Cassava: A Contested Good

Brandi Simpson Miller

The widescale adoption of cassava in Ghana today has its roots in the nineteenth-century transition away from the slave trade to the “legitimate” trade in the palm oil that lubricated British industry. Cassava was introduced to the Gold Coast in the seventeenth century and flourished in the arid climate and infertile soils of the Osu environs of the Danish Fort, Christiansborg. Soon after, local experimenters tried to adapt the introduced varieties of cassava they found near Christiansborg into types that had a lower poison content (as recognized by taste), while maintaining attractive features, such as hardiness.[i]

Cassava or tapioca plant. Coloured etching by J. Pass, c. 1809. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

Intermittent food shortages in the southeast throughout the mid-eighteenth century gave experimenters the imperative to continue their development of cassava as a hunger food. Cassava gardeners were gratified to find that plants grown from cuttings rather than seeds halved the time it took to produce tubers of harvestable size. Cooks discovered that clones grown from a stem cutting produced tubers less fibrous and thus more suitable for making ampesi (boiled starch) and fufu (boiled and pounded starch dumplings).[ii]


By the 1780s farmers around Accra had produced cassava cultivars that were distinct from original, introduced stock from the New World. Their cassava was less poisonous, and Accra consumers considered these new types to be edible. These types were not completely free of cyanogenic glucosides, but cooks who peeled the tubers made the remaining starch safe because the toxicity of the hybrid cultivar resided in that outermost layer of the fibrous husk they removed.[iii]

The transition from the slave trade to the “legitimate” trade in palm oil resulted in conflicts that increased the consumption of cassava. The cessation of the slave trade resulted in an Asante invasion of the coastal Fante beginning in 1806-7 to monopolize any remaining trade with Europeans. This invasion was directly responsible for a series of famines beginning with the 1809 famine, as people were unable to properly attend to cultivation for the persistent fear of attack. The 1816 famine alone was responsible for the deaths of many thousands of Fante.[iv] Fante farmers turned to cassava to buttress themselves against famines by planting the crop in soils that were dry, nutrient-poor, or otherwise unsuitable for maize (which did not tolerate saline spray) or plantains (which required shelter from wind, and moisture).[v] Cassava, which stored well underground, could be grown in poor soil and retrieved under these arduous circumstances to stave off hunger.

Afro-Brazilians who resettled in West Africa following a series of slave revolts in Bahia between 1831 and 1835 contributed to the development of new cassava dishes.[vi] The dish now known as gari fortor—most likely derived from the Brazilian-Portuguese farofa or grated, roasted maniocmixes flavourings like onions, tomatoes, and eggs into the shredded cassava before frying and has become a residual marker of the Brazilian contribution to today’s Ghanaian cuisine.[vii]

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “Accra, Gold Coast.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed July 9, 2021.

However much cassava came to be consumed on the coast by the Fante it was never to attain the positive associations that the eating of yam or maize embodied in daily life or in ritual. After the 1803 Danish ban on trans-Atlantic slave trafficking, Danish traders relocated toward the Legon Hills and along the Akuapem Ridge near Accra and used slave labour on plantations of indigo, cotton, or sugar cane.[viii] Cassava was chosen as a staple on slave provisioning plots and on core plantation grounds for the sustenance of the workers.[ix] As Europeans in the early nineteenth century began to ban the slave trade, merchants in Accra adjusted to the downturn in the maize trade by using their slaves to produce cassava for the coastal towns.[x] These choices resolutely identified cassava as the chief sustenance for enslaved people and reinforced its association with misfortune. Despite the low esteem in which cassava was held, cassava gari had become a staple food by the end of the nineteenth century. Gari is an excellent example of how the global migration of humans contributed to the ideas, tools, and techniques that make a cuisine.[xi]


[i]  J. D. La Fleur, Fusion Foodways of Africa’s Gold Coast in the Atlantic Era (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 163.

[ii]  E. V. Doku, Cassava in Ghana (Accra: Ghana Universities Press, 1969), 4-12.

[iii]  La Fleur, Fusion Foodways, 165.

