Mary Karasch. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
A tropical root crop, manioc is also known as cassava, mandioca, aipim, the tapioca plant, and yuca. The term cassava comes from the Arawak word kasabi, whereas the Caribs called the plant yuca (Jones 1959).The word manioc, however, is from maniot in the Tupí language of coastal Brazil; mandioca derives from Mani-óca, or the house of Mani, the Indian woman from whose body grew the manioc plant, according to Indian legends collected in Brazil (Cascudo 1984). Domesticated in Brazil before 1500, Manihot esculenta (Crantz), formerly termed Manihot utilissima, is a member of the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae), which includes the rubber bean and the castor bean (Cock 1985).
The manioc plant is a perennial woody shrub that reaches 5 to 12 feet in height, with leaves of 5 to 7 lobes that grow toward the end of the branches. The leaves are edible and may be cooked like spinach, but in terms of food, the most significant part of the plant is its starchy roots, which often reach 1 to 2 feet in length and 2 to 6 inches in diameter. Several roots radiate like spokes in a wheel from the stem, and each plant may yield up to 8 kilograms of roots (Jones 1959; Cock 1985; Toussaint-Samat 1992).
There are two principal varieties of manioc—the sweet and the bitter. The sweet varieties have a shorter growing season, can be harvested in 6 to 9 months, and then can simply be peeled and eaten as a vegetable without further processing. If not harvested soon after maturity, however, sweet manioc deteriorates rapidly. The bitter varieties require 12 to 18 months to mature but will not spoil if left unharvested for several months. Thus, people can harvest them at their leisure. The main disadvantage to the bitter varieties is that they may contain high levels of cyanogenic glycosides, which can cause prussic-acid poisoning if the roots are not processed properly (Jones 1959; Johns 1990).
An obvious question is that given the threat of poisoning, why would Amerindians have domesticated such a plant? The answer lies in its many advantages. It is a crop that does well in the lowland tropics where there is a warm, moist climate and no frost, although there are “cold-tolerant varieties” of the plant in the Andes (Cock 1985). In addition, manioc yields good results on soils of low fertility, and it will also tolerate acidic soils more readily than other food staples. One of the most important characteristics of manioc, however, is its ability to survive natural disasters, such as droughts. When other food crops dry up, people survive on manioc roots. Similarly, where storms frequently sweep the land, high winds do not kill the roots, even if they damage the foliage. New shoots soon form, while the roots continue to nourish people and prevent starvation.
Manioc roots are also resistant to locust plagues (an important consideration in Africa) and to destructive predators, such as wild pigs, baboons, and porcupines (Johns 1990). Once processed, manioc can be preserved and stored in a tropical climate as farinha (manioc meal) or as a bread (pan de tierra caliente, as it was called by late colonial Mexicans [Humboldt 1811]). To produce more manioc plants, farmers do not have to set aside edible roots; instead, they use stem cuttings or seeds to propagate the plant (Cock 1985).
As a food, manioc is very versatile because it can be boiled in a mush, roasted, baked, and even consumed as a pudding (tapioca) or alcoholic beverage (Aguiar 1982). When fresh, the manioc root is primarily a starch, a source of carbohydrates. But the leaf has protein and vitamin A, and the fresh roots may contain calcium, vitamin C, thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin. However, the nutritional value of the roots varies with processing, as vitamins may be leached, and even destroyed, when they are soaked and boiled (Jones 1959). Thus, as a rule, manioc must be supplemented with other foodstuffs in order for a population to avoid malnutrition. In many parts of the world, especially Asia, it also serves as an animal feed.
William Jones (1959: 29) has observed that modern methods for processing manioc roots derive from Indian methods. In order to consume the bitter varieties, they had to detoxify the plant by grating and soaking it to remove the toxic chemicals (Johns 1990). To prepare the coarse meal, known as farinha de mandioca (also farinha de pau) in Brazil, women, who traditionally process manioc in Amerindian societies, have to wash, peel, and scrape the roots. Some prehistoric populations in South America and the Caribbean even used their upper front teeth in processing manioc.
