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The Story of Food Plants 



Chief Curatok, Department of Botany 

Leaflet 25 




The Botanical Leaflets of Field Museum are designed to give 
brief, non-technical accounts of various features of plant life, especially 
with reference to the botanical exhibits in Field Museum, and of the 
local flora of the Chicago region. 


No. 1. Figs $ .10 

No. 2. The Coco Palm 10 

No. 3. Wheat 10 

No. 4. Cacao 10 

No. 5. A Fossil Flower 10 

No. 6. The Cannon-ball Tree 10 

No. 7. Spring Wild Flowers 25 

No. 8. Spring and Early Summer Wild Flowers . . .25 

No. 9. Summer Wild Flowers 25 

No. 10. Autumn Flowers and Fruits 25 

No. 11. Common Trees (second edition) 25 

No. 12. Poison Ivy (second edition) 15 

No. 13. Sugar and Sugar-making 25 

No. 14. Indian Corn 25 

No. 15. Spices and Condiments (second edition) ... .25 

No. 16. Fifty Common Plant Galls of the Chicago Area .25 

No. 17. Common Weeds 25 

No. 18. Common Mushrooms 50 

No. 19. Old-Fashioned Garden Flowers 25 

No. 20. House Plants 35 

No. 21. Tea 25 

No. 22. Coffee 25 

No. 23. Carnivorous Plants and "The Man-Eating Tree" .25 

No. 24. Mistletoe and Holly 25 

No. 25. The Story of Food Plants 25 






The Story of Food Plants 



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Field Museum of Natural History 

Chicago, 1940 

Leaflet Number 25 
Copyright 1940 by Field Museum of Natural History 

The Story of Food Plants 

As Illustrated in Field Museum by a Series of 

Seventeen Murals Painted by 

Julius Moessel 

Primitive man, like other creatures of the 
forest and field, was once entirely dependent for 
food on what he could find ready at hand. It is 
probable that from his earliest beginnings he was 
as omnivorous as he has remained ever since; 
though in the course of his progress, as he gained 
some measure of control over his environment, he 
has become more exacting in his choice of food. 
From his progenitors he had inherited a predi- 
lection for the honeycombs of bees, a taste for 
birds' eggs and fledgelings on the nest, and for 
insects and their grubs under the bark of old 
stumps. To such succulent items he soon learned 
to add mussels and fish from tide-pools and 
streams, and the flesh of such birds and mammals 
as he could catch readily or kill with sticks and 
stones. His chief food, however, probably long 
remained the fruits and roots within easy reach 
of his prehensile hands. 

2 Field Museum of Natural History 

In the tropics and sub-tropics, if, as seems 
likely, he originated there, vegetable food of some 
kind was always obtainable, if not always abun- 
dant. But when he gradually spread away from 
his warm homeland into regions with marked 
alterations of seasons, he probably found digging 
for roots in frozen ground little to his liking. 
Like the squirrels and gophers, whose stores he 
robbed at every opportunity, he learned in time 
to make some provision of his own for recurring 
seasonal scarcity, thereby taking a decidedly pro- 
gressive step away from the notorious improvidence 
of his natural kin. Nothing thereafter caused his 
gray matter greater travail, perhaps, than the 
problem presented by a lack of available fruits of 
the earth for winter stores. 

Under favorable circumstances, the wild flora 
of the temperate regions offers a remarkably wide 
selection of edible, though in many cases not 
especially palatable, roots and tubers, succulent 
stalks of herbs, great variety of berries and other 
fruits, quantities of nuts, and small seeds of grasses. 
A list of wild plants recommended as substitutes 
for staple foods was published by the so-called 
Central Powers during the first World War. It 
included an astonishing number of species of 
plants and almost equals the lists that have been 
compiled of the wild food plants of the North 
American Indians. 