[iv] Brodie Cruickshank, Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast of Africa (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1853), 118.

[v] La Fleur, Fusion Foodways, 168.”

[vi] Paul E. Lovejoy, “Background to Rebellion: The Origins of Muslim Slaves in Bahia,” Slavery & Abolition 15, no. 2 (1 August 1994): 151–80; Lisa A. Lindsay, “‘To Return to the Bosom of Their Fatherland’: Brazilian Immigrants in Nineteenth-century Lagos,” Slavery & Abolition 15, no. 1 (April 1994): 22–50.

[vii] Fran Osseo-Asare and Barbara Baëta, The Ghana Cookbook (New York: Hippocrene Books, 2015), 152.

[viii] C. D. Adams, “Activities of Danish Botanists in Guinea 1783-1850,” Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana 3, no. 1 (1957): 30–46.

[ix]  Ray A. Kea, “Plantations and Labour in the South-East Gold Coast from the Late Eighteenth to the Mid Nineteenth Century,” in From Slave Trade to Legitimate Commerce: The Commercial Transition in Nineteenth-Century West Africa, ed. Robin Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 137; Henrik Jeppesen, Danske plantageanlæg på Guldkystem, 1788-1850 (Place of publication and publisher not identified, 1966), 57–59.

[x] Kea, “Plantations and Labour,” 125.

[xi] Rachel Laudan, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 2–3.



Brandi Simpson Miller is the Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Wesleyan College Macon, Georgia. Beginning in the autumn term she will also serve as the Assistant Director of the Wesleyan College Center for Social and Racial Equity. Here research interests include the study of West African foodways from the seventeenth century to the present. Her current publications include a book chapter entitled ‘Food and Nationalism in an Independent Ghana,’ published by Bloomsbury in The Rise of National Foods in 2019. Her thesis, entitled ‘The Social History of Food and Cooking in Nineteenth- and Twentieth- Century Ghana,’ is being published as a monograph with Palgrave MacMillan. You can follow her on Twitter: @bsimpsonmiller1.

A Black Rooster and the Angel of Dread: Jewish Magical Recipes Against Fear

By Andrea Gondos

Illness and a desperate longing for wellness and healing defined Jewish magical recipes books, written in a thriving manuscript culture of practical Kabbalah that existed alongside printed works in Jewish communities of East-Central Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[i] These manuscripts, many of them cherished by their compilers, played an important role in recording, accumulating, and subsequently transmitting knowledge about the natural and the supernatural worlds. As recipe compilations, they include lists of ingredients that are accompanied by detailed instructions directed at a practical goal, which in this case aimed to improve a person’s material and spiritual wellbeing. The writers of these amulets were collectively called ba’alei shem[ii] or masters of the (divine) name who deployed experiential types of knowledge in combination with traditions of angelic and divine names. These expose a holistic outlook based on the careful alignment and calibration of three interrelated spheres of human existence: the religious, derived from prayer and proper conduct; artisanal knowledge of the natural world, the unique qualities of herbs, plants, and animal substances; and the mastery of supernatural forces and processes by wielding power over demons, forces of impurity, and astrological influences.  The acquisition of this unique type of expertise, enumerated in these magical recipe books, bequeathed upon its master extraordinary powers and charisma. Here, I will survey three visually interesting amulets designed to counteract demonic forces that were believed to cause negative mental and emotional states such as fear.

Image courtesy of The National Library of Israel, MS 38 3279, fol. 109v: an amulet against fear for a child.


“[An] amulet for a child gripped by terror. It should be hung on the child and her/his name should be written on it; he can also hang on the child the foot of a black rooster.”

A curious ingredient and technique presented in this recipe is the use of charaktêres, or angelic alphabet, that was meant to directly command and address specific angelic interlocutors to produce a desired outcome.[iii] Defined as “an alphabetic sign or a simple ideogram which does not belong to any of the alphabets used in that specific magical text, or to any known system of meaningful symbols,”[iv] charaktêres constituted a form of linguistic magic and were frequently deployed through cross-cultural borrowing and adaptation in a variety of cultural settings, including Judaism, from Antiquity to modern times.

