Cover Image


View/Hide Left Panel

Page 3

especially of Europe became prominent; those of the Andes were largely lost to the outside world.3

However, it is not too late to rescue these foods from oblivion. Although most have been hidden from outsiders, they did not become extinct. Today in the high Andes, the ancient influences still persist with rural peasants, who are largely pure-blooded Indian and continue to grow the crops of their forebears. During the centuries, they have maintained the Inca's food crops in the face of neglect, and even scorn, by much of the society around them. In local markets, women in distinctive hats and homespun jackets (many incorporating vivid designs inspired by plant forms and prescribed by the Incas more than 500 years ago) sit behind sacks of glowing grains, baskets of beans of every color, and bowls containing luscious fruits. At their feet are piles of strangely shaped tubers—red, yellow, purple, even candy striped; some as round and bright as billiard balls, others long and thin and wrinkled. These are the “lost crops of the Incas.”

That these traditional native crops have a possible role in future food production is indicated by the success of the few that escaped the colonial confines. Among the Inca's wealth of root crops, the domesticated potato, an ancient staple previously unknown outside the Andes, proved a convenient food for slaves in the Spanish silver mines and sailors on the Spanish galleons. Almost inadvertently, it was introduced to Spain, where, over several centuries, it spread out across Europe and was genetically transformed. Eventually, the new form rose to become the fourth largest crop on earth. Other Andean crops that reached the outside world and enjoyed spectacular success were lima beans, peppers, and the tomato.4

In light of this, it is surprising that more than 30 promising Inca staples remain largely restricted to their native lands and unappreciated elsewhere. Given research, these, too, could become important new contributors to the modern world's food supply.


The Andean region became an important center for domestication of crop species because of its striking geographical contrasts. Along its western margin stretches a narrow coastal desert that is all but uninhabitable except where some forty small, fertile river valleys cross

3 Most New World crops that rose to global prominence came from outside the Andes: cassava and sweet potato (Caribbean); corn, beans, most squashes, pineapple, vanilla, and chocolate (Mexico); and peanuts (Brazil), for example.
4 See pages 163, 191, and 195. Although the tomato species had its origins in the Andes, it was domesticated as a food plant elsewhere, and is therefore perhaps not strictly an Andean crop. Potatoes are the only exclusively Andean plant to have gone worldwide.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement