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close this bookCERES No. 099 - May - June 1984 (FAO Ceres, 1984, 50 p.)
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The lost crops of the Incas

Although hundreds of years ago the upland regions of the Andes were one of seven major centres of crop domestication plants from there are not as well known as those of the Near East. Asia, and elsewhere. In the last 10 years, however, a few farsighted agronomists have begun taking stock of the under-exploited crops the Andes. Their interest has led two regional conferences, a newsletter, and rising international interest. Now the baseline knowledge on more an a dozen Andean crops, neglected science for centuries, is becoming available for the first time. These crops include grains (amaranth, quinoa, and canihua), legumes (tarwi and nunas), its (cherimoya, naranjilla, pepino, pasionfruit, and tree tomato), and roots. This article will concentrate on little known Andean roots.

In the Inca towns and villages of tern South America, the farmers tilled the nearby mountainsides among the best in the ancient Id. On slopes rising up the con' it's alligator spine to altitudes of 5000 or 7 000 metres, and in climates ranging from tropical to polar, they cultivated almost as many species of plants as did the farmers of all Asia.

Without money, iron, the wheel, or even written language, the Incas terrace! and irrigated and produced abundant food for six million subjects or more. Throughout an empire that sprawled from southern Colombia to central Chile, silos and storehouses overflowed with grains, roots, and dried meat.

Pizarro and the adventurers who conquered Peru in the early 1500s considered the Incas backward and uncreative. The conquistadors were after gold, silver, and religious converts - not plants. As a result, much of the Incas' intricate and marvelously productive agricultural system was left untended until finally it fell into ruin. Some Andean crops that had held honoured positions in Inca society disappeared. Others were all but abandoned in favour of such European crops as wheat and barley that the conquerors demanded be grown.

Today in the high Andes some of the Inca past remains. Rural peasants still grow the crops of five centuries ago. Indian women with parched features, derby hats, and crimson jackets sit in local markets behind piles of roots, grains, and fruits, most of which are unknown outside the local region except to a handful of scientists and growers in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, New Zealand, England, the United States, and elsewhere.

Here are examples:

The other potatoes.

In 1531 when Francisco Pizarro and the conquistadors invaded Peru they initiated events that would elevate one obscure Inca crop to a high place in Western gastronomic culture. The potato, an Inca staple unknown outside the Andes, proved a convenient food for sailors on the treasure galleons, and so it came to be carried to Europe.

In the 400 years since the conquest, the potato (Solanum tuberosum, Solanaceae) has become one of the 20 major food crops of the whole planet, but the Spanish left behind at least five other species of cultivated potatoes and more than 100 species of wild potatoes. Collectively these are adapted to a wide array of climates and contain a wealth of diversity and disease resistance. Yet only now are they beginning to receive agronomic recognition.

Peruvian Indians actually have about 200 names for different sizes, colors, and textures of potatoes found in the Andes. A number of these taste bitter but turn sweet after freezing and drying. Some are completely black inside; others are golden yellow: some can withstand the severest cold: a number have notable flavors (a decidedly nutty taste, for example); and almost all are more nutritious than the white potato of the rest of the world. Most of these other potatoes produce small tubers, not surprising given the lack of research attention. Nonetheless, they have important commercial potential. A few, for instance, are virtually immune to the most formidable pests in potato farmers' fields. British agronomist R.W. Cibson has found two species of Bolivian wild potato whose leaves are veritable minefields to insects. Even a minute aphid (one of the potato's chief enemies) crawling over the surface breaks open tiny, four-lobed hairs that cover the leaves. This releases a sticky substance that clings so firmly to its legs that it becomes glued to the leaf and dies. The tacky stuff also catches leafhoppers by the jaws when they try to eat the leaves. These particular wild potatoes are unsuitable as food crops, but researchers are beginning to breed them with the common potato to give it glandular hairs with which to ensnare its enemies.

Other cultivated and wild potatoes are receiving some research recognition, notably from the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, but generally they remain little known in most potato-growing areas and potato research facilities.


Even without potatoes the Incas had more root crops than any other culture in the world. At least nine other tubers were grown. They belong to botanical families as diverse as those of mustard, legumes, and sunflower. Each comes in a myriad of colors, shapes, and sizes. An example is oca (Oxalis tuberosa, Oxalidacae).

An exceptionally hardy plant that looks somewhat like clover, oca produces an abundance of wrinkled tubers in an array of shapes and sizes, and in shades from pink to yellow. In the Andean highlands oca is second only to the potato in importance. It is still a staple of Peruvian and Bolivian Indians living up to about 4500 metres altitude.

In the last 20 years oca has become popular in New Zealand, where it is sold throughout the country under the confusing name "yam". New Zealand housewives serve it boiled, baked, or fried on special occasions instead of potatoes. The firm white tubers have a high sugar content and a pleasant, slightly acid taste.

