Jun 7, 2011

Nephite Food

Did Nephite peoples rely on manioc as a major food source? Most people in the United States are not even aware that there is such a plant and it is not mentioned in the Book of Mormon. So before we answer the original question, let's find out what it is. Manioc (yuca or casava are alternate names) is a woody shub, native to South America. It's roots form a radiating set of starchy, edible tubers. It is now the third largest source of food carbohydrate in the world, now being grown everywhere. It has apparently been cultivated in the Americas for millenia. However its remains are not readily evident archaeologically. The plant itself could be mistaken for a weed or bothersome undergrowth. But it will grow almost anywhere and holds its own against most other weeds. It is drought resistant and will thrive on the poorest of soils.
For years archaeologists have assumed that corn was the mainstay of ancient American agriculture. But recently some studies have found that manioc may have actually been the basic crop, especially in southern Central America. One study in particular has resulted in convincing evidence that supports  the role of manioc in the ancient diet.
Joya de Ceren is a site in El Salvador dating to the period 400-600 AD. It has been excavated by the archaeologist Payson Sheets. The site is unique in that the village is pristine, having been covered quickly by a layer of ash from the eruption of a nearby volcano. Thus we have a picture, frozen in time, of a pre-Columbian village and culture: a Central American Pompeii.
One of the recent finds at this site was an extensive buried field of manioc. A third the size of a football field, it was the villager's main crop. Sheets estimates that it would have produced 10 metric tons of tubers annually: much more than the 200 villagers could have eaten. They must have traded a lot.
In Costa Rica there is indirect evidence of manioc use. Among the many stone artifacts that have been found, there are many small flint, or chert chips. It is theorized that these were embedded in a board or flat log and used to grate manioc into a form which could be cooked on a flat griddle, or budare.
Thus in addition to the food items mentioned in the Book of Mormon, the ancients may have relied heavily on the native manioc as a reliable crop which would tolerate a wide variety of environments.  Since living in Costa Rica, I have experimented with growing manioc and have learned a number of interesting facts about its cultivation.  I will share these in a future blog.