The peanut, or arachis hypogaea, is actually not a nut at all. It is classified, instead, as a legume, a category which also includes peas, beans, and lentils. However, the peanut is widely grouped with other nuts, and is eaten in much the same manner as cashews, almonds, and the like . Within the last decade, archaeological research has yielded new information about the origins of peanuts. According to fossilized peanut hulls discovered by a team of anthropologists working in the Andes Mountains of Peru, peanuts can be dated back to 7,600 years ago, or approximately the sixth century BCE .
By the time European explorers arrived in the fifteenth century, the peanut had been around for ages. It was a staple in native diets, and was even sold at the marketplace in Tenochtitlan. It also had a huge cultural significance in Peruvian cultures. Peanuts were a part of burial rituals, sent to accompany deceased loved ones on their journey to the afterworld .
One piece of art which makes clear this cultural significance is the "Stirrup Spout Bottle with Peanut Figure," currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art . The work dates from the fifth to seventh century, long before the arrival of European explorers, and is an artifact of the Moche civilization. This ceramic container is highly decorative as well as functional. It consists of an oval-shaped reservoir at the bottom, with another oval protruding from the left side. Two tubes lead upward, one from each end, and then merge into a single spout, from which liquid could be poured. The tubes are a dark, shiny orange color, while the body is lighter and more matte, but still orange in hue. It is small in size: only eight inches tall and about six inches wide.
The relationship of this item to peanuts is not immediately obvious; it only becomes evident upon further observation. The container part of the vessel, below the spout, is designed to look human-like. The protruding oval to the left is a head, with a face displaying a serious expression, and a cloak wrapped around it which comes to a point at the top. This cloak continues all around the body, or the bottom oval. Arms and legs can be seen emerging from a short, dress-like garment, outlined on the body in a slightly raised style. The shape of the body, and the texture of the cloak which surrounds it, both suggest that of a peanut. The dots and dashes covering the cloak call to mind the irregularities of the bumpy shell of a peanut, and the silhouette of the body, minus the head, is also very peanut-like.
The presence of this nod to the peanut in a work of art is a clear indicator of the significance of this crop, especially since the resemblance is not completely clear to a modern viewer. Peanuts must have been an important part of Moche society, and a prevalent part of these people’s diets, as this work would have been recognized for what it is by a Moche observer. Otherwise, peanuts would not have served as inspiration in the decoration of what could have been a plain, functional object. It is likely that this container specifically was an item buried with a dead Moche lord, and was considered, along with various other supplies, to be necessary for the voyage to the afterworld.
Bartolome de las Casas was the first European to produce a written account of the peanut. The Spanish missionary and historian wrote extensively about the native peoples of South America, especially in protest of their mistreatment in the face of European colonization. His sympathetic attitude towards the natives led to a deep interest in their culture, practices, and lifestyles . This is evidenced in the excerpt from his “Historia de las Indias,” written in 1547 and depicted here. He describes, in detail, the peanut, and native attitudes toward it.
De las Casas compares the flavor of the peanut to another nut which would be familiar to Europeans, the filbert nut of Castille. However, he recognizes that this new “fruit” does not completely fit into the category of a nut, as it also has similarities to different breeds of peas. He finds the taste to be extremely pleasant, and greatly superior to that of hazelnuts and walnuts. Although he warns that overindulging will result in a headache, he goes on to assure that the natives eat peanuts often without bodily harm .
Of course, one must consider the limitations of the perspective presented by an author like de las Casas. His attitudes of acceptance and congeniality towards the natives of the Indies were far from the norm. He was outraged by the treatment these people, who were considered to be subhuman somehow, received at the hands of his contemporaries . This must apply, too, to his accounts of their foods. Although he obviously enjoyed peanuts, and was open to developing an interest in the lives, customs, and eating habits of the inhabitants of the Indies, other Europeans may have been more skeptical of this native staple.
However, peanuts did soon catch on among Europeans, and became a staple for travelers. Easy to store and slow to spoil, they made excellent provisions for the lengthy ship voyages characteristic of this time period. The health benefits were noted quickly, and peanuts were filling and tasty besides. The shell provides built in protection, and the seed grows easily even in moderate soil. Peanuts also contribute to soil health by replenishing nitrogen. All of these characteristics led to the rapid spread and proliferation of the peanut, which reached China via European trade routes in the early seventeenth century .
Today, China is the number one producer of peanuts, producing nearly half of the global supply, and provides countries all over the world with this crop . Many Chinese dishes, both savory and sweet, prominently feature peanuts. This is just one example of how a plant from halfway across the world can truly make itself at home in a new environment, largely thanks to the exploration and cultural exchanges of the early modern period.
- Emily Grasso
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 The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Bartolome de las Casas." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Accessed November 11, 2014. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/330804/Bartolome-de-Las-Casas.
 The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica