Cassava - The History of Manioc Domestication

The Domestication of Cassava

Manioc (Manihot esculenta)
Manioc (Manihot esculenta). Tatiana Gerus

Cassava (Manihot esculenta), also known as manioc, tapioca, yuca, and mandioca, is a domesticated species of tuber, originally domesticated perhaps as long ago as 8,000-10,000 years ago, in southern Brazil along the southwestern border of the Amazon basin. Cassava is today a primary calorie source in tropical regions around the world, and the sixth most important crop plant worldwide.

The progenitor of cassava (M. esculenta ssp. flabellifolia) exists today and is adapted to forest and savanna ecotones.

Archaeological evidence of cassava in the little-investigated Amazon basin has not been identified-the area was determined the point of origin based on genetic studies of cultivated cassava and various possible progenitors. The first archaeological evidence of manioc is from starches and pollen grains after it was spread outside the Amazon.

Cassava starches have been identified in north central Colombia by ~7500 years ago, and in Panama at Aguadulce Shelter, ~6900 years ago. Pollen grains from cultivated cassava have been found in archaeological sites in Belize and Mexico's gulf coast by ~5800-4500 bp, and in Puerto Rico about 3300-2900 years bp.

There are numerous cassava and manioc species in the world today, and researchers still struggle with their differentiation, but recent research supports the notion that they are all descended from a single domestication event in the Amazon basin.

Domestic manioc has larger and more roots and an increased tannin content in the leaves. Traditionally, manioc is grown in the field-and-fallow cycles of slash and burn agriculture, where its flowers are pollinated by insects and its seeds dispersed by ants.

Manioc and the Maya

Recent evidence suggests that the Maya cultivated the root crop and it may have been a staple in some parts of the Maya world.

Manioc pollen has been discovered in the Maya region by the late Archaic period, and most of the Maya groups studied in the 20th century were found to cultivate manioc in their fields. The excavations at Ceren, a classic period Maya village that was destroyed (and preserved) by a volcanic eruption, identified manioc plants within the kitchen gardens. Most recently, manioc planting beds were discovered some 170 meters (~550 feet) away from the village.

The manioc beds at Ceren date to approximately 600 AD. They consist of ridged fields, with the tubers planted on the top of the ridges and water allowed to drain and flow through the wales between the ridges (called calles). Archaeologists discovered five manioc tubers in the field which had been missed during harvesting. Stalks of manioc bushes had been cut into 1-1.5 m (3-5 ft) lengths and buried horizontally in the beds shortly before the eruption: these represent preparation for the next crop. Unfortunately, the eruption came in August of 595 AD, burying the field in nearly 3 meters of volcanic ash. See Sheets et al. below for additional information.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com Guide to Domestication of Plants, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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Léotard, Guillaume, et al. 2009 Phylogeography and the origin of cassava: New insights from the northern rim of the Amazonian basin. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution In press.

Olsen, K. M., and B. A. Schaal. 1999. Evidence on the origin of cassava: Phylogeography of Manihot esculenta. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 96:5586-5591.

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Rival, Laura and Doyle McKey 2008 Domestication and Diversity in Manioc (Manihot esculenta Crantz ssp. esculenta, Euphorbiaceae). Current Anthropology 49(6):1119-1128

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Zeder, Melinda A., Eve Emshwiller, Bruce D. Smith, and Daniel G. Bradley 2006 Documenting domestication: the intersection of genetics and archaeology. Trends in Genetics 22(3):139-155.