The origin of tomato, distribution and discovering

The tomato plant is originally from the west of South America, specifically from the Andes region, a wide zone from Ecuador to Chile and Bolivia. Its cultivation expands to Central America and the actual territory of Mexico before the arriving of Europeans. This native wild fruits were like little berries and were mainly yellow instead of red.

The archaeological discoveries of pre-Inca civilizations from the north of Peru allow us to confirm that these ancient civilizations cultivated and consumed tomatoes, as one of the basic ingredients of their diet. In the Andes region of this country we can still find thirteen wild species of tomato plants. These varieties are unknown in other parts of the world (peruviarum, hirsutum, chilense, among others).

Some evidences tell us that the domestication happened in two phases. The first one started in Los Andes where the biggest fruits were selected to produce seeds by auto fertilization. In the second phase, they are taken to Mexico where the Pre-Hispanic civilizations, Maya and Azteca continue the domestication.

The Mexican territory has evidences of the cultivation of the tomato around year 700 A.C. Probably, the native civilizations who lived in the actual territories of Mexico and Peru before the Europeans, domesticated the cultivation of the tomato independently and at the same time. Thus, any of both countries could be the origin of the tomato, and there is no evidence of which.

When the tomato came from Central America, the Maya civilization cultivated it and assigned magical properties: anyone who saw the ingestion of the seed could have prescient powers. The Aztecs also known and had benefits from the properties of the tomatoes. It was in their cities where the Europeans saw the cultivation for the first time.

The word tomato comes from the nahuatí word  (language spoken by the Aztecs from Central America)  “tomatl” and, although many argue about it, it is a fruit. Its name in nahuatl, one of the Mexican local languages, was tomatl, cocoztli, cocoztomalt. 

The name in Spanish derives from the Aztec word “xitomatl”. In fact, in Mexico is still named “jitomate” (navel tomato), word coming from the Aztec word “xicttitomatl”.

We know little about the Indians who used the tomato because the conquest devastated the pre-Columbus traditions. Bernal Díaz del Castillo said that in 1538 was arrested by some Indians in Guatemala who wanted to cook him in a pot with salt, pepper and tomatoes; and that Aztecs ate arms and legs of the defeated with a sauce of pepper, tomatoes, wild onions and salt. Sahagun (1499-1590), in his “Historia General de las cosas de Nueva España” book, wrote that natives “sold stews made with pepper and tomatoes, pumpkins seeds, and other tasty things”.

In 1559, Hernan Cortes found thes fruits growing in the gardens of Moctezuma who was the governor of the city of Tenochtitlan at that time. The conqueror took tomatoes in his journey back to the old continent.