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10-12,000 years ago, the eastern hemisphere did its first major rounds of domestication: of cereal plants (rice in China, wheat and barley in West Asia), and certain animals–dogs, sheep, goats, and pigs then later horses and cattle. The standard theory goes that agriculture–especially of cereals–led to the rise of large, sedentary, cooperative, and increasingly hierarchical societies.

That sort of happened in the Americas, too, although in rather different ways. Plant domestication occurred in two different regions, also about 9-10,000 years ago. But where the Old World cereals grew in warm, low-elevation plains, and through human experimentation developed strains that could withstand a wider range of temperatures and latitudes, in the Americas, the reverse happened: Potatoes and cotton in the Andes, and maize in Mexico, were developed in the cool highlands, and then introduced to the lower elevations.

What happened in the Andes is especially interesting. The Norte Chico culture (active c 3000-1800 BC, though one site has been dated to ~3500 BC) was roughly contemporaneous with Sumer and later the Old Kingdom of Egypt, and in fact they were building small pyramids during the same years as the Egyptians were building large ones. They’re known to have eaten squash and beans, but most of their crop acreage–on intensely dry, inland plains irrigated from streams coming out of the mountains–was dedicated to cotton.

Norte Chico homeland

There’s argument about whether the civilization arose first on the coast and then moved inland, or vice versa, although it appears that some of the oldest sites are inland, each large enough to support several thousand people. But in any case there was a significant amount of seafood in the diet even at the inland sites. And conversely, cotton was used to make fishing nets as well as clothes for the coastal people. Anthropologists have called this a “vertical economy”, in which groups living at different elevations formed economic and cultural units to provide each other with all of the goods needed to sustain a complex society and offset climate anomalies such as droughts and El Nino events in different regions when needed. (Where do potatoes fit in? They can be grown at elevations up to 14,000 ft.) This practice continued in the Andean region through the rise of various other cultures, including the Inca. The Norte Chico had a hierarchical culture, with a priesthood at or near the top, but it appears to have been based not on control of food surpluses, as in most other places, but on the control of cotton.

The Norte Chico also had maize. Now, it’s worth noticing that these people lived 1000-2000 years before the rise of the Olmec, the first major complex civilization known in Mexico. Cultivation of maize was, in fact, happening throughout Central and South America, without entailing the rise of complex polities. Empire-building was still centuries away. And the Americans were clearly trading over very long distances–whether overland or by boats following the coast, or perhaps both.

But here’s the funny thing: maize only went south initially. Mexicans independently domesticated their own species of cotton. Potatoes didn’t really go north; in fact, as far I’ve been able to find, they were introduced into North America by Europeans. Maize didn’t make it into North America until 700-800 AD, only reaching New England ~1000 AD.  Chile peppers, domesticated independently in Central and South America, got taken first to Africa, and then to North America by African slaves.

Agriculture in North America had an entirely different character than anywhere else in the world until the introduction of maize. First, large swathes of the continent were cleared by regular, controlled fires. Clearing out the underbrush made it easier for both large game and humans to move around, and clearings made it easier to herd and surround a group of animals for slaughter. Some types of animals, such as moose and bison, were herded in groups from their native grounds on the plains to areas further east. Later, selectively clearing and planting of specific plants and trees within forest “plots” provided regular supplies of known and preferred foods within a quasi-hunter-gatherer context. In effect, North American tribal groups were engaged in animal husbandry and plant harvests within human-defined habitats–without actually domesticating anything.

“Unfarming” also provided as varied a diet as people living at similar latitudes had available to them at the time. In the Eastern hemisphere between 30-40 degrees North, the Moslem invasions had, by 1000 AD, brought many of our favorite domesticated fruits and vegetables (including sweet oranges, peaches, almonds, rice and eggplant) from Domestication Central (Persia) to North Africa and Moorish Spain, and to a lesser extent, to the central and eastern Mediterranean via Byzantium and the Balkans. Most of these foods only trickled into the rest of Europe at this time (mostly dried, always pricey)–the rest of Europe largely lived on wheat, barley, rye, peas and cabbage, with the occasional fish, dairy products, and in the fall, pork for the more fortunate. (By 1000 AD, wild game had been made off limits to all but the nobility, and was “managed” within forest preserves much as the North Americans did their game.)

global latitudes

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Have you ever wondered why it is that the Sichuan cuisine of China is full of American plants, while the same foods are rare to nonexistent elsewhere in China? Chile peppers are the most obvious ones, but peanuts are also common, as are beans (fermented, salted, black beans). Corn and tomato paste play roles as well. Waxy potatoes are also grown in the Chinese southwest, which also includes Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, and the majority of Chinese tobacco is grown there as well. (By the way, China is now the world’s largest single producer of tobacco, responsible for 40% of the global crop in recent years.)

At the feet of the Himalayas, Sichuan is very hilly, with iron-red soil that has been heavily terraced for centuries. The western portion is a high, very dry plateau, while the eastern part, at the head of the Yangzi River, is subject to monsoons and flooding. Yunnan, to the east of the Himalayan Plateau, has a more mild climate, but again is mountainous and forested.

The last years of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) saw all manner of peasant revolts, but one was severe enough in its repercussions–a large portion of the population massacred–that the successor dynasty, the Qing, consolidated Sichuan with the neighboring ones and undertook a policy of aggressive repopulation of the region. Sichuan was also the frontier with Tibet, then an independent country with a warlike history, which further increased official interest in strengthening the local population and economy.

Conveniently enough, the Spanish took over Manila in 1571. The Philippines already had a large Chinese merchant population, which was further augmented by formerly well-to-do officials after the fall of the Ming dynasty. The Spanish began shipping all manner of New World goods, including food and gold, to their Manilan entrepot, and traded there for Indonesian spices as well as Chinese silk and porcelain. And it so happened that New World plants–domesticated at similar latitudes and elevations–were especially well-suited to the climate and soil of the Sichuan basin. Those became part of the Qing’s Sichuan redevelopment policy.