The New York Times

The Sweet Potato: World Colonizer All by Itself?

Of all the plants that humanity has turned into crops, none are 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, Capt. James Cook stumbled across sweet potatoes again — more than 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? Could unknown explorers have carried it from South America to countless An extensive analysis of sweet potato DNA, published 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. 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 is often referred to as a yam; in fact, yams are a different species originating in Africa and Asia.) Some scholars proposed that all sweet potatoes originated in the Americas, and that after Columbus’s voyage, they were spread by Europeans to colonies such as the Philippines. Pacific Islanders acquired the crops from there. As it turned out, though, Pacific Islanders had been growing the crop for generations by the time Europeans showed up. A radically different hypothesis emerged: Pacific Islanders, masters of open-ocean navigation, picked up sweet potatoes by voyaging to the Americas, long before Columbus’ arrival there. Genetic evidence only complicated the picture. Examining the plant’s DNA, some researchers concluded that sweet potatoes arose only once from a wild ancestor, while other studies indicated that it happened at two different points in history. According to the latter studies, South Americans domesticated sweet potatoes, which were then acquired by Polynesians. Central Americans domesticated a second variety that later was picked up by Europeans. Hoping to shed light on the mystery, a team of researchers recently undertook a new study — the biggest survey of sweet potato DNA yet. And they came to a very different conclusion. “We find very clear evidence that sweet potatoes could arrive in the Pacific by natural means,” said Pablo Muñoz-Rodríguez, a botanist at the University of Oxford. He believes the wild plants traveled across the Pacific with no human help. Muñoz-Rodríguez and his colleagues visited museums and herbariums around the world to sample sweet potato varieties and wild relatives. The researchers used DNA-sequencing technology to gather more genetic material from the plants than possible in earlier studies. Their research pointed to only one wild plant as the ancestor of all sweet potatoes. The closest wild relative is a weedy flower called Ipomoea trifida that grows around the Caribbean. Its pale purple flowers look a lot like those of the sweet potato. Instead of a massive, tasty tuber, I. trifida grows only a pencil-thick root. “It’s nothing we could eat,” Muñoz-Rodríguez said. The ancestors of sweet potatoes split from I. trifida at least 800,000 years ago, the scientists calculated. To investigate how they arrived in the Pacific, the team headed to the Natural History Museum in London. The leaves of sweet potatoes that Cook’s crew collected in Polynesia are stored in the museum’s cabinets. The researchers cut bits of the leaves and extracted DNA from them. The Polynesian sweet potatoes turned out to be genetically unusual — “very different from anything else,” Muñoz-Rodríguez said. Those sweet potatoes in Polynesia split off more than 111,000 years ago from all others the researchers studied. Yet humans arrived in New Guinea about 50,000 years ago, and reached remote Pacific islands only in the past few thousand years. The age of Pacific sweet potatoes made it unlikely that any humans, Spanish or Pacific Islander, carried the species from the Americas, Muñoz-Rodríguez said. Traditionally, researchers have been skeptical that a plant like a sweet potato could travel across thousands of miles of ocean. But in recent years, scientists have turned up signs that many plants have made the voyage, floating on the water or carried in bits by birds.

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