How Were Beans Domesticated?
Happy Year of Pulses! The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has declared 2016 the Year of Pulses, so I've decided to do a blog series discussing what pulses are and why they are important. This is just one of many posts discussing the magical world of beans and other pulses. To learn more check out some of my other posts here.
Pulses consist of a wide and highly varied range of edible legumes, but I'm just going to focus on 5 that I find the most interesting. Most of the information for this post came from the book Beans: A History by Ken Albala, which you can purchase here if you like this post and want to hear more!
LentilsLentils are some of the oldest domesticated plants, along with einkorn wheat, emmer, and barley. Around 8,000-9,000 years ago, colder, drier weather in the Middle East may have encouraged people to abandon a nomadic lifestyle and set down their roots to begin farming. Lentils were eaten even before this, though; scientists have found 11,000-year-old charred remains of wild lentils in Franchthi Cave in Greece. It is thought that these people started cultivating these wild ancestors about 7,000 years ago. The lentil plants quickly became shorter and stockier than their tree climbing wild cousins and their seed coats weakened. This allowed ease of cooking and digestion and also encouraged the seed to germinate more quickly. Lentils quickly became popular as the rhizobium bacteria on their roots pull nitrogen from the air and put it back in the soil. All of this extra nitrogen helped increase yields of wheat significantly. The stems and husks could also be fed to cattle. For these reasons, lentil spread quickly, making it to Europe and Asia only about 1,500 years after domestication. They were particularly popular in India where they grew well in poor soil in an arid climate. Lentils, being high in protein, especially when mixed with grains, were a good substitute for meat for the large vegetarian population in India. One Hindu proverb states: “Rice is god, but lentils are my life”.
The ancient Romans were not as fond of lentils as a food as some other cultures but they did value it as a packing material. According to Pliny, a giant obelisk was brought from Egypt to Rome during the reign of Caligula. On the journey across the Mediterranean, it was packed in 120 bushels (2.8 million lbs) of lentils. Today, this obelisk still stands a full 25.5 meters above Vatican City in St. Peter’s Square.
Believe it or not, lupines are considered beans, and several varieties are not only edible but are an important protein source in some parts of the world, particularly in Latin America. Lupines were domesticated independently on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, with Lupinus albus as well as luteus and angustifolius in Southern Europe and Lupinus mutabilis, also known as tarwi, in the Andes of Latin America. While lupines have the highest protein content of almost any bean (and sometimes even higher than meat), up to 40%, they are difficult to eat as they contain bitter and poisonous alkaloids which require extensive soaking and cooking to remove. Plus, after all of that, they tend to remain fairly crunchy. For this reason, they were not really utilized as a food source in Europe, but are a still a popular pickled street food in Italy and other parts of the Mediterranean (where they are called lupini beans). While European lupines were domesticated fairly recently, their Latin American cousins were domesticated 2,000 years ago. There, lupines grew well in the harsh environment of the Andes and became staples in Peru and Bolivia, where they were dried and ground into flour. It was grown in rotation with corn, quinoa, and potatoes to ensure soil fertility and complete nutrition. Lupines are high in lysine, which corn and quinoa lack, making the combination a complete protein. Today, lupines are still a popular food in Latin America.
While nobody knows exactly where or when fava beans were domesticated, archaeologist have found a cache of 2,600 well preserved fava beans (probably wild) near Nazareth, Israel that is believed to be 6,000 to 6,500 years old. They became popular in the bronze age and were the preferred bean in Europe until the arrival of the New World beans in the late 15th century. Until then, they were not all that popular as many accused them of being poisonous, heathenly, and just all around bad. For unknown reasons, Pythagoras banned his followers from consuming them as he believed they held human souls in transit between worlds and that eating beans was to commit murder. He also thought of beans as a channel to the underworld. Beans were considered as food for the poor, as the wealthy preferred to eat meat. Many medical professionals spoke against eating beans for many reasons, including the argument that gasses in the stomach entered the bloodstream and spread to the rest of the body, especially the brain where it was said to cause dull or cloudy thought. Thus, it was thought that beans were only for physical laborers and the uneducated. This strong stigma has prevented beans from gaining traction in European cuisine and recipes for them are almost never found. The unrecorded history of the impoverished tells a different story, though. In the 10th-century bean cultivation spread in Europe, leading to more protein in the diet of those who could not afford meat, which meant overall healthier people who lived longer and produced more offspring.
New World Beans
New World beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), also known as common beans, were domesticated independently in both Mexico and the Peruvian Andes. This is the species that most people eat and associate with beans in the United States. Bean remains from Peru have been radiocarbon dated to 6,000 years ago, but is likely that they were domesticated earlier, possibly even before Old World beans. Once this happened they developed “domestication syndrome”, meaning that they developed pods that did not shatter and spread sees, sturdy stalks, and variations in size and color. Phaseolus also became tolerant of different light conditions and were able to be grown in different places, developed dormancy that allowed them to be stored and used as food or seed, and the beans began to mature all at once. As with the lupines, bean’s combination with corn in these areas gave the people a source of complete protein even though meat was scarce. It is not certain how Phaseolus beans made it to current day United States, they may have also been independently domesticated in the Southwest as well. Regardless of the source, they begin to appear there about 1,500 years ago. From there, beans reached the east coast in only 500 years and made their way as far north as the St. Lawrence River. Corn and beans quickly became a staple for many Native American groups. In 1492, Christopher Columbus brought beans back to Europe from the Americas, where they caught on readily, unlike some other American foods, such as tomatoes, peppers, corn, and potatoes. Meanwhile, back in America, beans became a huge staple for settlers, who often grew their local Native American varieties. In 1749, William Douglas reported that “in New England the general subsistence of the poor people is salt pork and Indian beans with bread of Indian cornmeal”. Some also claim that the famous Boston baked beans are originally from a Native American dish in which they baked beans underground in clay pots and flavored them with maple syrup and bear fat. Colonists simply adapted the dish by substituting and fat and syrup for salt pork and molasses in a ceramic or cast iron pot. Devoid of European stigmas, this simple meal became a favorite out of necessity among traveling pioneers, cattlemen, miners, and loggers as beans were highly shelf stable, relatively light, and very high in nutrients. Pioneers would cook them in a similar method to that mentioned above as they could cook them overnight and have a hot meal in the morning.
TeparyTepary beans (Phaseolus acutifolius) are some of the smallest and toughest New World beans. They are highly drought resistant and can fully mature with just one rainfall or irrigation. This is because they grew wild, and were domesticated, in the arid conditions of the Southwest down through Central America. The exact place and date of domestication is unknown but archeological remains found in Pueblo, Mexico date back 5,000 years. Tepary beans are higher in fiber and protein and lower in fat and sugar than other beans and just as this little bean adapted to the environment, the people who ate them adapted to the bean. The people of the Southwest became able to make efficient use of this low fat high fiber diet and some scientists even believe that their bodies evolved to store fat more efficiently as a kind of insurance against lean times.
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