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First domesticated about 8,000 years ago in the Andes, potatoes rank fourth among twenty-first-century food crops—after rice, wheat, and maize. The potato has sustained whole populations in times of war, provided the “fuel” to energize the workforce behind the Industrial Revolution, and played a small yet significant part in the transformation of Chinese society and economy since the 1980s.
The potato (Solanum tuberosum) first figured in human history as the principal food of the people living high in the Andes of South America. Thousands of wild varieties of potatoes grow today throughout the Andes from Columbia in the north to Chile and Argentina in the south, but the place they were first domesticated about 8,000 years ago was almost certainly around the shores of Lake Titicaca located between Peru and Bolivia, some 12,500 feet (3,812 meters) above sea level.
At that elevation temperatures remain cool even under a tropical sun and at night freezing temperatures are common throughout the year. But narrow fields bordered by ditches filled with sun-warmed water from Lake Titicaca raised air temperatures sufficiently to keep potato plants from freezing at night. Resulting harvests could be stored for years by freezing them at night before soaking them in water and then drying them in the sun to make what the Spaniards later called chuno.
From the Andes to Europe—and Beyond
Chuno was what fed the laborers who built the cities and roads of the Inca Empire and its predecessors, and when a handful of Spaniards conquered Peru in 1532, fresh potatoes and chuno continued to support the thousands of indigenous laborers they conscripted to work on their estates and in silver and mercury mines. The silver mine at Potosi (modern Bolivia) produced so much silver between 1545, when it was opened, and 1650, when the richest lode was exhausted, that a flood of silver inflated prices throughout Europe and Asia. Everywhere people were sure that wicked greed was responsible for the rapidly rising prices that disrupted market relationships and made wages lag behind the cost of food. Resulting suffering embittered Protestant–Catholic conflict in Europe, Sunni–Shi’a struggles among Muslims, and provoked Buddhist rebellions in China. Without potatoes to feed Peruvian miners, such an unprecedented quantity of silver could not have raised prices so rapidly. This was the first time that potatoes played a world-transforming role in human affairs.
But it was not the last, for as potatoes spread to other parts of the Earth they enlarged local food supplies and provoked population growth that disrupted older social relationships as much or more than price inflation had done. Sometimes, as in Ireland, potato-eating populations became desperately poor and vulnerable to crop failures; growing populations elsewhere, supported only in part by potatoes, provided manpower for factories and mines and helped to launch what historians call the Industrial Revolution, first in Europe, then around the world.
Exactly when and how potatoes first got to Europe is unrecorded. But since Spanish ships along the Pacific coast could not at first provision themselves with familiar European foods, locally available potatoes and other substitutes had to be used to feed sailors on their return voyages to Spain. Soon after the conquest, it is certain that some of them found leftover potatoes worth carrying ashore as curiosities and for planting, both in the Azores and in Spain. The first written records from the Canary Islands date from 1567, and records kept by a hospital for the poor in Seville, Spain, show the purchase of a few pounds of potatoes in that year and of larger quantities in later years. We cannot be sure, however, whether these entries referred to Solanum tuberosum or to sweet potatoes. Complete certainty begins only after two potatoes reached a botanist named Carolus Clusius in 1588; when he finally published his Rariorum plantarum historia (Antwerp, 1601) he reported that the potatoes he described in precise detail were already common in Germany and Italy. Earlier, in 1597, an English botanist named John Gerard published a woodcut of the new plant, saying erroneously that it had come from Virginia. Since the plants described by Clusius and Gerard had differently colored flowers they must have been separately introduced into Europe by anonymous sailors, who knows how much earlier.
Most of Spain was too dry for potatoes to grow without irrigation, but in the northwest Basque country rainfall sufficed to assure a good crop. By 1600 or before Basque fishermen had come to depend on the new food; these fisherman introduced potatoes to western Ireland, where they were accustomed to stop for rest and refreshment on their way to and from the Grand Banks off Newfoundland in North America.
Potatoes took hold in Ireland only half a century later when Oliver Cromwell’s armies conquered and banished Irish Catholics to the westernmost province of Connaught (1662), while parceling out the rest of the country to Protestant English landowners. In crowded Connaught the fact that an acre of potatoes could feed a family for a year, if supplemented by milk from a single cow, made survival possible for the banished Irish. But since English laborers refused to accept a potato diet, throughout the next century or so the English landlords in the rest of Ireland found it cheaper to employ Catholic Irishmen than to provide the bread Englishmen demanded. Hence the rural population became Catholic once again, living almost wholly on potatoes, and deeply alienated from their Protestant landlords and employers.
Different circumstances governed the spread of potatoes on the European continent. Initial prejudice against a food so different from grain was widespread; but wherever marching soldiers confiscated grain from peasants, as was customary, prejudice against potatoes quickly faded away, since simply by leaving the tubers in the ground and digging only enough for day-to-day consumption, a family could survive even after all their grain had been seized and carried away.
Potatoes in Wartime
During the Eighty Years’ War in Europe (1568–1648), Holland and Belgium became the major battleground between 1576 and 1648. There Spanish soldiers fought against the Protestant Dutch; after the Spanish Armada met defeat in 1588, the only way Spanish armies could reach that theater of war was by sailing to northern Italy and then marching over the Alps and down the Rhine River valley. This so-called Spanish Road was where European peasants first began to raise potatoes in their private gardens as a life-saving insurance against recurrent grain seizures by Spanish soldiers on their way to war.
Seed potatoes (potato tubers grown for their buds, which are used to start new plants), and knowledge how to plant and cultivate them, presumably spread from village to village and from person to person leaving no written record. Subsequent wars waged by the French king Louis XIV (1643–1715) in the Rhinelands probably spread potatoes still more widely for the same reason and in the same unrecorded fashion.
