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10 Fascinating Things That You Might Not Know About Potatoes

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There is much more than meets the eye to this native Andean Tuber. Check out these insights into the potato and its intimate relationship with indigenous people of the Americas

Potatoes and humans have an 8,000-year history together

Photo: Scott Montgomery

People domesticated the first potatoes in the regions of southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia from a wild species in the Solanum brevicaule complex. Since this time, people of the Americas have used their creativity to cross-breed between different varieties of this species in order to cultivate no less than 4,000 different varieties. But pressures of the modern world have taken their toll, and there are presently only several thousand varieties under cultivation. 

The potato keeps Peru’s economy afloat

The potato is Peru’s most important crop, representing 25% of the agricultural GDP. There are more than 600,000 subsistence farms where families cultivate this plant.

The potato has changed the world many times

According to conservative estimates, the introduction of the potato was responsible for a quarter of the growth in Old World population and urbanization between 1700 and 1900. According to William H. McNeill, “By feeding rapidly growing populations, [it]permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world between 1750 and 1950.”

Have you tried a fifty-year-old potato?

(Photo: Flickr)

In the Andes, two of the most prized potato varieties, known as Chuño and Moraya, were engineered by pre-Inca ancestors to still be edible after being stored for fifty years or more. Climatory conditions along the coasts and the Andes of Peru have always been unpredictable because of the phenomenon of El Nino and La Nina, which bring extreme conditions of rain and drought. By developing these two types of freeze-dried potato that they could preserve for an entire lifetime, ancestors of the Americas found a way to avoid famine.

People of the Andes continue to celebrate these two varieties of potato, and they continue to be several of the most sought-after varieties. If you get the chance to try a Chuno or a Moraya, don’t miss out.

In the Andes, people use potatoes for divination

One of the most sacred Andean potatoes, known as Katchumaktchu, is traditionally used for marriages. When a woman wants to get married to a man, the man’s father will provide a potato for her to peel with a knife. Once peeled, it’s believed that the potato has to preserve its original shape. If not, the community declares the woman not to be ready for marriage. The potato is an essential part of any important ceremony. There are other potatoes that are said to embody the spirits of sacred animals and places.

In Peru, the price for the potato is falling, and people are abandoning their fields

With the rise of the modern world, and with the expansion of global trade, people of Peru now give less importance to their native tubers. For this reason, the world is continually losing more native varieties. Many people of Peru no longer choose to eat native varieties of Potato, instead choosing the types of potatoes cultivated by large industrial operations that are cheaper. For this reason, farmers of native potato varieties are abandoning their livelihoods in droves, because the market price has plummeted in recent years.

Get your hands on a purple potato

(Photo: Scott Montgomery)

If you haven’t yet gotten the word – there are varieties of Purple potatoes that you can find all over Peru. In fact, you can find potatoes with colors that touch upon all parts of the rainbow. When you get the chance, be sure to get your hands on these varieties: thanks to the flavonoids that they contain they’re loaded with nutrients. There are even some studies that show that these types of potatoes have anti-cancer properties.

Learn about traditional potato farming at The Potato Park

Photo: Scott Montgomery

In the heights above the Sacred Valley, there’s an area of autonomous indigenous land known as The Potato Park. It’s said to be the birthplace of potato domestication. You can visit communities within the park in order to learn about traditional farming techniques, to try a homecooked meal, and sample local varieties. You can also learn about the customs and ceremonies related to cultivating the potato.

Inca roads and potato diversity

Photo: Scott Montgomery

The Inca road once fostered the distribution of seeds over long distances. It was by means of this complex road system that otherwise isolated communities traded together. Through trade, ancient Andean people were able to develop more diverse potato varieties. This was essential in order to protect crops from disease. It ensured that when diseases came to infect a certain variety, there would still be others with resistance. If people of the New World embraced these techniques, it is likely that they could have avoided devastating events such as the great potato famine.  –

Would you like some clay with your potato?

There are communities along the shores of Lake Titicaca where people eat clay with their potatoes. As strange as this might sound, there are good reasons why people do this. Locals attest that the clays they find around the lake are loaded with nutrients. And if we look deeper into the history of potato cultivation, we see that the original varieties of potato had a toxin. In order to get rid of the toxin, its said that native people would bathe their potatoes in clay so that the toxin would stick it. Though people eventually began to cultivate varieties of potato that didn’t have this toxin, it seems that some indigenous communities continue to embrace the tradition of eating potatoes with clay

 

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Scott Montgomery is a multi-medium storyteller and holistic creative, a travel guide and transformational coach, whose core mission is to help others to live authentically with purpose and intention in order to make an impact in the world. After earning his masters degree in creative writing at Arizona State University in 2013, he made the move to Peru in order to write about indigenous communities of the jungles and the Andes, and to explore what this might have to do with his own life path. These years of traveling and living across the country have helped him to embrace a more purposeful lifestyle that's guided by the values of collaboration, creativity, and transformation. To find out more about what Scott's up to and how you can get involved, visit his personal website www.voyagewithscott.com