Central and South American food

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Aztec men sharing a meal

Aztec men sharing a meal

When people first came to Central and South America, perhaps about 15,000 BC, they hunted and gathered 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. For fun, 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 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.

Guinea pigs in Peru

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. Soon, 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.

Wild tomatoes

Wild tomatoes

Inca people harvesting potatoes (De Ayala)

Inca people harvesting potatoes (De Ayala)

A little later on, perhaps around 3000 BC, farmers began to grow sweet potatoes too. 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. Women used these dried potatoes to make stews and soups spiced with chili peppers, often with peanut sauce. But 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”.

Moche image of a peanut-man playing an instrument

Moche image of a peanut-man playing an instrument

In Central America, people’s normal food was a lot like what you know as Mexican food. People wrapped flat corn tortillas around refried beanstomato and avocados. They added fishturkey, 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 eggsPopcorn 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 about the history of potatoes

Bibliography and further reading about Central and South American food:

South American Environment
More about Early South America
Quatr.us home

By | 2017-09-08T17:13:27+00:00 September 8th, 2017|Central America, Food, South America|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Central and South American food. Quatr.us Study Guides, September 8, 2017. Web. December 17, 2017.

About the Author:

Karen Carr

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.

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