Using a flat piece of wood studded with small pointed stones as a grater, women convert the roots into a snowy white mass, which is then placed in a tipiti, a long cylindrical basket press similar to a Chinese “finger trap.” The two ends of the tipiti are pulled apart, with one end tied to the ground and the other to the branch of a tree. After the excess liquid has been squeezed out, the pulpy mass is removed, put through a sieve, and then placed on a flat ceramic griddle or metal basin where it is toasted over a low fire. The farinha can be kept for months and then eaten dry or mixed with water as a gruel (Jones 1959; de Léry 1990; Toussaint-Samat 1992; and personal observation,Tikuna village, Peru, 1975).
Although scholars agree that manioc was domesticated in the Americas, there is doubt about the exact location, even though the largest variety of species survive in Brazil. Possible areas of origin include Central America, the Amazon region, and the northeast of Brazil. Milton de Albuquerque (1969), a specialist on manioc in Amazonia, reported that the most primitive form of the plant is found in central Brazil in the state of Goiás, a region subject to prolonged dry seasons, but he believes that the backlands of the state of Bahia are its most probable point of origin. The oldest archaeological records in Brazil, however, come from the Amazon region, where ceramic griddles used in manioc preparation have been found in pre-Columbian sites (Lathrap 1970; Roosevelt 1980).
Of much greater antiquity, however, are remains of the manioc plant that have been discovered in South American excavations in and near the Casma Valley of northern Peru. These have been dated to 1785 B.C. (Langdon 1988). In Mexico, cassava leaves that are 2,500 years old have been found, along with cassava starch in human coprolites that are 2,100 to 2,800 years old (Cock 1985). Preclassic Pacific coast archaeological sites in Mesoamerica have yielded evidence of manioc, which was a staple of the Mayan civilization (Tejada 1979; Morley and Brainerd 1983). The quality of the evidence for manioc in Mesoamerica has led some authors to believe that manioc was first domesticated in Central America rather than Brazil, or that there may have been two regions of origin. Another possibility might be that bitter manioc was domesticated in northern South America, whereas sweet cassava was domesticated in Central America (Cock 1985).
Archaeological evidence for ancient manioc usage also exists in the Caribbean. According to Suzanne Levin (1983: 336), manioc griddles have been found in archaeological excavations in the Lesser Antilles on islands such as St. Kitts, St. Vincent, Antigua, and Martinique. Both the Arawaks and Caribs utilized them, and as they migrated to the islands from South America, they undoubtedly carried with them manioc and the technological knowledge necessary to propagate, cultivate, and process it.
When the Spanish reached the Caribbean and Central America, they discovered the indigenous populations cultivating manioc, a plant they termed yuca. Thus, the earliest European description of manioc dates from 1494. In describing the first voyage of Columbus, Peter Martyr referred to “venomous roots” used in preparing breads (Pynaert 1951). The Portuguese encountered manioc after 1500 on the coast of Brazil. Other sixteenth-century observers, such as the German Hans Staden  (1974) and the Frenchman Jean de Léry  (1990), have left valuable descriptions of what the Brazilians term the most Brazilian of all economic plants because of its close links to the historical evolution of Brazil (Aguiar 1982).
As the Portuguese divided Brazil into captaincies and contested the French for its control, they employed their slaves, both Indian and African, in cultivating food crops, including manioc. Unlike other areas of the Americas, where Europeans refused to adopt Amerindian crops such as amaranth, in sixteenth-century Brazil manioc rapidly became the principal food staple of coastal settlers and their slaves. As the most fertile lands in Pernambuco and the Recôncavo of Bahia were converted to sugar plantations, less prosperous farmers grew manioc on more marginal lands for sale to planters and to people in nearby towns.
When the Dutch invaded Brazil in the seventeenth century, they mastered the Brazilian system of large-scale sugar cultivation, as well as the Brazilian system of food production for plantation slaves, meaning essentially manioc cultivation. After the Dutch were expelled from Brazil in 1654, they carried the Brazilian system to the Caribbean and, henceforth, West Indian planters, such as those on Martinique, “obliged” African slaves to cultivate food crops, including manioc, on their provision grounds (Tomich 1991). Thus, manioc became a part of the slave diet in the Caribbean as in Brazil.
