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.


Thoughts on Fate and an Ancient Likeness

Fate is likely only to be challenged under the influence of glorified stories, maybe even inaccurate ones. We desire motivation in order to take risks. We believe so deeply for the sake of salvation. We need to have undying loyalty to a set of values, beliefs and the tales that build them in order to survive. When the Athenians met the Oracle at Delphi (a grand shrine where people from all over Greece had their futures revealed to them by the Pythia, the priestess of Apollo), they wondered what their fate against the Persians would be if they decided to fight. The Pythia replied:

“Wretched ones, why sit you here? Flee and begone to remotest ends of earth, leaving your homes …
Many a fortress besides, and not yours alone shall he ruin …
Get you gone out of the shrine! Blanket your soul with your sorrows.”

The Athenians, hungry for victory and the preservation of their homeland scoffed at the idea of fleeing from battle. And so, they demanded a new future and refused to leave the shrine until their second reading was granted. The priestess replied again:

“A wall of wood, which alone shall abide unsacked by the foemen;
Well shall it serve yourselves and your children …
Do not abide the charge of horse and foot that come on you,
A mighty host from the landward side, but withdraw before it.
Turn your back in retreat; on another day you shall face them.
Salamis, isle divine, you shall slay many children of women …”

The oracle didn't change their future, however the Athenians begged to differ. The oracle may have urged them to turn their back in retreat, but surely if the oracle had named their land “the poor Salamis” then maybe the reading was truthful. Instead, their land was described as “Salamis, isle divine.” The Athenians set out to prepare for war with confidence. They ultimately save Greece and successfully change their fate.

Stories like this drive people to do the same. To take risks. To challenge the inevitable. To listen to the heart rather than the hearts of others. Simply being told to go against the grain is lesser to stories that persuade us to act in times fraught with danger. Humans desire a drawn out romantic rendition of what is plain and simple. Sometimes those who lean into the plain and simple are mystified by romanticism that flips their beliefs upside down only to turn back to rationale - and back again. They flip flop until their fate is reached without their say in the matter at all.

480 B.C. - Xerxes, fifth king of kings of Persia, and his uncle and advisor Artabanus (the same man who assassinates Xerxes in 465 B.C.) sat atop a promontory overlooking a million and a half soldiers below. Xerxes cried out and said: “Here are all these thousands and not one of them will be alive a hundred years from now.” Artabanus reassures the king that the troubles faced in life are relieved in death. Sometime earlier, Artabanus dissuaded Xerxes from invading Greece over the humiliation of Darius, his father, at Marathon. Not from his uncle’s words but from a dream the king had twice was what determined the fate of the Persian invasion. The dream was coincidentally paternal. An apparition appeared before the king and said: “If you do not launch your war at once, … just as a short while raised you to be great and mighty, so with speed again shall you be humble.” Artabanus wasn’t convinced by the dream’s significance until Xerxes urged him to sleep in his bed and wear his clothes. The apparition reappeared and Artabanus, fearful and screaming, was too convinced that invasion was the wisest choice.

Back to the promontory atop a million and a half soldiers. Artabanus changed his mind. Despite the horrors of the dream, he resorted to the practical. He warned the king of formidable fighters in large numbers on the other side and what if a storm arise? Starvation could beat the Greeks to the Persians before any battles began. Xerxes replied: “If you were to take account of everything …, you would never do anything. It is better to have a brave heart and endure one half of the terrors we dread than to [calculate] all of the terrors and suffer nothing at all. … Big things are won by big dangers.”

The ancient world is not unlike the world we live in today. However different our surroundings are, our brain chemistry is the same; an urge to walk down paths of least resistance, and a desire for truth too. And not all truth is fundamentally true just because of its age. We tend to worship text from hundreds of years before “civil society” of the Renaissance - transition from the Middle Ages to modernity. This is largely due to our lack of historical documentation so the few accounts we have are cherished as utmost truth. And in many ways, we’ve determined through the use of modern technology the lines between historical accuracy and creative license. Herodotus and Thucydides for instance, like Xerxes and Artabanus, approached their work in different manners. Herodotus, notable for his recounting on the origins of the Greco-Persian wars, was a man who told lively somewhat oversaturated stories about history. Thucydides, on the other hand, was dubbed the “father of scientific history.” Great greek historians like Ctesias, Diodorus, Strabo, and Polybius delivered his work as a model of truth. Thucydides never mentions his rival by name but this statement is widely assumed to be about Herodotus:

“To hear this history rehearsed, for that there be inserted in it no fables, shall be perhaps not delightful. But he that desires to look into the truth of things done, and which (according to the condition of humanity) may be done again, or at least their like, shall find enough herein to make him think it profitable. And it is compiled rather for an everlasting possession than to be rehearsed for a prize.”

Despite his critics, Herodotus’ works had been gladly recited at festivals and the like. His entertaining tales were odd to historians because one couldn’t be a storyteller and a historian at the same time. We can learn a lot from this dichotomy about the nature of fate and persuasion and truth. The same dichotomy is in every individual. Never judge a book by its cover; only by its content. A noble sentiment but not an easy one to adhere to. Rather, the inevitable judgment by instinct of curiosity should be reached quickly, then dwelled upon only until the whole truth is reached. If our initial judgment is wrong, then so be it. The initial judgment isn’t entirely disregarded, however, even if we wish it to be; an observation also suited for thoughts on discrimination.

The politics of the modern world favor romanticism over cold hard facts because, well, we always have. It’s absurd to think we’re any different from our ancestors. Just as they married actions with feeling, so have we. Just as ancient men were driven by the heart or apparitions in the night, other men of reason challenged them and vice versa. Finding common ground has always been a struggle, for fate can never be determined ahead of time. The what ifs will eat away at us forever.

There is something we can still rely on though: stories. The cause and effect of everything we do is determined by the cause and effects of yesterday. Stories let us uncover the infinite amount of causes that produce one effect. Naked truth without story has limitations. It is linear and two-dimensional. In today’s world it is clear we’ve overstepped our desire for story. We rarely seek the hidden truths behind a narrative - only the backstory and personhood of the hero.