All by Itself, the Humble Sweet Potato Colonized the World

Carl Zimmer in The New York Times:

Merlin_136706727_2ce09f86-757c-4b1a-9282-57e2695eda29-superJumboOf all the plants that humanity has turned into crops, none is more puzzling than the sweet potato. Indigenous people of Central and South America grew it on farms for generations, and Europeans discovered it when Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean. In the 18th century, however, Captain Cook stumbled across sweet potatoes again — over 4,000 miles away, on remote Polynesian islands. European explorers later found them elsewhere in the Pacific, from Hawaii to New Guinea. The distribution of the plant baffled scientists. How could sweet potatoes arise from a wild ancestor and then wind up scattered across such a wide range? Was it possible that unknown explorers carried it from South America to countless Pacific islands? An extensive analysis of sweet potato DNA, published on Thursday in Current Biology, comes to a controversial conclusion: Humans had nothing to do with it. The bulky sweet potato spread across the globe long before humans could have played a part — it’s a natural traveler.

Some agricultural experts are skeptical. “This paper does not settle the matter,” said Logan J. Kistler, the curator of archaeogenomics and archaeobotany at the Smithsonian Institution. Alternative explanations remain on the table, because the new study didn’t provide enough evidence for exactly where sweet potatoes were first domesticated and when they arrived in the Pacific. “We still don’t have a smoking gun,” Dr. Kistler said. The sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, is one of the most valuable crops in the world, providing more nutrients per farmed acre than any other staple. It has sustained human communities for centuries. (In North America, it often is referred to as a yam; in fact, yams are a different species originating in Africa and Asia.)

More here.

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