Ancient History of the Potato

by Annette Welsford No Comments
History of Potato
Ancient Inca Terraces constructed for farming

The potato has a fascinating, if rather contradictory history that goes back many centuries.

Now considered to be the world's fourth most important crop (after wheat, rice and maize), the potato (Solanum tuberosum) originally grew wild throughout the South American Andes.

There are known to be more 200 wild potato species in a varied habitat that ranges from high cold mountains to warm valleys, and from semi-arid land to subtropical forests. But the most varied number of wild species is found around Lake Titicaca which is in both Peru and Bolivia. It is thought that it is here that the potato was first domesticated anything from 10,000 to 7,000 years ago – although it could be even more recent.

There is a certain amount of authenticated archaeological evidence we can rely on when exploring the history of the potato. The most compelling are the preserved potato tubers found on four archaeological sites in the Casma Valley of Peru. Tuber remains were also uncovered in at least two other Peruvian sites; in the high Chilca Canyon in the Andes and at Pachacamac near Lima. It was the now world-famous German archaeologist, Max Uhle who excavated the Pachacamac ruins in the late 19th century and found a collection of little tubers about 25 mm or one inch in diameter.

There is no certainty in terms of when potatoes were first cultivated deliberately by man – rather than harvested from the wild. However it is an interesting fact that potatoes are still cultivated around Lake Titicaca on ridged, raised or otherwise moulded fields that are believed to follow the traditional terracing methods of ancient South American civilisations.

It is also known that ancient Incas who for about a century controlled a strip of land in the Andes, stored both fresh and processed potato tubers in massive storage areas. Here temperature, moisture and light were all carefully controlled to ensure the potatoes, which provided such well-appreciated nourishment, would last as long as possible.

The potato was first "exported" from South America by 16th century Spanish explorers who compared this unfamiliar vegetable to truffles. Sir Francis Drake, travelling around the world between 1577 and 1580, also "discovered" potatoes, off the coast of Chile. As a result, he is commonly credited with having introduced the potato to Britain. This fact is disputed by some food historians who point out that he picked them up in 1578 and only got back home in 1580. It is unlikely, the cynics say, that these particular tubers would have survived on the high seas and is more likely that Sir Francis and his friends would have eaten them on board!

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