Rare ancient skeleton discovery helps solve big food mystery

Researchers with the University of Exeter have announced the discovery of ancient skeletons that help solve a big food mystery: when did humans in Central America start eating maize as a staple food? The discovery is described as 'unparalleled' because the skeletons were 'remarkably well-preserved' in the rock shelters where they were found.

Maize, also called corn, joins wheat, rice, and other crops as a staple food that millions of people around the world rely on. The mystery of when humans started eating this crop to a significant degree has remained unsolved in the thousands of years since the crop was first cultivated.

The ancient skeletons were discovered in a well-preserved state despite the humid environment, which makes it 'extremely rare' for researchers to find human remains this old that are in such useful conditions. Co-director of the field excavations Dr. Mark Robinson explained:

This is the only example of a burial site in the Neotropics used repeatedly for 10,000 years, giving us an unparalleled opportunity to study dietary change over a long time period, including the introduction of maize into the region. This is the first direct evidence to show when the change in people's diets occurred and the rate at which maize increased in economic and dietary importance until it became fundamental to peoples dietary, economic, and religious lives.

According to the study, the excavation included bones belonging to 44 skeletons, including adults and kids, providing a broad sample of the population from that time period. Of these remains, the oldest is between 8600 and 9600 years old, while the youngest is around 1,000 years old.

The bones shed light on the diets of the region over time, starting from hunter-gatherer diets involving wild animals and plants to the gradual consumption of maize; the region eventually reached the point of eating a diet that was 70-percent corn around 4,000 years ago. The consumption of this staple crop likely spread through the Americas as languages, civilizations, and technologies became more complex and the environment changed.