Journal of Washington Academy of Sciences, VI, No. 4, 86-90. 1916

Quichua names of sweet potatoes.
Bureau of Plant Industry.

Quichua was the language of the Incas at the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru, and is still spoken by a large native population. The ancient center of the Quichuas is in the region about Cuzco on the eastern slope of the Andes, from an altitude of over 14,000 feet at the Pass of La Raya, down to Santa Ana, at an altitude of 3000 feet. The lower valley of the Urubamba river was visited by the writer in May, June, and July, 1915, as a member of the Yale Peruvian Expedition conducted by Prof. Hiram Bingham, of Yale University, in cooperation with the National Geographic Society and the United States Department of Agriculture.

At 6000 feet and below, the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is one of the principal root-crops. At Santa Ana it appears to be somewhat less important than rumu (Manihot) or uncucha (Xanthosoma), but much more important than achira (Canna). Two classes of sweet potatoes are recognized under separate names, apichu for the sweet varieties and cumara for the starchy. A similar distinction is often made in the United States between "sweets" and "yams." The Quichua language seems to have no inclusive term that can be applied to all kinds of sweet potatoes. For this purpose Spanish-speaking Quichuas use the word "camote."

Both cumaras and apichus are represented by numerous varieties differing in shape and color of roots and foliage. At San Miguel, in the valley under Machu Picchu, with an altitude of 6000 feet, three varieties of cumaras were noted: yuracjcumara (white), pucacumara (red), and compillicjlla, the last a very short turnip-shaped purple root. Of apichus there were also three varieties, yuracjapichu, pucaapichu, and azulapichu (blue, a combination of Spanish and Quichua). Other names, learned at Santa Ana, are oqquechuto, cusicumara, and pucacusicumara, the last mentioned said to mean "red-long-cumara." Another with deep purple flesh like a beet, that stains the tongue, is called incampamaccasccan. At Lima the Quichua names are not recognized, only camote being used. Two varieties grown between Lima and Callao are called supano and luriniano, the former with leaves very deeply cut, the latter with nearly entire leaves. Supe and Lurin are places on the coast not far from Lima.

Wild sweet potatoes are said to be of common occurrence in the valleys of the interior. At San Miguel a plant identified by the Indians as cusiapichu was found growing spontaneously in a place not recently cultivated. At Santa Ana three distinct kinds, to judge from the foliage, were found as common weeds in cultivated land. But to certify that any plant is a genuine native species seems out of the question in a region where all of the land has probably been cleared many times and cultivated intermittently for centuries. On the other hand, there is no reason to deny that the sweet potato may have been domesticated in the Peruvian region, as many other plants appear to have been.

The words apichu and cumara have been recorded before, but without indications of their concurrent use and distinct applications among the Quichuas. Markham's Quichua Vocabulary gives apichu as the name of the sweet potato, but overlooks cumara altogether. Reference might also be made to Holguin's Arte y Diccionario without finding cumara, since the word does not appear in its alphabetic position, but under apichu we find: "Apichu, cumar, nom. Camote." Martius's Ethnographie has neither apichu nor cumara, but gives camote as the Quichua name, with a derivation from the Mexican camotli. Cobo, whose Historia was written in Peru less than seventy years after the conquest (though not published till 1890), recorded apichu as the Quichua name, tutuca as the Aymara name, and camote as the name used by the Spaniards of Peru, borrowed from the language of Mexico. Cobo appears to have visited the interior of Bolivia, but not the interior of Peru.

No reason is apparent for questioning the status of apichu and cumara as genuine Quichua words. Etymologies would be easy to invent. For apichu such a combination as api (maize pudding) and pichu (flesh) or pichi (root) would be appropriate, while cumara might be related to ccumu or kumu, meaning crooked or hunch-backed. Other Quichua names analogous to cumar or cumara are pallar (Phasaeolus), quinuar (Buddleia), quisuar (Polylepis), ancara (gourd), sara (Zea), tara (Caesalpinia tinctoria), and achira (Canna).

