When Christopher Columbus reached America, he hoped the land would be rich in gold, silver, and precious spices, but perhaps the New World’s greatest treasure was the abundance of indigenous food crops that Indigenous Americans have grown for millennia.
Three fifths of the world’s agricultural crops come from America. Without the Columbian Exchange there would be no tomatoes for Italian food, no hot chili peppers for Indian cuisine and no staple foods such as potatoes, pumpkin, beans or corn. Corn alone is the most widely grown crop in the world, with an estimated annual harvest of 500 million hectares.
“Much of the domestication and breeding that led to today’s staple crops was done by indigenous peoples,” said Jules Janick, professor emeritus of horticulture at Purdue University. “That was their contribution to world agriculture.”
While indigenous diets and food routes were heavily influenced by European settlement, indigenous American foods also changed the world. Below are seven food crops that originated in America.
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When the Spaniards arrived in the Antilles, they described a millet-like grain that was popular with the islanders, “little more than a palm tree long that ends in a point … The grains are roughly 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 maize was domesticated from wild teosinte grass in Mesoamerica as early as 8,000 years ago. The corn grown in America (Zea mays) was not eaten fresh like sweet corn, but left to dry on a stick and then ground into flour for tortillas, corn bread and corn porridge.
From its origins in central Mexico, knowledge of corn production spread to all corners of North and South America. Growing corn was an anchor for nomadic tribes and supported the growth of massive Mesoamerican city-states and empires such as the Olmec, Maya, Aztec, and Inca. The need to continuously improve the corn crop led to agricultural innovations such as terraced mountain fields in Peru and floating island gardens called Chinapas in the shallow lake of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs.
The earliest Native Americans to grow corn were the pueblos of the American Southwest, whose culture began with the arrival of corn in 1200 BC.
Corn seeds migrated back to Europe in 1494, and corn cultivation spread with the expansion of the Spanish Empire, reaching the Philippines and China in the 1550s.
The ideal companion crop for maize was the nitrogen-fixing legume, the so-called common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) or dry beans. Beans provided nitrogen-rich soil for corn, and the corn stalks provided natural supports for the bean plant’s climbing plants.
But more importantly, Janick says, a bean-corn-based diet is high in essential proteins that none of the foods can provide on their own.
“Corn alone is not a perfect food,” says Janick. “Some amino acids are missing, especially lysine, which is found in beans. Beans are deficient in other amino acids, cysteine and methionine, found in corn. So when you eat beans on a corn tortilla, which was the foundation of the Aztec and Maya diet, you have a complete protein feed that powers empires. ”
Another groundbreaking legume from the New World was the peanut, which originated in Brazil and entered Africa through the Portuguese slave trade.
Pumpkins, gourds, and other hard-skinned winter squash (Cucurbita pepo, C. maxima and C. moschata) were part of the famous “three sisters” planting strategy practiced by the Native Americans, along with beans and corn. Winter squash takes a long time to mature, and the plant’s broad-leaved tendrils extend in all directions, providing a helpful ground cover that traps moisture and suppresses weeds for corn and beans.
Pumpkins and gourds were prized by Indigenous Americans for their nutritious meat, protein-rich seeds, and sturdy shells that were dried and used as containers and water jugs.
8,000 years ago, around the same time that maize was domesticated in Mexico, the humble potato (Solanum tuberosum) was first grown high in the Andes of Peru. The starchy tuber doesn’t look like a superfood, but potatoes contain all of the important vitamins except A and D and are a significant source of protein.
Potatoes, along with corn and beans, were a staple food for the Incas, who grew their vegetables on terraced plots cut into the steep slopes of the Andes to reduce erosion and conserve water.
At first the Europeans did not know what to do with the potato, but after the farmers adapted the potato to the European climate, it formed the basis of the peasant diet. Today, potatoes are the fourth largest producer in the world and the first among the non-grain species.
Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) originated about 5,000 years ago in Central America and not only spread throughout America, but even reached Polynesia, carried by birds or indigenous sailors blown by the storm. Cassava (Manihot utilissima) originated in Brazil and, along with sweet potatoes, made a huge impact on the diet when they were introduced to Africa.
The flavored tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) of the New World began as wild, blueberry-sized fruits in South America that were first domesticated in Mexico about 7,000 years ago. Tomatoes were a staple of the Aztec diet, as were the paper-skinned shell tomatoes known in Spanish as tomatillos (Physalis peruviana).
In Nahuatl, the Aztec language, tomatoes are called tomatl, what the Spanish translated as tomato. Brother Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish colonial historian, described the variety of tomatoes in the Aztec markets: “Big tomatoes, small tomatoes, leaf tomatoes, thin tomatoes, sweet tomatoes … that are yellow, very yellow, very yellow, red, very much red, … bright red, reddish, rosy at dawn. “
Europeans were slow to adopt the tomato, which is related to the poisonous mandrake, a nightshade plant. For example, it took centuries for the tomato to become an integral part of Italian cuisine. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that Italians began to eat pasta with tomato sauce.
6. Chili peppers
The oldest name for a chilli pepper (Peppers annuum) has been traced back to Proto-Otomanguean, a language spoken in central-eastern Mexico 6,500 years ago and which is believed to have been the site of the first domestication of wild peppers. But it was the Aztecs who gave us our name for the spicy fruit and named it chili in Nahuatl. Columbus called it paprika because the spice reminded him of black pepper.
Some European countries adopted chili peppers from the New World early on: Italy, Spain and especially Hungary, where red chillies were smoked, dried and ground into peppers. But the real culinary fusion took place when Portuguese traders brought hot peppers to India, Asia and Africa. Bell peppers came onto the market centuries later when Hungarian growers were choosing less and less spicy varieties.
The Aztec Emperor Montezuma is said to have drunk 50 glasses of hot chocolate (cacahoatl) per day because of its invigorating properties, but the Spanish found the frothy drink almost inedible. Montezuma’s recipe would be ground raw cocoa nibs, seasoned with spicy chili peppers and flowers, a strong and bitter preparation that hardly resembles today’s sweet version.
Cocoa (Theobroma cacao L.) Trees were cultivated and revered by the Maya and Aztecs, but genetic evidence shows that the first cocoa plants in South America were domesticated in the upper Amazon regions of Ecuador as early as 5,300 years ago.
When Spanish conquistadors and monks brought cocoa back to Europe in the 16th century, it was mixed with sugar and cinnamon to become a health drink of the elite. The first chocolate bars were not made until the middle of the 19th century. Originally a Central American crop, the most important cocoa producers are now all in Africa.
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