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Corn Fungus May Have Kept Ancestral Puebloans Healthy

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

corn smut stapleHIGHLAND PARK, TEXAS—Cosmos Magazine reports that Jenna Battillo of Southwestern Methodist University says that consuming a fungus that grows on corn allowed the ancestral Puebloans to survive on a corn-based diet beginning around 400 B.C. and lasting for a period of about 800 years. Corn is thought to have comprised about 80 percent of the calories consumed by the people of the Basketmaker II culture, who also ate a small amount of wild plants, and occasionally some wild rabbit, but not enough to make up for the lack of essential nutrients in their staple crop. Yet, analysis of human remains from the period have not detected signs of pellagra, a potentially fatal disease that can be caused by the lack of vitamins and amino acids in a corn-based diet. Now considered a delicacy, corn fungus, or Ustilago maydis, alters the nutritional content of corn, increasing its protein levels and boosting the levels of most of the missing amino acids. Battillo suggests the ancient practice of boiling corn with limestone, and the small amount of food consumed from other sources, may have provided enough of the key missing amino acid to keep the ancestral Puebloans healthy. The levels of corn fungus spores in the human feces found at Turkey Pen Ruin, an ancestral Pueblo site in Utah, suggests the corn fungus may have been eaten intentionally, she added. For more, go to “Mapping Maya Cornfields.”

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