Another recipe that addresses fear was supposed to be written on parchment made from a kosher animal, one that was considered in compliance with Jewish dietary laws. Here the visual element is the formation of a square from the angelic name PAHAD’EL, which is a composite of the words ‘fear’ (pahad) and God (‘El). At the upper corners of the recipe, on the left and right sides, two additional angelic names are indicated: Hasadi’el (left), and Rahami’el (right). Both names are cognates of mercy, thus visually these two merciful angels flank the Angel of Dread (Pahad’el) overpowering and diminishing its negative effect on the person, who is gripped by fear. When confronted by the debilitating effects of mental distress, such as fear or dread, the Jewish shaman thus had recourse to a cache of magical modalities to affect healing. Ingredients here are comprised of a magic square, letter mysticism, alongside theoretical elements of Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, which invokes the mystical principle of containment. Accordingly, the demonic powers of the left side of the divinity need to be included, encompassed, and subsumed in the right, the sacred aspect of God. Kabbalistic theosophy places great emphasis on the idea of tricks and ruse to co-opt the dark forces of the left, instead of confronting them directly; this conceptualization is visually demarcated in the diagrammatic features of this recipe formula.

Image courtesy of The National Library of Israel. MS 8 1070, fol. 31r


In the final recipe for fear, food and plant substances, bread and garlic, are promoted as effective therapeutic ingredients to overcome this negative emotional state. This particular compilation does not contain any distinctly Jewish elements. Rather, it draws on more common cross-cultural practices, which are adopted and offered as part of a ba’alei shem’s stock of natural remedies:

“For one who goes out at night so he would not fear evil spirits even in a place of danger: He should take a loaf of bread in his right hand and in his left hand some garlic, and no harm will come to him, God willing, who saves and protects.”

Image courtesy of The National Library of Israel. MS 8 1070, fol. 11v


The above recipes which were offered as panacea against fear, a form of mental distress, highlight the multiplicity of approaches that ba’alei shem in East-Central Europe took to alleviate the debilitating grip of negative states of the mind. While some recipes display theoretical, particularistic, and more elite forms of knowledge, other variants for the same illness exhibit a more universal, folkloristic, and popular stance.


[i] See Agata Paluch, “Practical Kabbalah and Practical Knowledge: Kabbalistic Manuals and Natural Knowledge in Early Modern East-Central Europe,” History of Knowledge, April 11, 2019,

[ii] On ba’alei shem, see Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, “The Master of an Evil Name: Hillel Ba’al Shem and His Sefer ḥa-Heshek,”AJS Review 28.2 (2004): 217–248; and Immanuel Etkes. The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader, translated by Saadya Sternberg (Hanover and London: Brandeis University, 2005).

[iii] Gideon Bohak, “The Charaktêres in Ancient and Medieval Jewish Magic,” Acta Classica Universitatis Scientiarum Debreceniensis, 47 (2011): 25-44.

[iv] Ibid., p. 25.




Andrea Gondos’s scholarship has focused on knowledge organization and transmission reflected in early modern study guides in the field of Kabbalah. Currently, she is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the DFG-Emmy Noether Research Group “Patterns of Knowledge Circulation” at the Institute of Jewish Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, where she examines the conceptualization of the female body, gender, and reproductive health as expressed by Jewish male healers in early modern manuscripts of magic in East-Central Europe.

A valuable ancient commodity: Miltos of Kea

By Effie Photos-Jones

The island of Kea in the North Cyclades is by some travel agents’ reckoning the (rich) Athenians’ ‘best-kept secret’, their beautifully-designed stone-built villas merging seamlessly with the barren landscape overlooking the blue Aegean Sea (Fig 1).

Fig. 1 Private house in Orkos, looking east. To the SE on can see the island of Kythnos. (c) Effie Photos-Jones

The scenery is even more spectacular in the south and in the east of the island. Although sparsely populated today, this area was from the mid of the 19th century and well into the early part of the 20th century, a hive of activity, on account of the extensive underground workings of the seams of lead and iron ores. Today, miners’ cottages stand derelict, perhaps waiting for a buyer to convert them into holiday homes. But the ground underneath Petroussa, Orkos or Trypospilies (Fig 2 map) is riddled with galleries, some dating as early as the 4th century BCE. These early galleries were opened with one aim in mind: to access miltos (Fig. 3c).

