It’s 2013, and scientists are working to untangle the precise identity of the pathogen that caused Ireland’s devastating Great Famine. Potato blight is known to have precipitated the tragedy, but only now can the researchers pinpoint the specific strain of the disease. And the answer has come as a complete surprise.
Humans first cultivated the potato between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago in what is now the border area between southern Peru and northern Bolivia. And it was the Spanish who brought the vegetable to Europe after they’d conquered the Incas in the late 16th century. The new crop was of great benefit, too, as some estimates state that the potato was responsible for around 25 percent of population growth in Europe, Asia and Africa between 1700 and 1900.
After the tuber first appeared in Ireland, meanwhile, it took root in the gardens of the upper classes. Initially, then, it seems, the potato was not particularly popular with the common people of the country. Nevertheless, the crop gradually caught on more widely – although the level of dependency that the Irish had on the potato in the early 19th century took many decades to establish itself.