10 Foods Natives Had Before Europeans


Much confusion surrounds Indigenous foods. "Before 1492, tomatoes, potatoes, wild rice, salmon, pumpkins, peanuts, bison, chocolate, vanilla, blueberries and corn, among other foods, were unknown in Europe, Africa and Asia. Today, we think of tomatoes as an Italian staple, of potatoes as quintessentially Irish or northern European, and even of peanuts as native to Africa. But Native American farmers cultivated and developed these foods over hundreds of generations, long before Europeans exported them throughout the world," explains Kevin Gover (Pawnee), director of the National Museum of the American Indian Smithsonian Institution, in the foreword for The Mitsitam Café Cookbook: Recipes from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian by executive chef Richard Hetzler.

Many of the foods people love today have grown and been planted, stewarded and eaten on Turtle Island for centuries, if not millennia.

Indian Country Today Media Network has rounded up a list of 10 key plants, nuts, seeds, berries and roots that Natives have farmed and foraged for time immemorial in the present-day Americas. In a second installment, we'll feature some of the indigenous game, fish and shellfish our ancestors fished and hunted pre-European contact.

1. Tomatoes

It is a common misconception that tomatoes are of Italian origin, but in fact, they first grew in South America, with seven species flourishing from Chile to Ecuador. Birds are believed to have carried their seeds northward, spreading them in present-day Mexico as early as 800 B.C. Aztecs embraced the red tomato as they did their green husk tomato, or tomatillo, native to Mesoamerica.

Europeans, however, initially feared the bright red fruit, considering them poisonous.

2. Potatoes

People typically associate potatoes with the Irish, often forgetting that it was the pre-Inka peoples in the highlands of Peru who domesticated potatoes between 3700 and 3000 B.C.

When explorers first returned to Europe with samples of the tubers in the 1500s, they were received with suspicion. Once they became accepted, Europeans still struggled to recognize the potato's agricultural and culinary possibilities, despite the fact that Inka farmers had developed varieties of potatoes suited to every climate, from tropical to high-altitude, according to The Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook.

North America didn't see potatoes until Irish immigrants introduced them in the 1700s.

Today, Peruvian markets display a vastly more colorful array of potatoes than anywhere else in the world.

Hundreds of varieties of potatoes in Peru (Flickr Creative Commons/rrunaway)

3. Maize (corn)

In the 1600s and 1700s, many European colonists considered maize inferior to wheat, because the gluten-free grain does not, combined with yeast, make bread rise. Eventually, settlers adapted Native recipes to create cornbread patties, known as johnnycakes, by mixing maize flour with water and eggs.

Arepas are considered the corn breads of the Americas. Originally, arepas were made from large-grained maize that was dried and cooked briefly in lime or wood ashes and water. Small cakes were formed and cooked on a special flagstone slab or on a utensil known as "aripo," from which the name arepa is believed to have derived.

Corn was first domesticated in Mexico and Central America. Indigenous people often refer to corn as "our relative," as it plays an integral role in many creation stories.

It's widely known throughout Indian country that Winona LaDuke's father once told her, "Don't talk to me about sovereignty until you have learned how to grow corn." LaDuke, a Harvard-educated economist, heeded her father's advice. The Indian rights activist grows her own corn and other Indigenous foods on her farm on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota.

Maize (Flickr Creative Commons/Tino Udao)

4. Manoomin (Wild Rice)

Manoomin is the only grain indigenous to North America. It was a part of the Anishinaabeg migration story—prophecies instructed people to “go to the place where the food grows on the water,” says Winona LaDuke.

RELATED: Long and Honorable Battle: Ojibwe Keep Their Wild Rice Wild

"A millennium later, the Ojibwe stretch across the northern part of five states and the southern part of four Canadian provinces. With the exception of the far-western reservations, where there is rice, there are Ojibwe," LaDuke says. "Manoomin is a supreme food for nutrition—it has twice the protein and fiber of brown rice, it is the first solid food given to a baby (as mazaan, or broken rice) and it is one of the last foods served to elders as they pass into the Spirit world. Wild rice is gluten-free, and when served with blueberries, cranberries and a meat, provides some of the most amazing cuisine from the North American continent."

Real manoomin differs from store-bought wild rice. Manoomin is "hand harvested"; harder, commercialized versions are often described as "cultivated" or "paddy rice." Real manoomin has been harvested via traditional methods, from canoes (not airboat), using sticks or poles called "knockers," explains Heid Erdrich in Original Local: Indigenous Foods, Stories, and Recipes From the Upper Midwest.

RELATED: Poet Heid Erdrich Turns Talents to a Cultural Cookbook Celebrating Indigenous Foods

Heid Erdrich 'Indigenizes' Her Recipes: Fish Soup, Duck Egg Meatloaf and Cadillac Manoomin

Real manoomin may be dark and smoky, possibly somewhat translucent, light green, or almost milky if picked early. Machine-processed wild rice loses much of its brown-green outer coating.

"Each year, my family and I join hundreds of other harvesters who return daily with hundreds of pounds of rice from the region's lakes and rivers. We call it the Wild Rice Moon, Manoominike Giizis. On White Earth, Leech Lake, Nett Lake, and other Ojibwe reservations in the Great Lakes region, it is a time when people harvest a food to feed their bellies and to sell for zhooniyaash, or cash, to meet basic expenses. But it is also a time to feed the soul," says LaDuke.

