Cassava: An Indigenous Success Story

By Meryl Simon

Written for the Anthropology Is about You and Everyone class taught by Dr. Arnold Perey at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City. 

Very early in his life, Eli Siegel wanted to find the “things common to all things,” and he found them: the aesthetic oneness of opposites. The principles of Aesthetic Realism are about all people, every person, all art. They are the universals, what all people have in common. That is why this class can have the title, “Anthropology Is about You and Everyone.” Other ways of seeing the field usually restrict their description of a culture to the particular world view of that culture, and accent what is unique or different from other cultures. 

This central principle of Aesthetic Realism shows what all humanity has in common:

“The world, art, and self explain each other,” Eli Siegel stated. “Each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

Here’s a beautiful example of opposites, seen as one—in the third chapter of his book Self and World, “The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict,” Eli Siegel writes:

“We all of us start with a here, ever so snug and ever so immediate. And this here is surrounded strangely, endlessly, by a there. We are always meeting this there: in other words, we are always meeting what is not ourselves, and we have to do something about it.”

Mr. Siegel’s writing is warm, charming, ever so factual, and original. The opposites he is describing, on the one hand the snug and immediate—the here, and on the other, the there—in other words, self and world—have to do with the history of mankind. This is so, for example, in the field of nutrition. 

Wherever people have lived, in whatever type of biome—desert, wetlands, the frozen north, the rain forest—they saw possibilities of usefulness in various growing things, and felt they were “always meeting what is not themselves” and that they “had to do something about it.” This feeling of the here and there has made for the development of such great things as the tomato, the potato, corn, wheat, beans, squash, cranberries, pecans, blueberries, papayas, pineapple, strawberries—and countless herbs and medicinal plants.

Tonight I’ll be looking at the history of the cassava plant, which for a long time could not be eaten because it contains a deadly poison—prussic acid.

I quote from Mark Plotkin’s Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice:

“Though little known in industrialized countries, Cassava is one of the world’s most important crops…the manifold uses that the Amazonian Indians have managed to develop for this plant boggle the mind. [It] has been used to make various poisons, a spice, beer, baby food, porridge, and cassava bread.”

Plotkin describes the plant’s amazing characteristics: “Ideally suited to the humid tropics, Cassava is insect resistant and tolerates sun, shade, and both wet and dry spells.”

And he writes about how cassava was made edible:

“Almost all tribes have developed a process—which usually consists of some combination of soaking, boiling, squeezing, and cooking—to remove the toxin.That the Indians have taken a deadly plant domesticated it, and developed a technology that has turned this poisonous species into something that feeds hundreds of millions of people each day throughout the tropical world, demonstrates a botanical ingenuity possessed by few if any professional botanists.”

This is an illustration of one type of squeezer used to extract poison from the cassava root.

The roots are sliced, then tightly squeezed in this squeezer—a long finely meshed cylinder of braided palm bark, 7 or more feet long. The end of the squeezer is attached by a loop to a convenient rafter in the longhouse. A stout stick is fixed at the other end, and on this a woman sits, bearing down with all her weight, so that the contents of the cylinder are compressed and most of the juice pressed out. The pulp after being left to dry is pounded by hand into a flour; this is heated in a platter, and frequently stirred to remove more volatile poisonous matter. After this lengthy process, the flour is kneaded with water, and lightly baked in a clay dish to form a …cake of unleavened bread. 

The success of this and other ways of removing toxins made it possible for people of South America and later in Africa to benefit from it as food.

In my first consultation I was surprised to learn of a disjunction in me between the here and the there. I was asked, “What do you think are central opposites in anthropology?” After some thought, I answered observation and participation—knowing both were important in the field, but it had never occurred to me until then that they’re opposites. And to my further amazement, the consultants asked: “Even as you participate, are you aloof?” Yes, I was. It is a major question of my life, and I’m grateful that as a result of studying Aesthetic Realism with Eli Siegel and Ellen Reiss, I feel closer to the many people in my life and to the indigenous peoples, both of whom I’m learning how to see.

It means more to me that I can say that I am learning the true basis of anthropology, the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel, which is also the future of anthropology, as taught in this class by anthropologist Dr. Arnold Perey. 

Meryl Simon, who has an MA in anthropology from NYU, is an Aesthetic Realism consultant.

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