Mmmmmmmmmm ... hardly anyone can resist the smell of freshly popped popcorn. Thoughts turn to days at the circus, afternoons at the county fair and nights in the back row at the movie theater, munching your way through memory after memory. For nearly 6,000 years, popcorn has played a part in the world's cuisine. From hot rocks and religious ceremonies to microwaves and Friday night fright fests, popcorn may just be the world's best-loved and oldest snack. Ancient ears of popcorn have been discovered in New Mexico, in the Bat Cave, that date back to 3,600 BC. The site is known to be home to prehistoric farmers, and some of the oldest cobs were as small as a penny. After digging through layers and layers of trash in the cave, at the bottom of the pile they found 6 partially or completely popped kernels along with several ears. The anthropologists that found them dropped a few kernels in a little hot oil in a kettle and they popped after 5,600 years! It is believed that early man popped his corn on flat rocks heated at the fire's edge and had to run and jump after the flying popping kernels. Central American Indians solved the problem of the flying kernels by creating poppers for their corn. The poppers were shallow pottery jars or jugs with flat bottoms and one handle that were filled with heated sand. The kernels then popped from the heat. The hot sand was heavier than the popped kernels, which would rise above the sand for easy removal. The oldest of these dates back to 300AD, found in Peru and believed to be made by a Pre-Incan society. The Zapotec peoples of Mexico incorporated popcorn into their religious ceremonies. A funeral urn dating to roughly 300AD was found, with depictions of a maize god wearing a popped corn headdress. Some kernels found in eastern Peru were so well preserved that they popped after 1,000 years. The early Pueblo people of the Southwest US were enjoying popcorn at roughly the same time period. A popped kernel dated to 1,000 years ago was found in a dry cave in Utah. Interestingly enough, even though popcorn is believed to have originated in Mexico or Central America, India and China were growing and popping popcorn before Columbus ever "discovered" the New World. No explanation for its migration or appearance in these (and only these) areas can be given, although it is thought that perhaps the climate may have played a part. It is thought that over 700 kinds of popcorn were being grown in the Americas by the time Columbus arrived. The Aztecs decorated their Rain and Maize gods with strands of popped corn. Aztec brides wore popcorn in their hair, or carried bouquets of popped kernels. Popcorn played a part in fertility rites, too. It was through the widespread use of popcorn by the Native Americans of both North and South America that the Europeans were exposed to it. Columbus and his men were offered popcorn by the West Indians they encountered after arriving in the New World. Cortes saw popcorn used as ornaments and decorations as well as being eaten by the Aztecs. There was even a widely brewed popcorn beer. Aztec fishermen would scatter popcorn on the water to honor the gods of the water and ensure a good catch. Peruvian Indians popped corn and served it to the Spanish. French explorers in the Great Lakes region reported that the Iroquois liked to pop corn and use it to make soup. They also saw the Winnebago tribe sticking ears of popcorn on sticks and holding them near the fire until they popped and then eating them right off the cob. Many Native Americans would bring popcorn to meetings with colonists and explorers to offer as tokens of peace and good will. The popular story about the First Thanksgiving including popcorn may be myth. Historians can neither prove nor disprove the story, though, so it has passed into popcorn lore. What is known is that early Americans invented the first "puffed" breakfast cereal by popping corn and then serving it with milk and sugar to start their day. Popcorn really came into its own in the mid 1800's. Popcorn poppers of all varieties were found in nearly every home. No Victorian era Christmas tree was considered complete without strands and strands of popped corn. Halloween pumpkins were given rows of popcorn teeth. Popcorn accompanied quilting bees, family gatherings, hymn sings and home concerts. Every sort of entertainment was linked to the delicious snack. In the 1880's, with the invention of the steam powered popcorn cart, popcorn began to leave the home and venture out into larger society. It suddenly became the darling of street festivals, county fairs, ice skating parties, carolers, circuses and other amusements. With the advent of moving pictures and the electric popcorn popper, the marriage of movies and popcorn was made. Theater owners often made more money off their popcorn sales than they did ticket sales. During the Great Depression, popcorn was sold in nickel bags, making it one of the few affordable luxuries available to a hurting, hungry nation. The bucket as a holder of your movie popcorn came into use during the Depression, too, as a result of too many people rustling their paper bags and drowning out the soundtrack of the film. World War II and its accompanying rationing of sugar saw the decline of candy and sweet making and the rise of popcorn. During the war, popcorn replaced all other treats as America's favorite treat. After the war, the rage continued, both through the development of television and the drive-in theater. Electric poppers made the treat quick and easy to fix without leaving home, while the drive-in theaters could often hold, and therefore serve, more customers than the traditional indoor cinemas. With the widespread use of microwaves (which saw the first popped corn in 1945, by the way) popcorn hit high tech. Popcorn came home along with video and DVD players, and by the end of the twentieth century, Americans were consuming nearly 71 quarts of popcorn per person each year. Nearly 60% of all popcorn grown is eaten at home, while 30% is enjoyed at a night out at the ballpark, movies, fair or amusement park. While it may no longer be America's #1 snack choice, having been replaced by ice cream after World War II, it is still capturing our hearts, one kernel at a time.