Where do pinto beans come from?
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History of Pinto Beans

Pinto Beans
Pinto Beans (USDA photo)

Beans evolved along with the other flowering plants about 360 million years ago. Bean plants are a kind of vine or bush, and the beans grow in pods.

There are lots of beans that grow wild in Africa and Asia, so people were already used to eating beans before they came to the Americas. When people first came to South America about 20,000 years ago, they probably began right away to pick and eat wild pinto beans. Beans have a lot of protein, carbohydrates, folate, and iron.

man throws beans in the air
Aztec men throw beans as dice in a gambling game
(Florentine Codex, ca. 1520 AD)

You have to boil beans before you can eat them, and so people boiled them until the beans turned into mush. Then they ate the bean mush as soup or porridge.

By about 5000 BC, people in South America were farming their own beans. At least two different groups of people began to farm beans independently of each other. In South America, Norte Chico farmers began to grow a type of bean that grew on bushes, and was easy to pick.

In Central America, where people were already growing corn, they began to farm a kind of bean that grew on vines, so you could plant it next to the corn and it would support itself on the corn stalks. They ate the boiled bean mush spread on corn tortillas or tacos, as we do today. They didn't fry the beans to make refried beans, because they didn't have any fat to fry in. With the beans, they had avocados and tomatoes and onions and chili peppers.

Learn by Doing - Eating refried beans
More about corn tortillas

Bibliography and further reading about pinto beans:

Nachos Recipe
More about Corn
More about Central 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 or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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