Natural History

Talking Taino: Eat Roots and Leave

Story & Photos By Dr. Bill Keegan and Dr. Betsy Carlson

The Tainos were an agricultural people. We estimate that they cultivated or managed more than 80 different plants that provided foods, medicines for their ailments, and fibers for nets, rope and hammocks. Taino agriculture was not like anything that Europeans had seen before. While the main food crops in Europe were cereal grains, the peoples of the West Indies emphasized root crops. Moreover, European gardens involved plow agriculture where plants were cultivated in neat rows; fields were fertilized with manure from domesticated animals and/or fallowed for a few years in a process of crop rotation. In contrast, Taino fields must have appeared messy and disorganized.

manioc-tubersThe Spanish encountered several types of Taino gardens. First, various plants and herbs requiring special care or of immediate use were planted around houses in what we call “house gardens” (guada). These were the precursors of our modern herb and flower gardens, which mainly serve aesthetic purposes. In contrast, Taino house gardens contained useful species.

The second type of garden was located a short distance away from the main village. Called conuco, these were areas of the forest that were cut and burned and then planted in a haphazard manner with a variety of cultigens grown together. The Taino conucos can be characterized as “slash-and-burn” horticulture. A plot of land was cleared of trees and bushes and then allowed to dry. Large trees were “girdled” to cause them to drop their leaves. Just prior to the start of the next rainy season, the cut vegetation was burned to release nutrients that were bound up in the vegetation. A wide variety of crops were then planted in the cleared-and-burned land, sown with a digging stick (coa). Coas were six feet long with fire-hardened tips.

The Taino cultivated multiple varieties of root crops including many different strains of manioc and sweet potato (boniata) along with lesser-known tubers such as arrowroot and yautia or cocoyam. Because these plants matured at different rates they allowed nearly continuous harvests. The fields remained productive for about four years after which they were fallowed.

But the tropical forest is what anthropologist Betty Meggers has called a “counterfeit paradise.” By this she means that the lush vegetation belies an impoverished and shallow soil that is susceptible to erosion during heavy rains and is easily baked into a hardpan by the tropical sun. The vegetation must be burned to release the nutrients and fields must be allowed to fallow for decades before new gardens are planted.

It took years for Western agricultural scientists to recognize these unique characteristics of tropical gardens. At first they tried to transform tropical farming into a more regular and orderly system and for a few years they found good yields from plowed fields, but after that the land was unproductive. They learned the hard way that tropical soils will not support long-term cultivation in the same way as the soils in temperate climates. In the end they had to acknowledge that slash-and-burn techniques were ideally suited to farming in most areas of the tropics.

manioc-plantsStill, some soils, particularly those along river flood plains where nutrients were annually renewed by flooding, supported a more intensive form of cultivation. In these areas the thin soil layer was piled into semi-permanent mounds (montones), which provided good drainage and loose soil to plant and harvest root crops. Montones were three feet high and nine feet in diameter with flat tops.

The Taino’s staple crop was called yuca, known today as manioc (Manihot esculenta). The yuca was processed into cassava bread called casaba by the Taino. According to Taino mythology it was the culture hero Deminan and his brothers who stole manioc from the high god Yaya and brought it to the Taino people. The story mirrors other cultures’ myths in which humans wrest their means of subsistence from supernatural beings. This myth was referenced and recreated when the Taino buried stone carvings of Yocahu (literally, the giver of manioc) in agricultural fields. The stones were triangular in shape and resembled a sprouting tuber. The god image on the “three-pointed stones” often has an open mouth, which eats the soils to make room for the tubers to grow. Yocahu was the Lord of Yuca and also the male fertility god.

Manioc occurs in numerous varieties but the main distinction is between “bitter” and “sweet” varieties. These names refer to the amount of cyanogenic glucosides concentrated in the tissues. Put more directly, all varieties of manioc contain cyanide. The bitter varieties contain toxic levels that require special forms of processing to be edible, while the sweet varieties are less toxic. Sweet manioc can be peeled, cut and boiled like a potato. By boiling the tuber, the cyanide is released and the flesh becomes edible.

So why grow bitter manioc? Why grow a tuber that is toxic to humans? So toxic, in fact, that the Taino reportedly used the juice to commit suicide. The answer seems to be that bitter manioc has a higher starch content and can be processed into a flour or farina that can be stored for many months. Sweet manioc is a perishable commodity and must be eaten soon after it is harvested.

