Manioc, a tropical root crop, also known as mandioca, cassava, aipim, or yuca. The manioc plant (Manihot esculenta) grows from 5 to 12 feet in height, with edible leaves of five to seven lobes. What most people use for food, however, are the roots, which are 2 to 6 inches in diameter and 1 to 2 feet in length. Each plant may yield up to 17 pounds of roots. When fresh, the roots are a source of carbohydrates, whereas the leaf has protein and vitamin A. Fresh roots may also contain calcium, vitamin C, thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin.
Of the two principal varieties of manioc, the sweet ones can be harvested in six to nine months, peeled, and eaten as a vegetable. The bitter varieties, however, require twelve to eighteen months to mature and have high levels of prussic acid, which must be removed by grating and soaking in water to avoid poisoning.
The indigenous populations of Latin America mastered the technology to render bitter manioc harmless and useful. Amerindian women wash, peel, and grate the roots to convert them into a snowy white mass, which they put into a cylindrical basket press, the tipiti. One end of the tipiti is tied to a tree, the other to the ground in order to squeeze out excess liquid. The pulpy mass is removed, put through a sieve, and then toasted on a flat ceramic griddle or metal basin. The starchy pulp may also be boiled in a mush, baked into a bread, and even eaten as a pudding (tapioca). Manioc meal (farinha) can be preserved and stored in a tropical climate.
Manioc was domesticated in the Americas; possible areas of origin include Central America, the Amazon region, and the northeast of Brazil. Although the oldest archaeological evidence comes from the Amazon region, actual remains of manioc date from 1785 bce in and near the Casma Valley of Peru. In Mexico manioc leaves and manioc starch found in human coprolites are 2,100 to 2,800 years old. Manioc was also a staple of the Mayas in Mesoamerica. Evidence of ancient manioc cultivation also exists for the Caribbean, where the Arawaks and Caribs utilized manioc griddles and named the plant kasabi (Arawak) and yuca (Carib).
The first European description of what the Spanish came to call yuca is that of Peter Martyr (1494), who reported on "venomous roots" used in preparing breads. The Portuguese soon thereafter discovered manioc on the coast of Brazil. Two early descriptions are by Hans Staden (1557) and Jean de Léry (1578). Coastal settlers and their slaves rapidly adopted manioc as a principal food staple in South America. The Iberian conquerors also doled out manioc bread to their troops in the frontier wars, and it has been a military ration since the sixteenth century.
By the end of the colonial period, manioc was widely cultivated by small farmers, the enslaved, and the impoverished of tropical Latin America, either for their own families or for sale to sugar planters, towns, and cities. Its cultivation, transport, and commerce contributed significantly to the internal economy of the tropics, but manioc did not become a cash crop for export, possibly because the Portuguese introduced it to the rest of the world in the sixteenth century. It was, however, widely used in the slave trade between Brazil and Africa from at least the 1590s to 1850. In the twentieth century, most manioc production occurs outside of Latin America—Asia and Africa accounted for three-fourths of global production in contrast to Latin America's one-fourth in the 1980s. However, Brazil still remains the largest single producer and accounts for 86 percent of Latin America's production. The export market for manioc remains limited because of the number of close abundant substitutes.
Hans Staden, Duas viagens ao Brasil, translated by Guiomar de Carvalho Franco (, 1974).
Jean De Léry, History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, Otherwise Called America, translated by Janet Whatley (, 1990).
Leon Pynaert, Le manioc, 2d ed. (1951).
William O. Jones, Manioc in Africa (1959).
Milton De Albuquerque, A mandioca na Amazônia (1969).
Donald W. Lathrap, The Upper Amazon (1970).
Anna Curtenius Roosevelt, Parmana: Prehistoric Maize and Manioc Subsistence Along the Amazon and Orinoco (1980).
Pinto De Aquiar, Mandioca—Pão do Brasil (1982).
James H. Cock, Cassava: New Potential for a Neglected Crop (1985).
Robert Langdon, "Manioc, a Long Concealed Key to the Enigma of Easter Island," Geographical Journal 154, no. 3 (1988): 324-336.
Timothy Johns, With Bitter Herbs They Shall Eat It: Chemical Ecology and the Origins of Human Diet and Medicine (1990).
Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, History of Food, translated by Anthea Bell (1992).
Barickman, B. J. A Bahian Counterpoint: Sugar, Tobacco, Cassava, and Slavery in the Recôncavo, 1780–1860. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.