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Kinder shares potato research

David Kinder, professor of medicinal chemistry at ONU, is currently on sabbatical, researching medicinal plants of the Southwest. He is sharing some of his research in presentations at the Anasazi Heritage Center and the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center both in Colorado.

His topic, “Did the Ancient Ones Grow Potatoes,” is part of his research into early agriculture in the Four Corners area, includes his search for wild potatoes, a crop not normally associated with the early peoples of the area.

Kinder’s research has included discovery of medicinal plants that have anticancer activity, as well as plants that would have been cultivated by the Ancestral Puebloans. Those plants include the potato (Solanum jamesii), and the Pale Wolfberry (Lycium pallidum). He says, “Here the line between medicinal and food plants is blurred significantly, as both have chemical components that are biologically active and can be found in modern day medicines. They are also clearly foods used by Ancestral Puebloans, and areas of cultivation are evident even today.”

In a release promoting the presentations, the Bureau of Land Management says:

Potatoes, which belong to the Solanacae or nightshade family, are a major food crop worldwide. Over 250 potato species are known, mainly from South America, but Solanum jamesii is the only wild potato  found in the Four Corners region.  Its tubers can stay dormant in dry soil for years before sprouting. 

Kinder suspects that Ancestral Puebloan farmers were familiar with the plant.  “Southwest canyons without archaeological sites don’t appear to have potatoes,” says Kinder. “But many canyons have not yet been explored, so this is an ongoing project. “

At Chaco Canyon, wild potatoes still grow in fields used heavily for agriculture in ancient times. They  are also found below Step House at Mesa Verde National Park, and near the Keet Seel cliff dwelling in  northeastern Arizona.  Historic reports indicate that 19th century Hopi farmers allowed wild potatoes to grow among their planted crops.

 “We know the early people here cultivated corn, beans and squash,” says Dr. Kinder. “But no doubt they would have supplemented their diet with other plants. It would be easy [for archaeologists] to overlook plants, such as potatoes, that need less attention to grow successfully.  Potatoes decompose quickly, so we do not find remnants in archaeological sites.”

Dr. Kinder is a professor of Medicinal Chemistry who notes the healing power of many plants.  Besides offering nutrition, potatoes contain the alkaloid sparteine, which can be used to treat heart arrhythmias.

For more information, contact the Anasazi Heritage Center visit the web site at