This post about the potato is the beginning of Inka Food which will feature many of the staple foods the Inkas, and Andean communities lived and relied upon: how they obtained or grew it, how they prepared it, and early writings from the Europeans concerning it. And let’s see how it is used today in the Andes.
First up, the potato. In the coming weeks look forward to corn (aka maize, aka sara), tomatoes, jerky (cherque), quinoa, squash and fruits. Maybe even cassava, and ají and other foods that are still commonly used in the South American highlands but have not been exported to the same level as the other foods…yet.
The Andean people were heavily reliant upon potatoes, which are able to support the human body for months as a sole food. The Inkas were able to maintain a huge potato harvest each year with minimal failure due to the natural diversity of their landscape, and the different varieties of potato varieties that they grew. Andean people freeze-dried potatoes to form chuño. This practice was done specifically around Lake Titicaca and seemed that the Inkas utilized it on a large scale. The freeze drying method kills pathogens and provides that the food source can be stored for long periods. Potatoes were unceremoniously received by Europeans, but they were fascinated by them. Pizarro and his men ate them while stranded at Tumbez.
Intro to the potato
The potato hardly needs an introduction other than to say there are over 4000-7000 varieties of potatoes (depending on the definition and time), 400 of them are actively grown in the Andes. Human’s can survive off of a potato and butter diet for months and remain healthy. NASA plans on cultivating potatoes on Mars. And vegans take note, there are proteins found in potatoes that cannot be produced by the body and are only otherwise found in meat.
1 million dead in Ireland: Inkas Revenge
In the middle 19th century, long after potatoes were exported from the New World to the Old World, one million people lay dead in Ireland due to widespread potato crop failure. Several million more remain displaced, hungry and poor across Europe because of the crises. It seemed that the old world could not replicate the success of potatoes as Native Americans, particularly those in the Andes, achieved.
Scientists guess that the pathogen originally took hold in what is now southern Mexico. In the 19th century the world was getting smaller in all that the pathogen had to do was cross Mexico to the port of Veracruz, be transported to Spain, and mingle with a couple other potatoes-potatoes who’s destination was germination. That statistically-small chance of such a route is what led to the death of over a million people, and the permanent restructure of Irish and European history. And although not the subject of this post, many, many other crop failures are due to the same transport chain.
Andean communities were heavily reliant upon the potato and the food products derived from it. Yet there is no anthropological evidence, stories, or proof they suffered from a crop failure like that in Europe, in the decades preceding the Spanish arrival. In fact, they were such experts with potatoes that it was the staple food that provided the sustenance for them to double the size of their empire. And then double it again.
There is speculation that the Moche Empire’s downfall was due to a loss of access to potatoes. It seems that this was due to the potato capital of the Andes, Tiwanaku, ceasing to supply them with the potato lifeline, and instead used it to build their own empire. The Moche, an empire in the desert, could not grow their own potatoes and as a result, collapsed.
Nowadays, economies and large portions of the world still rely on the cultivation of potatoes and with modern technology they are able to fight against crop failures through fertilizer, chemicals, pesticides, and insecticides. With the exception of fertilizer, the ho-hum of potato cultivation continues in the Andes without the assistance of modernity’s advances and they experience the same success of their crop year after year. What do they know that we haven’t been able to learn for 500 years?
Do they have an elixir, or are the Andean potato farmers just lucky, and will such luck will eventually run out? There is a threat in the near future that very well could make this tradition which is thousands of years old, come to a crashing halt.
Potato Cultivation in the Andes.
The Andean people had over 7000 varieties of potatoes to choose from when planting, and the Inka Empire ran along the spine of one of the longest and highest mountain ranges which provided them elevation from sea level to well over 6000 meters (20,000 feet). In length, it spanned 10,000kms from the Equator to places with 4 distinct seasons. On both sides of the mountains from the world’s driest desert sand to the edges of the Amazon rainforest. The andean population has a lot to choose from when planting their potatoes. This provided many, many barriers for pathogens including, varieties among the potato strain, elevation differentiation (different temperatures, rainfall, barometric pressures, etc), and length of day.
The domestication of potatoes in the Andes likely occurred 6000BC. It was an unlikely event in that they cultivated a small, toxic root, into a large non-toxic crop with no scientific method. And then it still took a lot of time for the collective knowledge of how to grow a potato successfully to be learned. When the Inkas annexed communities they analyzed what methods were employed in that area, and what other areas such practices would work; they exported and imported food production ideas and very rarely came up with their own. This included their knowledge of how to grow potatoes exceptionally well.
Not only did their natural environment protect them against wide-spread crop failure, but Inkas ability to spread what worked in one area and teach it to another protected them as well.
