It’s a lot earlier than previously thought.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated July 11, 2017
north american potato use
Credit: Jacqui Hurst / Getty Images

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.

“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.”

Adding intrigue to these findings is that this S. jamesii species of wild potato, which is native to North America, is different than the South American S. tuberosum species of potato from which all modern potatoes were domesticated about 7,000 years ago. This paper’s finding that Native Americans ate these wild potatoes leads the authors to wonder if S. jamesii potatoes “could have undergone transport, cultivation, and eventual domestication” as well – meaning the domestication of potatoes could be older than previously thought. It’s even possible that these so-called “wild” potatoes could be the first example of a plant domesticated in the western United States.

These findings could have modern benefits as well. Scientists also believe that understanding the DNA of wild potatoes could possibly be used to benefit the diversity of potato crops in the future. Louderback suggests, “This potato could be just as important as those we eat today not only in terms of a food plant from the past, but as a potential food source for the future.'