Manioc also enabled fugitive slaves living in maroon communities or in quilombos in Brazil to survive on marginal lands in remote or difficult terrain. Although descriptions of manioc cultivation in quilombos have usually surfaced in Brazilian records only upon the destruction of quilombos, such as Palmares (Relação das guerras feitas aos Palmares… [1675-1678] 1988), Richard Price (1991) has been able to document the cultivation of manioc over two hundred years by the Saramaka maroons of Suriname and their descendants. They raised it in the 1770s as well as in the 1970s (Price 1991).
Manioc, which was closely linked to plantation slavery in the Americas, was also the food staple that enabled the conquest of the tropics. In the pre-Columbian period, a bread made from manioc permitted long-distance trade and exploration in South America as well as lengthy war expeditions. During the European conquest, the Spanish and Portuguese forces in the tropics rapidly adopted manioc bread. Later, rations were doled out to troops fighting the frontier wars of tropical Latin America, and even in twentieth-century Brazil, military forces received “farinha de guerra” (war meal) to sustain them in their garrisons (Cascudo 1984). The Bandeirantes from São Paulo, who explored Brazil’s vast interior and discovered gold in the late seventeenth century, were able to do so because of manioc. The Guaraní Indians they pursued and often enslaved in Paraguay also raised manioc (as their ancestors had done for millennia) in the Jesuit missions that gave them refuge (Reff 1998).
In addition to slaves, maroons, soldiers, and explorers, free peasants also subsisted on manioc in Brazil, existing on the margins of plantation society and in the interior. In cultivating manioc for their own subsistence, they frequently produced a surplus, which they sold to planters and to townspeople. Often black and mulatto dependents (agregados) of the great sugar planters, these peasants escaped slavery by raising manioc and marketing it (Karasch 1986). Manioc thus supported the emergence of a free peasantry in the shadow of the Latin American plantation societies.
By the end of the colonial period, manioc had emerged as the principal food staple of the enslaved and impoverished in tropical Latin America and, as such, its cultivation, transportation, and commerce contributed greatly to the internal economy of Latin America. Unfortunately for the Latin Americans, however, manioc did not find a niche in global trade because the Portuguese had long before introduced the plant to the rest of the tropical world.
From Brazil, the Portuguese carried manioc to their stations along the Upper Guinea coast in West Africa and to the Kingdom of Kongo in northern Angola. Although manioc was not readily adopted in sixteenth-century West Africa, it was successfully introduced into the Kingdom of Kongo in what is now the modern country of Angola. Jones (1959) attributes the success of manioc in central Africa to the close ties between the Portuguese and the BaKongo beginning in the 1480s. An oral tradition with reference to the first Portuguese on the Congo-Angola coastline in the 1480s describes the arrival of “white men” who “brought maize and cassava and groundnuts and tobacco” (Hall 1991: 169).
The first documented reference to manioc comes a century later in 1593 in a letter from Sir Richard Hawkins regarding the seizure of a Portuguese ship engaged in the slave trade. Its cargo was, he reported, “meale of cassavi, which the Portingals call Farina de Paw [sic]. It serveth for marchandize in Angola, for the Portingals foode in the ship, and to nourish the negroes which they should carry to the River of Plate” (Jones 1959: 62). Thus, by the late sixteenth century, manioc meal was already an item of trade in Angola, as well as a food for the slaves in transit to the Americas. It would serve as a staple of the slave trade until that trade’s effective abolition in the mid–nineteenth century.
By the 1660s, manioc was an important food in northern Angola, according to a pair of Europeans who visited Luanda. Oral traditions from nearby areas stress the borrowing of manioc techniques from the Kingdom of Kongo; its use as a vegetable (the sweet variety?) before the people learned more complex processing techniques; and the crop’s resistance to locusts. As Jones notes, the Africans who most enthusiastically adopted manioc were those living in the tropical rain forests of the Congo Basin, rather than the people of the grasslands, where maize, millet, or sorghum were cultivated.
