The potato is a staple of American cooking and has been one for the longest time. From home-cooked mash to the fast food fries, every American has at least one favorite variation. What is even more interesting is how long the potato has been in use in the North American region. Recently scientists found evidence that humans have been consuming potatoes or one of its variants for some 10,000 years.
The potato as we know it today made its way into North America relatively late. The version consumed today was bred by the people of Peru and Bolivia, and it started spreading after the year 1492 through the Columbian Exchange. But that was not the only version of the potato that was available during the early days, and it is probably some variant that was consumed by the early settlers.
The scientists learned this by chance while performing excavations in North Creek Shelter in Utah. The site where the traces of starch granules were found is located in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. At this dig site, archeologist previously discovered artifacts from the Fremont, Anasazi, and Paiute societies. This site is also known as one of the oldest sites found in Utah.
During the excavations, the scientists were able to recover around 300 granules of starch. These granules were found on various tools from the period, and some of them date back to a period between 11,000 and 7000 years ago. Interestingly enough around 100 of the granules found exhibited traits found in plants that grow only underground. This fact limits the possible origin of the granules to only two possible plant families. One of them is the lily family, while the other is the nightshade family. Potatoes are part of the nightshade family. By using quantitive analysis of shapes and structures, scientists were able to connect nine of the granules to Solanum jamesii, which represents one of the variants of potatoes found on North American soil. Additionally, 61 granules had two of the three necessary characteristics for them to be connected to the potato family.
Add to that the fact that Solanum jamesii has a much higher nutritional index than your average potato. The plant contains more protein, more zinc, and manganese – almost two times more in fact, as well as thre times the amount of calcium and iron. These facts alone are more than enough for scientists to understand why this plant was included in the diet of early North American settlers. Thes findings also match previous ones of the people from this region. Indian tribes like the Apache, Hopi, Navajo, and many others also used the plant in their diet. The entire region where the artifacts and granules were found was nicknamed by early settlers as “Potato Valley.” The number of wild potatoes growing there and the rate at which people consumed them, especially during the great depression are probably the reason why. Even today, there are people that grow some of these variants in their backyards.
Potatoes have been consumed on the North American continent for millennia. The ones we eat today have a common lineage with the species Solanum tuberum, but they did not descend directly from that variant. There is also a chance that a variant of Solanum jamesii was also domesticated at some point, but that variety has been lost to the ages.