Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


Cucurbita pepo

By Hugh Murphy

Common names:  Pumpkin (from the Greek Pepon, meaning “melon”) (Davidson, 640). 


Pumpkins represent one of the earliest cultivated foods of the Western Hemisphere.  Over 9,000 years ago the indigenous peoples of North America were growing pumpkins - long before the cultivation of corn or beans (Kavasch, 14).  They began in the Oaxaca region as early as 8750 B.C., and spread north to the eastern region of the United States by 2700 B.C. (Kavasch, 90).  The pumpkin’s thick orange flesh would survive and prosper as a staple food source for thousands of years.

They were grown by the Pueblo tribes of the southwestern United States, as well as the Apaches, Hopi, Navajo, Havasupai, Papago, Pima and Yuman tribes, among others (Niethammer, 149).  The Apaches held annual ceremonies to pray for a good harvest and numerous tribes held autumn festivals to celebrate the harvest season.   


In late summer, thick green pumpkin vines produce several large yellow flowers, and consequently, several small, green pumpkins.  These pumpkins grow into large, orange globes in early fall, with vertical ribbing running from top to bottom.  Fresh pumpkins contain a large number of seeds in the semi-hollow core, surrounded by a meaty, orange flesh.  



Both the seeds and flesh of the pumpkin are edible.  American Indian tribes of the southwest scooped out the seeds, dried or roasted them, spiced them with chili powder and ate them with a mixture of nuts and dried fruit.  The flesh was often cut into pieces and baked in ovens or directly over coals.  Mashed pumpkin was also boiled down and mixed with batter or syrup, or added as a thickener for soup.  Dried pumpkin was peeled, sliced into rings and hung in storerooms for winter (Niethammer, 150). 



Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.  

Kavasch, Barrie E.  Enduring Harvests.  Old Saybrook, CT:  Globe Pequot Press, 1995. 

Niethammer, Carolyn.  American Indian Food and Lore.  New York:  Macmillan Publishing Co., 1974.