16 Indian Innovations: From Popcorn to Parkas

National Geographic News
Updated September 21, 2004
Imagine our world without chocolate or chewing gum, syringes, rubber balls, or copper tubing. Native peoples invented precursors to all these and made huge strides in medicine and agriculture.

They developed pain medicines, birth-control drugs, and treatment for scurvy. Their strains of domesticated corn, potatoes, and other foods helped reduce hunger and disease in Europe—though Indians also introduced the cultivation and use of tobacco.

In celebration of the new National Museum of the American Indian (see photos) in Washington, D.C., bone up on Indian innovations in food and candy, outdoor gear, and health and exercise.


Chewing Gum
Quick! What was the first commercially available chewing gum in the U.S.? If you guessed Wrigley's Doublemint, guess again. The first over-the-counter gum was spruce sap, introduced to New England colonists by Native Americans. But even Wrigley's fortune traces its roots to Indian innovation, in the form of the key ingredient chicle. The Aztecs chewed this latex, found in the sapodilla tree.

The Inca of South America froze potatoes atop high mountains, which evaporated the moisture inside the tubers. Freeze-drying preserved the potatoes for years and helped Spanish colonists to ship "fresh" potatoes all the way back to Europe by boat.

Two thousand years ago the Maya cooked up Earth's first chocolate from cacao beans. The chocolate of the Maya, Toltec, and Aztec Indians generally took the form of a bitter drink. Sugar was added later to suit European palates.

Indians in what is now Mexico were the first to figure out how to turn the pods of the vanilla orchid into the flavor that launched a thousand soft-serve cones. In fact, Indians were so attached to the taste that they kept the recipe under wraps for hundreds of years after the Spanish arrived.

Having developed varieties of corn that exploded into a taste sensation, some Native Americans developed equally intriguing methods of cooking the snack. Some Indians shoved a stick through a dried cob and held it over the fire, weenie-roast style. And in South America the Moche made popcorn poppers out of pottery.

Potatoes, Peanuts, and Corn
Nearly half the world's leading food crops can be traced to plants first domesticated by Indians. Native farmers introduced Europeans to a cornucopia of nutritious plants, including potatoes, peanuts, manioc, beans, tomatoes, sunflowers, and yams. Maize, or corn, was by far the most significant contribution, now grown on every continent except Antarctica.


Today's ski jackets owe their origins in part to hooded coats Inuit [Eskimo] women fashioned from layers of skins that trapped air for greater insulation. Many parkas were made from caribou, a fur favored for its heat-holding properties.

Snow Goggles
Some 2,000 years before goggles became an Alpine fashion must, the Inuit [Eskimos] created their own versions. Some examples are carved from walrus tusks, with narrow slits that helped thwart glare from snow and the sea.

Duck Decoys
Constructed of feathers and reeds, 2,000-year-old duck decoys were found in Nevada in 1924. Archaeologists believe that early native hunters used them to lure waterfowl much as hunters use plastic decoys today.

Moccasin styles were once so distinctive that they could reveal a person's tribe. (Fringe may have helped erase footprints.) Now native-inspired shoe designs can be found worldwide, from lightweight cowhide moccasins to toasty mukluks, named for the original sealskin or reindeer-skin boots worn by Eskimos.

Throughout the Americas, Indians mastered the art of blending in as a tactic for both hunting and warfare. Many hunters would paint their faces and/or wear the skins of the animals they were stalking. And like many bird hunters today, some Native Americans concealed themselves behind blinds.


We're not sure how they said, "This won't hurt a bit." But we do know that some ancient North American native healers injected medicine beneath the skin. Making the most of the materials at hand, they fashioned hypodermic needles out of hollow bird bones and small animal bladders.

Dental Care
North American Indians scrubbed their teeth with the ragged ends of sticks, while the Aztec Indians applied salt and charcoal to their choppers.

Ball Games
Were the Maya and Aztec sports fanatics? Having found ancient rubber balls, ceremonial courts, and depictions of ballplayers in Mesoamerica—the parts of the Americas inhabited by advanced peoples before the arrival of Columbus—archaeologists think both cultures revered certain ball games.

Introduction and some additional text adapted from "North American Indian Cultures" map, September 2004, National Geographic Maps. Other source: "Know How," Fall 2004, National Museum of the American Indian magazine.

Full Coverage of National Museum of the American Indian
New National Indian Museum Is Native by Design
At New National Indian Museum, Artifacts Are "Alive"
Photo Gallery: National Museum of the American Indian
20,000 American Indians to March at National Museum Opening
Photo Gallery: Exhibits at the Museum
Fast Facts: National Museum of the American Indian

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