Could the Aho (Indigenous Sweet Potato) have supported advanced cultures in the Southeast?
In 1939, archaeologist Robert Wauchope discovered densely populated corridors along the Chattahoochee River from Helen to Columbus and the Oconee River’s tributaries in Metro Atlanta that had been occupied almost continuously from the Early Woodland Period (c. 1000 BC) to the 1700s. Later archeological studies have found almost no evidence of corn cultivation in this region before around 800 AD. This goes against a basic orthodoxy of American Archeology today.
Back in 1969, archaeologist Arthur Kelly postulated that the four species of feral sweet potatoes that grow along the Chattahoochee River in Metro Atlanta were the descendants of a domesticated sweet potato that was selectively cultivated from a North American morning glory. He believed that indigenous crops such as the sweet potato, sunflower, squash, Jerusalem artichoke, amaranth, pawpaw, southern wild rice, etc. made possible the flourishing of permanent towns long before the arrival of corn and beans from the south.
Dr. Arthur Kelly was always respected by academicians and archaeologists in other parts of the United States, but for the last ten years of his life, he was ostracized by most of his professional peers in Dixie because of his belief that agriculture came very early to the Southeast and that later on immigrants from Mesoamerica brought corn and beans with them. They presumed that he was a wacko because he went against orthodoxy.
Was Dr. Kelly really so crazy to put the sweet potato in the Lower Southeast 2000 years before history books said it arrived? POOF will take a look at the facts, associated with the sweet potato.
The Sweet Potato is one of the most nutritious foods that one can eat. Although by volume, it contains 1/10th the protein and carbohydrates of wheat or corn, it contains vastly higher levels of vitamins and key minerals necessary for metabolism. While one large sweet potato could provide a satisfying breakfast or lunch for most people, a handful of dry wheat kernels would not. Humans could live much longer on a diet composed solely of sweet potatoes than they could one composed of grains.
The Sweet Potato composed a major portion of Southerners’ diets until after the Depression. During the Depression, many poor folks in the Southeast subsisted almost entirely on corn bread, sweet potatoes, beans, “greens” and a little salted pork.
Because Sweet Potatoes were associated with “hard times,” many Southern households switched to mass-produced white bread as their principal carbohydrate, when greater prosperity arrived after World War II. The result has been a stark rise in diabetes, obesity, organ atrophy due to celiac intolerance and anti-oxidant vitamin deficiencies. The switch from sweet potatoes and corn bread to white wheat bread has been particularly harmful to Muskogeans, who are particularly intolerant of wheat bread.
So . . . yes . . . the sweet potato is a superior source of nutrition when compared to corn or wheat. Their cultivation could have easily supported permanent villages.
The disadvantage of a sweet potatoes is that they cannot be dried and stored for long periods in baskets. During the Mississippian Cultural Period corn became a commodity that was stored in royal warehouses and used as a trade item to obtain goods from other regions. Bulky sweet potatoes would not have been as suitable for trade between provinces.
Thus, sweet potatoes would be an ideal staple crop in conjunction with other indigenous crops for supporting dense clusters of egalitarian “Woodland Culture” villages. It would not be an ideal commodity for a large town that controlled a large province that was involved with regional trade. Of course, the densely populated corridors of modest villages is exactly what Robert Wauchope found.
What the colonial archives say
First of all, ignore what Wikipedia and most anthropology books say. Sweet potatoes were definitely being grown in the Southeast when the first European explorers arrived and did not first appear on early 18th century South Carolina Coastal Plantations.
Christopher Columbus ate sweet potatoes in Taino villages in the Caribbean Basin, while on his first voyage. Sweet potatoes were definitely being cultivated in Cuba when the Spaniards arrived there around 1500. The distance between Cuba and the Florida Keys is a long day’s canoe ride.
