Central and South American Food History
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South American Food

Aztec meal
Aztec men sharing a meal

April 2016 - When people first came to Central and South America, perhaps about 15,000 BC, they were hunting and gathering all of their food. They picked wild potatoes, wild teosinte (the ancestor of corn), wild beans and wild tomatoes and avocados. They hunted rabbits and llamas and turkeys, and fished in the rivers and the ocean. They probably fermented teosinte and other plants into a kind of beer.

Beginning about 10,000 BC, South American people began to farm some of their food instead of gathering it, or in addition to gathering it. This is about the same time that people started farming in West Asia, halfway across the world. Archaeologists think people in South America started by farming squash.

three small furry animals on straw
Guinea pigs in Peru

Other crops came along gradually. About 8000 BC, people in South America were farming potatoes and yuca root. By around 7500 BC, people in both Central America and South America were farming corn, and very soon after that they were farming avocadoes in Central America and peanuts further south. About 5000 BC, people in both Central and South America were farming beans, and along the Pacific coast the Norte Chico and Valdivia people were raising guinea pigs for their meat. A thousand years after that, about 4000 BC, people were farming chili peppers.

A little later on, perhaps around 3000 BC, farmers began to grow sweet potatoes as well. Around 800 BC, Central American farmers began keeping tame turkeys for food. One of the last crops that people started farming was tomatoes, sometime before 500 BC.

In South America, Inca women freeze-dried the potatoes so they would keep all winter, and used them to make stews and soups spiced with chili peppers, often with peanut sauce. In Brazil and Paraguay, people ate bread made from yuca root, also with spicy peanut-chili sauce. People also ate a lot of corn. They also dried llama meat into a kind of jerky - our word "jerky" comes from the Inca word "charqui".

In Central America, people's normal food was a lot like what you know as Mexican food. People wrapped flat corn tortillas around refried beans, tomato and avocadoes, and added fish, turkey, and chili peppers for flavor. Central American people also ate tamales, cooked in corn husks (our word "tamale" comes from the Aztec word for "wrapper"), and tortillas made with turkey eggs. Popcorn was popular in both Central America and South America. Finally, did you know that Central America was the home of chewing gum?

Learn by doing: go out to a Peruvian restaurant or eat Mexican food
More aout the history of potatoes

Bibliography and further reading about peanuts:

South American Environment
More about Early South America
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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.
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