Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere

Tepary Beans

Phaseolus acutifolius

By Jeremy Trombley

A traditional food of the Southwest United States and parts of Central America, the tepary bean is believed to have dramatically shaped the culture and physiology of the people that made use of it.


Tepary beans are a resilient food resource, able to survive in the harshest desert climates. They are small and develop quickly, soaking up a lot of water early on and protecting it within a hard, thick skin. The plant is highly drought and disease resistant, and provide a quick but small harvest that is high in nutritional value. Teparies contain a high proportion of protein and many other valuable nutrients including iron, niacin and calcium. However, the beans are difficult to harvest as their pods open explosively, distributing the small beans everywhere.


Cultivation began about 5,000 years ago in Central America and Mexico. The name tepary comes from the Tohono O'odham word for bean, pawi. Indeed, this group was formerly referred to as the Papago, which means “bean people,” but they changed their name because it was considered racist. The beans provided a nutritious resource to those groups that cultivated them, and shaped their culture and physiology. According to one story, the Milky Way was created by the trickster god Coyote when he threw a bag of white teparies up into the sky. The people of the Southwestern U.S. were so accustomed to eating teparies and other high protein, high fiber and low fat foods that some scientists claim that they became genetically adapted to that diet. As a result, when European foods, high in fats and sugars, replaced teparies and other native foods (due largely to the influence of the U.S. Government), the people of this region were not adapted to the new diet and many health problems resulted. The Tohono O'odham population now has one of the highest rates of type 2 diabetes on earth.


As a result of research pointing to the dietary changes brought about by the invasion of Europeans on the American continent, there has been a movement among many native groups and their simpathizers to revive the use of traditional foods such as the tepary bean. The Tohono O'odham Community Action (TOCA) sponsors the planting and distribution of teparies and RAFT (Renewing America's Food Traditions) has funded research into possible benefits of the tepary bean for local diets and the local economy.


Renewing America's Food Traditions

Albala, Ken. Beans: A History. New York: Berg Publishers, 2007.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food 2nd Ed. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.