In the Americas, the culture of manioc had been perfected by forest peoples, and in Africa, too, it was the forest peoples who welcomed this addition to their food supply. Clearly, it was an important addition, and more than 300 years later, the people of Zaire and Congo continued to consume manioc at an average of about 1 kilogram per person per day, which would have supplied over 1,000 calories. They also utilized cassava leaves as a source of vegetable protein in sauces and soups (Cock 1985: 10).
In West Africa, however, the cultivation of manioc spread more slowly. First introduced from Brazil to Portuguese Guiné and the island of São Tomé, the root had become an important food crop on São Tomé and the islands of Principe and Fernando Pó by 1700, but it found little acceptance on the mainland until the nineteenth century. At the end of the seventeenth century, William Bosman, a Dutch factor at El Mina (now Ghana), identified the foodstuffs of Liberia, Ghana, Dahomey, and Benin as yams and maize. He also listed millet, rice, sweet potatoes, beans, and groundnuts. Apparently, the Africans had accepted the American crops of corn, beans, and groundnuts but not manioc. As Jones (1959) notes, this may have been because farmers could treat corn as another cereal crop, and sweet potatoes were similar to yams. But another reason is that the complex processing methods required by manioc could only have been mastered through close ties to people familiar with them, and the Portuguese did not have the same kind of colonial relationship with the West African states that they did with Angola.
Extensive manioc cultivation did develop in the early nineteenth century, however, as former slaves returned from Brazil to West Africa. In 1910, for example, a Dahoman chief reported the oral tradition that a returned Brazilian (Francisco Felix da Souza) “had taught the Dahomans how to prepare manioc so they could eat it without becoming ill.” Returned ex-slaves from Brazil in the 1840s also spread manioc cultivation in western Nigeria (Ohadike 1981: 389). Thus, Africans who had learned to process manioc into farinha while enslaved in Brazil played a key role in instructing those in West Africa how to utilize it. There it became known as gari or garri (Jones 1959).
The further diffusion of manioc in West Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was linked to European colonialism. As European labor demands disrupted traditional systems of food production, the colonialists sought new food crops to ward off hunger and famine. Migratory workers also dispersed knowledge of manioc cultivation inland from the coast. D. C. Ohadike (1981) argues that the influenza pandemic of 1918 that disrupted traditional agriculture based on yams contributed to the adoption of manioc in the lower Niger because of widespread hunger. Although the Portuguese had introduced manioc to the Niger Delta centuries earlier (Hall 1991), Africans did not choose to use it until the twentieth century because they preferred to cultivate yams (Ohadike 1981). Manioc is now well established as a staple crop in the wetter regions of West Africa (Cock 1985).
Exactly when Europeans imported manioc into East Africa is less certain. It seems improbable that the Portuguese delayed introducing manioc to their colony of Mozambique until 1750, as the historian Justus Strandes claims (Jones 1959). But if Strandes is correct, then the French may have been first to do it when, around 1736, the French governor, Mahé de la Bourdonnais, had manioc brought from Brazil to the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean (Pynaert 1951). Two years later, the French Compagnie des Indes introduced manioc to Réunion, an island near the large island of Madagascar across from Mozambique.
The French also sent manioc plants from Brazil to the French islands near Madagascar, where an initial attempt to plant manioc proved a disaster. Africans there were clearly unfamiliar with bitter manioc. When they tried to eat the fruits of their first harvest, they died of poisoning (Hubert and Dupré 1910). After this tragedy, both the French and Africans learned how to process bitter manioc, and they spread the plant and its processing technology to other small islands near Madagascar. At some point, manioc was also transferred from Réunion to Madagascar, where it became a major staple (Fauchère 1914).
During this period while the French were active in the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese, sometime before 1740, may have introduced manioc along with pineapple and corn to the coast of Tanzania and Kenya. Once established on the East African coast, principally the island of Zanzibar and the town of Mozambique, manioc cultivation progressed inland to the great lakes of Tanganyika and Victoria. In the nineteenth century, manioc plants from the east coast met manioc introduced from the Congo Basin. By that time, manioc cultivation had crossed central Africa from west to east, with Africans rather than European colonialists playing the key role in its diffusion (Jones 1959).
