Where do peanuts come from?
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History of Peanuts

low-growing green plant with yellow flowers
Wild peanut plant

April 2016 - Wild peanuts evolved about the same time as other flowering plants, about 350 million years ago. They're a low-growing shrub like other South American plants such as potatoes or tomatoes, though they're not related to them. Instead, peanuts are a legume, related to lentils and pinto beans. Peanuts like dry, warm, sandy soil.

clay statue of peanut-man
Moche image of a peanut-man playing an instrument

People probably first began to eat wild peanuts as soon as they arrived in South America, about 13,000 years ago. Peanuts have a lot of protein and fat. But wild peanuts don't make a lot of peanuts to eat. By around 6000 BC, people were farming peanuts in river valleys in southern Bolivia (in central South America) and breeding them to make more peanuts on each plant. Like pinto beans in Central America and North America, soybeans in China, black-eyed peas in Africa, or lentils and chickpeas in West Asia and India, peanuts became a common food. People started farming peanuts in Peru soon afterwards. Later on, Tupi and Guarani women (apparently) grew peanuts in Brazil and Paraguay, and Arawak people grew peanuts in Surinam and throughout the Caribbean islands. By 100 AD, Maya and Zapotec people were also growing peanuts. Mostly people probably ground peanuts into peanut butter and used them to thicken sauces for tamales and empanadas.

oval brown shells, some broken to show oval blond nuts
Peanuts

When European traders started sailing to Brazil and Peru about 1500 AD, they brought peanuts to Asia, Europe, and Africa. The Spanish word for peanut comes from the Aztec word cacahuatl. Slave traders fed enslaved Africans peanut sauces on rice or corn because they were cheap. Peanuts were a lot like the native African groundnuts, and soon a lot of Africans switched from groundnuts to peanuts. When white slave-traders forced Africans to come to the United States, the Africans brought their peanut recipes with them and cooked a lot of peanut stews. (They also brought the African groundnuts, which they called ginguba and Americans called "goobers", but soon Americans also called peanuts "goobers.")

Indian traders brought peanuts from Africa to India in the 1600s, and European traders brought peanuts (along with sweet potatoes) to Southeast Asia and southern China about the same time. Many Thai recipes also began to include peanut sauce.

white mush in a red sauce
Ghana - Fufu in peanut sauce

During the American Civil War, people in the south couldn't get a lot of foods because the Union Army was blockading them. They had plenty of peanuts, though, so they used peanut oil instead of whale oil and olive oil, and they ate peanut brittle instead of chocolate. Union soldiers also ate a lot of peanuts while they were fighting in the South, and after the Civil War peanuts were the cool thing to eat all over the United States. After 1890, machines harvested and shelled peanuts, and they became much cheaper. In 1916, the African-American food scientist George Washington Carver popularized peanut butter, and that quickly got to be a favorite American food too. Carver encouraged Southern farmers to switch to growing peanuts instead of cotton. But all over the world, the biggest use of peanuts today - and the reason China produces most of the world's peanuts - isn't even about eating actual peanuts. Most of the world's peanuts today to go make peanut oil.

Learn by Doing - Shell and eat some peanuts
Or, make this Peruvian peanut stew
More about South American food

Bibliography and further reading about peanuts:

Another South American food: potatoes
More South American food
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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