Researchers claim to have settled question of whether there was contact between islanders and Americas with construction of tuber’s ‘family tree’

The sweet potato is ubiquitous enough to seem almost mundane – but its origins have long been shrouded in mystery. Now scientists say they have solved the puzzle, in the process scotching the idea that people in the Americas were in touch with Polynesians before the Europeans turned up in the New World in the 15th century.

The research reveals that the sweet potato evolved just once, probably in central or northern South America, and originated from a single ancestor. What’s more, an analysis of a 250-year-old sample of sweet potato collected during Captain Cook’s voyage to the South Pacific on HMS Endeavour suggests the spuds arrived in Polynesia by means of ocean currents.

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