The history of potatoes in the United States is believed to be nearly as old as the establishment of the colonies themselves. Most sources suggest that the potato was probably first introduced to North America via Bermuda in 1621. However, just as plenty of indigenous people were already present in this area long before European settlers arrived, new research suggests that these ancient residents were chowing down on native wild potatoes as well – as long as 10,900 years ago.
A recently published paper from researchers at the Natural History Museum of Utah and Red Butte Garden at the University of Utah has uncovered what’s being called “evidence for the earliest potato use in North America” in what is now southern Utah. Studying the inclusion of potatoes in ancient diets can be tricky since the easily biodegradable tubers don’t leave behind as much evidence, unlike animal bones or corn cobs. However, by applying more advanced scientific techniques to analyze the microscopic starch granules found in ancient food processing tools – specifically large sandstone slabs known as “metates” and handheld grinding stones known as “manos” – researchers were able to determine that, indeed, these native peoples included a species of wild potato known as Solanum jamesii as part of their diets sometime between 10,900 and 10,100 years ago.
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“Grinding plant tissues with manos and metates releases granules that get lodged in the tiny cracks of stone, preserving them for thousands of years,” senior author Lisbeth Louderback said. “Archaeologists can retrieve them using chemicals, modern microscopy and advanced imaging techniques.”