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The Potato: Pride of Perú

The Potato: Pride of Perú

Автором Fondo editorial USIL

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The Potato: Pride of Perú

Автором Fondo editorial USIL

386 pages
3 hours
Mar 5, 2019


Deep research on the potato, one of the millenary foods of Peru, today considered a contribution to the food security of the planet due to its high agroindustrial potential and its nutraceutical properties.

Its pages describe the state of the tuber situation in our country, in the Latin American region and in the world.
Mar 5, 2019

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The Potato - Fondo editorial USIL


The conquest

of the potato

The potato is the most treasured agricultural product of Peru’s impressive biodiversity arising from the link between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountain Range where the distance between the sea and the Andean highlands is a mere one hundred kilometers.

Unlike anywhere else in the world, two ocean currents collide along Peru’s coastline: one of them has relatively cold water and the other is inherently tropical. The first, called the Peruvian Current, extends from the Chilean coast to the northern Peru, and its waters travel up from the Sub-Antarctic and subtropical seas, driving enormous masses of deep waters to the surface causing the Peruvian coastal waters to cool considerably. This explains for example, why Lima has an average annual temperature of 18.7 °C, when given its distance from the equator, it should have a climate similar to that of Copacabana in Rio De Janeiro.

Beneath a tropical sun with a maritime coast about 2, 200 kilometers long, the Sea of Grau receives one of the highest doses of solar energy because of its tropical location. Moreover, with the higher oxygen content, high salinity and viscosity of its waters, it contains an abundance of minerals and organic nutrients that sustain hundreds of species of fish and cetaceans plus thousands of birds that find ideal refuge on the islands dotting the coastline.

Unlike the southern and central regions, Peru’s northern coast contains tropical waters originating from the El Nino current, a part of the Equatorial Countercurrent, creating very peculiar sea conditions, reflected by the makeup of its marine flora and fauna. Among the fish species we can highlight the mako shark, the flying fish, goldfish, the yellow fin tuna, big eyed tuna, the black skipjack tuna, and others. It is here where in the year 1952, on the beaches of Cabo Blanco (Piura), fishers caught the first black marlin in the world (which according to the press at the time, weighed about 1, 000 pounds or 453 kilos). The famous American, Ernest Hemingway traveled there on a fishing expedition to capture another black marlin for the movie, The Old Man and the Sea, based on his novel of the same name. Along these coastal waters of Tumbes and Piura, the 1954 Nobel Prize laureate witnessed the spectacular phenomenon of the cold ocean current abandoning the Peruvian coast, on a northwestern heading, out to the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean toward the Galapagos Islands, leaving a trail of life forms in its path, across a lengthy extension of the Andean Mountain Range.

Viewed from outer space, the Andean Mountain range is, in all of its majesty, one of the largest and most spectacular mountain ranges in the world, traversing the South American continent from an area near Panama, and south all the way to Cape Horn, near Tierra del Fuego, in Argentina. Among this group of tempestuous summits is mountain peak El Huascarán, reaching an altitude of 6,768 meters above sea level (m.a.s.l) and situated parallel to the Pacific coast located only 100 kilometers away. A few hours are enough to pass through a landscape dominated by cactus plants to another covered with grasslands and forests, then, crossing valleys, ravines and deep gorges that have tested the Andean people. After this, when crossing the high altitude snowcapped mountain peaks, the spectacular view of the Amazon Tropical Rainforest’s impenetrable green mantle suddenly comes into view.

The Andes Mountain Range is the majestic and maternal creator of an enormous variety of life forms, making it one of the largest centers of biological diversity on the planet. Its initial foothills unfold upon an arid, desert territory swept by trade winds and disrupted by a group of oases fed by rivers in the Andean mountain summits: the fertile coastal valleys.

There in the Supe Valley, some 182 kilometers north of Lima and just 23 kilometers from the coast, the Caral civilization built its capital city. Dating back 5,000 years, Caral is considered the oldest city in America. Nestled on top of a terrace at 350 m.a.s.l. the city excelled in ecosystem management. Productive farmland was situated in the lowlands, the forest next to the river further below, and finally, the Supe River, the life blood of Caral. Local inhabitants enjoyed a diet of beans, pumpkin squash, sweet potatoes, and a wonderful variety of seafood products.

When ascending the mountain highlands, one reaches the yungas, which means warm tropical valley in Quechua and infertile or barren in the Aymara language. These names paradoxically describe a mosaic of several valleys separated by impenetrable ravines, arid canyons and rugged mountains that climb from 500 m.a.s.l. to 2,300 m.a.s.l.

