WHAT EXACTLY IS THE POTATO?
HOW DID IT BECOME A WORLD CROP?
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE POTATO.
First stages in the potato’s long story.
The modern potato began to emerge about 8,000 years ago near Lake Titicaca high above sea level in the Andes mountain range of South America, on the border between Bolivia and Peru. According to the results of ongoing research, communities of hunters and gatherers began domesticating wild potato plants that grew around the lake. These hunter-gatherers were not newcomers to South America; they had already been there for about 7,000 years before they started their agricultural efforts.
These ancient people were able to consolidate their agriculture by use of terracing and the construction of irrigation canals, thus providing food security based principally on maize and potato.
This coincides with the rise of two civilizations, the Huari (500AD) and Tiahuanacu around a similar date. These last introduced the sophisticated technology of the “raised field”, that is elevated soil beds edged by stone irrigation canals. In this way they were able to produce really impressive yields of potatoes.
Source: Public Domain, (NASA), Wikimedia Commons.
MAP OF LAKE TITICACA.
THE INCAS, NEXT ACTORS IN THE STORY OF THE POTATO.
The decline of Huari and Tiahuanucu around 1,000 AD lead to the rise of the Incas from the Cuzco valley. By the 1400s AD they had created the largest state in pre-Hispanic America, ranging from Argentina to Colombia.
One of most important factors in the success of the Incas was their improvement on the agricultural technology inherited from the previous Andean cultures. While maintaining the previous high levels of potato productions, the Incas worked at increasing the yields of maize.
The Incas are well known for their vast road system and network of state store houses. While maize could not be stored for a lengthy period of time, the potato, when freeze-dried, provided a product known as chuño. In this form it was used to feed both soldiers and laborers, and as an emergency stock if the crop of maize failed.
The Inca Empire came to an end with the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores, but the potato has endured and indeed, spread world wide!
THE POTATO EMIGRATES TO OTHER CONTINENTS.
Recent studies have established that this tuber was first carried by the Spaniards to the Canary Islands, their landfall on the way to Europe. From there the potato jumped to Spain and then was gradually introduced to the rest of Europe. To begin with, people were highly suspicious of this exotic and rather ugly object.
Another Spanish export process from South America took the potato to Central America and extended it into Mexico. This innovation was later reinforced by European cultivars that arrived in North America with the European colonists. Quite an extended trip!
Today it seems incredible to think that what we know as "the potato" (Solanum species tuberosum) is genetically related to the seven recognized potato species and 5,000 potato varieties still grown in the Andes and also in the south of Chile.
THE CHILEAN POTATO
Genetic studies have established that 99% of the world’s cultivated potatoes carry the genetic imprint of the subspecies that originated in the Chiloé Archipelago in the south of Chile, and which was cultivated in that country over an extensive area of the southern and central territories.
This fact has been at the center of a lengthy controversy as to which was the subspecies that was taken to Europe.
CHILOE, LAND OF THE CHILEAN POTATO
POSITION OF THE CHILOE ISLAND
THE POTATO TODAY!
Long live the humble potato, a priceless gift from Spanish America!