The Globe-Trotting Sweet Potato

In the April General Conference of 1962, Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Council of the Twelve said, “As Latter-day Saints, we have always believed that the Polynesians are descendants of Lehi and blood relatives of the American Indians, despite the contrary theories of other men.”

Surprisingly, one of the most tangible evidences of the influence of Lehi’s descendants on the Polynesian culture may be the humble sweet potato.

Botanists accept the fact that the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is of Central or South American origin, and many scholars have attempted to satisfactorily explain its presence in Polynesia, where it is important to the people, both dietarily and culturally.

Over the years, three controversial theories have been presented to account for the sweet potato’s presence in Polynesia, where it bears the South American name of kumara or kumal.

The first theory, generally accepted as most logical for about 150 years, was that the sweet potato was introduced from South America into Polynesia by Spanish explorers during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Even though early explorers did not record seeing the sweet potato, another theory claims the potato was introduced during pre-Columbian times by Polynesians who visited South America and then sailed back home. This theory gains support from the fact that the sweet potato is referred to in most archaic chants and myths throughout Polynesia. It also has a close association with Maori gods, and its planting, cultivation, and storage were traditionally accompanied by elaborate rituals. Similarly, a number of Hawaiian chants and sacred charms used in connection with the sweet potato are in an archaic form of speech. And Dutch admiral Jacob Reggeween, who discovered Easter Island in 1772, reported that sweet potatoes were part of the native diet there.

In addition, Maori tradition says a fleet of five outriggers and a canoe brought people from Tahiti to New Zealand in the middle of the 14th century, and those people carried sweet potatoes with them. Other traditions indicate that Polynesian travelers found descendants of other Polynesians who had migrated some 200 years earlier, and that they ate sweet potatoes.

Another possible area of association between South America and Polynesia is the similarity of names for the same food. In Peru, the sweet potato is known as kumara and kumal, while natives of New Zealand and the Easter Island know it as kumara.

The question arising from the second theory is that although there is plenty of evidence for the sweet potato’s existence in Polynesia long before the Spaniards came, was it really introduced by voyaging Polynesians who visited South America?

Writing in 1935 (long before Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki balsawood raft expedition from Peru to Polynesia), Dr. Roland B. Dixon rejected any idea that the South Americans could have traveled to Polynesia because they had neither the skill nor the crafts for such a long voyage. The Peruvian balsawood vessels would not survive long immersed in water, he said. However, knowing that Tahitians had made the journey to New Zealand, he believed it possible for them to have sailed east to South America, learned of the sweet potato with its South American name, and returned home with it. (See “The Problem of the Sweet Potato in Polynesia,” American Anthropology, vol. 34, pp. 40–59.)

The theory that Polynesians, not South Americans, made the round trip has been challenged recently by Dr. James Hornell, who contends that such an event would have survived in the Polynesian legends like stories of voyages to and from Central Polynesia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and the Easter Island did. (“How Did the Sweet Potato Reach Oceania?” Journal of the Linnean Society, vol. 53, pp. 41–62.)

Dr. Hornell concludes: “… there remains the possibility and even the probability that transmission of the sweet potato may have resulted from an involuntary drift voyage from Peru, consequent upon the mismating and crippling of a balsa raft when on a coastwise voyage. When such an occurrence happened, the northbound Peru current would take charge until a position was reached where the northward current merges into the South Equatorial Drift. This in turn would take charge and carry the helpless craft westward to the Marquesas (and other Polynesian) Islands, where, granted a friendly reception, any tubers uneaten would be taken ashore and planted, the quichuan (Peruvian) names going with them.”

In line with Dr. Hornell’s thinking is the report in the Book of Mormon:

“And it came to pass that Hagoth, he being an exceedingly curious man, therefore he went forth and built him an exceedingly large ship, … and launched it forth into the west sea. …

“And behold, there were many of the Nephites who did enter therein and did sail forth with much provisions, and also many women and children; and they took their course northward. …

“And … this man built other ships. And the first ship did also return, and many more people did enter into it; and they also took much provisions, and set out again to the land northward.

“And it came to pass that they were never heard of more. And we suppose that they were drowned in the depths of the sea. And it came to pass that one other ship also did sail forth; and whither she did go we know not.” (Alma 63:5–8.)

Brother Daines, president of the Brunswick New Jersey East Stake, is a professor and research specialist of plant biology at Rutgers University.