Earth Notes: Four Corners Potato

Nov 27, 2019

Stone metates at an archeological site in Utah still bear faint traces of the native Four Corners potato. It’s the leftovers from a meal that happened more than 10,000 years ago.

Four Corners potatoes may have been one North America's first cultivated plant.
Credit Bruce Pavlik/the-journal.com

Every potato in grocery stores today comes from a tuber domesticated in South America. But the Four Corners potato grows wild in the pinyon-juniper woodlands of the Colorado Plateau. The plant has star-shaped flowers and long underground shoots that can bear more than 100 tiny spuds.

Scientists found starch from these potatoes still clinging to metates and handheld grinding tools at a prehistoric dwelling place in Escalante Valley. Under a microscope, they could see a distinctive, off-center scar in the grains of starch that belongs to the Four Corners potato. This is the earliest documented use of potatoes in North America.

The spuds are packed with nutrients and have a nutty flavor and fluffy texture when cooked. Ancient people may have domesticated them, carrying the plants long distances and serving the potatoes boiled, mashed, or ground into flour. Navajos, Hopis, and other indigenous people traditionally cook the potatoes with white clay to draw out the bitterness.

This lowly tuber is experiencing a renaissance of interest. Red Butte Garden and the Natural History Museum of Utah partnered with Navajo, Hopi, and Puebloan farmers to cultivate the plants. This month’s harvest will be served at local restaurants, and will provide seed potatoes to indigenous communities. The next step is to protect and restore wild populations on public and private lands.

It’s a chance to regain a lost food, and the centuries of memory and tradition that go with it.