Cassava: From Toxic Tuber to Food Staple

By Christina Emery, Rachel Hirsch, and Melinda Susanto

When eaten raw, cassava is likely to leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth. Worse still, the unprocessed plant, containing high levels of cyanide, is poisonous to humans and can paralyze when eaten. Despite these deterring properties, cassava has long been culturally and nutritionally significant. And because Indigenous peoples of Meso- and South America discovered a way to render it edible through extensive processing, today cassava is enjoyed by 600 million people worldwide. One of the world’s major food crops alongside maize, rice, and wheat, cassava is cultivated as far away from its native habitat in South America as Southeast Asia. Nigeria is the world’s largest producer of cassava, where it is a primary source of carbohydrates for many and is consumed as part of a popular dish known as fufu.

How did cassava come to occupy this pride of place in the global food system? How did it transform from a poisonous tuber into a major food staple, and from an exclusive dweller of South America into a cosmopolitan citizen of the world? To answer these questions, this essay considers how human interactions with cassava helped to shape the plant into the significant food crop that it is today. We first look at the elaborate method of processing cassava developed by the Indigenous peoples of Meso- and South America and then turn to the codification and spread of this knowledge, facilitated by European travelers to the so-called New World. This meeting of Indigenous and European knowledge systems, combined with cassava’s tolerance for drought, resulted in a food crop that would create new hope for global food security in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Furthermore, as knowledge of cassava and its specimens circulated to different parts of the world, the plant took on additional cultural meanings through novel culinary uses and artistic representations.

Botanical drawing of cassava surrounded by caterpillars and other insects.
Drawing of cassava by Maria Sybilla Merian. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection

Of Frogs and Cassava: Early Cultivation in the Andes

Wild ancestors of the domesticated Manihot esculenta—known more commonly as cassava, manioc, or yuca—were likely introduced into Meso- and South-American agriculture by Indigenous farmers around 8000 BCE. Cassava was domesticated in these early agricultural plots, and the plant’s seeds and stem cuttings were traded over short distances.

Archaeological evidence suggests that cassava became an important food staple for several ancient cultures in present-day Peru, including the Chavin (1000–200 BCE), Nazca (200 BCE–600 CE), Moche (250–750 CE), and Chimú (1000–1470 CE).[1] 

Representations of cassava made by Moche artists provide clues as to how the plant was understood and appreciated by Andean peoples in the first millennium of the Common Era. Moche artists often represented cassava together with Leptodactylus pentadactylus—a frog found throughout the Amazon—as shown in this ceramic from Dumbarton Oaks’s collection. The smoky jungle frog, as this species is commonly called, was likely associated with agriculture, and representations of frogs may have been used in harvest-related rituals. Indeed, while cassava roots are the most commonly eaten part of the plant, they go bad quickly when dug up from the soil. However, if cassava is left in the ground, it can survive for up to four years and be harvested periodically.[2]

Indigenous Knowledge: How to Process Poison

While storing cassava in the soil addresses the issue of perishability, additional steps need to be taken to ensure that its roots can be safely eaten upon harvesting. In the Amazon, cassava is popularly divided into two major types—sweet and bitter—depending on the level of toxicity. Sweet cassava can be eaten simply by peeling and boiling it. Bitter cassava must be processed using a specific method before it can be safely consumed. The danger lies in cyanogenic glucosides, which vary in amount depending on the type of cassava, the climate, and the season in which it is cultivated. Women in Meso- and South America are primarily responsible for the processing of cassava and transforming the poisonous plant into flour for casaba, or cassava bread, and into a fermented beverage known as chicha. It is a multi-step process that includes washing and grating the cassava root, mashing it into a pulp, then hanging, dehydrating, and finally baking the dried pulp on a hot surface.[3]

1856 watercolor, “Saliva Indian Women Making Cassava Bread, Province of Casanare” by Manuel María Paz. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Despite the amount of work required to process cassava with high levels of cyanide, bitter cassava is more popularly cultivated than sweet cassava in the Amazon today. The indigenous Tukanoans of the Yapu village in the northern Amazon, for example, grow 100 different types of cassava, 98 of which are bitter. Archaeologist Warren Wilson and anthropologist Darna Dufour have demonstrated that bitter cassava yields a higher harvest than does its sweet counterpart, possibly due to its resistance to disease and insects.  It is perhaps for this reason that bitter cassava is favored as a food crop over sweet cassava, despite the additional processing required to render it edible.