All of such plants are not, of course, found in 
any one place; and primitive man, though perhaps 

Primitive man as a food gatherer, western Asia 

4 Field Museum of Natural History 

wide-ranging, like the American Indian, was depend- 
ent on what his particular or temporary locality 
offered. In the Klamath Lake region of northern 
California, where square miles of shallow water are 
covered with the yellow water-lily, the main vege- 
table food of the Indians today consists of the muci- 
laginous seeds contained in the lily pods, which 
are gathered each year and stored to serve winter 
needs. The neighboring Indians to the south, 
where the oaks and pinyon pines abound on the 
hillsides, gather pine seeds and acorns which, 
crushed and leached in hot water, furnish them 
their store of vegetable food. 

At an early stage of his existence as an intelli- 
gent creature, man must have learned that parts 
of plants may sprout and grow again if placed in 
the ground. Many Papuans of today remain in 
the stone age. Taro is one of their staple foods, 
and the tops of the uprooted tubers are carefully 
saved, dried, and replanted. Such a replanting 
furnishes an instance of the simplest form of culti- 
vation. The Papuans clear the forest patch 
selected for such planting, first by chopping down 
the smaller trees with a stone axe, then more 
perfectly by burning. The preserved taro tops 
are planted in holes made with a heavy pointed 
stick, the most primitive agricultural implement. 

Another important food plant of the Papuans, 
the banana, must also be propagated by planting 
parts of its underground stem. The propagation 
of potatoes and yams involves a similar procedure. 

Indians gathering pods of the cow-lily, Klamath Lake, Oregon 

6 Field Museum of Natural History 

In the same manner it must have been discovered 
that, in many cases, parts of aerial stems planted 
in the ground will root, continue to grow, and 
multiply. Sweet potatoes, manioc, and sugar-cane 
are among the important food plants commonly 
reproduced by stem cuttings. 

It may scarcely be doubted that the Papuan 
knows very well that seeds set in the ground will 
produce new plants of their kind, but his taro 
and banana cultivation involves no such principle. 
In the Old World millet and in the New World 
maize were grown from seed in plantations as 
simple as the Papuan's taro patch and on ground 
cleared also by burning the forest. The use of 
fire to clear ground selected for planting seems to 
have been resorted to everywhere within the 
tropics where forested ground is considered essen- 
tial for growing crops, and the practice is still 
prevalent in many places, even where large scale 
plantations are contemplated. Where forests exist, 
the nature and size of the trees furnish a con- 
venient indication of the fertility of the soil and 
of its suitability for cultivation. It is easier to 
clear new ground than to fight weeds, especially 
without efficient agricultural implements. Hence 
the widespread popularity of what has been 
termed "devastation agriculture." This practice 
is responsible for immense damage to the native 
landscape and often results in almost total exter- 
mination of woody plants, so that even firewood 
is scarce in many areas once well forested. 

Papuan planting taro, New Guinea 

8 Field Museum of Natural History 

The primitive planting-stick used on all conti- 
nents became transformed or was replaced in the 
course of time by a wooden instrument, serving 
as a hoe or spade, for weeding and digging. With 
the use of metals, particularly iron, a serviceable 
hoe came into existence and made possible a more 
effective preparation of the ground for the planting 
of food crops. Preliminary clearing and burning 
of the natural vegetation generally continued to 
be performed by the men, who also performed 
the planting, but the subsequent care and harvest- 
ing of crops usually became women's work. The 
use of the hoe as the sole agricultural implement 
still prevails in many places, though hoes vary 
greatly in size and shape in different regions. In 
Africa it is the only agricultural implement for 
the native planting of millet, sorghum, and other 
food plants. On the American continent a corre- 
sponding instrument made at first entirely of 
wood, later of wood and copper, formerly served 
for the cultivation of maize. 

