The importance of the potato is reflected by the fact that it is the fourth biggest human food crop following corn, rice and wheat.
Potatoes semi-perishable qualities affect the people who eat them, the farmers who grow them and the archeologists who wish to understand their impact on human history.
Now a novel scientific technique – examining starch grains – is being deployed to determine where, when and how humans became involved with the potato. The NY Times reports. Jim
“Where in South America potatoes first became domesticated, however, is still unknown. Recent genetic studies point to the Andean highlands in southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia as the crop’s birthplace, but a lack of direct plant evidence has made it difficult to confirm…
“Starch grain analysis, which is a relatively novel method, was key to finding evidence of potatoes because the tubers do not preserve well, Dr. Aldenderfer said. ‘When a seed burns, you often get something left of a seed husk. When corn cobs burn, you get something left of the cob. When potato burns, it burns up — very seldom do you get actual bits.’
“The early cultivation of potatoes seems to have been part of a larger shift at Jiskairumoko, from hunting and gathering toward farming and herding, he added. Around the same time, people started to build more complex houses, and the beginnings of a social hierarchy emerged. In 2008, a team led by Dr. Aldenderfer found a gold necklace from Jiskairumoko dating back to 2000 B.C., suggesting that an elite class had formed by then.”