SALT LAKE CITY — A relatively new area of archaeological research has produced some tasty — and significant — results that may help Escalante literally reconnect with its roots.
It turns out the little town of 850 residents is home to the earliest use of wild potatoes in North America based on starch residues discovered in the crevices of a 10,900-year-old stone tool.
The Solanum jamesii continues to grow wild in the American Southwest, but in Utah it is only found in isolated populations near archaeological sites — evidence that leads researchers to believe ancient people carried tubers into the area.
"It becomes this story where the plant begins to predict where the archaeology is and the archaeology predicts where the plant is," said Bruce Pavlik, a botanist and director of conservation at the University of Utah's Red Butte Garden.
Pavlik collaborated with Lisbeth Louderback, who is senior author of a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Louderback, an assistant professor of anthropology at the U. and curator of archaeology at the Natural History Museum of Utah, said the study is the first in that area.
"It's about rediscovering this food resource that has been known about but kind of forgotten."
The Escalante Valley, in fact, was once called Potato Valley, but over time the area's connection to the tuber began to diminish.
Pavlik said 1866 diaries from men in the 1st Calvary mention the miniature spud, as well as "old timers," recalling their pioneer heritage. It was also a staple at the dinner table during the Great Depression.
There are only three varieties of wild potatoes in North America, and these unassuming tubers are tiny compared to their bigger, domesticated cousins that are twice baked and stuffed with overflowing goodies.
Researchers found the potato residue through a microscopic examination of a stone grinding tool at a site called the North Creek Shelter — one of Utah's oldest archaeological sites with an 11,000-year history.
Several Native American tribes, including the Apache, Hopi, Kawaik, Navajo, Southern Paiute, Tewa, Zia and Zuni, consumed the little potatoes, grinding them into flour or yeast. Some of those same tribes continue to cultivate the potato in gardens — testimony to the stewardship of native people in the Four Corners region.
Pavlik is using a greenhouse to grow some of the plants, studying them to better understand the wild potato, including its pollinators and the conditions necessary for sexual reproduction.
The potato is already revealing some interesting traits. It only erupts from the ground during the summer monsoonal storms.
Local resident Joette-Marie Rex owns the property that includes the North Creek Shelter and a current population of the wild potato plant.
Coincidentally, she also owns the North Creek Grill, a Puebloan-style eatery noteworthy for its authentic brick oven pizza.
She said her chef is already contemplating recipes to feature the home-grown tubers.
"He is practically salivating," she said.
Drew Parkin, who is economic development director for Escalante, sees the tiny spud becoming a local superstar.
"It's an avenue toward our pre-history, something we can celebrate," he said.
He even surmises that the old moniker of "Potato Valley" will get dusted off and given new meaning because of the archaeological find and an interest by local residents to cultivate a little bit of history.
"It is a way for us to connect and something that can give us a sense of place," he said.