[1] Donald Ugent, Shelia Pozorski, and Thomas Pozorski, “Archaeological Manioc (Manihot) from Coastal Peru,” Economic Botany 40, no. 1 (1986): 99.

[2] Donna McClelland, “The Moche Botanical Frog,” Arqueología Iberoamericana 10 (2011): 40.

[3] Darna L. Dufour, “A Closer Look at the Nutritional Implications of Bitter Cassava Use,” in Indigenous Peoples and the Future of Amazonia: An Ecological Anthropology of an Endangered World, ed. Leslie E. Sponsel (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995), 151.

Cacao: Indigenous Network to Global Commodity

By Rebecca Friedel

A Coveted Tree 

Theobroma cacao is a coveted tree known as the source of the globally celebrated chocolate, initially known as xocolatl in Nahuatl. The fruits of cacao are a variety of berry known as drupes. Drupes grow from pollinated flowers on the tree’s trunks and lower branches, each containing between 20 and 40 pulp-covered seeds, colloquially known as beans. The beans were considered a valuable resource and commodity in precolonial times and hold a similar status today.

Originally domesticated in the tropical lowlands of South America, cacao quickly spread to Mesoamerica where it gained salient cultural status as far back as the Formative Period. This world-renowned plant also tells a story of shifting strategies of interaction and knowledge production during the early modern period. This era of imperial expansion saw a variety of European entities seeking to benefit from the economic goods and networks native to the Americas. Cacao was one of the most important of these networks, specifically the production, distribution, and consumption of its seeds.

The cacao tree is a delicate plant that needs specific conditions to grow and ultimately fruit. Knowledge of these conditions forms a body of deep cultural understanding of cacao’s cultivation, reflected in Indigenous ideologies and practices. European expansionism not only led to the distribution of cacao across the globe but also to the appropriation of the knowledge of Indigenous people. Primary sources from the early modern period document such dynamics between Native human and wild-grown plant populations of the Americas and the colonizers who sought to control them.

Early Recipes

Initial imperial strategies in the so-called New World allowed for the documentation of Native perspectives by Native individuals. The earliest representations of cacao from the early modern period come from a Mexica herbal known as the Badianus manuscript, a collection of elaborately watercolor-painted plants with their associated names in Nahuatl and recipes for treating various ailments written in Latin. This herbal was completed in the 1550s by at least two Nahua men, Martín de la Cruz, an Indigenous nobleman and physician, and Juan Badiano, an instructor of Latin, at the Franciscan school of the Colegio Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco. Now held by the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City, the manuscript has been reproduced in a number of ways since its original creation. Through its original and reproductions, the historically deep and broader Indigenous ideologies surrounding Theobroma cacao are captured.

Colorful herbal drawing of trees
Image of cacao and other plants from the Badianus Manuscript. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The herbal’s watercolors illustrate anatomically accurate plant structures situated within particular stages of the reproductive life cycle of cacao. These details indicate that the Mexica had an intimate understanding of cacao’s biology, a level of knowledge not found in contemporaneous herbals authored by non-Natives. Consequently, the knowledge of cacao within the Badianus has a broader spatio-temporal history, developing across Mesoamerica well before the arrival of Europeans and the formation of the school in which de la Cruz and Badiano created the herbal.

Ancient Ideologies

The association of cacao with curing particular ailments in Mexica recipes echoes what was known about the plant by Mesoamericans for thousands of years. In their cosmologies, the cacao plant is connected to maize, a staple crop throughout and beyond Mesoamerica that was highly mythologized. This connection of maize and cacao, typically conceptualized as a life cycle, is also exemplified by a broader ideology regarding a cycle of subsistence. The cycle includes a sequence of alternating a forest garden, where cacao is grown, with milpa, where maize is grown. This milpa/forest garden cycle is a subsistence strategy that was, and still is, central to providing sustenance to millions of neotropical inhabitants.

Etched Maya Bowl
Bowl with Anthropomorphic Cacao Trees from Early Classic Maya Period, 400-500. Image Courtesy: Dumbarton Oaks

Sickness Personified: Clandestine Remedies from Colonial Yucatán

By R.A. Kashanipour


I curse you, little seizures! Whose erupting pox are you? Eruptions on the head and body, open eruptions, internal eruptions, fiery eruptions…” [1] So begins a highly ritualized remedy for fever, eruptions, and seizures from late colonial Yucatán. As I noted in my last post, sickness and disease were endemic throughout colonial Latin America and brought together distinct traditions of healing. As this remedy and the dozens of others from the manuscript known as Ritual of the Bacabs show, eighteenth-century Mayas of the Yucatán were not silent victims of disease. Instead, they understood sickness and infirmity as extensions of the natural and human world. They incorporated ancient traditions and firmly rooted healing in colonial context. And, as I would like to note in this post, healers personified and naturalized diseases to bolster their own therapeutic powers.

