The Legacy of Beans: Key Insights Into the History of Beans

Did you know that fava beans were considered poisonous or that chickpeas were once linked to getting warts? Beans have a very colorful history and can be fascinating to uncover past attitudes about what is considered to be healthy food today.

Beans throughout history evolved and changed in how they were cultivated, and the cultural attitudes. Fava beans represented death, and ancient Egyptians packed beans for the afterlife. Native Americans considered certain bean colors sacred, but they were also known as food for the poor.

The history of beans is rich and colorful, so let’s get started. You may find something worth knowing!

These are 18 facts about beans:

1. Fava Beans Represented Death.

In Ancient Greek, the dark spots on fava beans were associated with death, and therefore, in later Rome, priests were prohibited from eating them. 

The Egyptians used beans in their sacrifices, which gave them a reputation for death and decay. It was because of this that many years later, Roman priests couldn’t touch them or even mention them in everyday life.

2. Chickpeas Were Linked to Warts.

The botanical name for chickpeas is Cicer arietinum, which is named for the way the plant looks when fully grown – a ram’s head. It’s thought that the Latin word “cicer” derives from the Roman philosopher, Cicero. Legend has it that one of Cicero’s ancestors had a wart on the end of his nose that looked like a chickpea, which started the association of chickpeas with warts

3. Egyptians Packed Beans in Their Tombs for the Afterlife.

Egyptians often packed their tombs with things they thought they might need in the afterlife. Egyptian tombs housed earthen pots of beans and lentils that date back to the 3rd century BCE, while frescoes depicting cooking pots full of lentils appeared as far back as the 2nd century, BCE. In ancient Rome, beans were also associated with the spirit world.

4. Native Americans Used Beans to Fertilize Their Crops.

Native Americans planted three crops, known as the “three sisters,” that helped keep each crop healthy. They farmed maize, or corn, squash, and beans interchangeably to keep the soil from getting overly saturated with one type of nutrient while stripping it of other important nutrients. 

5. Bean Colors Were Sacred to Native Americans.

While Native Americans used beans to fertilize their crops, they also held their humble legumes in a very sacred space. Different colors had different meanings, and they would use them for religious rituals, as well as for sacrifices.

6. Beans Were Once Known As “Poor People’s Food”.

Many cultures once believed that beans were the food of the poor (peasant food), and refused to buy or eat beans. Poor people were unable to afford animal protein sources, so they were relegated to eating beans.

7. Pythagoras Might Have Died Due to His Aversion to Beans.

Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician, had a great aversion to fava beans even though he was a vegetarian. He and his followers believed that fava beans contained the souls of the dead and that the black spots on the plants were ladders for souls to come back. 

The aversion may have led Pythagoras to his death. When he ran from a dictator, he came upon a field of fava beans and refused to go further. That is when he was killed.

8. Bean Cultivation in Europe During the Middle Ages Saved Them From Extinction.

Europe saw a lot of starvation and death during the Middle Ages. According to Umberco Eco, an Italian academic, had it not been for beans, they surely would have died, leaving little trace of their culture.

9. Beans Were Once Thought to Enhance Male Sexual Function.

Several centuries ago, different authors claimed that eating beans would enhance male sexual function, which led to a vicious outcry from the public. The authors also stated that beans are good for the kidneys and spleen, but people didn’t pay attention to that after the first statement.

10. Many Varieties of Beans Can Be Traced to Two Locations.

Southern Andes (Peru and Ecuador) and Mesoamerica (Central America) can boast of being the home to many of the bean varieties there are today since those regions have the right growing conditions for most beans.

11. Beans Contributed to the First Permanent Cultures.

When nomadic tribes began cultivating bean crops, they found that they could grow other foods, which led to the first permanent cultures. Once they started growing crops, this led to the progression of livestock and building homes. 

12. Almost Every Culture Has a Bean Dish.

Most cultures have a bean dish that goes back to several centuries. In Brazil, black beans and rice are a mainstay of their cuisine.

Black-eyed peas are very popular in African-American cuisine, as are kidney beans and mung beans. 

Lentils go with almost every dish in the Mediterranean, while pinto beans are served as a side dish alongside Mexican dishes. 

13. Beans Are Difficult to Classify.

Since the 18th century, academics have tried and failed to classify beans due to the bean’s ever-changing natures scientifically. Horticulturists classify them in decidedly unscientific ways because a pole bean and a bush bean can be two forms of the same species. But a wax bean can be any bean that turns yellow.

14. Navy Beans Got Their Name From Their Popularity With Sailors.

During the 19th century, before electrical refrigeration became normal on military and cruise ships, a lot of food needed to be shelf-stable, i.e., be able to stay good in room temperatures. Dried beans fit the bill marvelously, as they stayed good for years if kept in dry conditions, and the protein content made it easy to meet the navy’s protein needs. 

White beans were especially popular with naval sailors, so that is how the white bean got the name “navy beans”.

15. Beans Supplemented Meat Rations During WWII.

During World War II, military C-rations contained beans, along with some meat, to supplement diets when the world was at war. Beans were a low-cost protein source, and during this period, people used beans to stretch whatever meat and vegetables they had. 

16. Beans Are Part of Fairy Tales.

Jack and the Beanstalk is a very well-known fairy tale, in which Jack sells their prized cow for a handful of magic beans. His mother got upset with him and threw the beans out the window. 

Fairy tales were once oral legends handed down to each generation until they were written down in books. But several fairy tales contain language about beans, suggesting they were part of everyday life even before written records were popular.

17. Early Farmers Combined Rice and Beans Before It Was Trendy.

The early farmers who began cultivated beans soon realized that combining beans with rice was a healthy combination, and often grew beans with a grain, such as corn or rice. Today, it is trendy to consume beans with a grain, but these farmers were centuries ahead of their time.

18. The Common Beans Can Be Traced Back to 5,000 Years Ago. 

Prehistoric civilizations in the Americas began cultivating beans about 5,000 years ago.

Last Word

Beans are not just food that popped up one day and became popular. It took many centuries to earn their spot in world history and culture as a good source of protein. 

While several people complain about the gassy nature of beans, they are here to stay. And there are ways that you can reduce the incidence of gas, such as eating beans more often or taking an enzyme that helps you break down the carbohydrates and sugars that cause gas. 

Regardless of how beans came to be, they will continue to be part of world cuisine for years.

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This article was co-authored by our team of writers and editors who share one thing in common: their passion for food and drinks!

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco works as a New York-based editor at Foodrinke, driven by his lifelong love for food. His culinary journey began in childhood, as he eagerly assisted his mother with her local sandwich and bakery business, relishing every opportunity to sample her creations. Known among family and friends as an easy eater, JC has a particular affinity for Chinese, Italian, Mexican, and Peruvian cuisine. At Foodrinke, he channels his passion for food into his work, sharing his enthusiasm and knowledge with readers.