Of the world's staple crops, potatoes stand as a distinct outlier. Most other major staples—corn, rice, and wheat, for example—are cereals or edible grasses. But the potato is a tuber. Another thing that sets it apart? It's archaeological record. We're fairly sure it's native to the Andes mountains in South America, but the precise pattern of domestication and spread throughout the world has, for the most part, remained a mystery. (Potatoes, unlike, say, corn, don't leave behind much for archaeologists to find.)
But a new analysis from researchers in Utah have found what might be another chapter in the weird history of the potato.
Here’s the gist: the researchers figured out a way to analyze, for the first time, the specific traces of starch left on stone grinding tools in Escalante, Utah. The starch molecules lined up with only one possible crop: the wild potato, Solanum jamesii.
The wild potato is a mostly forgotten plant—today’s domesticated versions all hail from a completely different species. This is mainly because the wild potato has a mess of toxic nonsense in it that not even regular boiling can eradicate; anyone wishing to eat a wild potato has to use something like the clay common in parts of South America to counteract it.
Today the wild potato is rare and not well understood, as testified by its basically blank entry in the Encyclopedia of Life. We don’t know how it reproduces, how it’s pollinated, or where it originated. But its presence on those 10,900-year-old stone tools indicates that it’s the earliest known presence of the potato in North America.