7 foods developed by Native Americans

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When Christopher Columbus reached the Americas, he hoped the land would be rich in gold, silver, and precious spices, but perhaps the New World’s greatest treasure was his bounty in native food crops cultivated for millennia by Native Americans. .

Three-fifths of the world’s agricultural crops came from the Americas. Without the Columbian Exchange, there would be no tomatoes for Italian cuisine, no hot peppers for Indian cuisine, and no staple foods like potatoes, squash, beans or corn. Corn alone is the most widely cultivated crop in the world with around 500 million acres harvested each year.

“Much of the domestication and ranching that resulted in today’s major food crops, the important initial work was done by indigenous peoples,” says Jules Janick, professor emeritus of horticulture at the Purdue University. “It was their contribution to world agriculture.

While Indigenous diets and eating habits were deeply affected by European colonization, Indigenous American foods changed the world as well. Below are seven food crops that originated in the Americas.

LOOK: Documentaries on Native American History on HISTORY Vault

1. Corn

The corn maize is dried and then ground into flour.

When the Spaniards arrived in the West Indies, they describe a grain similar to the millet popular among the natives of the island, “a little longer than a palm tree, ending in a point… The grains are about the shape and size of peas… When ground, they are whiter than snow. This type of grain is called corn.

The crop we know as corn was domesticated from wild teosinte grass 8,000 years ago in Mesoamerica. Maize grown in the Americas (Zea mays) was not eaten fresh like sweet corn, but was left to dry on the stalk and then ground into flour for tortillas, corn cakes and corn porridge.

From its origins in central Mexico, knowledge of corn production has spread to all corners of North and South America. The cultivation of corn was an anchor for nomadic tribes and supported the growth of huge Mesoamerican city-states and empires like the Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs and Incas. The need to continually improve the maize crop has led to agricultural innovations such as terraced fields on the mountainside in Peru and floating island gardens called chinampas in the shallow lake of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital.

The first Native Americans to cultivate corn were the Pueblo people of the American Southwest, whose culture was transformed by the arrival of corn in 1200 BC. By 1000 AD, corn was a staple crop that supported tribes like the Creek, Cherokee, and Iroquois.

Corn seeds returned to Europe in 1494, and corn cultivation spread with the expansion of the Spanish Empire, reaching the Philippines and China in the 1550s.

2. Beans

The ideal companion crop for corn was the nitrogen-fixing legume known as common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) or dry bean. The beans provided a nitrogen-rich soil for the corn, and the corn stalks provided natural supports for the climbing bean vines.

But more importantly, Janick says, a diet of beans and corn is high in essential protein that no food can provide on its own.

“Corn alone is not a perfect food,” says Janick. “It lacks some amino acids, especially lysine, which is found in beans. Beans are deficient in other amino acids, cysteine ​​and methionine, which are found in corn. So when you eat beans on a corn tortilla, which was the staple of the Aztec and Mayan diets, you have a complete protein food that fuels the empires.

Another game-changing New World legume was groundnuts, which originated in Brazil and made their way to Africa through the Portuguese slave trade.

3. Squash

Native Women Grinding Corn and Harvesting Squash, Canyon del Muerto, Arizona, c.  1930.

Native Women Grinding Corn and Harvesting Squash, Canyon del Muerto, Arizona, c. 1930.

Pumpkins, squash and other hard-skinned winter squash (Cucurbita pepo, C. maxima and C. moschata) were part of the famous “three sisters” planting strategy practiced by Native Americans alongside beans and corn. Winter squash takes a long time to mature, and the plant’s broadleaf vines extend in all directions, providing useful ground cover that locks in moisture and suppresses weeds for corn and beans.

Squash and squash were prized by Native Americans for their nutrient-rich flesh, protein-rich seeds, and sturdy shells, which were dried and used as vessels and jugs of water.

4. Potatoes

Eight thousand years ago, around the same time that corn was domesticated in Mexico, the humble potato (Solanum tuberosum) was first cultivated in the Andes mountains of Peru. The starchy tuber doesn’t look like a super food, but potatoes contain all the essential vitamins except A and D and are an important source of protein.

Potatoes, along with corn and beans, were a staple crop of the Incas, who grew their vegetables on terraced plots cut into the steep hills of the Andes, which reduced erosion and conserved water.

At first, Europeans did not know what to do with the potato, but once farmers adapted the potato to European climates, it formed the basis of the peasant diet. Today, potatoes are the fourth largest production crop in the world and the first among non-grains.

Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) originated in Central America about 5,000 years ago and not only spread throughout the Americas, but even made it to Polynesia by native storm-blown birds or sailors. Cassava (Manihot utilissima) was originally from Brazil and, along with the sweet potato, had a huge nutritional impact when it was introduced to Africa.

5. Tomatoes

Tomatoes full of flavor (Solanum lycopersicum) from the New World began as wild fruits the size of blueberries in South America that were first domesticated in Mexico about 7,000 years ago. Tomatoes were a staple of the Aztec diet, along with the paper-peeled tomatoes known in Spanish as tomatillos (Physalis peruviana).

In Nahuatl, the Aztec language, tomatoes are called tomatl, that the Spanish translated by tomato. Brother Bernardino de Sahagún, Spanish colonial historian, describe the variety of tomatoes on the Aztec markets: “Large tomatoes, small tomatoes, leaf tomatoes, fine tomatoes, sweet tomatoes, … those which are yellow, very yellow, quite yellow, red, very red,. .. bright red, reddish, dawn pink color.

Europeans have been slow to embrace the tomato, which is related to the poisonous mandrake, a nightshade. It took ages, for example, so that the tomato becomes a staple of Italian cuisine. It was not until the end of the 19th century that Italians began to eat pasta with tomato sauce.

6. Hot peppers

Gardens surrounding the Indian Pueblo of Zuni, in which a variety of vegetables are grown, such as peppers, onions, garlic, c.  1873.

Gardens surrounding the Indian Pueblo of Zuni, in which a variety of vegetables are grown, such as peppers, onions, garlic, c. 1873.

The oldest name of a chili (Annual capsicum) has been attributed to Proto-Otomangue, a language spoken 6,500 years ago in east-central Mexico, believed to be the site of the first domestication of wild peppers. But it was the Aztecs who gave us our name for the spicy fruit, calling it Chile in Nahuatl. Columbus called them peppers because the spice reminded him of black pepper.

Some European countries were the first to adopt New World peppers: Italy, Spain and especially Hungary, where the red peppers were smoked, dried and ground into paprika. But the real culinary fusion took place when Portuguese traders brought hot peppers to India, Asia and Africa. Sweet peppers arrived centuries later, when Hungarian breeders selected less and less spicy varieties.

7. Cocoa

Aztec Emperor Montezuma is said to have drunk 50 glasses of hot chocolate (cacahoatl) per day for its invigorating properties, but the Spaniards found the frothy drink almost undrinkable. Montezuma’s recipe is said to have been ground raw cocoa nibs flavored with hot peppers and flowers, a strong, bitter concoction that bears little resemblance to today’s sweet version.

Cocoa (Theobroma cocoa L.) trees were cultivated and worshiped by the Mayans and Aztecs, but genetic evidence shows that the first cocoa plants were domesticated in South America in the upper Amazonian regions of Ecuador 5,300 years ago.

When the Conquistadors and the Spanish Brothers brought cocoa back to Europe in the 1500s, it was mixed with sugar and cinnamon to become an elite health drink. The first chocolate bars were not made until the middle of the 19th century. Originally a culture in Central America, the main cocoa producing countries are today all in Africa.

READ MORE: How Native American regimes changed after European colonization


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