Andean Potatoes

I had heard of the Andean peoples’ use of potatoes a long time ago, but with the subject brought up once more in class, I feel like talking about it.  Compared to the other regions discussed in class, the Andean peoples’ use of potatoes as their main staple crop strikes a contrast to the other regions in which grains became the dominant crop.  While maize eventually became a staple crop for the peoples of the Andean region, the potato did not simply get sidelined, but endured to remain the main staple in the Andean diet, even to today.   There are many questions I want to ask regarding the Andean peoples’ use of the potato.

One question is in regards to how the potato came to be domesticated.  As we learned earlier this semester,  while we may not know exactly how the various crops of today became domesticated, one common theory is that domestication followed discovery and extensive gathering of wild crops by hunter-gatherer groups.  Now, while it is easy to imagine hunter-gatherers seeing patches of wild wheat and other grains growing across the terrains they traversed, it is harder for me to image tubers like potatoes attraction much notice.  Unless the tops of potatoes were the only viewable “greenery” for miles, I would think that hunter-gatherers would ignore it in the face of other, more noticeable plants.  Of course, that is a modern prospective, as we can only hazard a guess as to the methods in which hunter-gatherers selected what they gathered.  From some research on the side I have learned that there were over 3000 varieties of potatoes in the region alone, so perhaps they were more noticeable than anything else.

Another question is to what effect if any the cultivation of potatoes had on the physiology of the Andean peoples.  For example, we know that the people of this region have over the centuries adapted physically to the low oxygen levels of their highland environments.  We also know that the teeth of modern humans are vastly different from earlier hominids as a result of millions of years of diet differentiation.  So, what did a diet that rested mainly upon potatoes result in for the Andean peoples?  Was the high starch content of potatoes a factor in their biology?  I would be interested to know whether or not the people of the Andean region today have higher than the common norm for starch in their physiology.

Finally, while we have learned about the paste making and freeze drying of potatoes in this region first done by the people of ancient Andean states, but I also wonder if like other ancient peoples, the ancient Andeans combined potatoes into a stew or porridge like meal.  Many of us today know or eat regularly potato soup, but I imagine the ancient versions of this classic dish may not appeal as much as one might think.

One thought on “Andean Potatoes”

  1. I never really imagined that I’d read through a 400 + word blog post all about potatoes, but I just did and it was actually pretty enjoyable – so good work, Thomas! That being said, potatoes actually have an important history as a staple crop in many cultures past and present. Like you mentioned, the Andean people relied heavily on the production of potatoes and a good harvest could make or break a season. For people living at high altitudes like the Andeans, crop production can be extremely difficult. Within the context of all the areas that we’ve discussed in class, the Andean people had to deal with easily the most extreme patches of land to farm on geographically speaking.

    I recently heard somewhere that a human body can be fully functional and survive indefinitely on a diet of nothing but potatoes and butter. It’s kind of extreme, but apparently the nutrients from the combination of the two have enough nourishment to sustain the human body. It’s crazy to think about, but I guess that means that the Andean people were on the something. They were relying heavily on a crop that seems dull and bland to the modern human at first, but upon further investigation, you’ll find that they were being pretty intelligent about the whole thing – harvesting a crop that is sustainable and nutrient dense enough to keep life going. As the “Great Irish Potato Famine” exemplifies though, relying on one main crop isn’t always fun and games. Sometimes the weather has a different motive, and that can drastically change everything.

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