But as long as potatoes were confined to gardens traditional methods of open field cultivation kept them marginal to European agriculture as a whole, however important they became for those who used them to escape starvation. Only after 1740 did potatoes move into European open fields, and we happen to know exactly how that occurred. During the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748) youthful Frederick (later the Great) of Prussia noticed that even prolonged campaigning in the Rhinelands, where Spanish soldiers once had trod, did not reduce local peasants to starvation, and he quickly discovered why. He decided that Prussian peasants needed the same cushion against military ravages; after becoming king of Prussia in 1740 he ordered local officials to find seed potatoes and show peasants how to grow them, no longer just in gardens but in fallow fields.
For centuries in northern Europe, half to one-third of all cultivated land had been left fallow and plowed in summer to kill weeds before their seeds had formed. This was the only way grain could outgrow weeds and yield a satisfactory harvest the following year. Potatoes also had to be hoed to keep back weeds. That meant they could provide an abundant supply of excellent food while weeds were kept under control at the same time, with absolutely no diminution of grain supplies, but at the cost of a lot of extra work. Extra food, however, made it easy to feed more than all the people needed to hoe potato fields, and as Frederick himself soon found out, the crop also assured their survival in wartime as never before.
During the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) French, Austrian, and Russian armies invaded Prussia year after year and seized grain as usual wherever they could find it. But by then, despite initial local reluctance and occasional resistance to Frederick’s orders, enough potatoes were growing in Prussian fields to feed everyone, thereby keeping the Prussian rural population and army safely in existence until a new ruler in Russia changed sides, the French withdrew, and Austria reluctantly decided to made peace with Frederick, who thus suddenly emerged victorious against seemingly overwhelming odds.
During the war the invading armies soon noticed how potatoes helped Prussians to survive. Other European governments quickly decided that they too needed potatoes as a resource against wartime famine. Accordingly, wherever moisture was sufficient for potatoes to flourish—that is, across the north European plain from the Loire River in France to the Urals, and beyond into Siberia—they soon began to take over fallow fields on a massive scale.
Since an acre of potatoes produced up to four times as many calories as an acre of grain, European food resources started to rise rapidly; population shot upward, as did manpower for the Industrial Revolution that raised European wealth and power so high after the invention of the steam-powered engine. The age of worldwide European ascendancy that lasted until 1914 and faded away only after 1950 thus depended in important ways on the potato. This was the second and even more important manifestation of the plant’s impact on world affairs.
Impact on Populations
Since the Seven Years’ war, potato acreage in Europe has expanded in time of war down to and including World War II. Elsewhere in the world, where cool and moist climates allowed them to flourish, potatoes have often played the same role of enlarging food supplies and provoking rapid population growth, though the special advantages Europeans gained by planting fallow fields to potatoes were seldom equaled. The poverty and vulnerability of Irish potato eaters before the famine of 1845–1847 has also been approached in places like the interior of Papua New Guinea, where agricultural practices are now believed to have developed independently of other cultures (and where domestication of yams, taro and bananas dates to about 7000–6500 BCE). Farming communities in Papua accepted potatoes eagerly, only to suffer disaster when potato blight invaded their fields in 2003.
New Zealand is another place where the arrival of potatoes changed the course of events. The Maori inhabitants of that country depended mostly on sweet potatoes when Europeans first discovered it, although the climate is too cool for sweet potatoes to do well, especially in the south. But Solanum tuberosum, introduced in the 1770s by European sailors, throve, and Maori farmers quickly accepted them. Nourished by potatoes even better than before, they were able to withstand exposure to all the new diseases Europeans subsequently brought with them far better than other newly discovered peoples, and are now a thriving part of society in contemporary New Zealand.
Potatoes remain of little importance in hot climates like those that prevail in Africa, India, and the Muslim lands of western Asia and southern China. In north China they remained a marginal supplement to millet and rice until after 1987, when the government gave up on collective farming and allowed peasant farmers to plant and sell whatever they wished. Potatoes then found a surprising niche in the new China after Mc- Donalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken started selling French fries in 1992 to eager city buyers. To get the uniform quality they required these American firms at first had to import their potatoes, but from the beginning they sought suitable potatoes in China. Two other American companies that specialized in supplying potatoes to American grocery stores set to work teaching Chinese farmers how to best cultivate the new potato crop.
The wind-blown loess soils of the Huang (Yellow) River valley and Inner Mongolia, when suitably irrigated, turned out to be ideal for raising potatoes. Chinese farmers were apt pupils, once provided with disease-resistant varieties for seed, suitable fertilizers and irrigation equipment. A crop research institute in Yunnan swiftly developed varieties specially attuned to Chinese conditions and made technical advice available to farmers far and wide, so their potatoes soon became as good or better than those produced elsewhere. The area of Chinese potato fields doubled between 1982 and 2002; yields rose by 80 percent, and China became the largest producer of potatoes in the world. They were able to supply McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken with all they needed, and to deliver fresh potatoes to other Chinese buyers while also exporting potatoes to Macao, Taiwan, and even to distant Europe, where their disease-free tubers were valued as seed potatoes and consumed in fancy restaurants whose owners were prepared to pay the extra cost of transportation to get the very best. Potatoes, in short, played a small yet significant part in the startling transformation of Chinese society and economy we have witnessed since the 1980s.
Overall, potatoes in the twenty-first century rank fourth worldwide among food crops—behind rice, wheat, and maize—no small accomplishment for a tuber once confined to the high Andes.
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- McNeill, W. H. (2008). Frederick the Great and the propagation of potatoes. In Byron Hollinshead and Theodore K. Rabb (Eds.), I wish I’d been there: Book two (pp. 188–201). New York: Doubleday.
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