Oca got to New Zealand via England where for a century or more it had been sporadically grown as a minor backyard vegetable and ornamental. The plant is adapted to conditions throughout New Zealand's North Island, and its commercial yields average 7-10 tons per hectare.

Since the climate and latitudes of New Zealand are similar to those of parts of North America and Europe, oca has the potential to become a common vegetable throughout the temperate zones during the next 20 years. It is also promising for the highlands of Asia (Nepal, for example) and Africa (Rwanda and Burundi).


This Inca root (Arracacha xanthorrhiza, Umbelliferae) has global potential. The late David Fairchild dean of United States plant explorers before World War II considered " much superior to carrots". The sands of inhabitants of the Andes agree with him. In many areas aracacha replaces the potato; it costs only half as much to plant and harvest. But it was so overlooked in colonial times that it did not receive a scientific name until 300 years after the conquest. Above ground the plant so what resembles celery, to which it related. Below ground it produces smooth-skinned roots that are I carrots but lack the central core. Arracacha roots are boiled or fried a table vegetable or added to stews They have a crisp texture and white yellow, or purple flesh. Their delicate flavor combines the tastes of celery cabbage, and roasted chestnut.

Though still scarcely better known scientifically than at the time of Columbus, arracacha is eaten in most Latin American countries as far north as Costa Rica. Arracacha roots are sold in large quantities in the larger cities of Colombia, and recently, has gained popularity in the big cities of southern Brazil, such as Sao Paolo who've tried it are very impressed." says Steve King of the New York Botanic Garden. He is one of e few scientists to study this root crop which is dwindling toward extinction. He estimates that only 10 hectares of it remain.

Maca (I.epidium eyenii. Cruciferae) a turnip-like plant of the mustard family. It is a relative of cress, the European salad vegetable, and its edible leaves are eaten in salads and used to fatten guinea pigs for the table. Its swollen roots look like brown radishes. Rich in sugar and starch, they have a notably sweet, flavor and are considered a delicacy in the high Andean plateau region of Peru and Bolivia.

In the stark habitat and bonechilling climate around Lake Junin. Peru, almost nothing but maca survives. This region, the only one where the crop is known, is at such a high altitude (3 500 - 4 500 m) that only one other root bitter potatoes can survive the cold. At the highest extreme, mace is found at a higher altitude than any crop in the world; without it agriculture would be impossible there.

The plant, a mat like perennial, is so small that even visiting botanists sometimes don't realize they're standing in a farmer's field. Maca roots arc usually roasted or boiled in milk or water to create a sort of gruel. They are a]so dried, whereupon they become brown, soft, sweet-tasting, and chewy. Dried maces, which have a sharp flavor, can be stored for years. Their nutritional content is unknown.

Nor is it known whether mace could be an important crop elsewhere, but unless something is done to protect it from extinction we may lose the opportunity to find out.


A distant relative of the sunflower, yacon (Polymnia sonchifolia, Compositae) is grown in temperate valleys from Colombia to northwest Argentina and is sometimes found at elevations up to 3 300 m. It produces tubers that resemble those of the garden dahlia. Fused together in bunches, they splay out like fat spokes from a hub, and a single bunch can weigh as much as two kilograms. The tuber is earth-coloured on the outside, but inside it is white and the consistency of a turnip. They are eaten raw, and because of a sweetish succulent quality, yacon (pronounced ya-kon) makes a pleasant refreshment. It is also eaten cooked. In addition, the main stem is used like celery, and the plant shows promise as a fodder crop.

This ancient root crop of the tropical and subtropical Andes is most often found in small family plots, not in markets. It is sometimes confused with jicama (see below), which is a legume with swollen roots.

Before World War II yacon was introduced to Italy and southern Europe, where it was studied as a possible source of sugar and forage. Although this work was interrupted by war, the fact that yacon grew successfully in this temperate lowland region, at a much higher latitude than Peru or Ecuador, shows that it, like the potato, could have much wider potential.


This leguminous plant (Pachyrrhizus tuberosus, Leguminosae) differs from its relatives the pea, bean, soybean, and groundnut in that it grows swollen, fleshy roots which can weigh several kilos. These have succulent white flesh sweet, pleasantly flavored, and crisp like that of an apple. Ajipa (pronounced a-heepa) is often sliced thin and eaten raw in green salads and fruit salads. It is also sometimes lightly steamed or boiled and has the unusual property of retaining its crunchy texture even after cooking.

The plant is a climbing vine that grows rapidly and produces remarkable yields. Although scarcely known outside South America, it is a favorite in some of the West Indies where British scientists from Kew Gardens introduced it during the last century.