With the domestication of the larger mammals 
and their employment as a source of power, hoe- 
culture, which on the whole is scarcely more than 
a form of gardening and is usually performed by 
women, became in many places of secondary 
importance and was superseded by agriculture, an 
occupation for the male. Man's own muscular 
strength and endurance is, however, insufficient 
for much of the heavy work required for extensive 
cultivation of the ground. The use of draft ani- 



Indians grinding corn in ancient Mexico 

10 Field Museum of Natural History 

mals, of which the ox was doubtless the first to 
be employed as an aid in the preparation of the 
soil, may have originated in the flood-plains of 
the warmer parts of the Old World, where a simple 
type of drag or plow served for stirring the surface 
of alluvial soil along river courses. In Egypt, oxen 
were used; in southeastern Asia, where lowland 
rice became the principal cultivated crop, water 
buffalo furnished the traction. Use of the horse 
and ass for power is a much more recent practice. 
There are still places in Africa where hoe-culture 
persists, side by side with the keeping of cattle 
that are not used for plowing. 

Large areas of the northern continents long 
remained the home of nomadic tribes constantly 
in search of new hunting grounds or fresh pastures 
for their flocks. Before the days of surplus and 
trade, large and permanent populations and settled 
conditions of civilization could develop only where 
a food supply could be produced sufficient and 
reliable enough to insure freedom from famine. 
The early civilizations of which there are significant 
remains in existence grew up in such favored situa- 
tions as Mesopotamia and the valley of the Nile, 
where inundations yearly served to fertilize the 
easily cultivated ground. In most of the temperate 
regions of the world, production of a stable food 
supply has been achieved only through the large- 
scale growing of wheat and other grains, which, 
with their quick and hundred-fold yield, have 
become the chief staple food of civilized man. 

Negro women preparing to plant their crops, southern central Africa 

12 Field Museum of Natural History 

Quantity production of grain requires the 
preparation of extensive stretches of ground for 
broadcast sowing. This has become the type of 
agriculture prevalent over the great grass-covered 
plains of western Asia, eastern Europe, North 
America, and Argentina. It became possible only 
after the domestication of the large and strong 
mammals and with their employment as a source 
of power. There was produced in time also an 
improved plow with a metal cutting edge to break 
and a moldboard to turn the firmly established and 
resistant sod formed by the natural vegetation. 
It has taken mankind a long time to learn that 
grassland, when properly prepared, is many times 
more fertile than even the best of burned-over 
forest soil. In the Old World, millet, several forms 
of wheat, and other small grains grow wild and 
were early introduced into cultivation. More than 
800,000 square miles of the earth's surface are now 
plowed for grain production. 

The civilizations that developed in America 
depended on the native maize or corn as the prin- 
cipal food plant. Its cultivation in precolumbian 
times did not progress beyond a simple form of 
stick or hoe culture, but had spread from one end 
of the continent to the other. 

The ancient Peruvians terraced and irrigated 
the ground of their steep slopes much as do the 
rice-growing farmers of the Philippines and of 
other Eastern countries. The Peruvians also grew 
potatoes and other indigenous tubers suitable 

Preparing the ground for planting potatoes, Peru 

14 Field Museum of Natural History 

to the high altitude at which they lived. The 
cultivable land at their disposal is normally 
covered with a dense natural turf of alpine or 
subalpine herbs, sedges, and grasses. Considerable 
effort is required to prepare such ground for plant- 
ing. Lacking domesticated animals of sufficient 
strength to be of help in this work, they were 
obliged to resort to team work on the part of the 
men. They developed a spade-like instrument, 
the so-called foot-plow, which served to cut and 
lift the sod. Two men to dig and a woman on her 
knees to turn over the loosened sod, constituted a 
working team. On their communal plantations 
today, several such groups may be seen working 
together. After this initial work, the planting, 
weeding, and harvesting are attended to by the 

Plants giving sugar in appreciable quantities 
are less numerous than those which furnish starch. 
The most important is the sugar-cane. Like rice, 
it originated in southeastern Asia. It reached 
Egypt and the Mediterranean by way of Arabia 
and was brought from India by way of the Ma- 
deira and Canary Islands to the New World. 
There, in the West Indies and in Portuguese 
colonies of South America, now eastern Brazil, 
sugar production quickly became a flourishing 
industry. In Brazil climate, soil, abundance of 
African slave labor, and European capital and 
markets combined to make it an immediate success. 
In islands of the West Indies similar conditions 

•v«2 --^-d 4^»«r f'ls&h: 

Rice growing, Philippines 

16 Field Museum of Natural History 

soon brought about an over-production in spite 
of the enormously increased consumption of sugar. 
Other sugar-yielding plants that furnish a portion 
of the world's sugar crop are European sugar-beets 
and African sorghum. 

