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.

Continued on Next Page >>




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