The Fragile History of Peruvian Maca
Every day I’m traveling while hunting superfoods is incredible. It is! Mud slides, sleepless nights of travel, cell-phone-stealing orangutans, dirt, hustle, and chaos included!
Some days, however, are just…legendary. Today in the high altitudes of the Andes, I had the opportunity to meet a true legend that I’m sure very few in the West have ever heard of unfortunately. Why is he a legend? He is one of the unsung heroes in Peru who helped bring peruvian maca back from extinction. Yes, that’s right. The world almost lost a superfood treasure. But maca-growing experts tediously coaxed it back and today the superfood has grown dramatically into a globally demanded export, one the top seven exports coming out of Peru.
You wouldn’t think that maca had any danger of going extinct. A study on maca by IPGRI, the International Plant Genetic Resources Initiative, reports that maca was initially domesticated in Junin, which is located in central Peru, around 1300 and 2000 years ago. From there, it grew in importance until it was widely cultivated – especially in the 16th and 17th centuries. During the 200 year colonial period (1550-1750) estimates suggest the native population used around nine tons of Maca annually. Maca’s health benefits and nutritional value was so established among the Incans that for centuries the root played a major role in ancient Peru’s economy. Maca was used to pay taxes to the conquering Spanish, who sent the root back to Spain as tribute. Possession of maca was a symbol of status reserved for the elites at many times.
This continued until the Spanish era ended. Then the growth of maca dramatically dropped over the years. Maca is rarely mentioned in literary sources during the 19th and 20th centuries. A few botanists studied it in the 1960s. Then, between the 1970s and 1980s, its area of cultivation was down to as little as 15 hectares. It was inching dangerously close to extinction.
Thankfully, the thoughtful, hard work of a dedicated few, including the man I met today, helped bring it back. This superfood is a treasure for the whole world, and we should all be grateful for their efforts. It’s a special root with incredible health benefits. Maybe we should petition for a National Maca Day. I’m sure I’ll have time for that in the middle of all my superfood hunting.
The Effect of the Inka State on Sausa Agricultural Production and Crop Consumption, Christine A. Hastorf, American Antiquity, Vol. 55, No. 2 (Apr., 1990), pp. 262-290
Published by: Society for American Archaeology, http://www.jstor.org/stable/281647