The delay in the introduction of manioc to East Africa until the eighteenth century has been attributed by Jones (1959) to the lack of an intensive colonial presence or to a lack of incentive for its introduction because, before 1800, most East African slaves were exported to Arabia, Persia, or India. Moreover, East Africa lacked dense forests, and much of the terrain was covered with wooded savannah so that environmental conditions were not as propitious as in the Congo basin. Even as late as 1850, Jones (1959: 84) concludes, “manioc was either absent or unimportant in most of East Africa … except right along the coast and in the vicinity of Lake Tanganyika.” Its cultivation spread thereafter, however, because British and German colonial officers required its planting as a famine reserve—a role it has continued to play to the present day.
Manioc is now cultivated throughout Africa, excluding the desert north and the far south, and its range is still extending, as it is often the only crop that farmers can cultivate under conditions of low soil fertility, drought, and locust plagues. In part, the twentieth-century diffusion of manioc in Africa may be closely connected with recent population growth—but as a consequence, rather than a cause. As more and more people have put pressure on the types of fertile lands suitable for yams, millet, and sorghum, the land-poor have had to turn to manioc to ward off hunger. Thus, if population growth continues, manioc may become even more central than it now is to African economies and diets.
In addition to diffusing manioc to Africa, Europeans also transported the American crop to Asia, although Polynesians may have also introduced it into the Pacific via Easter Island. The first Asian region to receive manioc from the Europeans was the Philippines (Philippines, 1939).Variously termed balinghoy, Kamoteng-Kahoy, or Kamoteng-moro, manioc was brought to the Philippines by early Spanish settlers. Apparently, manioc plants traveled via Spanish ships across the Pacific from Mexico. As in West Africa, however, its cultivation grew slowly, and it was noted in the late 1930s that manioc in the Philippines “has not been as extensive as in other tropical countries” (Philippines 1939: 3). It had, however, evolved as a major crop in the Mindanao area of the Philippines by the 1980s (Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical [CIAT] 1986).
By the seventeenth century, manioc was found in the Moluccas, and by 1653 was being grown on Ambon, one of the outer islands of Indonesia (Pynaert 1951; CIAT 1986). It is likely that the Portuguese brought it to Goa (India) in the early eighteenth century. Additional plants were imported to India from South America in 1794, and from the West Indies in 1840 (Cock 1985). As of 1740, manioc was being raised on Java, and plants taken from there were introduced to Mauritius (CIAT 1986) shortly after the French brought the first manioc plants from Brazil. Thus, Brazilian plants met varieties evolved in Asia on a small island in the Indian ocean.
Mauritius then served as a distribution point for manioc into Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), the island at the tip of India, where the Dutch governor, Willem Jacob van de Graaff, introduced it in 1786. Subsequent importations were recorded in 1821 and 1917, and these, too, were from Mauritius. Since then, manioc has been cultivated by peasants, and it is “consumed mainly by the poorest people” (CIAT 1986: 115).
By 1800, manioc cultivation in tropical Asia stretched from Ceylon to the Philippines. It had not, however, replaced Asia’s main staple, rice, although it was becoming “the most important” of the American crops “in terms of volume produced” (CIAT 1986: 171). An upland crop in tropical Asia, manioc has served to supplement inadequate supplies of rice, and it was most widely accepted in the land-scarce regions of Java in Indonesia and Kerala in southern India. As in Africa in the nineteenth century, those who convinced or required the inhabitants to accept this famine reserve were the European colonialists, in this case the Dutch in Java and the British in India (CIAT 1986).
European colonialists were especially active in diffusing manioc cultivation and processing techniques in the nineteenth century. They first established a processing and export industry in Malaya in the 1850s and subsequently developed a trade in tapioca with Europe (Cock 1985). In 1886, the Singapore Botanic Gardens introduced new manioc plants to Malaysia (Cock 1985). The Dutch followed by transporting manioc plants from their South American colony of Suriname to Java in 1854. By the early twentieth century, manioc was flourishing (Pynaert 1951), and its cultivation has continued to expand since then.
