Ever wonder where the foods you like to eat originally came from? Have you ever wondered how our prehistoric ancestors coped with only the foods they had at hand? First they were hunter-gatherers, then came the development of agriculture that allowed for permanent settlements and the evolution of food plants from something most of us wouldn’t recognize to the foods we eat today.



As an anthropologist who specializes in sustainable agriculture and

food these things fascinate me. Even more interesting, perhaps, is how the food plants made their way from their places of origin to other places, especially with the starch staples all cultures rely on.

Evolution of Maize (Corn)

Evolution of Maize (Corn)

For example, potatoes originated in the highlands of South America, particularly the Peruvian and Chilean Andes, and later became a staple in Ireland and Germany.

So, let’s look at the origins of some of the major staple plant foods:

Potato: Peru and Chile
Corn (Maize): Mesoamerica (central Mexico to parts of present day Central America)
Rice: originated in both Asia and Africa, but

Evolution of Wheat

Evolution of Wheat

theoldest rice cultivation we know of is in China around 10,000 BC. The African variety came later (Oryza glaberrima). The Asian varieties (Oryza sativa) overtook the African as it spread to other regions, including in Africa itself.
Wheat: There are many cerals used as staples, wheat is not the only one, but is perhaps the most important, so I will discuss Triticum aestivum L. It seems to have originated in the Fertile Crescent and Nile Delta.

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4 Comments on Origins of Plant Food Staples

  1. Virgil:
    You’ve probably seen me rhapsodize about Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, but it does a superb job of describing how plants and animals were domesticated — that and a whole lot more.

    Incidentally, here’s a piece I wrote on prehistoric diets quite a few years ago. We would be a helluva lot healthier if we were able to eat fare similar to what our distant forebears were accustomed.


  2. Virgil says:

    Jim, that is an outstanding article, I’d love to do two things:
    1. Can I get permission to publish it verbatim on my blog?
    2. I’d love to discuss a few aspects of the article that I am not sure I completely agree with, but would happily be proved wrong or simply just discuss an opposing view. My take is that prehistoric diets were not, in my opinion, more varied that later diets, particularly the modern US diet, for example. I do agree that during much of history, diets were more restricted, especially for serfs and peasants.

    I could go on, but this is one of the best introductions to paleolithic, mesolithic, and neolithic diets I have seen. The first known agriculture occurred in the Upper Paleolithic or Mesolithic eras. Over time, agriculture actually reduced the variety of foods available, but, with population growth, hunter-gatherers were starting to starve.

  3. Oh, by all means, Virgil. It’s an old article.

    I do find the whole subject really fascinating –and thanks for your kind words.

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