Skip to comments.The Lowly Sweet Potato May Unlock America's Past
Posted on 03/24/2008 2:24:47 PM PDT by blam
From The Times
Norman Hammond, Archaeology Correspondent
March 24, 2008
The lowly sweet potato may unlock Americas past
How the root vegetable found it's way across the Pacific
One of the enduring mysteries of world history is whether the Americas had any contact with the Old World before Columbus, apart from the brief Viking settlement in Newfoundland. Many aspects of higher civilisation in the New World, from the invention of pottery to the building of pyramids, have been ascribed to European, Asian or African voyagers, but none has stood up to scrutiny.
The one convincing piece of evidence for pre-Hispanic contact has been the humble sweet potato, which is of tropical American origin but widely cultivated across the Pacific islands. Until a few years ago it was assumed that this was the result of Spanish transmission, dating to the early colonial period, but archaeological discoveries in the Cook Islands show this to be wrong: excavations at Mangaia yielded carbonised remains of sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) dating to AD1000, five centuries before Europeans entered the Pacific Ocean.
The question then arose as to whether the diffusion of this useful crop was the result of Amerindians sailing west to Polynesia, as the late Thor Heyerdahl always claimed, or whether it came about because Polynesians exploring on the road of the winds beyond Easter Island came to the South American mainland, and took back with them the hardy and nutritious root crop which is today fifth in importance in developing countries.
The lack of evidence for Native American seafaring and the reputation of the Polynesians as navigators inclined most scholars to the latter thesis: but a new simulation study suggests that either the Amerindians or nature may have been responsible: Alvaro Montenegro and his colleagues in the Journal of Archaeological Science argue that computer experiments demonstrate that accidental drift voyages could have been responsible.
The experiment was set up to investigate two transfer theories, by accidental voyages from the American mainland that reached Polynesia, and drifting of Ipomoea seed capsules. Deliberate voyaging was not included.
Starting positions were in a series of departure bins defined off the Central and South American coastlines from 50 degrees south to 30 degrees north roughly from southern Chile to northern Mexico.
The drifter point was located at the centre of each bin, and thus some distance offshore. The various Pacific island groups were designated as targets, and the probable drift of vessels the size of a large canoe under the influence of the known winds and currents simulated over a six-month period; the drift of seed capsules was simulated for a full year.
The most probable canoe crossing to score a hit was from Central America to the Marshall Islands, with a likelihood of 11.5 per cent. The much shorter crossing from Ecuador to the Galápagos was second, at almost 10 per cent, followed by the central Polynesian island groups of Tuamotu and the Marquesas at 7.4 and 5.7 per cent repectively. Most other targets scored very low, although Hawaii had an almost 3 per cent chance of being encountered.
The drifting seed capsules had a 17.4 per cent chance of reaching the Galápagos, only 600 miles off Ecuador, with the Marquesas at 2.7 per cent the next most likely hit. Hawaii cultivated the crop before European contact, and probably got it from Mexico on the basis of the simulation, but there was no further onward dispersal. This route might well have been used in the putative Polynesian-Californian contacts recently proposed (The Times, November 21, 2005).
The fact that 16 of the 23 target areas were hit with at least 1 per cent probability indicates that vessel drifts provide many access routes from South America into Polynesia, with hits on a particular island group coming from drifters starting on specific stretches of American coastline. These could have informed Polynesians of lands to the east, making two-way traffic possible.
The date by which all this happened remains debatable. Expansion east out of Tonga and Samoa may have begun as early as AD1, but perhaps not much earlier than AD1000, when the sweet potato is attested in the Cook Islands.
Easter Island seems, on the latest evidence, not to have been settled until around AD1200, so it could not have played a part in the initial transmission. In the end what this simulation experiment tells us is that purposeful voyaging, in either direction, was not necessary for this first, tenuous contact between the settlers who had moved out of Asia and around the Pacific rim to settle first the continent of America and then, much later, the ocean wastes of the Pacific.
Journal of Archaeological Science 35: 355-367.
are we talking about the ‘typical’ lowly sweet potato here ?
mmmmmm sweet potatoes with melted butter and brown sugar please...
Sometime try it with butter and sour cream. Yummy.
Seriously? ...hmmmm I might try it but sounds gross lol
The sourness of the cream makes the potato taste even sweeter.
Same thing works with putting salt on grapefruit.
(but then again, I AM a little strange) Heheheh.
My brother who is diabetic and has done a lot of research on foods safe for diabetics, says the sweet potato is about the closest thing to a perfect food one can eat.
No hun, I am strange too lol
But salt on grapefruit, yucky....
I tried to view your page and it didn’t work
Same thing works with putting salt on grapefruit.
Filipinos put salt on mango’s ... I’m assuming you mean a fully ripe sweet pink or yellow grapefruit..
you’ve got freepmail
I yam what I yam.
That explains my neighbors habit of ordering sweet potatos everytime we go to dinner together...he's diabetic.
That is great news. I have been looking for a site that would list things like that. My husband is a diabetic and I know that other types of potato are not good.
I'm eating them right now with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and lemon zest, baked.
I too think it’s good.
This article is at least 20 years out of date. There is co0nclusive proof that Europeans settled in America between 13,000 and 11,000 years ago, bringing with them the Clovis Point. The same technology is found in Spain and France from the same period.
Thanks Blam.The one convincing piece of evidence for pre-Hispanic contact has been the humble sweet potato, which is of tropical American origin but widely cultivated across the Pacific islands. Until a few years ago it was assumed that this was the result of Spanish transmission, dating to the early colonial period, but archaeological discoveries in the Cook Islands show this to be wrong: excavations at Mangaia yielded carbonised remains of sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) dating to AD1000, five centuries before Europeans entered the Pacific Ocean. The question then arose as to whether the diffusion of this useful crop was the result of Amerindians sailing west to Polynesia, as the late Thor Heyerdahl always claimed,end. ;')
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