History of Potatoes: The Spuds that Make the World Go Round

The humble potato is one of the most interesting vegetables with a surprising history! Read on to find out more.

Mar 15, 2024By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

history potatoes world


The humble potato is a staple food throughout the world. How it spread across the world and how it became so popular are stories that perfectly demonstrate the age in which they were introduced to Europe. But while Europeans have been eating potatoes for only a few hundred years, the people of South America, mostly in Peru, have been eating them for thousands of years. This is only natural since South America is where the potato originated.


It’s difficult to imagine that before the 16th century, Europeans had never even heard of the potato and had no idea how it would impact their future. Of all the simple food crops in the world, the potato has perhaps one of the most interesting histories!


Ancient & Pre-Columbian History

A stirrup-spouted vessel from the Moche culture dated to around 600 CE to 800 CE, representing a potato face. Source: invaluable


While potatoes arrived in Europe around the second half of the 16th century, they had been known and loved by the people of the northwestern section of South America for millennia. The earliest actual potato remains come from central Peru and are dated to around 2500 BCE; however, evidence of potato consumption goes back to 3400 BCE.


Academics theorize the potato was cultivated and eaten as far back as 10,000 BCE, making it one of the world’s oldest vegetables! Boiled, mashed, baked, stewed, or steamed, potatoes formed a vital part of the diet of people living in the northwest of South America for millennia before spreading to other parts of the continent.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


During the Tiwanaku period, lasting from around 600 CE to 1000 CE, potatoes formed a vital part of the Andean diet alongside quinoa and llamas. For the Moche people, famous for their stirrup-spouted ceramic vessels and who lived on the northwestern coast of Peru from around 100 CE to 700 CE, the potato also appeared in art as an influence of deformity.


Potatoes! Source: The Senior


The most important aspect of potatoes in Andean culture is that they could be made into chuño, potatoes that have been frozen and thawed several times before being desiccated. These dried potatoes could be kept for many years and served as a valuable food source during times of famine.


By the time of the Inca Empire, which was established in 1438, less than a century before the Spanish arrival, the potato was important, but it had lost its value as the primary source of food in favor of maize, which had spread to the Andes via Mexico.


From Peru down to the southern half of present-day Chile, potatoes were cultivated all along the west coast and the mountainous regions of the western regions of South America.


The Potato Reaches the Old World

H.M.S. Centurion capturing the Spanish treasure galleon Nuestra Senora de Cavadonga off the Phillippines by Montague Dawson. Spanish and Portuguese galleons were responsible for the spread of the potato to the Old World. Source: MutalArt


The arrival of the Spanish upset the entire order in the Americas. With the fall of the Aztecs and the Incas and the establishment of Spanish control, many goods from the new world, unseen by Europeans, began making their way to Europe. This was known as the Great Columbian Exchange, and it saw the introduction of many New World foods into Europe, such as avocados, tomatoes, corn, chilies, chocolate, and, of course, the potato.


Europeans didn’t exactly earmark the potato as a particular sensation. Its value was underappreciated and was used primarily to feed native populations under Spanish control. It is thought that the potato made its way to Europe around the middle of the 16th century.


As a food item, it was, along with maize, taken on board ships to feed sailors. According to historical theory, the most likely situation is that leftover potatoes were planted on the shores of Europe. Spain and the British Isles are where the potato is first thought to have been planted in Europe.


Before potatoes were grown as food, many people planted them in their gardens because of their pretty flowers. Source: Small Farmer’s Journal


For the Spanish in South America, the potato was not considered for consumption by Europeans. It was thought of as a useful crop for feeding indigenous populations. And so this trend continued in England when the potato began to be cultivated. It was shunned by the nobility and considered a food only suitable for the working classes.


In most of Europe, however, the potato was viewed with extreme suspicion, as it is a member of the nightshade family. This was understood back then, and as such, the potato was thought to be toxic. For many years, the potatoes were grown simply for their flowers.


The spread of the potato across the world. Source: International Potato Center via BBC


Evidence shows that by the end of the 16th century, potatoes had spread to much of the rest of Europe. By the beginning of the 17th century, potatoes were reportedly eaten in Italy by both animals and humans.