Fig. 2. A map of Kea with its four ancient city states and the miltos names Orkos, Petroussa, Trypospilies. (c) Effie Photos-Jones

The material they called miltos is a composite one consisting of naturally fine iron oxides (hematite/goethite) with small amounts of calcite, quartz and clay minerals. It made its first appearance in the Bronze Age Linear B clay tablets  as mi-to-we-sa. The Mycenaeans, acutely aware of colours, had many names for red, miltos being, we think, a red with a deep purple hue. It would be many centuries before Kea miltos would surface again in the literary record, always as the colour red but also as a whole host of materials whose colour merited that name. In the 4th century BCE Theophrastus (On Stones, 52) tells us that builders and joiners used it to draw a line with, workers in shipyards used it for ship maintenance and if the miltos came from the island of Lemnos, then it was used as a medicine, as well, and against ‘poison’.

From the above it is clear that miltos was a valuable commodity. But how valuable? An Athenian decree carved on a marble inscription found in the Athenian Agora and dated c. 360 BCE tells us exactly how valuable. The decree was issued by Athens to all the three city states of Kea (Ioulis, Korisseia and Karthaia (Fig. 2) requiring each one of them to export miltos in its entirety from their respective mines, exclusively to Athens; also for the Keans to bear the charges for the transport and only in an Athenian boat! The tone is severe and the penalties dire. The decree appears to openly invite a slave to denounce his master, if the latter is suspected of selling his miltos to a third party. It stipulates that the slave would be gaining not only his freedom but would also receive half of his masters’ estate!

Another contemporary inscription, more informative than severe, also from Athens mentions miltos mixed with pitch, the miltopissa. And at an even later date (3rd century CE), the author of an agricultural manual, recommends miltos for pest control. It suggests miltos should be smeared around the roots of trees ‘to prevent trees and vines from being harmed by worms or anything else’.

So what was the rationale behind all these diverse uses of miltos? was it a case of ‘since we have it …we might as well use it!’ or did antiquity have a more subtle understanding of this valuable natural material which has so far eluded us? We have been investigating….

As was mentioned miltos consists of very fine iron oxides with particle sizes ranging in the nanosized range. There are also impurities of lead, zinc, copper and arsenic within. But beyond its mineral components, Kean miltos also had an organic load. By that we mean microorganisms like bacteria, fungi and other which live around miltos, are feeding on miltos and also alter the environment around it (Fig 3). We became aware of these microorganisms through DNA sequencing of the miltos samples. Given that red Kean miltos was never heated but used in the ‘as was’ state it is almost certain that these microorganisms would have been carried along with the minerals. When the microorganisms died, they would release biomolecules (secondary metabolites), many of which are known to have numerous beneficial properties, as antibacterials, antifungals, antioxidants or other.

The diagram below (Fig. 4) gives a schematic illustration of the dual nature of Kean miltos, as a combination of both a biotic (microorganisms and biomolecules) and an abiotic (elements, nanoparticles, minerals) component.  It is the ‘intersection’ between the two components that gives rise to miltos’ diverse applications.

Fig. 4. Miltos’ diverse properties deriving from their biotic and abiotic components. (c) Effie Photos-Jones

When miltos is mixed with resin or pitch and applied on wood it is the toxic trace elements within which would inhibit the growth of deleterious biofilms. The same mixture could be used as pest control, by preventing the growth of microorganisms/ insects threatening tree health. If on the other hand, when miltos was mixed with water, the toxic trace elements within, mostly insoluble, would have little effect. Instead, it would be its biome, in the shape of bacteria which help the growth of plants, by making nutrients bioavailable at the root level, which would render miltos a good fertiliser. In short, each application appears, to have called upon and with confidence, either the biotic or abiotic component of miltos depending on the ‘problem’ at hand. No wonder the Athenians were taking no chances with the Keans and their miltos.

