Of all the plants that humanity has turned into crops, none is more puzzling than the sweet potato. Indigenous people of Central and South America grew it on farms for generations, and Europeans discovered it when Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean.
In the 18th century, however, Captain Cook stumbled across sweet potatoes again — over 4,000 miles away, on remote Polynesian islands. European explorers later found them elsewhere in the Pacific, from Hawaii to New Guinea.
The distribution of the plant baffled scientists. How could sweet potatoes arise from a wild ancestor and then wind up scattered across such a wide range? Was it possible that unknown explorers carried it from South America to countless Pacific islands?
An extensive analysis of sweet potato DNA, published on Thursday in Current Biology, comes to a controversial conclusion: Humans had nothing to do with it. The bulky sweet potato spread across the globe long before humans could have played a part — it’s a natural traveler.
Some agricultural experts are skeptical. “This paper does not settle the matter,” said Logan J. Kistler, the curator of archaeogenomics and archaeobotany at the Smithsonian Institution.
Alternative explanations remain on the table, because the new study didn’t provide enough evidence for exactly where sweet potatoes were first domesticated and when they arrived in the Pacific. “We still don’t have a smoking gun,” Dr. Kistler said.
The sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, is one of the most valuable crops in the world, providing more nutrients per farmed acre than any other staple. It has sustained human communities for centuries. (In North America, it often is referred to as a yam; in fact, yams are a different species originating in Africa and Asia.)
Scientists have offered a number of theories to explain the wide distribution of I. batatas. Some scholars proposed that all sweet potatoes originated in the Americas, and that after Columbus’s voyage, they were spread by Europeans to colonies such as the Philippines. Pacific Islanders acquired the crops from there.
As it turned out, though, Pacific Islanders had been growing the crop for generations by the time Europeans showed up. On one Polynesian island, archaeologists have found sweet potato remains dating back over 700 years.
A radically different hypothesis emerged: Pacific Islanders, masters of open-ocean navigation, picked up sweet potatoes by voyaging to the Americas, long before Columbus’s arrival there. The evidence included a suggestive coincidence: In Peru, some indigenous people call the sweet potato cumara. In New Zealand, it’s kumara.
A potential link between South America and the Pacific was the inspiration for Thor Heyerdahl’s famous 1947 voyage aboard the Kon-Tiki. He built a raft, which he then successfully sailed from Peru to the Easter Islands.
Genetic evidence only complicated the picture. Examining the plant’s DNA, some researchers concluded that sweet potatoes arose only once from a wild ancestor, while other studies indicated that it happened at two different points in history.
According to the latter studies, South Americans domesticated sweet potatoes, which were then acquired by Polynesians. Central Americans domesticated a second variety that later was picked up by Europeans.
Hoping to shed light on the mystery, a team of researchers recently undertook a new study — the biggest survey of sweet potato DNA yet. And they came to a very different conclusion.
“We find very clear evidence that sweet potatoes could arrive in the Pacific by natural means,” said Pablo Muñoz-Rodríguez, a botanist at the University of Oxford. He believes the wild plants traveled thousands of miles across the Pacific without any help from humans.
Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez and his colleagues visited museums and herbariums around the world to take samples of sweet potato varieties and wild relatives. The researchers used powerful DNA-sequencing technology to gather more genetic material from the plants than possible in earlier studies.
Their research pointed to only one wild plant as the ancestor of all sweet potatoes. The closest wild relative is a weedy flower called Ipomoea trifida that grows around the Caribbean. Its pale purple flowers look a lot like those of the sweet potato.
Instead of a massive, tasty tuber, I. trifida grows only a pencil-thick root. “It’s nothing we could eat,” Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez said.
The ancestors of sweet potatoes split from I. trifida at least 800,000 years ago, the scientists calculated. To investigate how they arrived in the Pacific, the team headed to the Natural History Museum in London.
The leaves of sweet potatoes that Captain Cook’s crew collected in Polynesia are stored in the museum’s cabinets. The researchers cut bits of the leaves and extracted DNA from them.
The Polynesian sweet potatoes turned out to be genetically unusual — “very different from anything else,” Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez said.
The sweet potatoes found in Polynesia split off over 111,000 years ago from all other sweet potatoes the researchers studied. Yet humans arrived in New Guinea about 50,000 years ago, and only reached remote Pacific islands in the past few thousand years.
The age of Pacific sweet potatoes made it unlikely that any humans, Spanish or Pacific Islander, carried the species from the Americas, Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez said.
Traditionally, researchers have been skeptical that a plant like a sweet potato could travel across thousands of miles of ocean. But in recent years, scientists have turned up signs that many plants have made the voyage, floating on the water or carried in bits by birds.
Even before the sweet potato made the journey, its wild relatives traveled the Pacific, the scientists found. One species, the Hawaiian moonflower, lives only in the dry forests of Hawaii — but its closest relatives all live in Mexico.
The scientists estimate that the Hawaiian moonflower separated from its relatives — and made its journey across the Pacific — over a million years ago.
But Tim P. Denham, an archaeologist at the Australian National University who was not involved in the study, found this scenario hard to swallow.
It would suggest that the wild ancestors of sweet potatoes spread across the Pacific and were then domesticated many times over — yet wound up looking the same every time. “This would seem unlikely,” he said.
Dr. Kistler argued that it was still possible that Pacific Islanders voyaged to South America and returned with the sweet potato.
A thousand years ago, they might have encountered many sweet potato varieties on the continent. When Europeans arrived in the 1500s, they likely wiped out much of the crop’s genetic diversity.
As a result, Dr. Kistler said, the surviving sweet potatoes of the Pacific only seem distantly related to the ones in the Americas. If the scientists had done the same study in 1500, Pacific sweet potatoes would have fit right in with other South American varieties.
Dr. Kistler was optimistic that the sweet potato debate would someday be settled. The world’s herbariums contain a vast number of varieties that have yet to be genetically tested.
“There are more than we could look at in a lifetime,” Dr. Kistler said.
For his part, Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez plans on searching for more wild sweet potato relatives in Central America, hoping to get more clues to how exactly a thin-rooted weed gave rise to an invaluable crop.
Working out the history of crops like this could do more than satisfy our curiosity about the past. Wild plants hold a lot of genetic variants lost when people domesticated crops.
Researchers may find plants they can hybridize with domesticated sweet potatoes and other crops, endowing them with genes for resistance to diseases, or for withstanding climate change.
“Essentially, it’s preserving the gene pool that feeds the world,” Dr. Kistler said.
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