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Could the Aho (Indigenous Sweet Potato) have supported advanced cultures in the Southeast?

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.

Traditional cultivation method of the ajo.  Note that in the background  are bean vines growing on corn and sunflowers.   While 20th century archaeologists believed that stone hoes were proof of agriculture being at a Native village, these farmers are merely using digging sticks.

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.

NativeSweetPotatoDr. 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.

SweetPotatoes-4Most 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.

Yaupon-Map-notesCultural connections

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.

The bloom of the cultivated South American sweet potato is identical to the blooms of several morning glory species in the Southeast.

The bloom of the cultivated South American sweet potato is identical to the blooms of several morning glory species in the Southeast.

 

And now you know!

 

 

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.

17 Comments

  1. justawriter22@gmail.com'

    the more of these articles of yours ‘ you post on food and agriculture, the more I find myself nodding my head in agreement with what I knew a long time ago.
    You really need to look into groundhogs.
    And maybe certain species of squirrels.
    They raised livestock too, ye know it.

    Reply
  2. Hey Suzanne!

    You left out possums! I ate many a possum and taters as a kid, cooked by my Creek grandparents. The possums were fed cornbread and buttermilk for two weeks. After being butchered my grandmother parboiled them to render out the fat, then baked them with sweet potatoes.

    In the first half of my adult life, I was a professional farmer – no joke. Got on the cover of Country Life Magazine and was named US SCS Farmer of the Year. Now I just grow most of my own veggies in a mini-terrace complex.

    Reply
    • csmoke@webound.com'

      I have wanted some morning glory flowers… so if I plant some sweet potato cubes, I will have morning glories? My ggrandmother had them, but I did not kow….

      Ggreatgrandmother tried cooking a possum, but did not know to pre render out the grease…. it was not appetizing , pan 1/2 full oil.
      we were more beans and cornbread people..:o)

      Reply
    • justawriter22@gmail.com'

      My father’s father always was said to enjoy a young possum above anything else for supper. He even kept them caged or in a wire pen so he could “get the wild taste outta them’ before he got the ole woman to cook them. She fed them stale cornbread and buttermilk for at least six weeks before wacking them in the head and skinning them. Aftger the insides were removed, she would even sew the belly back shut with bamboo slivers after filling the inerds with onions, sweet potatoes, and wild sage leaves. I never net either one Richard. I Had all the oral history about them told to me,
      You got it right on the trade routes and them. Bingo.
      Somehow, I can guess you and I are related. I am blood kin to so many very old families. Just saying.
      🙂

      Reply
      • We well could be related. About 20 years ago, when I was studying my mother’s family genealogy, I noticed that throughout the late 1700s and 1800s, family members would go to the same towns in Georgia and South Carolina – 50 to 180 miles away – to meet future spouses. We finally figured out that it was the Creek ban on marrying people, who are closely related. Everybody in their village in Elbert County were closely related. That is why Eastern Creeks do not have the problem with diabetes and other inherited diseases that are so common among other Native Americans.

        Reply
  3. bsrfitness@gmail.com'

    Hi Richard, you wrote an article about the Coosa sometime ago. Is there a connection between the Cape Fear Chief, Wat Coosa and the Coosa you wrote about?

    Thanks

    Reply
    • If the article before 2015, it is inaccurate, ethnologically. When I started learning the Panoan languages from Peru, I realized that the elite of Coosa in NW Georgia were either the same people as the Cusabo in South Carolina or else both peoples came from Eastern Peru. Wat Coosa could well have originated among the Coosaw or Cusabo in South Carolina. The Creeks often sold their excess nobility to other tribes around the Southeast, because they were so tall and well-educated.

      Reply
  4. geomatical@hotmail.com'

    Always heard Dan’l Boone died from eating too many sweet potatoes.

    Reply
    • I thought that you were kidding, but by golly, Daniel Boone did die of some form of indigestion after eating too many candied sweet potatoes. It said that throughout his life, Boone was extremely fond of sweet potatoes. Apparently, all the sugar or honey added to the yams was too much for him. I eat my sweet taters hunter-gatherer style (baked) so there is no danger of getting too much sugar!

      Reply
    • David, Robin Naniex lives near 9FU14 and has all those different varieties of morning glories on her land. I know that it has been 46 years, but do you remember which flower colors correspond to the ones with sweet potato roots? Dr. Kelly later showed me photos of the plants and tubers then told me about his experiences with the wild sweet potatoes, but I had no clue at the time that they would be significant in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century. Also, do you remember if any of the roots are toxic, in case she eats the wrong roots? I would hate to loose a loyal POOF reader!

      Reply
  5. naneix@aol.com'

    i have those wild morning glory potatoes and other forms of sweet potatoes all over my land…i live in that agricultural corridor along the chattahoochee between annewake mound and six flags mound..my friend told me they were leftovers from an earlier time, also have that ceremonial plant used to smudge things all over the place .i have been wanting to dig them up and eat them…my friend eats them…also isnt there a blue holly clan in the cherokee, along with the sweet potato clan
    all of these things are just the language waiting to be read…thank you so very much for your ongoing diligence in the discovery of our history

    Reply
    • Hey Robin!

      I sent an email to David Barrow, who worked at Site 9FU14, to see if he can help you identify which morning glories on your land have edible tubers.

      There is a Cherokee Blue Holly Clan, but the name refers to a wild holly that grows here in the mountains. There are a lot of them behind my cabin. The Yaupon Holly only grows naturally in the Coastal Plan, far removed from anywhere the Cherokees lived. The Sacred Black Drink was not a Cherokee custom, although some now claim it because they live near former Creek town sites.

      There is no Cherokee Sweet Potato Clan. It is called the Wild Potato Clan, which probably refers to the Jerusalem Artichoke (a type of sunflower). The Jerusalem Artichoke was a cultivated crop, but after the Muskogean towns were abandoned in the Great European Disease Holocaust, the Jerusalem Artichoke went feral and now is a common plant on the sides of cultivated fields and road rights-of-way. They are now endemic all the way north to the Shenandoah Valley.

      Thanks

      Richard T.

      Reply
      • naneix@aol.com'

        oh thank you soo much…will look forward to David Barrow if he contacts me…i will photo the potato plants and again when they bloom

        Reply
        • Actually, we would love to have an article with the photos of the plants in them. I think that these plants are critical for understanding the early history of the indigenous people in Georgia.

          I have not heard from David Barrow yet.

          Thanks

          Richard

          Reply
        • iwg42@hotmail.com'

          Hey Robin,
          Would you be willing to share some of your morning glories with others in POOF? I would like to have some for my garden.
          Thanks
          Wayne Ivey

          Reply
  6. justawriter22@gmail.com'

    I can’t get this article on sweet potatoes outta my mind Richard.
    One thing I do know, certain plants always grow where old homesteads used to be.
    We have all witnessed the pink cluster roses, we called them seven sister roses.
    Orange and black lilies. Tiger lilies. etc.
    Those spots always were crawling with swaths of morning glories in bloom. My father used to haul us kids around to gather fruit from old apple and plum/peach trees….
    poisonous sweet potatoes? seems like I remember hearing the tiny red ones with the odd shaped leaves were not good to handle. But I don’t remember hearing anything about them being poison. Just psychedelic. And being able to induce sweats from tea.

    Reply

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