We have for long considered miltos a good and ‘special’ red pigment. But all along, it has been way more than that. The Athenians had made a shrewd assessment of this natural material and as an all-powerful city state they imposed their might on their allies. With the demise of the Athenian hegemony in the region, the importance of Kean miltos faded only to give prominence to that of Cappadocia traded through its Black Sea port of Sinope (Sinopic miltos).

Further Reading

Lytle, E. (2013). Farmers Into Sailors: Ship Maintenance, Greek Agriculture, and the Athenian Monopoly on Kean Ruddle (IG II 2 1128). Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, 53(3), 520-550.

Photos-Jones, E., Cottier, A., Hall, A. J., & Mendoni, L. G. (1997). Kean Miltos: The well-known iron oxides of antiquity. The Annual of the British School at Athens, 92, 359-371.

Photos-Jones, E. et al. (2018). Greco-Roman mineral (litho) therapeutics and their relationship to their microbiome: The case of the red pigment miltos. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 22, 179-192.

Effie Photos-Jones

Glasgow, UK

EPJ is a Senior Honorary Researcher at the University of Glasgow at the Schools of Humanities and of Earth and Geographical Sciences. She has been researching the metals and industrial minerals of the Greco-Roman world for over 40 years and more recently their pharmacological applications












Cherries Galore in a Cesspit

By Merit Hondelink

As an archaeobotanist, an archaeologist specialised in studying plant remains found in archaeological excavations, I aim to reconstruct and interpret the relationships between humans and plants in the past. Archaeological plant remains, also known as subfossil plant remains, help us to reconstruct the former landscape and inform us how humans exploited it and even transformed the vegetation. Archaeobotanists do not necessarily study one time period, nor a specific region or topic. They can study plant remains from the Palaeolithic or the 20th century, and everything in between. They can focus on one specific site, work across the country or continent, and even work worldwide. They can delve into topics such as natural vegetation, forestation, domestication, trade, food consumption and much more. The one thing that all of this has in common is the link between humans and plants. But most archaeobotanists do specialize, most notably in the plant parts they study, such as fruits, seeds, pollen, wood or phytoliths. And most archaeobotanists have a beloved time period, favourite region or topic that they find most intriguing. In my case my research focuses on early modern Dutch urban food consumption.

I study what people ate in early modern Dutch cities, and how this changed through time. The best way to study what people ate in the past, is to look at their excrement and kitchen refuse, both of which can be found in the archaeologists treasure trove: the cesspit. These latrines were used to empty one’s bowels, but also served as a place to discard kitchen refuse and household waste. The content of a cesspit consists of organic remains from plants and animals, inorganic (culinary) material culture such as earthenware, glassware and ceramics, but also wooden cups and plates, as well as (decorative) objects, personal belongings and much, much more.

Figure 1: A selection of faunal and floral items found in a late medieval cesspit sample from Groningen. Photo: Dirk Fennema.

The content of an archaeobotanical cesspit sample consists of, among others, floral remains in different shapes and sizes (Figure 1). The items are sorted with the use of a microscope (Figure 2) and identified on a species level (and sometimes even on the level of species variety) by using a reference collection (Figure 3). The Groningen Institute of Archaeology offers a wonderful digital, open access, reference collection, see

Figure 2: A peek through the microscope. Visible is a fragment of text and different seeds and fruits, taken from an early modern Delft cesspit sample. Photo: Merit Hondelink.

When the content of a cesspit sample is analysed, sorted and identified, the interpretation begins. What can these plant remains tell us about past human-plant relationships? Most plant species are interpreted in a standardized way: wild plants inform us about the vegetation composition, make-up of soils and hydrology, whilst agricultural weeds in particular inform us about the crops grown and their local, regional, international or even global provenance. Wild but poisonous or toxic plants inform us about potential medicinal applications. A majority of plant species found in cesspits are classified as economic plants, grown as a food crop or cultivated for other useful purposes, such as fibres for textiles or seeds for oil. Identifying edible plants helps us better understand what plants people used for food and which parts people consumed. It also helps us better understand how food was prepared in the past, as preparation marks can be left behind on seeds and fruits.

