence on Culture Bumped Farther Back

New data show that maize was a staple in Peru as early as 5,000 years ago and probably helped fuel the cultural leap during what's called the late Archaic period. Sophie Bushwick reports

About 5,000 years ago in Peru, culture kicked into high gear. During what’s called the late Archaic period, South Americans formed permanent communities with complex architecture, religion and agriculture. And now scientists have shown that maize played a big part in this development. The study is in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Jonathan Haas et al., Evidence for maize (Zea mays) in the Late Archaic (3000–1800 B.C.) in the Norte Chico region of Peru]

For decades, researchers have argued about whether corn was a dietary staple in the late Archaic. The answer, it turns out, was hidden in the turf, tools and toilets of 13 archaeological sites along the coast of Peru. Of 126 soil samples dating back to the late Archaic, 48 percent contained maize pollen. Of 14 stone tools found at one site, 79 percent still carried traces of maize. And finally, scientists analyzed 62 human and canine coprolites, or fossilized feces. Maize was the dominant starch, present in 69 percent of the ancient samples.

Some of the evidence is literally crap, but the conclusion isn’t: a corny dietary staple helped drive the growth of civilization in the late Archaic.

—Sophie Bushwick

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast]

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