The most important remaining group of food 
plants comprises those which yield edible oil. This 
oil is generally stored in seeds and fruits. Oil 
thus may be obtained from corn germs, peanuts, 
from sunflower, rape, and cotton seed, and with 
great ease and in quantity from the fruits and 
seeds of various palms, especially the coconut and 
African oil palm. The oil of the olive has been 
well known since ancient times and is so generally 
esteemed above all other edible oils that its source 
and preparation are of special interest. On the 
north coast of Africa and among the Aegean 
Islands there exist certain curious and symmetri- 
cally placed stones that long defied interpretation. 
Recently these were proved beyond doubt to be 
remains of olive presses of an ancient and primitive 
type. Olives, first crushed or bruised by a roller, 
as is done even today, were put in bags and sub- 
jected to pressure, obtained in these ancient presses 
by a stone weight suspended at the end of a lever. 
A rope and pulley arrangement raised and lowered 
the weight. In the production of olive oil, the 
first oil, obtained with least pressure, is clearest 
and most highly esteemed. The last, as in the 
extraction of coconut and palm oil, is obtained 
by boiling the remaining pulp in water. 


1 ■ 

■-- & 

Plowing and broadcast sowing, United States 

18 Field Museum of Natural History 

Because of early difficulties of communication 
and transportation, trade with distant countries 
developed very slowly. But with the gradual 
establishment of caravan routes between distant 
points of the far and near East these became high- 
ways of commerce for the exchange of the most 
valued products of each. Aromatics and spices 
of the Orient began to arrive in the western world, 
where exotic condiments, such as pepper, nutmegs, 
ginger, and cinnamon, were prized as much as 
silks and jewels. More than three thousand 
years ago this trade extended from China and 
India to Arabia, Palestine, and Syria. Much of 
it passed through Babylon, some of it by a more 
northerly route to the Black Sea. During the 
time of the Phoenicians, Damascus, Tyre, and 
Sidon were important centers in a trade that 
extended also to Egypt and to Carthage and even 
beyond the Pillars of Hercules. After the fall of 
the Roman Empire, the trade of the Near East 
remained for some time largely in the hands of the 
Persians; later it passed to the Arabs, who supplied 
the eastern Mediterranean from Egypt to the 

After the tenth century, the commerce in prod- 
ucts of the East was taken over by Italian cities : 
Naples, Amain, Pisa, and especially Venice with its 
Mediterranean fleet in contact with all Levantine 
ports. The commercial pre-eminence of Venice came 
to an end at the close of the fifteenth century with the 
rapid development of water-borne commerce after 



Threshing with flails, Europe 

20 Field Museum of Natural History 

the circumnavigation of Africa and of the world by 
the venturous mariners of Portugal who initiated 
an era of geographical discoveries. Merchantmen 
of other European nations soon embarked on long 
journeys to strange lands and began to bring the 
products of far corners of the earth directly to the 
cities of Western Europe. The slow and costly 
overland caravan transportation, always exposed 
to bandit attacks, excessive ransoms, and toll-gate 
levies, declined; and the center of the world's com- 
merce shifted from eastern Mediterranean to 
Atlantic ports. The historic visit of French mer- 
chants of St. Malo to Yemen, the chief coffee 
district of Arabia, described by La Roque in his 
voyage to Arabia Felix, was an event typical of 
the beginnings of the modern trade by which the 
special products of distant parts of the world are 
being made readily available everywhere. 