Some preparation marks are easier to identify than others: nuts need to be cracked to get to the seed; apple seeds may be sliced when cutting up an apple, cereals can be ground, resulting into fragmented bran. But sometimes the archaeobotanist finds fragmented plant parts that, at a first glance, do not make sense.

Figure 3: A small selection of the tubes from the archaeobotany reference collection housed at the Groningen Institute of Archaeology (GIA) at the University of Groningen. Photo via GIA.

I have come across dozens and sometimes hundreds (or even more) cherry stones and plum stones in a single cesspit sample. No surprise there, cherries and plums were grown in local orchards, sold in the market and consumed with gusto. Most of these stones will have been discarded in the cesspit as a result from eating the fruits and spitting out the stones, or after de-pitting the fruits for dinner preparation. Only a small percentage is assumed to have been accidentally swallowed and secreted as excrement. Still, archaeobotanists find many fragments of cherry and plum stones (Figure 4). This is something that raises questions when you think about it. Why would these sturdy fruit stones be fragmented? A more pressing question when you are aware that the Rosaceae family, among others also including almond, peach, and even apple, contains – to varying degrees – hydrocyanic acid, also known as hydrogen cyanide and sometimes called prussic acid. The seed coat and fruit wall protects the consumer from digesting this acid, which can be poisonous when consumed. So why would someone break the stones of these fruits?

Figure 4: Two fragments of cherry stones found in an early modern cesspit in Vlissingen. Photo: Merit Hondelink.

To test the assumption that cherry stones were fragmented intentionally, and not through, for instance, pressure, an experiment was devised. Cherries were bought at the farmer’s market and taken to a physics lab to measure the pressure required to fragment the stones. After a number of tests, the calculated force to fragment a cherry stone averaged 23,9 kg or 239 Newton (Graph 1). This makes it more plausible that the stones were intentionally fragmented, as opposed to – for instance – fragmentation due to soil pressure.

Graph 1: Force needed to fragment a cherry stone. On the vertical axis the force (N), on the horizontal axis the elongation (μm). The point where the line falls is the moment the cherry stone breaks (max. force – max. elongation).

Consulting early modern cookbooks provided me with a list of recipes requiring the cook to de-stone cherries for the preparation of jams, sauces, syrups and tarts. Delicious experiments ensued, but I did not manage to fragment cherry stones whilst cutting and de-stoning, pressing through a cloth or colander, or by just baking the fruit with stones in a tart in the oven. Working a batch of cherries with a mortar and pestle did the job, though. But than you would have to pick the fragmented stones from the mushy cherries: not ideal at all. Picking up the eighteenth century encyclopaedia compiled by Noël Chomel gave me the hint I needed. In the Dutch version of his Dictionnaire œconomique (Algemeen huishoudelijk-, natuur-, zedekundig- en konst- woordenboek), he mentions different recipes for preparing cherries. Two recipes for cherry liquor instruct the reader to fragment the cherry stones by using a mortar and pestle (Figure 5). The fragmented fruits, including the stones and (I assume) the seeds are added to the brandy (Dutch: brandewijn) and, after closing the bottle, the mixture is put in the sun to infuse. Adding spices such as cinnamon, cloves and sugar is optional, according to the author.

Figure 5: How to make a pleasant cherry liquor (Noël Chomel, 1778).

So, it is plausible that the fragmented cherry stones found in early modern cesspits are the result of the domestic production of cherry liquor. Other fruits, such as plums and peaches, are also used to make a fruity liquor according to Chomel’s encyclopedia. However, what happens to the acid contained in the seeds? That requires further research. It might be that the prescribed infusing in the sunlight helps denature the acid into harmless molecules, leaving only the (bitter) taste behind. This line of research will be undertaken come summer with the aid of a brewer and some chemical analysis. In the meantime, a cherry and cinnamon flavoured lemonade is my poison of choice. Bottoms up!