The potato also reached Africa during this time, but no effort was made to promote its widespread use until the colonial era. It was also regarded with suspicion by the people who lived there. Brought over by colonists, the potato was intended as a convenient crop for mass consumption. However, for many Africans, it was viewed as a symbol of colonial control and vehemently resisted. This dynamic slowly changed, especially in areas where food was scarce. The potato became accepted and began to form an important part of the diet in certain places in Africa.


In the Far East, however, the potato was accepted almost immediately, and unlike the rest of the world, it was not regarded as a food solely for lower-class workers. It was introduced at the beginning of the 17th century and became regarded as a delicacy within the imperial court. With growing populations, China supplemented its crops with potatoes, and the vegetable was accepted across the entire spectrum of Chinese society.


In India, the potato was introduced to the west coast by the Portuguese and into Bengal by the British. Here, too, the potato was quickly adopted into the local cuisine.


Potato plants were not immediately noticeable like wheat and blended in with other plants in the garden. Source: K. Dave/The Spruce


Despite the geographic link between North and South America, the first potato crop in North America was actually the result of potatoes being transported to New Hampshire from Ireland in 1719. Potatoes would become convenient and popular in the United States, finding themselves adopted and loved by those who lived there.


The maintenance of the Spanish Empire required the fielding of large armies, and conflict between Spain and her rivals meant that suitable food sources were a constant issue. Potatoes thus became popular out of necessity. Wherever Spanish troops went, so too did potatoes, which peasants picked up and planted.


Potato plants were also well hidden from pillaging armies. Unlike wheat, which takes up space and is very visible, potato plants in gardens are not immediately noticeable by armies looking for supplies and plunder. Flying under the radar, potatoes were also hard to tax and thus became valuable additions to local gardens.


European Governments Recognize the Value of the Potato

The grave of Prussian King Frederick the Great is often decorated with potatoes since he transformed Prussian agriculture by vigorously pursuing the farming of potatoes. Source: Berlin Experiences


On the European continent, potatoes started replacing other staple crops in the second half of the 18th century. The nutritional value was recognized, and governments got involved in order to promote its agricultural growth.


Of the major powers, Prussia, under the leadership of Frederick the Great, was one of the first nations to fully embrace the potato. Often referred to as the Kartoffelkönig (potato king), Frederick recognized the value of the crop and issued an official Kartoffelbefehl (potato order) order to ensure the potato became a staple crop of Prussia.


After it became clear that potatoes were an unmitigated success in Prussia, other countries began to embrace potatoes as a major crop. In the 1770s, King Louis XVI of France was instrumental in promoting the tuber, and by the early 1800s, the potato crops began to soar. In many parts of Europe, such as Prussia and France, the potato represented an efficient way to feed people. According to historian Rebecca Earle, government control over nutrition was about gaining and maintaining political power.


In Russia, the crop became widely popular but was grown on a local level and generally confined to people’s gardens. It wasn’t until the failure of grain crops in 1838-1839 that the potato was seen as a viable replacement. While potatoes provided huge nutritional value and were cheaper to farm, grain was a cash crop, and the two food sources began to co-exist.


No crop produced as much food per acre and required less cultivation than potatoes. Thus, the potato was adopted, if for nothing else than for pragmatic reasons.


The Potato Becomes a Global Phenomenon

The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh, 1885. Source: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


The 19th and 20th centuries saw an even greater boost for potatoes around the world. Colonialism ensured that no part of the planet went without potatoes, and growing populations required the benefits that potatoes brought.


Of course, relying on a single crop has its disadvantages. In Ireland, the potato famine, coupled with brutal (and genocidal) decisions made by the British government, led to at least one million Irish people dying of starvation.


Today, potatoes are grown in almost every country in the world and are done alongside other crops. It is the world’s fourth most cultivated crop after wheat, rice, and corn.


There are thousands of cultivars of potatoes. Source: Evergreen Seeds


The origin of the potato is barely thought of today. As the world’s fourth most important crop, it has ingrained itself into food and culture around the world. The potato is as much part of the national fabric of Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, Ireland, Germany, India, and many others, as much as it is to Peru.

Author Image

By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.