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Scientists believe that the potato plant originally came from the Andes. Archeological evidence suggests that humans have cultivated the potato for at least 7,000 years. Recent genetic analysis has shown that the potato was cultivated from one progenitor in an area of southern Peru, and the cultivated species then spread from there. Pre-Columbian societies of this region (pre-cursors of the Inca civilization) cultivated it originally, and it spread over time to other Native American groups and became a staple food in some areas.
Popular legend has long credited Sir Walter Raleigh with first bringing the potato to England, but history suggests Sir Francis Drake as a more likely candidate. In 1586, after battling the Spaniards in the Caribbean, Drake stopped at Cartagena in Colombia to collect provisions — including tobacco and potato tubers. Before returning to England he stopped at Roanoke Island, where the first English settlers had attempted to set up a colony. The pioneers returned to England with Drake, along with the potatoes. Agriculturalists in Europe soon found potatoes easier to grow and cultivate than other staple crops, such as wheat and oats; potatoes produce more food energy than any other European crop for the same area of land and require only a shovel for harvesting.
The potato became such an important food for the Irish that the popular imagination automatically associates it with them today, but its early history in Ireland remains obscure. One speculation has it that the potato may have originally arrived in Ireland washed ashore from wrecked galleons of the Spanish Armada (1588). Another story credits the introduction of the potato in Ireland to Sir Walter Raleigh, who did finance transatlantic expeditions, at least one of which made landfall at Smerwick, County Kerry in October, 1587, but no record survives of what botanical specimens it may have carried or whether they thrived in Ireland. Some stories say that Sir Walter first planted the potato on his estate near Cork. A 1699 source (over one century after the event) says 'The potato .... Was brought first out of Virginia by Sir Walter Raleigh, and he stopping at Ireland, some was planted there, where it thrived well and to good purpose, for in three succeeding wars, when all the corn above ground was destroyed, this supported them; for the soldiers, unless they had dug up all the ground where they grew, and almost sifted it, could not extirpate them.' .
Whatever the source, the potato became popular in Ireland both because of its high productivity and because of the advantages of both growth and storage hidden underground. English landlords also encouraged potato-growing by Irish tenants because they wanted to produce more wheat — if the Irish could survive on a crop that took less land, that would free a greater area for wheat production.By 1650 potatoes had become a staple food of Ireland, and they began to replace wheat as the major crop elsewhere in Europe, serving to feed both people and animals.
A single devastating event however, looms large in the Irish history of potatoes — the Irish potato famine. In the 1840s a major outbreak of potato blight, a plant disease, swept through Europe, wiping out the potato crop in many countries. The Irish working class lived largely on the unpalatable but fertile 'lumper', and when the blight reached Ireland their main staple food disappeared.
Though Ireland grew a variety of crops at this time, most went as exports to Europe for sale at a higher price. In fact, during the Potato Famine, Ireland remained a net exporter of food stuffs. However the exported foods remained too expensive for the Irish themselves to afford. Historians continue to debate the roles that English rule and European market prices played in causing the famine.
Ultmately the famine led to almost a million deaths, and the subsequent emigration of millions more Irish (see Irish diaspora). Emigration from the German states also grew, although central Europe did not suffer the mass starvation that occurred in Ireland.
By the seventeenth century the potato had become firmly established as a staple of Europe's poor, leading richer people to spurn it, although this changed gradually, with Antoine-Augustin Parmentier's persuading King Louis XVI of France of the value of the crop. The soup potage Parmentier takes its name from the great horticulturalist.
By the end of the 18th century the potato had become popular in France, due to the advocacy of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier. Today, potatoes grow widely in Europe, especially in North European countries such as the British Isles, Germany, Poland, and Russia, due to their ability to thrive in cold, damp climates. Because the potato grew so well in Northern Europe, it may have contributed to the population-explosion there in the 19th century - though not in other centuries.
In Russia, potatoes met with initial suspicion: the people called them "the Devil's apples" because of folklore surrounding things which grow underground or which have associations with dirt.