Before returning to this remedy, I want to touch on the manuscript source and then briefly make note of ancient traditions of Maya healing. Ritual of the Bacabs is a collection of healing incantations, prayers, and remedies written in Yucatec Maya sometime in the eighteenth century. This unique work, which today is held at Princeton University, addresses afflictions common to the colonial world, including pox (kak), difficulty breathing (coc), and difficulty walking (chibal oc). The devastating affects of disease are often noted as seizures (tancas). Several cures associate these outbursts with their origins, such as walking seizures (ah oc tancas), while others ascribe direct ties to the natural world as their sources, including macaw-jaguar seizures (mo balam tancas) and tarantula seizures (chiuoh tancas). The culturally bound ailment often described as madness (coil) regularly appears associated with extreme cases of the pox and seizures.

On the whole, the remedies of the text illustrate the ongoing revision of long-standing Maya traditions in the face of colonial institutions. In particular, in the pre-Hispanic period, infirmity and remediation were associated with the supernatural world and directly tied to the deities Ix Chel and Itzamná. In 1571, Diego de Landa, the second Bishop of Yucatán and infamous crusader against pagan practices, noted Ix Chel’s centrality to healing.

“The physicians and the sorcerers assembled in one of their houses with their wives… they opened bundles of their medicine, in which they kept many little things… little idols of the goddess of medicine, whom they called Ix Chel .”

Diego de Landa, ca. 1570

The two deities, the goddess of the moon and lord of the sun, were bound as husband and wife and mirroring elements of health and sickness.

Ix Chel and Itzamna This rollout image from a classic period pot depicts the goddess Ix Chel (center) caring for an ailing Itzamná (right) and a female healer (left) performing a healing ritual.  The leaves surround the infirmed and bedridden Itzamná most likely represent the purgatives used to induce the deer to vomit. A vulture appears underneath the old god’s bed, just to make clear that his condition is dire.  © Justin Kerr, K2794, www.mayavase.com
Ix Chel and Itzamna
This rollout image from a classic period pot depicts the goddess Ix Chel (center) caring for an ailing Itzamná (right) and a female healer (left) performing a healing ritual. The leaves surround the infirmed and bedridden Itzamná most likely represent the purgatives used to induce the deer to vomit. A vulture appears underneath the old god’s bed, just to make clear that his condition is dire. © Justin Kerr, K2794, www.mayavase.com

During the colonial period, local Church authorities attempted to root out any expressed association with ancient religions. In healing, however, it is clear they were unsuccessful. These deities, who were central to the creation mythology of the Classical Maya, were represented as powerful animistic forces in the healing text. In a remedy for a breathing affliction in Ritual of the Bacabs, both Itzamna and Ix Chel are invoked to harness the use of the powerful cardinal directions. The enchanter is to “for four days, shake the face of the red Ix Chel, the white Ix Chel, the yellow Ix Chel; four days he shakes the face of the red Itzamna.” [3] These supernatural forces figure prominently in the background of numerous remedies. They serve to root the cures in line with ancient traditions, which endured well into the colonial period.

File:Goddess O Ixchel.jpg
Ix Chel with her Rabbit
In this image from a Classic period earthenware polychome vase, a seated Ix Chel appears with her rabbit, which is often identified as one of her animal spirit companions. She appears as a young woman, dressed in the regalia of a noble, complete with headdress. The original object is housed at Museum of Fine Arts Boston and available digitally here.

The remedies of Ritual of the Bacabs represent a clandestine system of ritualized healing that directly built on past Maya practices, such as the invocation of Ix Chel. As a text designed for alienating and eliminating sickness, the curanderos that penned the work most likely identified themselves as a special Maya class of healers known as mak ik or benevolent shamans that controlled healing winds. In this way, they stood in line with ancient traditions, but were fully immersed in colonial experience.

[1] Ritual of the Bacabs, Princeton University Library, Garrett-Gates Collection, Mesoamerican Manuscript No. 1, folio 100.

[2] Diego de Landa and Alfred M. Tozzer, Landa’s Relación De Las Cosas De Yucatan: A Translation. (New York: Kraus, 1966), 154.

[3] Ritual of the Bacabs, folio 65.