Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Utah Researchers: Petite Potatoes Offer New Insights Into Ancient Life

A petite potato is putting Garfield County in the scientific spotlight this week. That’s where Utah researchers say they’ve found evidence of the earliest use of wild spuds in North America.

The story begins with U of U archaeologist Lisbeth Louderback, who's also a curator at the Natural History Museum of Utah. A few years ago, she was studying what ancient people ate when they lived in Escalante’s canyons. She was stumped when she discovered microscopic food particles on a grinding tool, called a “mano,” then intrigued. Tubers generally don’t survive in the archaeological record.

“This is a new food resource archaeologists didn't know about,” Louderback thought to herself, “and now I've got to figure out what it is.”

Red Butte Garden botanist Bruce Pavlik was also on the project.

“It just came down to doing a lot of walking around,” he recalls, “climbing some cliffs, driving endlessly down dirt roads – again, trying to imagine: ‘Well if that plant is around somewhere, where would it like to grow?’’ “

Pavlik, who’s married to Louderback, was scouting with her when they first spotted the dainty plants shaded under sagebrush.

Now they’re telling their story in a scientific journal: How people of the Four Corners region have had these potatoes on the menu for almost 11,000 years.

“That was a huge discovery,” Louderback says, “and actually a huge validation for us to find it still growing -- especially so close to the archaeological site.”

That’s the North Creek Shelter, a shallow, cliff-side alcove that had been used by ancestors of Hopi, Zuni and Paiute Indians. And Mormon settlers who moved in later also ate the small spuds.

Now they grow wild on land where Joette-Marie Rex and her husband host tourists, and she imagines a day when they’re on the B&B guest menu.

“Food connects people period,” says Rex. “So, the fact that we would have food that comes from such an ancient source is really a powerful connection in my mind.”

The petite, prehistoric potatoes tend to be smaller than golf balls, and they’re genetically distinct from grocery store varieties. The researchers say they have a future because they’re also tasty and super-nutritious.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.