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Letter from the Four Corners

In Search of Prehistoric Potatoes

Native peoples of the American Southwest dined on a little-known spud at least 10,000 years ago

March/April 2020

Four Corners San AgustinThe Plains of San Agustin stretch some 50 miles across west-central New Mexico and are surrounded on three sides by mountain ranges. In the late summer monsoon season, vibrant wildflowers make the brownish-green scrubland pop with color. Archaeologist Lisbeth Louderback of the University of Utah and botanist Bruce Pavlik of the Natural History Museum of Utah head west on U.S. Route 60 from the small town of Magdalena, then turn into a picnic area on the side of the highway. “The Mirabilis is out, that’s good,” Pavlik says, scanning the vegetation and pointing to a short plant with purple flowers often found growing alongside or near potato plants. “Let’s see if we can find the potatoes.”


Four Corners MapLouderback and Pavlik are looking for a tiny species of potato called Solanum jamesii, or the Four Corners potato, which they believe has been an often-overlooked food source exploited by people in the region for millennia. The Four Corners potato takes its name from the Four Corners area of the southwestern United States, where Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico meet. Today, S. jamesii plants are relatively common across central and southern Arizona and New Mexico, but are found in only a few locations in southern Utah and Colorado—typically near prehistoric settlements. Their range also extends as far east as western Texas, and as far south as northern Mexico.


For members of Native American communities in the region, the Four Corners potato is a symbol of the connection many feel with their ancestors. Ethnographic and ethnohistoric accounts, as well as oral narratives, confirm that S. jamesii has long been well known to Native American tribes in the Four Corners area, including the Apache, Diné (Navajo), Ute, and Pueblo peoples such as the Hopi and Zuni, and is still consumed by them. Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit indigenous organization that works to preserve and protect cultural and natural resources on Native American lands, holds a dinner each October on Indigenous People’s Day that features delicacies such as grilled cactus, acorn spoon bread, and cushaw squash bisque. Recently, the dinner has also included the Four Corners potato, which, in 2018, was paired with smoked river trout. “Resources like the potato are about stewardship,” says Cynthia Wilson, a Diné tribal member and director of Utah Diné Bikéyah’s Traditional Foods Program. “They’re about reciprocity and kinship with the ecosystems and cosmos that surround them.”