A culinary art which remained largely confined to the aborigines of tropical America and to the straight-haired races of the tropics of the old world is the making of starch or meal from roots which have been grated, soaked, washed or boiled with alkalies to destroy their poisonous properties. Separated from the sugars and other readily soluble substances which retain or absorb moisture, the starch of the taro, cassava, arrowroot, canna and other root-crops can be quickly and thoroughly dried, and will then keep indefinitely. In the absence of cereals this simple expedient might well be deemed an epoch-making discovery, since it rendered possible the accumulation of a permanent, readily transportable food supply, and thus protected man from the vicissitudes of the season and the chase. That the resulting economic difference appeared striking to the hunting tribes of Guiana is apparent in the name they gave to their agricultural neighbors, whom they called 'Arawacks' or 'eaters of meal.'
Cassava in the raw state carries a deadly charge of prussic acid and begins to decay in a few hours after being taken from the ground, but properly prepared it furnishes the starch which keeps best, and which in the form of tapioca our civilization is tardily learning to appreciate as a wholesome delicacy. In view of its unpromising qualities when raw, cassava would seem not to have been the first root-crop from which meal was made, and yet it is used by many South American tribes who plant nothing else except the so-called peach palm (Guilielma), which gives suggestive evidence of a cultivation much older than that of the date palm, since it is generally seedless, and it is not known in the wild state. The farinaceous fruits are made into meal and baked into cakes in the same manner as the cassava, to which resource is necessary during the months in which the single harvest of palm fruits is exhausted.
Cassava is, indeed, so distinctively the best, as well as the most generously and continuously productive of the tropical root-crops, that it could hardly have been known in the regions in which the others were domesticated. Ever since the Spanish conquest put an end to the isolation of the native peoples of tropical America the use of cassava has been slowly extending at the expense of similar crops; it has also found a footing in the Malay region and other parts of the East, though from present indications it may be thousands of years before its value will be properly appreciated. The slow extension of so desirable a
- Some of these tribes are extremely primitive and in the absence of all domestic implements grate their cassava on the exposed spiny roots of another native palm (Iriartca exorhiza). The Arawacks are similarly dependent upon still a third palm (Mauritia), from the pith of which they secure starch in a manner strongly suggestive of that used with the sago palm of the Malay region.