Sweet Potato (Ipomoea batatas) History and Domestication

Domestication and Spread of the Sweet Potato

Sweet Potato Vine (Ipomoea batatas)
Sweet Potato Vine (Ipomoea batatas). luxes

The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is a root crop, probably first domesticated somewhere between the Orinoco river in Venezuela north to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. The oldest sweet potato discovered to date was in the Tres Ventanas cave in the Chilca Canyon region of Peru, ca. 8000 BC, but it is believed to have been a wild form. Recent genetic research suggests that Ipomoea trifida, native to Colombia, Venezuela and Costa Rica, is the closest living relative of I. batantas, and may be its progenitor.

The oldest remains of domesticated sweet potato in the Americas were found in Peru, about 2500 BC. In Polynesia, decidedly precolumbian sweet potato remains have been found in the Cook Islands by AD 1000-1100, Hawai'i by AD 1290-1430, and Easter Island by AD 1525.

Sweet potato pollen, phytoliths and starch residues have been identified in agricultural plots alongside maize in South Auckland by ca. 240-550 years cal BP (ca AD 1400-1710).

Sweet Potato Transmissions

Transmission of the sweet potato around the planet was primarily the work of the Spanish and Portuguese, who got it from the South Americans and spread it to Europe. That doesn't work for Polynesia, though; it's too early by 500 years. Scholars generally assume that either seeds of the potato were brought to Polynesia by birds such as the Golden Plover that regularly cross the Pacific; or by accidental raft drift by lost sailors from the South American coast.

A recent computer simulation study indicates that raft drift is in fact a possibility.

Sources

This article on the domestication of sweet potatoes is part of the About.com Guide to Plant Domestications, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Bovell-Benjamin, Adelia. 2007. Sweet potato: A review of its past, present and future role in human nutrition.

Advances in Food and Nutrition Research 52:1-59.

Horrocks, Mark and Ian Lawlor 2006 Plant microfossil analysis of soils from Polynesian stonefields in South Auckland, New Zealand. Journal of Archaeological Science 33(2):200-217.

Horrocks, Mark and Robert B. Rechtman 2009 Sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) and banana (Musa sp.) microfossils in deposits from the Kona Field System, Island of Hawaii. Journal of Archaeological Science 36(5):1115-1126.

Horrocks, Mark, Ian W. G. Smith, Scott L. Nichol, and Rod Wallace 2008 Sediment, soil and plant microfossil analysis of Maori gardens at Anaura Bay, eastern North Island, New Zealand: comparison with descriptions made in 1769 by Captain Cook's expedition. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(9):2446-2464.

Montenegro, Álvaro, Chris Avis, and Andrew Weaver. Modeling the prehistoric arrival of the sweet potato in Polynesia. 2008. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(2):355-367.

O'Brien, Patricia J. 1972. The Sweet Potato: Its Origin and Dispersal. American Anthropologist 74(3):342-365.

Piperno, Dolores R. and Irene Holst. 1998. The Presence of Starch Grains on Prehistoric Stone Tools from the Humid Neotropics: Indications of Early Tuber Use and Agriculture in Panama.

Journal of Archaeological Science 35:765-776.

Srisuwan, Saranya, Darasinh Sihachakr, and Sonja Siljak-Yakovlev. 2006. The origin and evolution of sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas Lam.) and its wild relatives throughout the cytogenetic approaches. Plant Science 171:424–433.

Ugent, Donald and Linda W. Peterson. 1988. Archaeological remains of potato and sweet potato in Peru. Circular of the International Potato Center 16(3):1-10.