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15
NATIVE POTATOES

People have eaten tubers since time immemorial. Indeed, a small but ardent band of anthropologists argues that cooked tubers in general played the critical role in separating humankind from the rest of the primates. According to them, the (presumably African) tubers provided foodstuffs that did not have to be chased down and required little chewing. Cooking turned the starch into sweet, appealing foods and easily absorbed calories. In addition, the tubers needed to be kept in one place under protection, so they initiated “home life.” All of this—according to the proponents—prompted the evolution of large brains, smaller teeth, modern limb proportions, and even male-female bonding.

This may seem like a big indictment to pin on a few homely plants, but Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham and his colleagues are convinced that cooked tubers were pivotal in this way to human evolution. They don’t speculate on which species led to the creation of humanity, but the subject of this chapter seems a leading possibility.1

Even today, Africa depends heavily on root foods. Indeed, without the contributions from cassava, potato, sweet potato, and yam, hunger would spin out of control all across the continent. Of those four cornerstones of the current food supply, however, only yam is native.2 Yet Africa has a wealth of indigenous edible roots and tubers. Sadly, they are among the most “lost” of Africa’s lost food crops.

Elsewhere in this book we describe marama and yambean, both of which are African legumes grown at least partly for tubers. Here we highlight the so-called “native potatoes,” two plants grown solely for tubers. In culture

1

Assuming that modern vegetation reflects what was in southern and eastern Africa almost 2 million years ago, the only other likely candidates are yam, marama, yambean, Vigna vexillata (a fascinating legume), and maybe tiger nut (Cyperus esculentus). Lesser-known possibilities from the region where humanity arose include sweetpotato relatives (Ipomoea species), water root (Fockea species), Raphionacme burkei, and a couple of cucurbits, Coccinia rehmannii and Coccinia abyssinica.

2

Both cassava and sweet potato are of tropical American origin and were introduced probably in the 1600s by Portuguese slavers needing to feed masses of people crammed aboard tiny ships. Potato arrived in the African highlands relatively recently, within colonial times.



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