Of Quinoa, Agricultural Science, and Social Change – New Essay from Adam Gamwell on the Savage Minds Anthropologies Projects

Photo: Colin Stone Peacock
Photo: Colin Stone Peacock

TAL’s Adam Gamwell has a new essay about his research on quinoa biodiversity in Peru out on Savage Minds blog!


Specters of the Dead

Aymara legend has it that some 5000 years ago there was a massive drought across the land, across what would become known as the Andean Altiplano spanning southern Peru and Bolivia. During this years-long drought harvests were lost, there was hunger, and many people and their animals died. Farmers, llamas and alpacas, travelers subsisting on the hospitality of locals all ran out of stores and eventually starved. There was virtually no food to be found, save for two plants that grew wild: quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), and its cousin cañihua (Chenopodium pallidicaule). These two species grow primarily in the Lake Titicaca basin and are remarkably resilient in the face of drought and frost, and can grow in salty, sandy, and acidic soils that kill most other plants. People quickly realized the nutritional qualities of these plants, and quinoa became famous for sustaining those who ate its seeds. The plant was named jiwra in Aymara which translates in Spanish to “levanta moribundos” or that which raises the dying (Canahua y Mujica, 2013).

This legend was recounted to me in perhaps an unusual place by an unexpected storyteller: a plant geneticist told the tale in-between explaining the orthomolecular and nutraceutical qualities of quinoa.

Agricultural scientists play a key role in the production of quinoa in Puno, Peru. That may seem overly obvious from a scientific point of view, but this fact easily gets overshadowed in contemporary marketing images of happy indigenous farmers in traditional clothing, alpacas grazing open fields, and organic quinoa blowing in the wind. Moving beyond these representations to where quinoa is produced in primarily in the Titicaca – Poopo basin between Peru and Bolivia, it becomes clear just how much some agronomists shift back-and-forth between so-called ‘forward-looking’ agricultural science and ‘traditional’ quinoa agricultures, which they view not as opposed but as complementary and mutually reinforcing. The examples explored below take inspiration from Gabriela Soto-Laveaga’s Jungle Laboratories (2009). Yet, rather than seeking to recuperate the hidden histories and lives of indigenous producers behind the ‘scientific’ creation of the Pill, I draw here on ethnographic research in southern Peru to analyze the work of several Puneño agronomists who actively use their scientific capital to keep indigenous knowledge, agriculture and history a part of quinoa’s story.

Read the rest here: Of Quinoa, Agricultural Science, and Social Change

Adam Gamwell rounds out the anthropologies #22 issue on food. Gamwell is a public anthropologist and PhD Candidate at Brandeis University working across food, design, science, and markets. His research is based in southern Peru on quinoa. He is also Creative Director and host for This Anthropological Life Podcast. Connect with Adam on academia.edu or linkedin.com

Part of the Anthropologies #22 – Food Issue

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