Manioc is extremely drought resistant, has a high calorie content and can, though it matures in ten months, be stored in the montones for up to three years before harvesting. The Franciscan chronicler of the 16th century, Bartholome de la Casas, reported that 20 people working 6 hours a day for 1 month to plant manioc in the Taino fashion could feed 300 people for 2 years.

Though manioc is an abundant starch resource, it must be supplemented with fish or other protein sources to provide a healthy diet. This fact was made clear in the late 1960s when the people of the United States were implored to give aid to the starving children of Biafra (Nigeria), whose bellies had grown distended due to a lack of protein in their diet that caused a disease called kwashiorkor. This situation occurred because manioc had been brought from the American tropics to tropical Africa as a way to increase the food supply. The consequences were unanticipated.

During public lectures we often ask members of the audience to raise their hand if they have ever eaten manioc. Very few people do. But when we ask if they have ever eaten tapioca, almost everyone has. Tapioca is made from manioc. A more recent culinary development may also strike a chord. The “fish eggs” at the bottom of the new, haute beverage Bubble Tea is manioc.

The process of transforming the poisonous manioc root into the staple cassava bread begins by peeling the skin away with a sharp implement. Then the flesh was grated to produce a pulp. Grating could have been accomplished in a number of different ways, but one of the most common involves the use of specially prepared grater boards (guayo). The boards are made from a flat piece of wood into which small flint chips are embedded and then sealed with the resin from a tree. The tuber is shredded by moving it across the sharp flakes. The pulp is then placed in a basket tube (cibucan) and squeezed. The cibucan is similar to the child’s toy known as a Chinese finger puzzle — a woven tube into which you slide your fingers at opposite ends. As you try to pull your fingers out, the tube contracts to hold them fast. By putting the manioc pulp in the cibucan and applying pressure to both ends, the tube contracts and extracts the juice from the pulp.

The juice, albeit toxic, was not discarded but was boiled to remove any remaining cyanide and then used as the stock for “pepper pot” (casiripe), a stew of meat, fish, shellfish, vegetables and chili peppers that was simmered for long periods of time. It was then eaten by using pieces of cassava bread like a spoon. This method of cooking helped to preserve foods for longer periods of time in a tropical climate without refrigeration.

The manioc pulp was spread out and left to dry. The dried flour would later be spread on a clay griddle (buren) over a fire where it was baked into cassava bread. It is the thick sherds of the clay griddles that we find in archaeological sites that provide our best evidence for the baking of cassava bread. In addition, charred manioc tubers have been recovered from the Taino archaeological site of En Bas Saline in Haiti (circa AD 1450).

In 1979, one of us (Keegan) was excavating the archaeological site on Pine Cay as part of his Master’s Thesis research. The focus of this research was shell tools made from the queen conch, and he had purchased manioc from North Caicos to test the efficacy of shell tools for peeling the tubers. The tools worked remarkably well, but only a small fraction of the cassava tubers were used in the experiments. Months later, he returned to Pine Cay with Chuck Hesse. Naturally, the first thing they did when they got to Chuck’s house was to look for something to eat.

In those days you couldn’t run off to the grocery store. The commissary on Pine Cay was depleted, and the nearest (and only) store was BWI Trading on Provo. Even there supplies were hit or miss. (When Brian Riggs went to Provo to get peanut butter and jelly for Shaun Sullivan’s field team on Middle Caicos in 1977, he found only mint jelly in the store. For the next week Sullivan’s team had peanut butter and mint jelly sandwiches for lunch.) Keegan and Hesse peeled, grated, squeezed and dried the manioc that had been left in the kitchen, and then baked cassava bread. It tasted like cardboard. The bread would have been inedible if it wasn’t for a can of Hershey’s chocolate syrup.

Years later, the two authors were returning from a site visit in Haiti. Arriving at the main intersection in Dondon we encountered a woman with five, three-foot diameter cassava breads balanced on her head. We purchased one for a few Gourds (Haitian currency). It was one of the most delightful snacks we have ever eaten. It was warm and nutty tasting, and had the addictive quality of potato chips or popcorn.

The Spanish immediately recognized the usefulness of manioc. The cassava bread could be stored for long periods, and it came to replace hardtack as the staple for expeditions throughout the Americas. Some Taino villages were forced to pay tribute in cassava bread, and villages, especially in eastern Hispaniola, were responsible for provisioning Spanish ships. You might say that by providing cassava bread the Taino could ensure that the Spaniards would eat roots and leave.

Bill Keegan is Curator of Caribbean Archaeology, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL. Betsy Carlson is an archaeologist with SEARCH, Inc. Gainesville.

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