Affectionately known as the goober or groundnut, the peanut is famous for its roles in trail mix, airline cuisine and the illustrious peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It also enjoys perpetual popularity in the South where it is soaked in Coca-Cola for a sweet and salty concoction that dates to the 1920s.
But the peanut has a much longer history. Researchers at the University of Georgia, working with the International Peanut Genome Initiative, have traced it to the indigenous people of Bolivia. In a study recently published in the journal Nature Genetics, researchers reveal that a wild plant from Bolivia is a “living relic” of the prehistoric origins of the cultivated peanut species.
Scientists compared the DNA sequences of the wild plant and the cultivated peanut and found they were 99.96 percent identical. Put simply, that means the peanut grown by today’s farmers can be traced to inhabitants of the Andes who, 10,000 years ago, created a hybrid of two wild species. That hybrid was transformed into today’s crop.
“It’s almost as if we had traveled back in time and sampled the same plant that gave rise to cultivated peanuts from the gardens of these ancient people,” David Bertioli, a plant geneticist at the Universidade de Brasília and lead author of the study, said in a statement.
The $6 million genome-sequencing study, funded by a consortium of peanut growers, shellers, brokers and food manufacturers, took several years to complete, said Peggy Ozias-Akins, a senior author on the paper and director of the Institute of Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomics at the University of Georgia. Cultivated peanuts have 2.8 billion base pairs of genomes.
“The DNA of cultivated peanuts is very complex,” Ozias-Akins said. “It’s not the sequencing that’s problematic, but putting the pieces back together is like a jigsaw puzzle.”
The findings revealed that the wild peanut—thought to be an ancient cousin of the modern crop—is not extinct. They also have helped researchers understand where the cultivated peanut originated, identify drought- and disease-resistant genes and produce more resilient peanut varieties.
“We know now that the entire genus originated from South America, in the Amazon River basin, at the intersection of Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay,” Ozias-Akins said. “We know humans transported it to Peru and utilized it, and that a hybridization event (probably from bees) took place between 9,000 and 10,000 years ago.”
In the United States, peanuts are tied to the slave trade, said Adrian Miller, a writer, member of the Southern Foodways Alliance and “soul food” scholar. Part of the Columbian Exchange of the 15th and 16th centuries, peanuts crossed the Atlantic Ocean both ways, Miller said. The Portuguese introduced peanuts to West Africa, and slaves brought the crop with them to America.
“It was an animal food crop, and also used to feed slaves,” Miller said. “It flourished in the South and was very popular to feed pigs. With so many slaves and animals, there was demand for it.”
Later, peanuts gained popularity as a snack food at baseball games and the circus. And in the early 1900s, George Washington Carver, a renowned botanist and son of a slave, began researching peanuts—ultimately introducing them as an alternative cash crop that revolutionized America’s relationship with the goober.
The peanut also found its way into Native American cuisine, said Sean Sherman, an Oglala Lakota cook who goes by his pseudonym, the Sioux Chef. Although peanuts were not used prior to European colonization, some tribes later incorporated them into their diets.
“Peanuts haven’t been in our pantries,” Sherman said. “But like the utilization of many other seeds and nuts, they do show up in indigenous cooking.”
Sherman boils, mashes and powders nuts, he said. He also toasts them, grinds them and uses them to thicken sauces, soups, broths and drinks. Peanut oil can be used for a variety of medicinal and seasoning purposes, he said.
Although the cultivated peanut is not native to North America, Sherman believes it’s important to understand its ties to the slave trade and its link to the indigenous people of South America.
“There are many important foods to all of our extremely diverse indigenous regions throughout the Americas, and every piece is extremely important in its own ecosystem,” he said. “Peanuts have been in Mexico and North America for nearly 500 years now and have become a very important staple for many groups, but along with many monoculture crops, it also carries a dark history.”