Most ancient vegetables would be virtually unrecognizable today. Corn’s great-great-grandparent was a type of grass that looks nothing like the giant golden cobs we immediately picture whenever we see that word. Eggplants looked a lot like, well, eggs.
We rounded up the fascinating history behind these vegetables and more.
Ancient maize — which became corn — can be traced back to a wild grass called teosinte.
At the height of summer, there are few vegetables we love more than our gorgeous, golden corn – especially straight off the grill.
But we don’t rely on it as a staple food item – which is exactly what it was in Central America about 4,300 years ago, according to Massive Science.
Meso-American farmers selectively domesticated over 50 separate strains of maize – called landraces, which Massive Science likens to dog breeds, only with different varieties of corn. Since it was grown over a broad geographic area, individual farmers coaxed landraces that were specifically adapted to environmental conditions – which is why there is so much variety in traditional landraces today.
But what happened before maize was domesticated? “Based on archaeological evidence and modern DNA evidence, we already know that maize was domesticated in Mexico sometime between about 10,000 and 6,000 years ago,” Nathan Wales of the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen told the BBC.
Ancient teosinte cobs were less than an inch long and only produced around eight rows of kernels – or about half that of modern maize.
Even though you might love a good corn tortilla now – or you might make them yourself – most commercially produced corn tortillas and corn flours are made from homogenized, commercial corn – not traditional landraces. In 2017, a company called Masienda Bodega started making and selling authentic landrace corn tortillas in Whole Foods across the country, according to Civil Eats.
You may know that the tomato and tomatillo are related — but fossils discovered in 2017 indicate that the family dates back at least 52 million years.
The idea of maize as a crop, for which we can thank Meso-American farmers, is pretty common – but the same is also true of tomatoes and tomatillos. As of 2017, scientists found fossils that they named Physalis infinemundi – which means “at the world’s end,” since they were found at the southern tip of Patagonia in South America, according to the Washington Post.
The fossils date back 52 million years – when a supercontinent cluster connected what are known today as South America, Australia, and Antarctica. Prior to this discovery, scientists had dated tomatillos back only as far as nine to eleven million years, according to the Washington Post.
Tomatoes made it to Europe around the year 1519 but were only grown for ornamental purposes, according to Smithsonian Magazine. By the late 1700s, the tomato as a food item in Europe had a very bad reputation – all because of poorly understood lead poisoning.
At the time, wealthy European households were using pewter plates – which were very high in lead. Tomatoes are very acidic, and when they were served on those pewter platters, they leached large amounts of lead from them, according to Smithsonian magazine. Many people didn’t just get very sick – they died.
Thus, most people of the time believed that tomatoes were poisonous – and rumours of the “poison apple” quickly spread.
Meanwhile, in the British North American Colonies, not everyone could make up their minds about tomatoes. Different rumours about green tomato worms that were “poisonous as a rattlesnake” spread, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Some people in the colonies were early adopters, eating tomatoes back in the 1700s. By the 1850s, tomatoes were so popular that associating your other edible crops with them was a valid sales method at markets.
Long before eggplants were emoji, they were actually shaped like eggs — and some varieties still are.
The earliest records of eggplants come from ancient Chinese literature dating to around 59 BC – and also to the Munda people in India, near modern-day Myanmar. There are a variety of names for the same plant across India – which makes it clear that it’s been around for an exceptionally long time in the region.
If it wasn’t for domestication, pumpkins and squash might have become extinct.
Much like giant ground sloths spread the avocado around South America, mastodons and wooly mammoths spread wild pumpkins, squash, gourds, and other members of the genus Cucurbita across Mexico and up into what would one day be the US and Canada, according to Popular Science.
In 2015, Penn State researchers published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that suggested humans are what saved genus Cucurbita from following those animals into extinction.
In their wild forms, genus Cucurbita species are incredibly bitter – but giant megafauna like mastodons and mammoths couldn’t taste the bitterness. More importantly, their gigantic bodies were able to safely absorb any toxicity in those plants – effectively rendering any negative effects harmless, according to Inside Science.
Enter humanity. It turns out that even back in the day, humans loved using decorative gourds as containers, according to Inside Science. Someone somewhere started eating them – and quite naturally, selected the less bitter varieties to replant, effectively selecting for sweeter varieties simply by taste.
Next time you enjoy a pumpkin pie, PSL, or even some hearty roasted butternut squash – you can thank ancient humans for rescuing your fall favourites from obscurity.
Carrots used to be much thinner, grown more for their leaves and seeds than their roots — and were most commonly purple, white, and/or yellow.
In the 10th century in Persia and Central Asia – most likely around Afghanistan – wild carrots were taking root. The original carrots were sometimes purple or white– and eventually mutated into a yellow strain, from where it is thought the eventual orange carrots were developed later on, according to the World Carrot Museum.
Prior to carrots becoming root crops, their green, leafy tops were grown as herbs – and the seeds were used for medicinal purposes.
So how did carrots become orange? San Francisco Exploratorium exhibit developer Paul Stepahin explained the story to Tested. The fruit we know as an orange travelled across Europe before the carrot did – and it turns out that the colour we know as orange was named after the fruit. There’s a fascinating linguistics story in there, too – about the names for “orange” in different languages along the way.
As Stepahin told the story, a town in Southern France called Arausio was most commonly pronounced “Aurenja” – which certain French pronunciation turned into “Orange.” A man named William the Silent came to rule that town in the year 1544 – and was known thereafter as William of Orange. He also led the Dutch – famous at the time for the carrots they grew – in rebellion against Spanish rule in the later 1500s – and they emerged victorious.
So then, the story goes, all those grateful Dutch carrot farmers worked on breeding big, beautiful, gorgeous orange carrots – all to honour William of Orange. You can still find wild carrots growing all over the place – even sometimes as weeds by roadsides – but that’s why cultivated carrots are all big and orange.
Ancient potatoes required special eating rituals to avoid poisoning anyone who ate them.
Prior to 1567, potatoes were unknown outside of Central and South America, according to Science Magazine – and they were much different than the cultivated varieties that spread across Europe and later, colonies such as what later became the US.
In the Andes, indigenous people in various villages grew and ate wild potatoes. These potatoes contained significant amounts of both solanine and tomatine – which can be toxic, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
The humans living in the Andes had observed that the animals’ guanaco and vicuña both habitually licked clay prior to eating poisonous plants – and didn’t get poisoned, as a result. Soon, humans were making their own special clay dipping sauce for the potatoes – and later, they bred potatoes to be less toxic to anyone eating them.
All of this took place before Andeans ever met any Europeans – and basically, every village bred different types of potatoes to account for different growing conditions and tastes alike, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Currently, the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru has recorded over 4,500 varieties of native potato – and they all grow across Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. These potatoes are still grown today but don’t usually make it very far outside their native region.
USDA horticulturalist David Spooner found that modern potatoes – the ones we know and love – came from a combination of Andean and Chilean potato ancestors, according to Science Magazine.
Kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and kohlrabi all share the same great-grandparent.
Wild mustard greens – also known as Brassica oleracea – grew in abundance across Europe’s Atlantic seaboard, according to Biodiversity Explorer. About 2,500 years ago, this plant was completely wild according to Vox.
Then, ancient Greek and Roman people started growing them in their gardens – and started selectively planting ones with characteristics they particularly liked. Eventually, they ended up with something that looked a bit like kale, according to Vox.
After the year 1600, more tinkering happened – and farmers elsewhere kept selecting seeds and selecting seeds until that one plant became six separate cultivars that we know and love today.
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