February 24, 2007

What foods do we eat today that were originally developed by native american tribes?


–Submitted by Juanita C.


Hi Juanita,

Over the course of thousands of years, many, many plant species were domesticated, bred and cultivated by the indigenous native american peoples of the American continent. Many of these cultivars spread throughout the American continent and are presently common staples in diets worldwide.

More than half of all crops grown worldwide were initially developed by indigenous native american peoples of the Americas. In many cases, the Indian people developed entirely new species from existing wild ones,such as the domestication and breeding of maize from wild teosinte grasses in the valleys of southern Mexico. A great number of these agricultural products still retain their original Nahuatl names in the English and Spanish languages.

A partial list of native american agricultural crops would include:

The triumvirate crop system known as the “three sisters

  • Maize* (domesticated from teotsinte grasses in southern Mexico)


  • Squash* (pumpkins, zucchini, marrow, acorn squash, butternut squash, others)


  • Pinto bean (Frijol pinto) (“painted/speckled” bean; nitrogen-fixer traditionally planted in conjunction with other “two sisters” to help condition soil; runners grew on maize; beans in the genus Phaseolus including most common beans, Tepary beans and Lima beans were also all first domesticated and cultivated by native american people in the Americas.)

Other widely used native american food staples now used globally:

  • Tomato*


  • Potato (papas*)


  • Camote or “sweet potato” (often called incorrectly as “yams” in English; distinct from true-yams)


  • Avocado* (“aguacate” in Spanish)


  • Cacahuate* (peanuts)


  • Cacao* beans (used to make chocolate*)


  • Vanilla


  • Black raspberry


  • Strawberry (various cultivars; modern Garden strawberry was created by crossing sweet North American variety with plump South American variety)


  • Pineapple (cultivated extensively)


  • Cassava* (edible starchy root also known as manioc; also used to make tapioca)


  • Peppers (species and varieties of Capsicum, including bell peppers, jalapeños, paprika, chili peppers, etc.)


  • Allspice

Staple native american foods still used regionally:

  • Nopales* (stem segments of prickly pear Opuntia cactus)


  • Tunas* (fruits of many different species of cultivated Opuntia cactus )


  • Jicama*


  • Papaya*


  • Guayaba* (guava fruit)


  • Huautli* (amaranth grain; other species present on other continents)


  • Quinoa (pseudo-cereal grain crop)


  • Cherimoya* (fruit)


  • Sapote* (generic Nahuatl name for a soft fruit from various unrelated species, including the Black Sapote or Black Persimmon, which is native to Mexico)


  • Mamey* (fruit, other parts of plants have noted uses)


  • Pitaya (also known as pitahaya; the fruit of several cactus species, especially of the genus Hylocereus)


  • Yerba Buena (aromatic herb)


  • Mexican Oregano (a distinct herb from a different plant species than the milder Mediterranean Oregano)


  • Lemon Verbena (herb with a powerful lemony scent)


  • Jerusalem artichoke, tuber related to the sunflower.


  • Stevia an herb, non-caloric sweetener.

Indigenous native american protein sources:

  • Sunflower seeds (under cultivation in Mexico and Peru for thousands of years; also source of essential oils)


  • Pecan (a species of hickory native to southeastern North America)


  • Pinyones (Pine nuts from: Pinus edulis, Pinus monophylla and Pinus cembroides (Mexican Pine))


  • Turkey (the ocellated turkey was a large domesticated bird developed by the Maya, and is thought to be the founding lineage of the modern American wild turkey.)


  • Spirulina (cyanobacteria or blue-green algae harvested in lakes, and dried into cakes)


  • Guinea pigs (domesticated species and other species in the genus Cavia)


  • Chapulin* (grasshoppers)


  • Fresh water/marine: Fish (numerous species), shellfish (numerous species)

Ceremonial entheogens:

  • Tobacco* (leaves smoked in pipes)


  • Tesguino* (fermented corn drink)


  • Octli* (fermented beverage made from agave cactus, later known as pulque; pulque is the precursor of the distilled spirit mezcal; mezcal made from the blue agave is known as tequila)


  • Peyote* (hallucinogenic cactus used in religious ceremonies)


  • Ayahuasca (hallucinogenic drink made from a mixture of a vine of the same name and another plant used as an MAOI which is used in religious ceremonies)


  • Psychedelic Mushrooms (hallucinogenic mushrooms used in religious ceremonies)


  • Coca* (leaves chewed for energy and medicinal uses)


  • Yerba mate* – (used to make a hot infusion or beverage for both medicinal and religious purposes.)

Non-food agricultural products:

  • Rubber (used indigenously for making bouncing balls, foot-molded rubber shoes and other assorted items)


  • Chicle* (also known as chewing gum)


  • Cotton (cultivation of different species independently started in both the Americas and in India)


  • Chinchona* (tree which yields the anti-malarial drug quinine)


  • Achiote* (fruit and seeds are used to extract a culinary red dye known as Annatto)

(* Asterisk indicates a common English or Spanish word derived from an indigenous word.)


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