Much as man's dietary has been enriched by 
world-wide trade, a still more fundamental improve- 
ment in it has gradually taken place through the 
introduction into all continents of the most valu- 
able food plants of other parts of the world. The 
odor of onions and garlic of western Asia now meets 
the nostrils of the traveler in all ports. Wheat 
from western Asia and Abyssinia has long been 
grown on the plains of eastern Europe. It now 
covers the broad acres also of North American 
and Argentine farms. The banana of the oriental 
tropics is now grown in enormous quantities and 
in many varieties in all warmer parts of the world. 

Colonial sugar plantation in Brazil 

22 Field Museum of Natural History 

There is scarcely a hut between the Tropics of 
Capricorn and Cancer so remote, or of family so 
poor, that it can not boast of at least one clump 
of bananas. Citrus fruits of southeastern Asia 
are grown on all continents, and the mango tree of 
India is planted almost everywhere below the 
frost-line. Rice from southern Asia is produced 
for export in several of our Gulf States and in 
various American countries. Sugar-cane of India 
has become the principal crop of Cuba and other 
West Indian islands, though African sorghum or 
European sugar-beets take its place in many 
districts in Europe and in the United States. The 
watermelon of Africa has become as thoroughly 
established and naturalized in North America as 
have the apples, pears, and peaches of western Asia. 
The Abyssinian coffee tree transplanted to the 
New World now furnishes the main revenue crop 
of more than a half dozen Latin American nations. 

Conversely, the African coast has become one 
of the chief producers of American cacao beans, 
and Africa has adopted as its principal food plants 
the corn, peanuts, manioc, and sweet potatoes 
of the New World. These have in fact become 
established in Africa to the practical exclusion of 
original native crops; except for some millets, 
sorghum, and yams, it is now difficult to conjecture 
what must have been the staple vegetable food of 
the Africans before the transatlantic slave trade 
led to the introduction of American crop plants 
in the black man's continent. 

— 4_U I 

A primitive olive press, northern Africa 

24 Field Museum of Natural History 

Far-off Java has become the exporter of tapioca, 
prepared from starch of the South American 
manioc (mandioca or cassava); India is the pur- 
veyor of cashew nuts. Maize, unquestionably 
the foremost food plant of American origin, has 
become important in other parts of the world, as 
for example in the Balkan countries. 

The greatest contribution to the white man's 
food supply was made when, after the discovery of 
America, the potato in use among the Indians of 
southern Chile was transported across the sea and 
planted in France and Germany, "ending forever the 
danger of European famine." It finally returned 
to America and reached the United States by way 
of the British Isles. After wheat, it is now our 
most indispensable vegetable food. The present 
North American consumption of potatoes is esti- 
mated at almost a million bushels a day, the world 
production at more than four billion bushels 
annually. It has been pointed out that a single 
year's production of this crop alone is worth 
immensely more than all the gold obtained by 
Spain through its conquest of Mexico and Peru. 

Other edible tubers of the Andean region are 
cultivated locally, but because they are grown 
only at high altitudes have never come into general 
use. Peppers, tomatoes, lima and kidney beans, 
squash, and pumpkin are other well known Ameri- 
can contributions to the world's food supply. 

The origin of a large proportion of our food 
plants and the place and time of their first cultiva- 

Caravan north of the Persian Gulf 

26 Field Museum of Natural History 

tion is difficult or impossible to determine with 
certainty. Written records pertain only to historic 
time. It is, however, certain that the history of 
cultivated plants does not begin with Egypt or 
Mesopotamia. Archaeological remains may yield 
in time further information but in the end are 
likely to remain inadequate. In spite of recent 
significant discoveries of ancient human remains 
in Europe, in Africa, and in Asia, the history of 
early man remains largely a matter of infer- 
ence and speculation. Botanical evidence, how- 
ever, is increasing. Of many cultivated food 
plants the wild forms are well known; of others 
there are known only related wild forms that can 
not be said to be ancestral, and the original wild 
forms of some of these have apparently disappeared 
or are still undiscovered or unrecognized. 

