The Prehistoric Potato & Mutilation

The origin of crop plants like the potato have been the subject of debate for botanists, and the debate is between two hypotheses: monophyletic (meaning descendant from a group of organisms with a common ancestor) v.s polyphyletic (meaning descendant from a group of organisms that do not all have a common ancestor). According to a study conducted by the University of Wisconsin, the potato’s origin is mostly likely monophyletic and is probably derived from the s. brevicaule.

Ancon, a coastal district in Peru, is where the earliest potato tuber has ever been found and it dates back to circa 2500 B.C. Modern-day Peru and northwestern Bolivia is currently the birthplace of the domesticated potato which includes remains in Casma (Ancash). The Casma potatoes grew alongside sweet potatoes and in 1982 were confirmed to date back to the ceramic period. Evidence of cooking, boiling and fire charring were found in some samples. The traditional use of the potato isn’t the only, however. A collection of 150 pots collected at a Chimu site in Peru tells a story of facial mutilation and the potato, implying the worship of some kind of “potato spirit.” Notable are the three facial deformities represented in the Chimu collection:

  1. A split, single or double hare-lip

  2. An enormously large lower face or neck.

  3. A drooping face or loss of one or both eyes.

Rare ceramics from this Peruvian period depicted potato vessels in more or less their natural form. The Moche, Chimu and Inca cultures had a certain affinity for the potato, especially the Moche who were also incredibly attentive to the bird, fish, mammal and natural object as well.

Where we see the relation between the Chimu pottery and potato in the same vessel is particularly interesting. There are pieces with potato “eyes” or tuber bodies - possible proof of the spiritual nature of the potato to the ancient Peruvians. Redcliffe N. Salaman provides some probable connections between the crop and the gods:

  1. A potato spirit influenced the plant’s behavior and reproduction.

  2. Opposed to worshiping the potato spirit, they may have sought to help it with guidance. That guidance was aided and its strength influenced by the nature of mutilation of man. And that mutilation of the upper lip into the nose region forcefully displayed the teeth. The following are motives for facial mutilation to a supposed potato spirit:

    1. The ‘eye’ of the potato was often referred to as the ‘mouth,’ something that resembled a gaping hole like that of the mutilated mouth. The buds of the plant were the ‘teeth.’

    2. In showing the potato spirit what quality of potato they desire with equal characteristics on that of a man’s face, a good harvest would hopefully come.

  3. The relation may not be spiritual at all. A wide-spread disease could have caused the deformities instead. This explanation may be the most plausible.