A close relative (perhaps even the same species) is the jicama (pronounced hee-ca-ma), a favourite tuber of Central America and the Philippines (where it is known as sinkamas). This root is becoming popular in the United States as a low-calorie snack food and salad ingredient, and is increasingly imported from Mexico. Ajipa could earn similar enthusiasm. It is also a refreshing raw vegetable, popular especially in summer. Unlike most other root crops, ajipa has the advantage of being a legume: rhizobia bacteria in its root nodules make nitrogenous compounds available to the plant, thus helping it to grow vigorously in impoverished sites and even to enrich the soil in which it grows.


One of the most striking roots in Andean markets is the ullucu (Ullucus tuberosus, Basellaceae). Its tubers are brightly colored yellows, pink, red, even striped and their waxy skins make them look almost like plastic fakes. Ullucu (pronounced oo-yoo-koo) was a staple in the Inca diet and is one of the few indigenous crops that has increased its range in the last century. In the high Andes, from Venezuela to Chile and northwestern Argentina, it is an important tuber crop, particularly at altitudes of 2 000 to 4 000 metres. Ranking second only to potatoes, it is a staple carbohydrate foodstuff in some areas. Many Peruvians consider it a delicacy, and it is sold in modern packaging in supermarkets. Estimated demand in Peru is more than 60 000 tons per year.

The plant forms tubers both above and below the ground. The aerial ones are attached by slender stems and are frequently mistaken for fruits. They grow downward and may eventually bury themselves. Beneath the ground the plant forms a mass of fibrous roots whose ends thicken and swell into tubers.

The tubers vary greatly in shape and color; the most common types are spherical and golden-yellow. The thin, soft skin is edible, The flesh, normally yellow and mucilaginous, is usually prepared like potatoes and is used as a thickener for soups and stews.

Ullucu leaves are edible (a close relative is commonly used in the tropics and is known by the name malabar spinach) and taste like New Zealand spinach.

Resisting frost and heat, the plant grows vigorously and thrives in cool, moist conditions. Andean farmers like the crop because it is resistant to diseases. Yields average five to nine tons per hectare.


The achira or edible canna (Canna edulis, Cannaceae) has a long history in the Andean region. (The two most traditional foods are roast guinea pig and baked achira.) At Huaca Prieta, on the Peruvian coast, samples have been excavated from levels dated at about 2500 BC, which predates the introduction of corn and cassava.

The plant looks somewhat like a large-leafed lily. The branched roots (actually rhizomes) are fleshy and sometimes as long as a human forearm. They contain about 25 per cent starch, the unusually large grains of which can be seen with the naked eye. This starch, a shiny yellowish powder, is easily digested and is usually eaten baked.

Achira cultivation extends from Venezuela to northern Chile. The young roots are still a fairly common market vegetable. Achira has also been grown in other parts of the tropics, notably on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. In Hawaii it has been grown for fodder for cattle and pigs. It is cultivated commercially on a small scale in both Java and Australia.
The Australian Product is known in commerce as Queensland arrowroot.

Because of competition from cheap cassava starch, demand for Queensland arrowroot had decline in recent year and only one Queensland farmer C.S. Kerkin of Ormeau, still produce it. He has fully mechanized the planting, cultivation, harvesting, and milling of achira. Mr Kerkin is optimistic about the crop's future and reports that sales are now starting improve. He expects to plant about 10 hectares this year.

Anu (Mashua).

The well-known garden nasturtium was an Inca ornamental, and at high altitudes in the Andes, where potatoes and other tubers cannot be grown, its close relative the anu (Tropaecolum tuberosum, Tropaeolaceae) is a staple food stuff.

The anu (pronounced ahn-yo, plant is a herbaceous climber. Its tubers are shaped like either carrots or potatoes, and more than 100 varieties are recognized. Those in Colombia are long, deeply furrowed, and white (sometimes with pink end, those in Peru and Bolivia are yellow, often with red or purple dots and lines.

The tubers are not palatable raw Indians of the Andes "cure" them the sun, freeze-dry them during the cold, dry nights, add them to stews, or eat them baked or fried. Al contains 18 per cent starch, 2 percent sugar, and 4 per cent protein (twice that of the average potato). The taste is peppery like that of turnip and is not universally liked.

This frost-tolerant crop is cultivated in small plots on hillsides in cool a' moist upland valleys of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia at altitudes of 3000 metres or more. Peru is reported to have 4 000 hectares of anu and yields are reported to be between 20 or 30 tons per hectare. The tuber can be successfully stored at room temperatures for up to six month

Anu is grown widely as a flowering ornamental in England and the United States. The fact that it grows so far from its Andean home suggest that, like the other Inca root crops too deserves much wider testing