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Utah archeologists uncover the ancient roots of local potatoes

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SALT LAKE CITY — Could this be North America's oldest potato? Researchers at the University of Utah say yes.

Lisbeth Louderback, assistant professor of anthropology and curator of archaeology at the Natural History Museum of Utah, said it all started five years ago when she was able to study stone tools found on a dig in Escalante, Utah. There was one in particular that piqued her interest.

"This was the only one that dates to 10,900 years ago so it's amazing that they found this tiny fragment," Louderback says as she holds the ancient tool.

She said the fragment belonged to a stone slab historically used to grind grains, fruits, vegetables and even meat. So she tested microscopic samples from crevices in the tool and found potato starch grains.

The big question: was this type of potato still growing after nearly 11,000 years? Louderback had her doubts.

“A lot of the time withind archaeology record you are looking at plant foods that don't grow on the landscape anymore,” she said.

But after years of research her team found five small “Four Corners Potato” populations thriving in Escalante. Her team even found locals domesticating it, not even knowing its rich history. Even though the Escalante area was previously known as “Potato Valley” to early settlers.

Louderback said this was the first archaeological study to identify Solanum jamesii, the spud-bearing species native to the southwestern United States, as an important part of the native diet.

She said several Native American tribes, including Apache, Hopi, Kawaik, Navajo, Southern Paiute, Tewa, Zia and Zuni, consumed S. jamesii, using various cooking techniques, including boiling, grinding and mixing the potatoes with clay to reduce bitterness.

"Every once in a while you will come upon something in the ground where you just know that's a moment in time,” she said about the find.

Bruce Pavlik, director of conservation at Red Butte Garden, is the study’s co-author and planted some of the potatoes in one of the Red Butte greenhouses. He hopes by enlisting the Escalante community, it will help conserve the plants and their rich history.

“It’s hard to persuade the general public to care about rare plants. But this one has a real history associated with native people, with pioneers, with folks living though the depression and with the residents in Escalante today,” Pavlik said. “Across the range, it should be treated as an antiquity, in a sense.”

Louderback and Pavlik are collaborating with the United States Department of Agriculture, who are mining S.Jamesii’s DNA for unique genes.

“It's resistant to some diseases, it's resistant to drought and to frost and it even has some medicinal properties,” Louderback said. "The fact that it has this long history doesn't surprise me sometimes that it's a unique food resource and we should still take advantage of it.”

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Ashley Moser


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