Like many crops the peanut is completely unknown as a wild plant and was probably produced by the natural hybridisation of two different species of uncultivated ancestors. This event which probably occurred thousands of years ago in Argentina or Bolivia was followed by a fortuitous doubling of the genetic material allowing this new hybrid to produce fertile seeds and effectively creating the peanut as a new species. The oldest known peanut is dated at about five thousand years, which is a long time to be stuck down the back of a sofa!
By the time of Columbus the peanut had conquered the whole of South and Central America, plus the Caribbean. Well before this the ancient Incas are known to have ground peanuts into a thick paste and thus have the best claim to have invented peanut butter. While grinding a peanut into mush may not seem much of an invention, it is one that has been claimed by several great Americans.
George Washington Carver (the first African-American to have had his own dedicated national monument) is frequently credited with the invention of peanut butter along with 299 other things to do with a peanut. George Washington Carver was indeed an extraordinary man. Along with his mother and sister he was kidnapped from his slave master during the American Civil War. George alone survived, but was so weakened by the experience he was unable to work in the fields. Remarkably for the time, as an ex-slave, he was able to gain both a school and college education and eventually became famous as an agricultural scientist. He dedicated his life to improving agricultural production in the southern states that had been damaged not only by the war, but by years of cotton production which had left the soil impoverished. He did this by encouraging the use of crop rotations incorporating nitrogen fixing peanuts and by promoting their consumption (hence the 300 different things to do with a peanut). His critics point out that many of these 300 things are in fact duplicates, including nearly 50 peanut based dyes, more than ten types of peanut flour and a similar number of fibre-boards. Alternatively, his critics may just have been envious because they were never invited to the sorts of parties where you get to play 300 things to do with a peanut!
Carver, a very religious man, is said not to have patented his version of peanut butter, because he believed all food was the gift of God and that humans should not profit from this divine generosity. Dr John Harvey Kellogg (of Cornflake fame) clearly did not share Carver’s conviction and patented his own peanut meal shortly after in 1895 and started selling peanut butter making machines the year after that.
Post Second World War, the British also turned to the miraculous peanut as a saviour. In 1946 the newly elected British Labour government invested nearly 50 million pounds in the Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme. At the time the UK was still rationing food with cooking fats and protein being in particularly short supply. The idea was to grow peanuts across 600 km2 of eastern Africa. The entire scheme ended up as a complete fiasco with only a third of this area being cultivated and just 2000 tons of peanuts being harvested. In agricultural circles it is widely believed that the failure of the Groundnut Scheme was related to the peanuts becoming contaminated with the mould Aspergillus flavus which produces highly poisonous aflatoxins. In reality the scheme failed because of a series of logistical cock-ups and mismanagement. The ground selected was covered in thick vegetation that was difficult to clear. Imported heavy machinery was difficult to transport, maintain and use in eastern Africa. Transport links were washed away by floods. Meanwhile, the “Groundnut Army” of ex-military volunteers working on the project was plagued by angry elephants, rhinos, lions, crocodiles, bees and scorpions. When the crop was eventually planted, the clay-rich soil baked hard in the African sun made the pre-roasted peanuts almost impossible to harvest. Finally, after being driven nuts by the nuts, the Groundnut Army resorted to planting sunflowers, which were ironically killed by the sun as a severe drought destroyed the crop. The scheme was cancelled in 1951.