Everyone in Tahuantinsuyu had a job, laziness was against the law, and to protect the fields against predators they tasked the elderly and the young to watch over the fields, to protect them from animals, insects, and weeds.
They practices crop rotation, they would fertilize the land using guinea pig droppings, and likely other domesticated animal’s droppings.
Between a wide variety of sub-species of potatoes, varying altitudes, an energetic crop protection system (the children), crop rotation and fertilization the Inkas had a very successful potato cultivation system.
But the success in one area presents with a hardship in another. Their success led them to have a lot, lot, lot of potatoes in a big, big, big empire with people of small stature, and llamas that could not carry more than 40kgs (90lbs). Unlike quinoa, cassava and other grains, potatoes rot quickly. But before we look at storage and transport, we will review the overall land use processes in Tahuantinsuyu.
Farming in the Andes and as part of Tahuantinsuyu
The Inkas did not start out as expert potato farmers. They began with a small, borderless area in the Cusco valley (Elev: 3500m) that they had to win from the natives there before them. Little is known for the first few hundred years of their existence, but they were likely just another tribe in the valley. Only after their expansion did they capitalize on potato cultivation. They became expert potato farmers either through the annals of history passed down orally, or through personal experience learned which potatoes grew best, and where—their ability to learn and adapt from those they conquered was a critical factor in their growth.
As Tahuantunsuyu ever expanded they became expert land surveyors and among the first Inkan officials to enter an annexed land were nobles called quipucamayoc, and land surveyors. The quipucamayoc would count the people using their cord and tassels called quipu. They would calculate the needs of the population while the land surveyors would create a clay model of the land that reflected the geography of the land complete with rivers, lakes, elevation changes, forests, soil types and so forth. The successes the annexed people had over their natural environment was analyzed, including their farming methods. If their practices proved superior they would create a new standard for the empire, which they would spread to other parts. But if they didn’t have success in their present methods, they would be taught the existing Inkan standard. This standard included a relatively complex and centralized land stewardship program.
The land would be divided into three sections: the first for the community and what was deemed necessary for their survival. The second parcel was for the tribute to the Inkas, and the third was given to the Sun Cult-The official religion of the empire. The Inkas dictated what was to be grown where and in order to maximize yields and minimize crop failure, at least on the 2 parcels destined for tribute.
The Inkas rarely would allow an entire flat meadow to be sown with a single crop where one pathogen could infect the entirety of a crop, spreading from one identical plant to another in a hospitable environment. They utilized the cliff sides, which as long as the farmer didn’t fall off of the cliff, offered a lot of benefits we will review in a future post.
Tahuantinsuyu was the size of Mexico and one of the reasons that it was so large was because the government in Cusco was able to promise and fulfill food commitments. If the annexed communities submitted to the heavy burden the Inkas imposed on them, they were promised that they would always have food, even when their own crops failed due to disease, drought, flood, or any other number of bad things that can happen. One of the food stores they drew upon was chuño.
Chuño is a freeze-dried potato that is white and chalky in appearance. It is easily re-hydrated. The Andean peoples ate it plain, mixed it with salt or peppers, or added it to soups where it served as a thickening ingredient as well.
The Inkas maintained a system of colqas (qullqas)- storehouses-on the Qhapaq Ñan as well as near each population center. Within these colqas were food, supplies, weapons, and textiles. One of the most common foods in there was chuño.
Once the potato was harvested by the community there were a couple paths in which it could grow depending on whose land it grew.
If the potato was grown on the plot of land for the communities own subsidence, they could leave the potato in the ground until it was ready to eat or cultivate it however they desired. Hence, if you enjoyed baked potatoes, you should best hope you lived in a community chosen for growing them because otherwise, you would receive chuño.
If the potato was grown on the plot of land that was deemed for tribute to the government or to Inti-the sun god-the potato would be processed into chuño.
Freeze drying, a common method today, but was only practiced in a few areas in the world at the time. To freeze-dry a potato the following method was followed:
Production chuño is done by exposing the potatoes to three for four nights of freezing temperatures, while keeping the covered during the day to avoid the darkening caused by direct sunlight. Then soaking them in pits or a stream-bed with cold running water for up to thirty days. After that, they are again put out to freeze at night and the next day walked on to remove the peel and squeeze out most of their water content. When that is finished, the tubers are spread out in direct sunlight for ten to fifteen days by which tie they are almost completely dehydrated. Rubbing them together removes any remaining skin and leaves it with is chalky white characteristics. (Reader 38)
The Inkas had an advantage in that they could transport the item to be freeze-dried to sub-0 temperatures in the heights of the Andes, and then back down to let it thaw. They could repeat this several times given that their villages were already in some of the highest mountains.
