When Christopher Columbus reached the Americas, he hoped the land would be rich with gold, silver and precious spices, but perhaps the New World’s greatest treasure was its bounty of native food crops cultivated for millennia by Indigenous Americans.
As much as three-fifths of the world’s agricultural crops originated in the Americas. Without the Columbian Exchange, there would be no tomatoes for Italian food, no hot chile peppers for Indian cuisine, and no dietary staples like potatoes, squash, beans or corn. Corn alone is the world’s most-cultivated crop with an estimated 500 million acres harvested annually.
“A lot of the domestication and breeding that resulted in today’s major food crops, the important initial work was done by Indigenous people,” says Jules Janick, an emeritus professor of horticulture at Purdue University. “That was their contribution to world agriculture.”
While Indigenous diets and foodways were deeply impacted by European settlement, Indigenous American foods also changed the world. Below are seven food crops that originated in the Americas.
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When the Spanish arrived in the Antilles, they described a millet-like grain popular among the island natives, “little more than a palm in length, ending in a point… The grains are about the form and size of peas… When ground they are whiter than snow. This kind of grain is called maiz.”
The crop we know as corn was domesticated from wild teosinte grass as far back as 8,000 years ago in Mesoamerica. The maize grown in the Americas (Zea mays) wasn’t eaten fresh like sweet corn, but was allowed to dry on the stalk and then ground into flour for tortillas, corn breads and corn mush.
From its origins in central Mexico, knowledge of maize production spread to all corners of North and South America. Maize cultivation was an anchor for nomadic tribes and supported the growth of massive Mesoamerican city-states and empires like the Olmecs, Maya, Aztec and Inca. The need to continuously improve the corn harvest led to agricultural innovations like terraced mountainside fields in Peru and floating island gardens called chinampas in the shallow lake of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital.
The earliest Native Americans to cultivate corn were the Pueblo people of the American southwest, whose culture was transformed by the arrival of corn in 1,200 B.C. By 1,000 A.D., corn was a staple crop that sustained tribes like the Creek, Cherokee and Iroquois.
Maize seeds traveled back to Europe in 1494 and maize cultivation spread with the expansion of the Spanish empire, making it all the way to the Philippines and China by the 1550s.
The ideal companion crop for maize was the nitrogen-fixing legume known as the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) or dry bean. Beans provided nitrogen-rich soil for maize and the corn stalks provided natural supports for the bean plant’s climbing vines.
But more importantly, says Janick, a diet based on beans and maize is rich in essential proteins that neither food can provide on its own.
“Maize alone is not a perfect food,” says Janick. “It’s missing some amino acids, particularly lysine, which is found in beans. Beans are deficient in other amino acids, cysteine and methionine, which are found in maize. So when you eat beans on a corn tortilla, which was the basis of Aztec and Maya diets, you have a complete protein food that fuels empires.”
Another game-changing legume of the New World was the peanut, which originated in Brazil and made its way to Africa through the Portuguese slave trade.
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Pumpkins, gourds and other hard-skinned winter squashes (Cucurbita pepo, C. maxima and C. moschata) were part of the famous “three sisters” planting strategy practiced by Native Americans alongside beans and maize. Winter squash takes a long time to mature and the plant’s broad-leafed vines extend in all directions, providing a helpful ground cover that traps moisture and suppresses weeds for the corn and beans.
Gourds and squash were prized by Indigenous Americans for their nutrient-rich flesh, their protein-packed seeds and their sturdy shells, which were dried and used as containers and water jugs.
Eight thousand years ago, around the same time that maize was domesticated in Mexico, the humble potato (Solanum tuberosum) was first cultivated high in the Andes mountains of Peru. The starchy tuber doesn’t look like a superfood, but potatoes contain every essential vitamin except A and D and are a significant source of protein.
Potatoes, along with maize and beans, were a staple crop of the Inca, who grew their vegetables on terraced plots cut into the steep Andean hillsides that reduced erosion and conserved water.
Europeans didn’t know what to make of the potato at first, but once farmers adapted the potato to European climates, it formed the foundation of the peasant diet. Today, potatoes are the fourth-largest production crop in the world and the first among non-grains.
Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) originated in Central America about 5,000 years ago and not only spread throughout the Americas, but even made it to Polynesia carried by birds or storm-blown Indigenous sailors. Cassava (Manihot utilissima) was native to Brazil, and along with sweet potato made a huge nutritional impact when introduced to Africa.
The flavor-packed 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 well as the paper-skinned husk tomatoes known in Spanish as tomatillos (Physalis peruviana).
In Nahuatl, the Aztec language, tomatoes are called tomatl, which the Spanish translated as tomate. Friar Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish colonial historian, described the variety of tomatoes in Aztec markets: “Large tomatoes, small tomatoes, leaf tomatoes, thin tomatoes, sweet tomatoes, ... those which are yellow, very yellow, quite yellow, red, very red, ... bright red, reddish, rosy dawn colored.”
Europeans were slow to adopt the tomato, which is related to the poisonous mandrake, a fellow nightshade. It took centuries, for example, for the tomato to become a staple of Italian cuisine. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that Italians began eating pasta with tomato sauce.
6. Chile Peppers
The oldest name for a chile pepper (Capsicum annuum) has been traced to Proto-Otomanguean, a language spoken 6,500 years ago in central-eastern Mexico, believed to be the site of the first domestication of wild peppers. But it was the Aztecs who gave us our name for the spicy fruit, calling it chīlli in Nahuatl. Columbus called them peppers because the spice reminded him of black pepper.
Some European countries were early adopters of New World chile peppers: Italy, Spain and particularly Hungary, where red chiles were smoked, dried and ground into paprika. But the real culinary fusion took place when Portuguese traders brought hot peppers to India, Asia and Africa. Sweet peppers came centuries later, when Hungarian breeders selected increasingly less spicy varieties.
The Aztec emperor Montezuma was rumored to drink 50 glasses of hot chocolate (cacahoatl) a day for its invigorating properties, but Spaniards found the frothy beverage almost undrinkable. Montezuma’s recipe would have been ground raw cacao nibs flavored with spicy chile peppers and flowers, a strong and bitter concoction that hardly resembles today’s sweet version.
Cacao (Theobroma cacao L.) trees were cultivated and venerated by the Maya and Aztec, but genetic evidence shows that the first cacao plants were domesticated in South America in the upper Amazon regions of Ecuador as far back as 5,300 years ago.
When Spanish conquistadors and friars brought cacao back to Europe in the 1500s, it was mixed with sugar and cinnamon to become a health beverage of the elite. The first chocolate bars weren’t made until the mid-19th century. Originally a Central American crop, the major cacao-producing countries are now all in Africa.