November is National Native American Heritage Month, which makes it a great time to reflect on and pay homage to the rich history of those who came before us. Check out last year’s post focusing on Native American traditions and culture. Please read on to learn more about Native Americans’ innovation with food, inventions, and language that most of us use daily.
According to History.com, as much as three-fifths of the world’s agricultural crops originated in the Americas. As the site notes, “Without the Columbian Exchange, there would be no tomatoes for Italian food, no hot chili peppers for Indian cuisine, and no dietary staples like potatoes, squash, beans, or corn. Corn alone is the world’s most-cultivated crop, with an estimated 500 million acres harvested annually. ‘A lot of the domestication and breeding that resulted in today’s major food crops, the important initial work was done by Indigenous people,’ said Jules Janick, an emeritus professor of horticulture at Purdue University. ‘That was their contribution to world agriculture.’”
Here are seven foods that were discovered by Native Americans:
- Maize/Corn: The earliest Native Americans to cultivate corn were the Pueblo people of the American southwest, whose culture was transformed by the arrival of corn in 1,200 B.C. By 1,000 A.D., corn was a staple crop that sustained tribes like the Creek, Cherokee, and Iroquois.
- Beans: The “three sisters” (corn, beans, and squash) were the major staples of Native American agriculture and were always grown together. Beans provided nitrogen-rich soil for maize and the corn stalks provided natural supports for the bean plant’s climbing vines.
- Squash: Gourds and squash were prized by Indigenous Americans for their nutrient-rich flesh, their protein-packed seeds, and their sturdy shells, which were dried and used as containers and water jugs.
- Potatoes: A staple crop of the Inca planted into hillsides to reduce erosion and conserve water.
- Tomatoes: A staple of the Aztec diet, tomatoes began as small, “blueberry-sized” fruits in South America and were first domesticated in Mexico 7,000 years ago. Europeans were slow to accept the tomato due to its relation to the poisonous mandrake. Even Italians, who are associated with the crop, didn’t begin using it until the 19th century in their sauces.
- Chili Peppers: The oldest name for the chili pepper has been traced to Proto-Otomanguean, a language spoken 6,500 years ago.
- Cacao: Cacao trees were cultivated by the Maya and Aztec people. In the early years, people revered and respected cacao trees and beans as magical and sacred.
Native American agricultural innovations include raised-bed agriculture and the development of genetically modified food crops. Plants were also used for dyes, medicine, soap, clothes, shelters, and baskets.
Native American Inventions
Native American innovations enabled them to survive and flourish, regardless of where they lived. Now, many of these make up daily and recreational life. These include:
- Cable Suspension Bridges
- Baby Bottles
- Oral Contraceptives
- Lacrosse (aka stickball)
- Raised Bed Agriculture
There is some evidence to suggest that Native Americans invented Sign Language. Many everyday English words are also adopted from various Native American languages, as are many places in the U.S. (including half of the states). For example, Michigan can be traced to “Mshigem” or “Misigami,” the names for Lake Michigan in the Potawatomi and Ojibwe languages (both names meaning “great lake”). Everyday words commonly traced to Native American languages include cigar (from the Maya word “sik’ar”), hurricane, bayou, shack, and poncho.
Several food and animal names also come from Native Americans:
- Avocado (from the Nahuatl word “ahuácatl”)
- Barbecue (from the Taino word barbacoa)
- Chocolate (from the Nahuatl word “chocolatl”)
- Chipmunk (from the Algonquian word “chitmunk”)
- Coyote (from the Nahuatl word “cóyotl”)
- Iguana (from the Arawak word “iwana”)
- Jaguar (from the Guarani word “jaguá”)
- Opossum (from the Virginia Algonquian word “aposoum”)
- Piranha (from the “Tupi” word “pirátsainha”)
- Keoke, E. D., & Porterfield, K. M. (2003). American Indian contributions to the world: 15,000 years of inventions and innovations. Checkmark Books.