A landscape filled with guavas, avocados, pacays - ice cream bean, apple trees, cherimoyas and plums is a delight for the people who enjoy clear sunny skies during most of the year, but where rainfall represents the only resource for agriculture , needed to give life to reeds, huarango (American carob), retama (Jerusalem thorn tree), and Peruvian pepper trees, in an area inhabited by such animals fox, possum, vizcachas, deer and the feared pumas.

Farm fields in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, The Empire’s pantry.

Descent from the Abra Shachsha in the Nor Yauyos-Cochas National Reserve.

Snow-capped summit of Pariacaca, the primary god of Lima’s Andean Mountain región.

After crossing the warm valleys, you encounter a new group of mountain summits, inter-Andean valleys and deep ravines carved out by rivers that rush down from snowcapped peaks. This is the Quechua Region or the land of temperate climate, located at altitudes between 2,300 and 3,500 m.a.s.l.

The Quechua is a region where the temperature differences between day and night, and sunny and shaded areas are as wide as they are intense. When the sun is shining on Peru’s coast, here, you find torrential rainfall. This is where the people of Ancient Peru easily traversed the rugged topography of stone, rocks and steep slopes covering over 70% of its surface, to capture flowing water and direct it through channels toward the lower regions of the valleys.

This region contains an abundance of ancestral crops that men and women learned to treasure since ancient times: potatoes, corn, A kaywa (slipper gourd), arracacia, yacón (Peruvian ground apple), amaranth, tarwi (Peruvian field lupin), aguaymanto and capuli (goldenberries). Because of its temperate climate and good quality soil, the first Spanish cities were founded here: Cusco, Cajamarca, Arequipa, Huancayo, Huanta, Jauja, and Tarma.

Ascending the mountain slopes, we encounter the high Andean plateau (at altitudes between 4,000 and 4,800 m.a.s.l., a land of emergent rivers, rolling plains, lakes, and lagoons, which, when seen from the air, look gems encrusted in the rock. Because of the intense solar radiation during the day and the sudden temperature changes at night, varying by as much as 30 degrees, this high mountain plateau warns men and women that it this region is reserved for the strongest.

The places most protected from inclement weather, such as the bottom of the valleys and rocky areas, that receive more heat from the sun, enable development of a habitat ideal for crops such as quinoa, cañihua, oca and mashua, while the cantutas (Peruvian magic tree), the kiswars and chinchircumas (South American flowering vine) adorn the steep slopes with their bright colors.

Growing in this region, created for unconquerable men, are the energy-enhancing maca root and native potatoes, the ones that still contain toxic components that make them inevitable targets of pest infestations and frost. Similarly, the multifaceted cattails emerge from the banks of lakes and a dozen cetacean like stunted shrubs with tiny flowers that are of unusual beauty that illuminates a soil apparently denied of life.

Central Mountain Range, on the border between Lima and Junin. The hostile and aggressive setting of these mountains was the Birthplace of one of the greatest civilizations in history.

The domestication of the potato

In recent years, the origin, evolution and classification of farm-raised potatoes has been a topic of great interest and wide debate. Archeology has provided us new knowledge about the process of the potato’s domestication, in spite of the fact that its preservation over the centuries was quite difficult, particularly in rainy or wet regions. Certainly, potato conservation has greater potential in desert areas and caves, a fact that has produced some interesting archeological finds.

Based on the taxonomic research studies of Spooner (2005), the domestication of S. tuberosum was likely started by early inhabitants between 12000 and 8000 B.C. and according to Cardiac (1974), in Lauricocha, around 9, 000 years B.C., "it can be deduced that they grew potatoes, including the bitter tubers typically found at high altitudes, and oca". Another example is Nanchoc, an archeological site seated in the Alto Saña Valley in Cajamarca, dating back to 8,000 years B.C., where they found the seeds of another plant species being grown: the moschaa or loche pumpkin. Similarly, in the Guitarra cave in Ancash, the remains of beans, lima beans and pumpkin were found dating back to 7,000 B.C. and in Chilca, they discovered that sweet potatoes, lima beans and pumpkin were being cultivated circa 6,000 B.C.

The evidence suggests that the potato seems to have been domesticated long before the appearance of the great cultures like Chavín de Huántar (1200 B.C. – 200 B.C.), in Ancash or Tiahuanaco (1580 B.C. - 1187 A.D), south of Lake Titicaca.

Harvest of oca (oxalis tuberosa), a nutritious relative of the potato, highly valued in the Andean highlands. Remains of their consumption date back to 9000 B.C. in caves such as Lauricocha.

...these people again cried for clemency to the heavens, and a voice said to them from above: Remove the soil and take out the crops, because I hid them there to fool the bad men and uplift the dignity of good men.

