The history of… the sweet potato, the globe-trotting vegetable

The history of… the sweet potato, the globe-trotting vegetable

Dec 09, 2021Jonathan Englert
Over the last decade, sweet potatoes have become a popular choice for the health conscious among us. Considered a superfood, these vegetables are high in potassium and Vitamin A and actually carry a lower glycemic index rating than their close cousins, the potato.

Putting health benefits aside, the sweet potato has an interesting history, which forms part of an anthropology lesson on the connections between 12th century Polynesian Islanders and the Zenú civilization…

The sweet potato is thought to have been domesticated as early as 3000 BCE in Central America. By 2500 BCE, the vegetable had spread all across South America and into the Caribbean Islands.

A few millennia pass, and by 1100 CE South America is rich with an array of cultures and civilisations, one such civilisation being the Zenú. The Zenú lived in modern-day Colombia, where they developed a sophisticated system of water channels that helped them supercharge their ability to grow food. It was at this point that the Zenú likely encountered visitors from the Pacific.

As the tale goes, a group of very brave Polynesians are thought to have sailed across the Pacific to South America where they met the Zenú. After some chit-chat and a bit of cultural and agricultural exchange, the Polynesians returned home with sweet potato vine clippings, where they then were able to cultivate and share the new vegetable across the Pacific Ocean, reaching as far as the Cook Islands! Amazingly, this sweet potato trade happened over 300 years before Columbus set foot in the Americas.

Next time you find yourself chowing down on a sweet potato, you can think back on everything humanity went through to make this nutty, sweet vegetable as readily-available as it is today.

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