Botanical explorations in Asia have revealed 
various subtropical regions in which many of the 
cultivated plants of the Old World exist in great 
abundance and variety. In other large regions, 
very few cultivated forms are to be found. In 
the absence of any precise knowledge of changes 
in the distribution of plants resulting from altera- 
tions in climate since the first appearance of man 
on the earth, it seems entirely reasonable to as- 
sume that the origin and place of the original cul- 
tivation of crop and food plants are to be found 
in areas where they or their nearest relatives still 
grow spontaneously, most abundantly, and in their 
greatest variety. 

Early French coffee buyers in Arabia 

28 Field Museum of Natural History 

On this basis, the Russian agro-botanist, N. I. 
Vavilov, famous for his inquiries into this question, 
comes to the conclusion that the cultivation of most 
of the important food plants of temperate regions 
originated in mountain or foot-hill zones adjacent 
to the extensions of the Himalayas and other 
mountains of Asia, the mountains of Abyssinia in 
Africa, and the Andes of South America. He lists 
six principal centers as shown on an adjoining map. 
Five of these are in the Old World, one in the New. 
They are as follows: 

(1) Southwestern Asia, the most important 
Old World center of cultivated plants, including 
soft and club wheat, rye, also broad beans, peas, 
and lentils, carrots and turnips, apples, pears, 
quinces, plums, sweet cherries, almonds, and pome- 
granates; (2) southeastern Asia, including the 
mountains of eastern China, which has given rise 
to forms of oats and barley, soy beans, millet, 
various cultivated vegetables, and citrus fruits; 
(3) northeastern India, Indo-China, and Burma, 
the home of sugar-cane and rice; (4) northern 
Africa, especially Abyssinia, with numerous forms 
of durum wheats, oats, barley, millet, and peas; 
(5) the Mediterranean region, with figs and olives; 
and finally (6) the Andean region of South America 
to southern Mexico, with important early centers 
of cultivation of maize, potatoes, peppers, toma- 
toes, lima beans, etc. 

These principal areas enumerated by Vavilov 
are chiefly mountainous regions in which are now 

T t -i -■- • ■ 

iT 5 - ■ 

A wholesale vegetable market 

30 Field Museum of Natural History 

concentrated almost half of the population of the 
world. They account for the probable geographical 
origin of all the most important cultivated food 
plants. Of the remainder, he considers some 
regions, such as the Philippines, the Kaffir corn 
region of Africa, and perhaps one or two others, as 
possibly important enough to be considered geo- 
graphical centers of lesser rank. 

In all of these places some form of cultivation 
doubtless originated independently in the distant 
past. How distant can only be conjectured as 
long as geological and anthropological time scales 
differ widely. The botanical evidence indicates 
that the cultivation of food plants, if not actually 
as old as man, is at least vastly more ancient than 
was formerly supposed. 


Open air market in southern Mexico 


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Human ecology. Oxford University Press, London. 1935. 

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Peru as a center of domestication of animals and plants. Journal 
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De Candolle, A. 
Origine des plantes cultivees. Paris. 1886. Origin of cultivated 
plants. New York. 1890. 

Gildemeister, E., and Hoffmann, Fr. 

The volatile oils. Milwaukee Pharmaceutical Review. 1900. 

King, F. H. 

Farmers of forty centuries. Madison, Wis. 1911. 

Laufer, B. 

Sino-Iranica. Field Mus. Nat. Hist., Anthr. Ser., vol. 15, no. 3. 
Chicago. 1919. 

Peake, H. 

The origins of agriculture. Ernest Benn Ltd., London. 1928. 

Sapper, Karl 

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Mexico and Central America as the principal centre of origin of 

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and Plant Breeding, vol. 26, no. 3, pp. 135-200. Leningrad. 

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of the world. Rept. 2nd Int. Congr. of Soil Sci., pp. 80-85. 

Leningrad. 1930. 
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Leningrad. 1931. 
Wild progenitors of the fruit trees of Turkestan and the Caucasus 

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Int. Hort. Cong. (1930) 1931. 








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