By the 1980s, at least one-fourth of all manioc grown in Asia was located in Indonesia, with the greatest share on Java (CIAT 1986). Sometime around 1850, manioc was introduced into Thailand, where it has become very popular in the eastern seaboard provinces. Since 1956 it has spread to the northeastern, western, and upper-central provinces of Thailand (CIAT 1986).
The British played a major role in the diffusion of manioc cultivation in southern India, where it was most widely accepted, especially in Kerala. Apparently it was introduced quite late to Calcutta (1794) and Serampur in 1840 (Pynaert 1951). Since then, manioc has evolved in India as a supplementary food staple. It is often consumed as a traditional steam-cooked breakfast dish called puttu, or marketed for sago (tapioca pearl), starch, and cattle feed (CIAT 1986). It is also a staple food in parts of Myanmar (formerly Burma) (Cock 1985).
Five hundred years after the Europeans discovered manioc, the yield of this American crop abroad has surpassed yields in its homeland. In 1982, the world’s manioc production was estimated at 129 million tons, with Asia and Africa accounting for about three-fourths of this production and Latin America contributing only one-fourth.
In tropical Asia, manioc production was nearly 46 million tons in 1982, half of which came from Thailand. The two other major Asian producers were Indonesia and India (CIAT 1986). All this followed upon two decades of rapid growth in manioc production with a doubling of output during the period. The most rapid increases occurred in Thailand, in part due to exports to the European Economic Community. Although manioc is also grown in southern China, mainly on the dryland slopes of Guangdong province and the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, accurate statistics for the People’s Republic of China are hard to come by. The primary use of manioc in China, however, appears to be as animal feed, especially for hogs (CIAT 1986). It is also grown in Taiwan (Cock 1985).
The Pacific Islands
The final region of manioc production, at present, is the Pacific Islands. In general, scholars have maintained that manioc was not introduced to the Pacific Islands until the mid-nineteenth century. Robert Langdon, however, suggests a different history of diffusion to Oceania. He has recently reported the discovery of a Spanish manuscript recording the presence of yuca (a word used in Peru for manioc) on Easter Island in 1770. Captained by Felipe Gonzalez, the expedition sailed from Peru, to reach Easter Island in late 1770. Those who went ashore observed fields of yuca under cultivation as well as sweet potatoes, another American crop.
Obviously, the question that this raises is how manioc had reached an island 2,000 miles from South America, unless it had been carried there by Amerindians before Columbus, as Thor Heyerdahl has long argued. Certainly Langdon (1988: 324) observes that the presence of manioc on Easter Island in 1770 “greatly strengthens the case for prehistoric American Indian influence on Easter Island and other islands of eastern Polynesia.” In any case, it seems that manioc has now been documented in the Pacific 80 years before Captain Louis A. Bonard took the plant to Tahiti in 1850, from which it spread rapidly to other Pacific islands, where it is now cultivated (CIAT 1986; Langdon 1988).
From a present-day perspective, the contribution of the American crop, manioc, to the world’s food supply has largely been unheralded except by Brazilians, by a few historians such as William Jones in his classic Manioc in Africa, and by French officials such as Paul Hubert and Emile Dupré in Le Manioc, which provides a global view of manioc cultivation as of 1910. Historians have recognized the historical significance of other American crops that played a major role in European history, but it may well be that manioc’s historical impact and diffusion have been slighted because it is a tropical, Third World crop.
Nevertheless, manioc has been as significant to the historical evolution of tropical countries, such as Brazil and Zaire, as the potato has been to that of European countries, such as Ireland and Germany. As world population growth continues into the twenty-first century, manioc may assume an even greater role, enabling the rural poor in developing countries to survive hunger and famine. This versatile food crop, which can overcome drought, survive typhoons and locust plagues, and reproduce on marginal soils, may well make a significant difference in population survival in the tropics in the twenty-first century.