The chuñu was transported to colqas, its measurement was accounted for by the quipucamayocs, and used when needed.
(The colqas were strategically placed and built to provide cool, dry air year round. They were often built on the dark side of cliffs to prevent flooding and sunshine. They were solid stone without windows, so no light entered. Seeing a colqas near your settlement was a sense of security, as well as a reminder that you were subjected by the Inkas)
The weight and space savings of chuñu was not the true benefit of chuño which was chuño does not carry pathogens. The Inkas likely had no knowledge of pathogens but were likely smart enough to see if you brought infected potatoes, or any crop, to a new place, the pestilence would spread there. Such a method of transmission was how the Irish potato famine started, and the wider European potato crop failure.
Potato yielding agricultural cultures such as the Andean communities likely learned early on that transporting a whole potato from one area to another facilitated crop failure. Perhaps it was only a few communities that learned it, and when the Inkas saw the results of it they adopted the practice for the empire on a whole. The real reason chuño was developed was likely to keep it from rotting, and as a bi-benefit, pathogens had a more difficult time spreading. And who isn’t a fan of losing water weight when you have to carry potatoes over a 4000m mountain?
Reception among the Europeans.
When the Europeans arrived in South America, one of the crops that amazed them the most was the potato, but they would only eat it out of necessity, such as when Pizarro and his men were waiting their opportune moment for invasion at Tumbez. Years later Pedro Cieza de Leon, the first European to name the potato in mid 16th century said of it:
One is called potato and is kind of earthnut, which, after it has been boiled, is as tender as a cooked chestnut, but has no more skin than a truffle, and it grows under the earth in the same way. This root produces a plant exactly like a poppy.
Had he only known how much the potato would sweep the world he would likely have spared more than one paragraph.
The first known European to describe it without a name is Juan de Castellanos, who came a few years before Cieza de Leon. He said:
Spherical roots which are sown and produce a stem with its branches and leaves, and some flowers, although few, of a soft purple color; and to the root of this same plant, which is about three palms high, they are attached under the earth, and are the size of an egg more or less, some round and some elongated; they are white and purple and yellow, floury roots of good flavor a delicacy to the Indians and a dainty dish even for the Spaniards (Reader 68)
Note that Columbus did not describe the potato, but rather the sweet potato which is a very different plant, and is not a tuber. Among their many differences, the sweet potato grows in the Caribbean, not in the Andes.
Potatoes in the Andes today:
Cultivation of potatoes remains mostly unchanged in the Andes, even 500 years after Europeans arrived. Some farmers still use the simple hand plow that their ancestors used. There are some communities that eat primarily potatoes for their entire life. And who is to say they are wrong? These highlanders have among the healthiest people and have some of the longest lifespans in the world.
There are many lessons that the Europeans could have learned from the Natives, but perhaps if they would have taken these lessons from the Inkas on how to use potatoes, they could have saved millions of lives over the centuries of their own countrymen. Ignorance doesn’t only hurt those you are patronizing and subjecting, but those that rely on you as well.
The potato is one of nature’s finest foods, but to cultivate it successfully required a lot of pain and suffering by its early farmers, especially in Europe. When the potato finally reaches Mars, remember it was the near supernatural fore-vision that the forgotten inhabitants at Lake Titicaca had in selectively breeding such a crop 8000 year ago. Remember the 7500 years of the Andean population learning how to cultivate it and the innumerable deaths the learning curve cost, all deaths, and sacrifices since forgotten. Remember the Irish and the other Europeans who lost so much, including over a million lives, in learning how to cultivate the old crop in the new world. And next time you find yourself in a new land, remember, study the growing habits of those that know how to grow it. It will save you a lot of trouble.
Watch the following videos to see how Andean farmers continue with their ancestor’s tuber cultivating methods.
Video of modern potato use in England
Planning your Peru trip and resources
If you would like to incorporate some of the history of potatoes into your trip to Peru and Bolivia be sure to visit the raised agricultural terraces of the Tiwanaku people near Lake Titicaca.
The UN also set up a Potato park where you can learn a great deal more. Look at it here
Ayala, F. G. (2009). The first new chronicle and good government: On the history of the world and the Incas up to 1615 (R. Hamilton, Trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press. Kindle Edition
Leon, de la P. (1864). First Part of his Chronicle of Peru. (Markham, C. Trans). Hakluyt Society. London. Google Books Edition.
Reader, J. (2009). Potato: A history of the propitious esculent. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Vega, I. De la (1975). Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru (Vol. 1 and 2) (A. Prieto, Trans.). University of Texas Press. Austin. Kindle Edition