When you think of the diet of the ancient indigenous peoples of North America, you probably think of squash, beans and corn – the famous three sisters. Potatoes probably don’t come to mind. But recent archaeological research has revealed that at least one potato was part of the North American diet thousands of years ago.
In 2010, University of Utah anthropologist and archaeologist Lisbeth Louderback discovered what looked like potato starch on ancient stone tools from an excavation site in Escalante, in Utah. In a particularly good monsoon year 2013, Bruce Pavlik, conservation director at the University of Utah’s Red Butte Garden, recognized a tuber growing in the wild near the same site, and the team could identify the starch. It was from Solanum jamesii, also known as the Four Corners Potato, a potato native to the Four Corners region of the Southwestern United States. Although the potato grows wild in the region, this was the first time it had been found at the site of a prehistoric settlement – making it the first evidence of potato use in North America, dating back almost 11,000 years.
Louderback and Pavlik set out to learn more about the history of the potato and reintroduce it into the modern diet. Pavlik points out, however, that he and Louderback did not “discover” the potato. It had long been known to the indigenous peoples of this region, including the Apache, Hopi, Kawaik, Navajo, Southern Paiute, Tewa, Zia and Zuni peoples. Because the potato only produced shoots at the start of the summer rains, it was harvested less in the 19th century, when monsoons declined over the decades and gradually fell out of favor. At the same time, it also faced stiff competition from the common white potato, which flooded the market.
Nutritionally Packaged Potato
The Four Corners potato is tiny; a dozen of them can fit in the palm of your hand. But it’s packed with nutrients for its size, with twice the protein, zinc, and manganese, and three times the calcium and iron. Tuberous solanum, the potato that will adorn most of our Thanksgiving tables this week. But its value to the indigenous peoples who took it in went beyond food. It is an important Medication and part of indigenous religious ceremonies.
It is also a small hard potato. Solanum jamesii is both disease and frost resistant. It is also drought tolerant, a feature that is becoming increasingly important due to climate change. In the periods between rains, the tubers remain dormant. It can survive this way for up to 16 years, if necessary, until a good monsoon arrives. “You can get through bad years by having that tuber bank in the ground,” Pavlik explains, “just like a seed bank, but it would be a tuber bank.”
Louderback and Pavlik are working with Indigenous communities to return the potato to its original stewards. They use the term “re-matriation” because the women of the tribe were usually the ones doing the collection and processing, Louderback says. This year, around 30 farmers are cultivating potatoes, mainly on tribal lands.
Indigenous people get the first dibs – after all, it’s their potato – but this super potato may soon end up on many other tables. A non-native farmer is already growing it to supply restaurants. Eventually, Pavlik hopes, it will be widely available in supermarkets as well as in restaurants.
The importance of the Four Corners potato goes beyond its use as a food. His genes are also precious. Pavlik explains that there are more than 100 species of potatoes, and the USDA Potato Gene Bank crosses these species to make them more resistant to disease and drought. Plants in the wild have genetic diversity, and scientists use this to create plants that are more drought tolerant or plants that can produce more food using fewer resources, Pavlik explains. “So this potato is being used, as we speak, to create new forms of potatoes. “
Finding and reintroducing traditional foods is also important because it is not wise to rely on a few species or one type of culture; a disease or fungus could wipe out an entire species, Pavlik explains. “Diversification,” he says, “is really a way to save the future of our food base. “
What if all this wasn’t enough to do Solanum jamesii a hero tastes good too. Louderback says it tastes earthy, sweet on the inside with a crispy skin. “We put it in a soup,” she says, but adds that it would also be good with butter, salt and pepper on the side.