Sunday, April 19, 2015

Rise of Civilization in Peru—Sweet Potato – Part I

There are certain foods that are indigenous to Andean South America. Such crops are: potatoes (papa), like the Sweet Potato to which the word “potato” was first applied, and hundreds of varieties (some claim as many as 4000) of other potatoes such as the Purple, White, Rosada, Canchan, Amarilla, Mariva, Andina, etc.; potato-like tubers, such as Oca, Mashua, Yuca, Maca, Yacon (Ground Applies) and Ulluco; grains, such as Quinoa (sometimes referred to as the Mother of All Grains), Kiwicha and Kaniwa; beans such as Tarwi, Lima, Peruano, Canaria, Mayocoba Azufrado, and common (Navy, String, and Kidney); nuts, such as peanut, Sacha, and Mani; peppers; Aji and chilis; avocado; maize (morado, tierno or jilote); cucumber (calhua and caigua); and others, including numerous fruits. 
Top: Left to Right: Sweet Potato, Purple Potato; and Cuzco Varied Potatoes; Bottom: Some of the numerous species of Peruvian Papa (potato)
    While the potato is a starchy, tuberous crop from the perennial nightshade Solanum tuberosum L.— an economically important family of flowering plantsthe sweet potato is only distantly related and does not belong to the nightshade family at all. The root vegetable called the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is a dicotyledonous plant that belongs to the family Convolvulaceae, and is more closely related to several garden flowers called morning glories.
The sweet potato—known in Quechua in ancient Peru as kumara—is known by other names in other parts of the world: Batata, boniato, and camote in Spain and Mexico; kumar in Peru; kumara in the Polynesian Islands, including New Zealand; cilera abana (protector of the children) in Eastern Africa; ubhatata in South Africa; and kara-imo and satsuma-imo in Japan. In China alone, sweet potatoes are called different names in different parts of China, and ubi jalar in Indonesia. It is sometimes called a “yam” in North America though the genuine yam (Dioscorea) belongs to the family Dioscoreaceae. The actual sweet potato through DNA testing dates back to an early domestication in Peru, as early as radiocarbon-dated 8000 B.C., (3000 years before carbon-dated in Central and Mesoamerica) and, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of sciences, spread to Polynesia from the west coast of South America several centuries before Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere.
    In fact, when the Spanish conquerors and later explorers sought for a route to India and the Spice Island, in their quest for silver, gold, spices and jewels, they found three food crops claimed to have been far more important—corn, white potato, and sweet potato. The Sweet Potato was carried back to Spain and thence to Italy, from where it spread to Austria, Germany, Belgium and England before the first white potatoes arrived. It took 200 years for the English to accept the white potato, which we know today as Irish potatoes, was fit for human consumption, but the sweet potato immediately became a rare and expensive delicacy.
    Outside of the tropics, sweet potatoes thrive only in the warmer temperate climates, and do best in a loose sandy soil that is well drained. They produce seed only in the tropical climates, so in northern climates, new plants are obtained by planting roots, or cuttings of the vines, in beds. The sprouts that form are pulled and transplanted to fields one sprout to a “hill.” Once well started, they require little moisture and, unless attacked by the numerous diseases and insect pests to which they are subject, develop many potatoes in each hill.
    Now it is widely grown in Asiatic lands, including Japan and southern Russia, in the warmer Pacific islands, in tropical America, and in the United States as far north as New Jersey. Today, 106 million tonnes of sweet potato are produced each year, with China producing about 82% of the world’s amount.
    As a nutrient, Sweet Potatoes are a high energy producer and have by far the highest amount of Vitamin A and Beta-carotene of any staple food
    Mormon, in abridging Alma’s obvious more lengthy discussion of the plants that were beneficial to the Nephites, stated regarding the quality of the plants the Lord provided that reduced the number of Nephite deaths: ”because of the excellent qualities of the many plants and roots which God had prepared to remove the cause of diseases, to which men were subject by the nature of the climate” (Alma 46:40). Edible roots, of course are called tubers, because they are much thicker than normal roots and serve as a food reserve and for bearing buds from which new plants arise. Potatoes, of course, are tubers, and as such in Andean Peru where they were first domesticated and to where they are first traced to have existed, these tubers have developed into thousands of varieties.
Potato markets flourish in Peru where thousands of varieties of these tuber vegetables have a wide variety of usefulness as foods and cures for ailments
    The word "potato" may refer either to the plant itself or the edible tuber, and in the Andes, where the species is indigenous and originated near Lake Titicaca at 12,500 feet above sea level, there are some other closely related cultivated potato species. There are over 3500-4000 types of potato native to the Andes mountains and of that almost 3000 are native to Peru. Potatoes were introduced outside the Andes region approximately four centuries ago, and have since become an integral part of much of the world's food supply, being the fourth-largest food crop, following maize, wheat and rice—proving so vital that it provoked a national famine when Ireland's potato crop was wiped out by a blight in the 1840s.
Potatoes are such an important part of the food of Andean South America that, especially in Peru, every household has a tiny farm or potato farm or plot of plowed ground, and every market from the corner Deli to large potato markets sell them
    Sweet potatoes produce more pounds of food per acre than any other cultivated plant, including corn and the Irish potato. More nourishing than Irish potatoes because they contain more sugars and fats, they are a universal food in tropical America, and in our southern states where they are baked, candied, boiled and even fried. Vast quantities are canned for consumption in the United States. Of the 200 or more varieties there are two main types. The "Jersey" and related varieties having dry mealy flesh that is favored in the northern states. The other type, more watery but richer in sugar and more soft and gelatinous when cooked, is favored in our southern states where they are called “yams.” The true yam, however, originated in China and is a different plant related to the lilies. The Irish potato, believe it or not, belongs to the Nightshade Family
There is such a variety of potatoes to choose from, the women rely on their ancestral knowledge of each tuber’s virtues as they sort through hundreds of potatoes at harvest time, deciding which to eat, sell, store for seeds or trade to diversify their stock
    Europeans raced across oceans and continents during the Age of Exploration in search of territory and riches. But when they reached the South Pacific, they found they had been beaten there by a more humble traveler—the sweet potato. Now, a new study suggests that the plant's genetics may be the key to unraveling another great age of exploration, one that predated European expansion by several hundred years and has been an anthropological enigma for nearly a century.
    How did the Sweet Potato get to Polynesia?
(See the next post, “Rise of Civilization in Peru—Sweet Potato – Part II,” for the answer to the above question and how archaeologists and anthropologist for nearly a century have been misleading the public about both the Sweet Potato and its arrival in South America and Polynesia)

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