The potato finds its origin in the Andes Mountains, many thousands of years ago. The potato was first discovered and subsequently brought to Europe by Spanish explorers. The potato was then distributed from southern Europe across the rest of Europe and is currently one of the most common foods in the world.
Incan Papa’s The use of the potato for human consumption presumably began 10,000 years ago in the region of Lake Titicaca (in present-day Peru and Bolivia). The locals selected the edible wild potato varieties and developed improved varieties through cross-fertilization. This eventually led to the modern-day potato (Solarium tuberosum) some 7,000 years ago. The distribution of the potato came about at the time that the first agricultural communities were established in the Lake Titicaca region, around 1400 BC. Corn did not flourish in the Andes, and so the population had to rely on the potato for food. And so the potato played a crucial role in the development of these cultures. The potato meant a steady source of food, enabling tribes to expand and the first wealthy people to establish themselves in South-America. The potato was often depicted in the Inca-culture of these communities, particularly on earthenware and in their rituals: indicating yet again just how important the potato was. The potato slowly found its way across South-America in the period up to around 1530 AD.
Modern potato cultivation The Incas developed sophisticated techniques for reproducing and cultivating potatoes, but also methods for processing and storage. To this day, the farmers in the Urubamba valley still make use of the centuries old agricultural tool ‘chaki taklla’ to work their fields when sowing potatoes. Terrace cultivation was also very common in the mountains, the remains of which are still visible thousands of years later, attracting many tourists every year. In order to be able to store the potatoes for a longer period, the Incas developed a technique quite similar to freeze-drying: the tubers were exposed to freezing temperatures during the night. The Incas then crushed the potatoes with their feet in order to drain off the moisture and remove the skins. The remaining product was then laid in the sun to dry. The end result, called the Chuiïo or Tunta, can be stored for a prolonged period and sold. A favourable side-effect of this technique was the fact that it counteracted the bitterness that is generally characteristic of potatoes that are cultivated at high altitudes.
The European ‘discovery’ of the potato The very first reference to the potato dates back to a Spanish expedition in the highlands of present-day Peru in 1537. This was followed by various descriptive stories from South-Columbia, North-Ecuador, South-Peru, Bolivia and Chile. These testimonies give clear evidence of the wide-spread cultivation of the potato and of the huge diversity of potato varieties already existing at that time. The techniques for cultivation and storage were also described. The potato was carried across the seas on a return voyage to Europe about midway through the 15th century. The first documented case of the consumption of the potato in Europe is in the name of the La Sangre hospital, currently known as the Hospital de las Cinco Llagas, in Seville, Spain. The potatoes were purchased in 1573 as a source of food for the patients.
Although there is nothing in writing concerning the import of the potato in Europe, there is evidence that the potato was introduced in Europe around 1570. There are roughly three routes along which the potato was distributed across the continent: – Out of curiosity and for the sake of science, the potato was distributed through a network of scholars and botanists. – The potato was soon cultivated by the Carmelite monasteries. – The third distribution route within Europe was the result of the migration of the Protestants: they fled their homes and country due to religious persecution and took the potato with them.
The great potato famine Towards the year 1800, the potato was being cultivated across all of Europe. However, a devastating disease struck around 1845, resulting in famine in various parts of Europe. The ‘great potato famine’ mainly caused problems in Ireland, as the majority of the population relied on cheap potatoes as their main source of food. Around 1 million people died of starvation. In addition, around 1 million Irish opted to emigrate, most of whom left for America. The total population decreased by 20 to 25%.
Potato consumption worldwide Nowadays, the potato is still an important food throughout Europe. Europeans presently account for the highest potato consumption per capita in the world. The potato is also popular on a global scale and is viewed more and more as the food crop of the future, particularly in third world countries. The potato does well in a variety of climates and soil types and requires relatively less water compared to other crops. This is also evident to developing countries, where the cultivation of the potato is meanwhile stimulated.