The secret history of the potato

From The Secret History of the Potato.

For a simple, brown tuber, potatoes have a long and storied history. Ancient Incans worshipped them; the Irish blamed them for a famine. Today, they are the fourth largest food crop in the world. Now, scientists have shed new light on just where these tubers came from. A genetic study shows that modern potatoes were cultivated from two wild ancestors, contradicting the straightforward story that has long been told.

Potatoes haven’t always been smooth and tasty. Their ancestors, which still grow in South America, resemble gnarly fingers, and their bitterness makes them unappetizing, whether baked, mashed, or fried. Two subspecies of these wild spuds, one found in Chile, the other in the Andean highlands of Peru, look very similar but differ genetically. Most scientists have long assumed that European potatoes, the foundation for all modern cultivated potatoes, come from the Chilean variety, because Chilean lowlands resemble Europe’s environment most closely. But between the Americas and Europe, in potato history, lie the Canary Islands, off northwest Africa. Shipping records from 1567 make these islands the first known home to potatoes outside of Central and South America. And some researchers say the potatoes there resemble the Andean variety but have never had genetic proof. [continue]