A bean is the seed of several plants in the family Fabaceae, which are used as vegetables for human or animal food. They can be cooked in many different ways, including boiling, frying, and baking, and are used in many traditional dishes throughout the world.
The word "bean" and its Germanic cognates (e.g. German Bohne) have existed in common use in West Germanic languages since before the 12th century, referring to broad beans, chickpeas, and other pod-borne seeds. This was long before the New World genus Phaseolus was known in Europe. After Columbian-era contact between Europe and the Americas, use of the word was extended to pod-borne seeds of Phaseolus, such as the common bean and the runner bean, and the related genus Vigna. The term has long been applied generally to many other seeds of similar form, such as Old World soybeans, peas, other vetches, and lupins, and even to those with slighter resemblances, such as coffee beans, vanilla beans, castor beans, and cocoa beans. Thus the term "bean" in general usage can refer to a host of different species.
In more recent times, the so-called "bush bean" has been developed which does not require support and has all its pods develop simultaneously (as opposed to pole beans which develop gradually). This makes the bush bean more practical for commercial production.
Beans are one of the longest-cultivated plants in history. Broad beans, also called fava beans, are in their wild state the size of a small fingernail, and were first gathered in Afghanistan and the Himalayan foothills. An early cultivated form were grown in Thailand from the early seventh millennium BCE, predating ceramics. Beans were deposited with the dead in ancient Egypt. Not until the second millennium BCE did cultivated, large-seeded broad beans appear in the Aegean region, Iberia, and transalpine Europe. In the Iliad (8th century BCE), there is a passing mention of beans and chickpeas cast on the threshing floor.
The oldest-known domesticated beans in the Americas were found in Guitarrero Cave, an archaeological site in Peru, and dated to around the second millennium BCE. However, genetic analyses of the common bean Phaseolus show that it originated in Mesoamerica, and subsequently spread southward, along with maize and squash, traditional companion crops.
Most of the kinds of beans commonly eaten today are part of the genus Phaseolus, which originated in the Americas. The first European to encounter them was Christopher Columbus, while exploring what may have been the Bahamas, and saw them growing in fields. Five kinds of Phaseolus beans were domesticated by pre-Columbian peoples: common beans (P. vulgaris) grown from Chile to the northern part of what is now the United States; and lima and sieva beans (P. lunatus); as well as the less widely distributed teparies (P. acutifolius), scarlet runner beans (P. coccineus), and polyanthus beans.
One well-documented use of beans by pre-Columbian people as far north as the Atlantic seaboard is the "Three Sisters" method of companion plant cultivation: Many tribes would grow beans together with maize (corn), and squash. The corn would not be planted in rows as is done by European agriculture, but in a checkerboard/hex fashion across a field, in separate patches of one to six stalks each.Beans would be planted around the base of the developing stalks, and would vine their way up as the stalks grew. All American beans at that time were vine plants; "bush beans" were cultivated more recently. The cornstalks would work as a trellis for the bean plants, and the beans would provide much-needed nitrogen for the corn. Squash would be planted in the spaces between the patches of corn in the field. They would be provided slight shelter from the sun by the corn, would shade the soil and reduce evaporation, and would deter many animals from attacking the corn and beans because their coarse, hairy vines and broad, stiff leaves