The sweet potato was not known to Europeans before the discovery of America. The first name that the Spaniards learned and carried back to Spain was batata, the original of our word potato, but the Mexican name camote is now more widely known in Spanish America. Many names in local languages have probably been lost, but some have been placed on record. Martius collected the following series from native tribes of Brazil: coutarouti, coundi, gnunana, hetich, ictig, imazaka, jetica, joto, mapas (?), maporu, mapuey, mouka, napi, orairai, quaiu, tsa, and zamaygua.

In the Kekchi language of eastern Guatemala, a member of the Maya family, the sweet potato bears the name is. The Kekchis do not raise many sweet potatoes, this crop being distinctly less important than osh (Xanthosoma) or piyak (Dioscorea), yet sweet potatoes often grow as weeds in cultivated lands. The potato (Solanum tuberosum) is called by the Kekchis kashlanis, meaning "foreign sweet potato."

1 Gray A., and Trumbull, J. H. Review of de Candolle's Origin of Cultivated Plants; with annotations upon certain American species. American Journal of Science, Third Series, 25: 250. 1883.
2 Gomez de la Maza, M. Diccionario Botanico de los Nombres Vulgares Cubanos y Puerto-Riquenos. 1889.
3 Pittier, H. Plantas Usuales de Costa Rica, 165. 1908.
4 Crawfurd, John. On the migrations of cultivated plants in reference to ethnology. Seemann's Journal of Botany, 4: 328. 1866.
    The presence of the Quichua name in Ecuador is readily understood, the native kingdom of Quito having been conquered and occupied by the Incas. Some of the early Spanish historians of Peru recorded Inca traditions of voyages to islands in the Pacific, but such a possibility of communication between the American continent and the Pacific Islands has not seemed worthy of serious consideration. Nevertheless, cultivated plants of American origin appear to have crossed the Pacific before the arrival of Europeans. Among these trans-Pacific plants are the coconut palm, the bottle-gourd, and the sweet potato. Coconuts and gourds may be supposed to have floated to the Islands and established themselves without human assistance, but the sweet potato and its name could hardly be conveyed in this manner. Nor is it to be taken as a mere coincidence that a Quichua name not shared with other American languages should be associated with the same crop in the Pacific Islands.
    "The Sweet Potato, or tuber-yielding Convolvulus, appears to be a native of many parts of the tropical Old and New World. Some have alleged that it was first made an object of cultivation by the native Americans, but when the South Sea Islands, which had assuredly no communication with the American people, were discovered, the sweet potato was found to be in cultivation, and known by a native name throughout, the word being essentially the same, and a native one varying only in pronunciation, as kumava, humaa, and gumala abbreviated mala."
    Seemann's comment on the above statement was as follows: "[Kumara or umara, of the South-Sea Islanders, is identical with cumar, the Quichua name for sweet potato in the highlands of Ecuador.—Ed.]

Several of the early Spanish historians of the West Indies recorded the name age or aje, but whether this belonged properly to the sweet potato or to some other root-crop has been uncertain. Some of the accounts evidently refer to Manihot, but Gray and Trumbull settled upon Dioscorea as the correct application.1 Gomez de la Maza claims both age and boniato as indigenous Cuban names of sweet potatoes. More than a score of Cuban varieties are listed, mostly with names derived from native languages of the Island. Boniato is the name in regular use in Cuba, batata being scarcely known.2 Batata is used in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Panama; but two indigenous names, araba and deki, are reported by Pittier from primitive tribes living on the Atlantic slope of Costa Rica.3

Among all these names of sweet potatoes in other parts of America there appears to be no definite resemblance to either of the Quichua words, apichu and cumara. Perhaps the nearest approach to similarity is between cumara and the Mexican camote or camotli. Yet the number and diversity of the native names are not without significance as indications of the American origin of the sweet potato or, at least, of its wide distribution in prehistoric times.

The general interest of the Quichua names lies in the fact that cumara or kumara is also the name of the sweet potato in the Polynesian Islands. This was first pointed out by Seemann, a botanist who had visited the Pacific Islands and the west coast of South America about fifty years ago. Seemann's observation appeared as a brief editorial note in connection with a statement by the ethnologist Crawfurd, to the effect that no communication could have taken place between the American continent and the Pacific Islands.4

Cook bibliography