Native foods of the Americas

Native foods of the Americas

Indians of the New World

J. Grahame Clark, speaking of the contributions made by the Indians of North and South America to the Old World, has this to say: ("New World Origins," Antiquity, 14(54), June, 1940, 118)

Baron Nordenskiold, unlike some European theorizers, who found it difficult to credit the aborigines with the ability to raise their own civilization independently of the Old World inspiration, had spent many long and arduous years in the field of South American archaeology, and his conclusions carried with them outstanding authority. In addition to many technical inventions he attributed to the American Indian the achievement of domesticating the animal and plant life of his habitat so effectively that during the four centuries since the Discovery the White Man had failed to make a single contribution of importance. The native fauna gave poor scope, but from it he domesticated the llama, alpaca, guinea-pig, and turkey. Of plants he domesticated hundreds…

Matthew Stirling, Chief of the American Bureau of Ethnology at the time of this writing, makes the following observation: ("America’s First Settlers, the Indians," National Geographic Magazine, November, 1937, 592)

Among the plants developed by these ancient botanists are maize, beans (kidney and lima), potatoes, and sweet potatoes, now four of the leading foods of the world. Manioc, extensively cultivated by the natives of tropical America is now the staff of life for millions of people living in the equatorial belt. Other important items, such as peanuts, squash, chocolate, peppers, tomatoes, pineapples and avocados might be added.

In addition, the Indian was the discoverer of quinine, cocaine, tobacco, and rubber, useful commodities of modern times. Maize or Indian corn was one of the most useful contributions of the American Indian to mankind. Over a considerable portion of the Americas, it is the staff of life.

Kenneth Macgowan adds to this list, the custard apple, strawberry, vanilla bean, chickle, and cascara, besides a number of others less familiar. (Early Man in the New World, New York, NY, Macmillan, 1950, 199.) His whole list of important plants made up by the Indian’s agriculture is impressive, as he says, for it contains fifty items, not one of which is an Old World species! Every one of them can be cultivated with a hoe, requiring no draft animals whatever. He also mentions one other accomplishment which is very difficult to account for: The Indian devised a method of extracting a deadly poison (cyanide) from an otherwise useless plant, manioc, without losing the valuable starch it contained. Macgowan says that Henry J. Bruman called this "one of the outstanding accomplishments of the American Indian." The remarkable thing about it is that they should ever have thought of making use of a plant which, as they found it, contained a deadly poison.

M.D.C. Crawford gives a list of vegetables which were cultivated by the American Indians prior to 1492, which in addition to the above are the following: (The Conquest of Culture, New York, NY, Fairchild, 1948, 145, 146.)


Jerusalem artichoke

alligator pear



Indian fig


prickly pear

chili pepper


cotton (gossypium barbadense Linn.)

star apple

J.L. Collins wrote: ("Pineapples in Ancient America," Scientific Monthly, 66(11), November 1948, 372.)

The pineapple shares the distinction accorded to all major food plants of the civilized world, of having been selected, developed, and domesticated by people of prehistoric times, and passed on to us through one or more earlier civilizations. The pineapple, like a number of other contemporary agricultural crops… originated in America and was unknown to the people of the Old World before its discovery.