Origin of the Lowly Vegetable
By A. Hyatt Verrill
The Washington Post; Sep 15, 1929; researched by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle, October 2011.
THERE is nothing to show that the early Peruvian Indian ever faced a farm relief problem or had congressmen to send him free seeds in the spring. But he was a clever fellow when it came to agriculture, and three or four thousand years before exploring Spaniards and swaggering buccaneers appeared to upset his family circle the Indian raised a variety of fresh vegetables that would be the envy of the modern housewife. In more ways than one the Chimu—for we are talking now of that period of Peruvian history long before the Incas, when the Chimus had conquered most of what is present-day Peru—had modern ideas.
He was primarily a vegetarian. Whether this was due to a scarcity of meat or to a fondness for green things we can not say. The fact remains, however, that there are few bones in the refuse heaps of the period to indicate that the Chimu was a meat eater. From these scrap piles we gather that he occasionally regaled himself and family with a Sunday chicken dinner or a tasty bit of dog meat.
The llama, which might have furnished him with the counterpart of our mutton chop, was a sacred animal, not to be willfully slaughtered. A practical religion that, for the Chimu wisely reasoned that dear llamas meant less milk for babies and less hair for clothing.
After a hard day in the fields the weary Chimu came home to a well-cooked and appetizing vegetable dinner. Set by the fire to keep warm were several earthenware pots from which savory wisps of steam escaped. The lady of the house welcomed home her lord and master and proceeded to ladle a tempting repast from these crocks.
There was, perhaps a piece of melon for an appetizer, for we know that the Chimus raised at least seven varieties, including three kinds of watermelon. After the melon came a bowl of succotash. The Chimu cook could choose from several varieties of corn and nearly as many more of beans. No doubt it was in early Peru that housewives first argued which kind of corn was best on the cob and whether Lima beans or string beans made the better succotash.
The piece de resistance was likely to be a huge baked potato. Whether, when the jacket was broken, it proved to be the white and mealy Irish variety or a succulent golden sweet potato or yam had been previously determined by the whim of the husband on that particular evening. The Chimus specialized in potato growing and developed more than 40 varieties of tubers.
As side dishes the Indian had a choice of peppers, eggplant, squash, tomatoes and peas. We do not find it mentioned that spinach was on the Chimu bill of fare, so we can not blame the Indian for that white man's burden on the modern menu.
For dessert, if there were still room for dessert, the well-fed Chimu could poke about in a basket of fruit until he found something to his taste, be it banana, apple, peach, cherry or strawberry.
During the meal he undoubtedly drank maté, the South American substitute for tea, which in addition to being palatable has beneficent medicinal properties.
After the meal was over and the dinner things cleared away it is to be surmised the Peruvian ancestor indulged himself in chewing a few coca leaves, for the coca shrub, from which cocaine is derived, grows wild in Peru. Accustomed as he was to the drug in this mild form, it is probable that the leaves took the place of the postprandial pipe or cigar. There is little evidence that the early Peruvians smoked tobacco.
The Chimu did not depend alone on the whims of nature to provide him with food. From the few types of vegetables which grew wild on the countryside he experimented in true Burbankian fashion until he had improved upon the strains and had developed numerous varieties of the species, each designed for a particular use.
To avoid the fever ridden swamps and river valleys the Chimu soon learned to remove to the uplands, which, though less fertile than the river bottoms, were far more conducive to normal, health. The barren slopes, however, required artificial irrigation before they would produce foodstuffs, and the ingenious means the Chimu used to divert water to his terraced hillsides would do credit to modern engineering science. How well he succeeded may be gathered from the ascertained fact that in his fields he produced enough grain, fruit and vegetables to feed in the neighborhood of 20,000,000 people. From the ruins brought to light by archeological research we estimate the Chimu population at that number.
Most perplexing to modern science is the skill with which the Chimu worked in metals. In his furnaces he smelted gold, silver and platinum. Lacking iron for tools and weapons, he possessed the long-lost secret of tempering copper to use in its stead. It is extremely doubtful if the Chimu had any knowledge of electricity and electroplating and it is difficult to believe that he could plate one metal upon another by chemical means. Yet plate metals he did, since excavations in Chimu ruins reveal vessels and ornaments of copper and silver which have been plated with gold so skillfully that they compare favorably with articles produced by the most modern electroplating methods.
In fancy we can conjure up pictures of the Chimu artisan in the midst of glowing forges and fuming vats. We see him throw a handful of powder into a seething caldron. We see him watch the mixture anxiously until it clears and cools. And then we see him lift out the copper bowl, and lo! it has been coated with the finest gold. By some subtle and mysterious alchemy he has united the roetais.
All this we may see in fancy. It is a pleasing picture. But your scientist demands facts and formulas. For years he has tried to find out what the Chimu once knew. All in vain. The secrets are buried with the Chimu and the other ancient tribes of Central and South America.
The Chimu never thought of gold, as money. He hoarded it in his treasure vaults, it is true, but he did so because it was beautiful, because it was immutable.
When the Spaniards conquered Peru they found enormous quantities of gold in the Chimu ruins. They carried tons of the precious metal back to Spain. Other tons fell prey to the pirates of the Spanish Main. And undoubtedly as many more tons of gold still lie buried, waiting for the inquiring archeologist.
There are no gold mines in Peru, however, and prospecting fails to show that there were ever gold-bearing strata there. Yet the Chimu had tons upon tons of it. Where did he get it? From what distant gold field was it brought? Did he exact heavy tribute from subject tribes far removed? More secrets that lie burled with the Chimu.
FOUR thousand years ago the Chimu performed minor and major surgical operations. Skeletons show that he performed amputations and abdominal incisions. He trepanned the skulls of his fellow tribesmen when they suffered from brain diseases. He removed eyes from their sockets and he put metal crowns and fillings in his neighbor's teeth.
Crude though his instruments must have been, his patients often survived, for the skeletons show new bone growth over the old wounds.
Was he the first surgeon to operate with anesthetics? Close at hand grew the coca shrub, from which we get our cocaine. It is difficult to imagine even the stoical Indian enduring the pain of this crude surgery without something to deaden the senses.
The dry soil of the Peruvian uplands has been invaluable in preserving the relics of the Chimu era. Laces, woolens, feather costumes and pottery have come down to us remarkably well preserved.
The Chimu was an adept potter. He prided himself on the variety of his designs, and through his modeling in clay we learn more about his daily life and habits, his industries and his recreations than from any other source. Where other races have carved their hieroglyphics in stone the Chimu has left easily comprehensible and accurate pictures of himself in hard baked clay so that we, 30 or 40 centuries later, might marvel at the artistry of what we have been accustomed to think of as the primitive barbarism of the prehistoric South American Indian.