5. Pumpkins

American Indians first introduced pumpkin as a food to immigrants when they encountered the Spanish at the Rio Grande River in the late 1500s, offering the Spaniards roasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas) as part of a peace offering, according to

American Indians roasted, baked, parched, boiled and dried the flesh in numerous ways. Each tribe developed its own ways to prepare and enjoy the pumpkin. Diné cooks fry it with mutton, while Taos Pueblo cooks make a succotash by cooking unripe pumpkin with corn kernels and onion, explains Dale Carson,  Abenaki, the author of New Native American Cooking.

RELATED: Indigenous Peoples Have Celebrated the Pumpkin for Centuries

In Woodland areas, pumpkin is eaten similarly to winter squash, occasionally cut into rings to dry and be reconstituted when needed.

As a medicine, American Indians used pumpkins as a remedy for snake bites. Pumpkin had other practical uses—many tribes flattened strips of pumpkins, dried them and made mats, especially for trading purposes. They also dried out the pumpkins' shells, turning them into bowls and containers to store grain, beans and seeds.

Carson advises, "The smaller ones work beautifully in recipes. Sugar pumpkins, usually under four pounds, are the ideal size for cooking. Their skin is smoother and they taste sweeter than the field varieties. Cook pumpkin in the same way you would winter squash or sweet potatoes. Throw in chunks of pumpkin with tomatoes, celery and onions in soups and stews."

Pumpkin patch (Flickr Creative Commons/Jeremy Seitz)


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tresojos's picture
Submitted by tresojos on
The tomato was thought to be poisonous because it is in the deadly nightshade family. Another of that family that is also native to the Americas is the pepper - the spicy (chile) and the mild bell pepper. Also, sweet potatoes (which are different from yams) were raised in South America but had a slightly different "journey" around the world than the potato. It was adopted by the Polynesians when they apparently came to South America. The outrigger is considered to be one of the best ocean-going boats and it was certainly capable of travelling the entire Pacific. Other edible plants of the Americas are pineapples (Brazil), pecans and sunflowers. No doubt there are many others. I recently learned something that amazed me. Before European contact there were no earthworms, bees, or dandelions in the Western hemisphere! Apparently, these "evolved" with the Old World's long history of agricultural development, starting with the domestication of grains in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. Once that agriculture was brought to the Americas, the bees to pollinate it and the earthworms to distribute nutrients in the soil (especially soil that was planted over and over) came too. The dandelions were brought to feed the bees. Agriculture was not practiced much in the Americas, partly because there were no draft animals to plow the soil, and plants had other pollinators, as well as the wind. But I find it hard to imagine continents without bees!

sstyx's picture
Submitted by sstyx on
The Americas had bees! Just not of the European variety. Bubble bees and it variations are the native bees to the Americas. They just didn't suit the european idea of being able to easily harvest their honey and they do not hive in the same manner.

Valerie Goodness
Valerie Goodness
Submitted by Valerie Goodness on
tresojos, This article admits that there are many foods managed wild and grown as food in the Americas. I must share, that your understanding about earthworms, bees and dandelions being introduced from Europe because America’s First Peoples were not agriculture capable, are inaccurate. Dandelions are of the Asteraceae family which is native to the United States, like chicory and sunflowers. There are many stories of dandelions in Native stories prior to European arrival including the Tuscarora who call the dandelion "sturgeon" in their own language, because when the dandelions bloom, the sturgeon also run (Patterson 2014). The old myth of, “Native Americans not knowing agriculture” is insulting and a Eurocentric. Indigenous peoples domesticated dogs forgoing domesticating others because they learned about the diseases they carried, just as African/Asian Indigenous peoples (Grinde 1995).Tilling land is harmful to soils and Turtle Island's First agronomists knew that. In fact that is the new wave in Organic farming, no till soils, like the Indians did it. From tending wild food and medicinal plants to all out agriculture and agroforestry, all was known and mastered for millennia. The Iroquois corn is thousands of years old and genetically separate from South America's corn. As for bees...There are hundreds of species of bees native to the Americas just as there are millions of species of pollinators. To think that the most densely forested, wetlands, grass/oak savannas and plant rich lands may have never had pollinators and needed Europe to bring bees over, is...well, not reasonable.....There are millions of plants used as food and medicines, native to the Americas, that have been stolen by settler colonialists, known as biopiracy or biocolonialism and resource colonialism (Whitt 2014). The Eurocentric myths created about Indian Agriculture are created through geopolitcs of plant intellectual property theft to serve the states (corporatocracy).

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
To TRESOJOS: You said, " Agriculture was not practiced much in the Americas," but you couldn't be more wrong. Talk to the Pueblo tribes in New Mexico who relied on agriculture to survive (thus they were able to inhabit the oldest "cities" in the U.S.). Talk to the Dine' who were experts at growing (among other things) peaches in our (seemingly) dry, desolate landscape. ________________________________________________________ The southwest is also the home of "the three sisters," or squash, beans and corn, and our ancestors DIDN'T find these at the grocery store either frozen or in cans. Gosh, maybe your viewpoint is Euro-Centric, ya thing?