As stated in an earlier POOF article, in 1567 Captain Juan Pardo passed through a village in the South Carolina Low Country, named Aho (Ajo in Spanish) which specialized in the cultivation of sweet potatoes. Ajo is the Creek and Southern Arawak word for sweet potato. In 1653, Richard Briggstock mentioned that sweet potatoes were one of the favorite foods of the Apalache in Northeast Georgia. [Rae & Thornton (2013) The Apalache Chronicles]. In his History of the American Indians (1775) James Adair mentioned that sweet potatoes were one of the favorite foods of the Creek Indians and that the Sweet Potato Clan was one of the oldest Creek clans.
The surviving versions of the chronicles of the Hernando de Soto Expedition do not specifically mention sweet potatoes. However, several versions state that the Chalique/Chilique in South Carolina lived on wild game and “roots they dug from the ground.” The description may refer to Jerusalem artichokes, but the bulkier sweet potato would have been a more complete form of nutrition. Chiliki is the Totonac/Itza Maya/Creek word for less sophisticated tribes that speak an unintelligible language.
Varieties of Sweet Potatoes
It was the first of many cultural shocks that I had in my first stay in Mexico. I awoke from my first night in the Soto House in Colonia Nueva Sta. Maria in Mexico City to the shouts of a camote vendor. He was baking at least a half dozen types of sweet potatoes in a steamer. I only recognized one of them.
My new Mexican family explained that there were many varieties of sweet potatoes in Latin America. They could be orange, yellow, red, pink, white, beige, brown (yes chocolate brown!) purple, purple and white, orange and white, starchy like a white potato or so sweet that baked cubes are sold as candy in confection shops.
North Americans typically only know one variety, the Beauregard, which was developed in the mid-20th century as a standardized orange colored potato, well-suited for transcontinental shipment and longevity in supermarket bins. Like the lack of genetic diversification in many other North American crops, this practice is a sure recipe for disaster in the future.
Dr. Arthur Kelly’s team found that the indigenous sweet potatoes in the Chattahoochee River Valley had single, massive roots like the sugar beet. In personal communication, Kelly described the taste of the feral indigenous sweet potato to be mildly sweet, like a banana. Cultivated aho may have been sweeter. Some of these single root varieties sweet potatoes can be found in the most remote parts of the Caribbean Region and Amazon Basin.
Most sweet potatoes cultivated around the world today are descended from the kumara. It is a multi-tuber type of sweet potato that was selectively developed by Quechua -speaking peoples in Peru from the original plant, which was earlier domesticated around 5,000 BC in southern Central America or perhaps the Orinoco River Basin of northern South America. The kumara can only be propagated with root cuttings. Interestingly enough, the Polynesian word for sweet potato is also the Quechua word, kumara.
In late 2015, POOF ran an article on Yaupon Holly. It is a thornless holly used to make a tea called the Sacred Black Drink. Both the plant and beverage are called ase in Creek. The Asian tea plant is a member of the holly family.
The several tribes, composing the Panoan Peoples of Eastern Peru also make a Sacred Black Drink from a thornless holly. They also call their beverage and plant, ase. Ossabaw Island, GA was originally named Asebo Island and was known for its large fields of cultivated Yaupon Holly. Asebo means “Place of the Holly beverage” in the Panoan languages of Peru. That was our first evidence that South Americans came to the Southeast.
The Ase plants of the Southeast and Eastern Peru are closely related, but not the same plant. The only place that the Yaupon Holly grows naturally, other than the Southeastern United States is in the vicinity of the Maya city of Palenque in Southern Mexico. Of course, Palenque is also a city that used attapulgite from the region of Georgia, where Yaupon Holly grows, to make its Maya blue.
Apparently, Panoan immigrants to the Southeast saw a holly plant that looked like the one back home. They used its leaves to make Sacred Black Drink and gave it the same name.
It is very likely that a similar process resulted in the development of an indigenous sweet potato in the Southeastern United States. Immigrants from Peru encountered a bushy morning glory with a moderately sweet tuber. They selectively cultivated this morning glory to produce a larger, sweeter tuber and gave it the same name as their Sweet Potato back home, aho.
And now you know!
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