Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Aztec men sharing a meal

Aztec men sharing a meal

What did early people eat?

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.

Where do potatoes come from?
Where does corn come from?
History of tomatoes
Avocados and guacamole
All our Central America articles
All our South America articles

When did they start farming food?

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.

Where does squash come from?

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 avocados in Central America and peanuts further south.

History of peanuts
History of chocolate
Where do pinto beans come from?
And chili peppers?

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)

Sweet potatoes, turkeys, and tomatoes

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.

Where do turkeys come from?
History of sweet potatoes

How did South Americans cook food?

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”.

Where are llamas from?
How about yuca root?

Moche image of a peanut-man playing an instrument

Moche image of a peanut-man playing an instrument

How did Central Americans cook food?

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. For fat, they mainly used the oil from crushed squash seeds, like our safflower oil.

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.

History of popcorn
And chewing gum

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 about the history of potatoes

Bibliography and further reading about Central and South American food:

South American Environment
More about Early South America home