German geographer Carl Troll (1980) associates the advanced cultures of the Andes with the migration (between 7,000 and 5000 years B.C.) toward the high plateaus in steep geographical areas, which depended on the adaptation of crops – particularly the potato – to the different Andean climate zones.

At the same time, Walter H. Wust, basing his story on a myth recorded high in the Andes Mountains, narrates an ancient legend in which quinoa farmers subjugated the highland populations for many years, and with the intention of letting them die slowly, the farmers gradually decreased their food rations. On the verge of death, families cried out to the heavens and God gave them some fleshy round seeds, which when planted turned into beautiful flowers that tinted the freezing mountain meadows purple. When the plants turned yellow and the fruit ripened, the oppressors reaped the fields, leaving the conquered grief-stricken and dying of hunger. These people again pleaded with the heavens and a voice spoke to them from on high and said: Turn up the soil and take out the fruit, because I hid it there to fool the bad men and uplift good men. So it was. Beneath the soil were lovely potatoes that were collected and secretly stored away. Every morning the highland people added a portion of potatoes to their impoverished diets and soon they recovered, gained strength and attacked the invaders, who upon realizing their defeat, fled to never return and disturb the peace of the mountain summits (Graves, 2006).

While domestication of the potato occurred in the higher regions of the Andean Mountain Range, current research suggests that about four thousand years ago, people inhabiting the Peruvian coast were already eating a potato similar to one we eat in modern times. It is possible that the consumption of this tuber migrated from the mountains to the coast through barter trade, since coastal inhabitants could not have grown potatoes in their desert environment. Several fossilized potatoes have been discovered in coastal settlements north of Lima.

The geographical origin of agricultural plant species is usually found in the region where we find the greatest genetic diversity of each specie. (Vavilov, 1951). In the case of the (Solanum tuberosum) potato, the greatest genetic diversity of wild species is located north of Lake Titicaca, in the south of modern day Peru.

The most numerous and frequent discoveries of domesticated potatoes date back to the Formative Period of Mesoamerican archeology, between the 2nd and 1st millennium B.C. In the broadest sense of the term, the process of domesticating the potato, involved both botanical manipulation of the plant and its adaptation for human consumption. The important Pre-Hispanic societies of this high Andean plateau, where ancestral varieties of S. tuberosum potatoes have been detected, date back to 1400 B.C.

Qaluyo was the name of the first society that practiced farming northeast of Lake Titicaca. Using raised plantation beds surrounded by irrigation channels – a method known as waru-warus or suka-collos in Quechua, this community bolstered its agricultural production around the year 1000 B.C. Appearing in that period were other societies, such as the Balsapata and Huata, in Puno, and Marcavalle, in Cusco, that latter of which had cultural and trade ties with the Qaluyo.

Tiahuanaco, located south of Lake Titicaca, deserves special mention as the most developed and dominant society in the region surrounding the lake. Toward the year 400 A.D., it became the first State making up a region that included the south of Peru, and northern Bolivia, Argentina and Chile.

However, the main target for Tiahuanaco cultural expansion was to the north, where they could control the best land, dominating the Pucara society in Puno. Also at this time, the potato was considered the population’s primary source of carbohydrates to complement the animal based protein they received from large herds of domesticated camelids.

The influence of the Tiahuanaco culture extended to Ayacucho, where the societies called Rancha (500 B.C.) and Huarpa (200 B.C.) had already introduced terrace farming methods in the steep Andean mountains. This technology was inherited by the Wari, the first great empire of Ancient Peru, which extended its control over the entire Andean region and the coast of present-day Peru. The skillful pottery makers of the Moche culture have left beautiful ceramic representations of the potato that undoubtedly was brought down from the highland mountain areas of Ancash or Cajamarca.

During the Incan Empire, agriculture was the primary means of livelihood, with corn and potatoes the most notable representatives. According to ethno historian John Murra (1975), unlike corn which was a product of centralized imperial policy, the potato was particularly popular, because it grew and flourished on fallow land and did not need irrigating.

Lake Titicaca, situated at Almost 4,000 m.a.s.l, is the heart of the Peruvian-Bolivian highlands, the scene where the potato was first domesticated thousands of years ago.

The Door of the Sun, is the most important monument at the archeological site of Tiahuanaco, the first great Andean cultural Horizon.

Drawing by Guaman Poma de Ayala depicting the field plowing season in the era of the Incas.

Within the two basic branches of the language of Quechua, there were two general vocabulary words for potato: ‘akshu’ in the central and northern region, and ‘papa’ in the southern and northern region of ancient Peru. The generalization of the word papa or potato in English begins when the Spaniards chose the Cusco dialect of Quecha as a reference model (Ballón y Cerrón-Palomino, 2002).

In his book, entitled Comentarios Reales, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega

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