An ancient and nutritious – but dangerous – Caribbean food

An ancient and nutritious – but dangerous – Caribbean food

By Jaime R. Pagán-Jiménez

This research update is also available in Spanish.

Loma de Guayacanes (Nexus 1492) — More than 510 years ago, at the dawn of the Spanish conquest and colonization of the New World, one of the protagonists of this event in the island of Hispaniola observed and documented the use that the natives of the region of Higüey  made of a highly nutritious food known as guáyiga bread. It was Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, in his famous writing Apologética Historia de las Indias, who described how the inhabitants of the island made bread or buns of guáyiga with the mass extracted from the underground stem of a wild plant from the genus Zamia (guáyiga in the Dominican Republic, and also known as marunguey in Puerto Rico and coontie or conti in the Bahamas and Florida). On this particular matter, Las Casas wrote:

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Plant of guáyiga or Zamia pumila from Puerto Rico. These plants resembles small palms. (Image by: Jaime R. Pagán Jiménez).
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Arepa from guáyiga. prepared in present times in the El Cabo region, Dominican Republic. The shape and appearance of this bread might be similar to the guáyiga bread mentioned by Las Casas more than 510 ago. (Image by: José R. Oliver).

“The bread is made thus, convenient to know, that on rough stones such as rallo [a stone grater], you grate them as you would grate a turnip or a carrot on a grater from Castille [in Spain]. This results in a white dough that is then formed into globes or round buns, as big as a bola [or ball], which are put out in sunlight until they attain the color of bran; if left out in sunlight one and two and three days at which time they will be swollen with maggots [larvae] as if it were rotten meat, and turn as black as soot, or a washed out black more brownish; once they reach this condition, black and boiling with maggots as fat as pine nuts, shape them into flat cakes, that are like dough already as to the whiteness and toughness, like our wheat, and in a hot clay pot that is already on rocks with fire beneath it, you place the cakes to cook on one side and then the other, where simmering with the heat, the maggots fry and die, and thus are cooked.”

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Experimental stage of the making of guáyiga bread or bun, replicated by Nexus 1492 during the summer of 2016. B) Grating the stem.
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Experimental stage of the making of guáyiga bread or bun, replicated by Nexus 1492 during the summer of 2016. A) Scraping the skin of underground stem with a shell scraper.

Las Casas also mentioned that this food was more important than maize (Zea mays), sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), manioc (Manihot esculenta Cranz) and the cassava bread made with it, at least in the Amerindian chiefdom of Higüey. However, even with the description Las Casas made on this food in the east of Hispaniola (now Dominican Republic), it was almost 270 years later when in the neighboring island of Puerto Rico another friar, this time Iñigo Abbad y Lasierra, registered in his work Historia Geográfica, Civil y Natural de la isla de San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico what he witnessed and heard about the breads or buns of guáyiga that creoles ate in the south of that island.

“…of the root, which is like a sweet potato, [they] make bread in this way: they grate the roots [the tuber stem] until they are well shredded, then they pile them up until they rot, breed maggots, and dry up; then it looks like a bunch of dark red mud, being dried, they grind it to powder, which is made into buns that is relied upon for lack of corn, plantains or manioc in the time of hurricanes (…) This relief is very damaging to them… (…) the years when this kind of bread is used many are killed by this accident [note: the “accident” refers to the poisoning from the guáyiga/marunguey].

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Experimental stage of the making of guáyiga bread or bun, replicated by Nexus 1492 during the summer of 2016. C) drying mass balls.
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Experimental stage of the making of guáyiga bread or bun, replicated by Nexus 1492 during the summer of 2016. D) flies putting eggs in the mass.

The guáyiga, as well as other species from more botanical families within the order of Cycadales to which the genus Zamia belongs, has a powerful phytotoxin, a glucoside known as cycasin which is extremely harmful and even lethal if is ingested by humans. So, how could the natives of Hispaniola, of Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands eat such a dangerous food? Dominican archaeologist, Dr. Marcio Veloz Maggiolo, had suggested before that the activity of larvae from one or more fly species in the grated mass of the guáyiga were part of a biological eradication technique of the mentioned phytotoxin, encouraged by the natives of the Greater Antilles aiming to make edible the food derivatives from guáyiga. The enzymes from the saliva of flies, together with the interaction of larvae within the slightly fermented mass of guáyiga, could act as a neutralizing agent to the toxin of this plant.

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Experimental stage of the making of guáyiga bread or bun, replicated by Nexus 1492 during the summer of 2016. F) Guáyiga bread with maggots.
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Experimental stage of the making of guáyiga bread or bun, replicated by Nexus 1492 during the summer of 2016. E) Maggots growing in the mass.

If this process is not carried out, including perhaps the pre-wash of the mass, then the ingestion of the bread, buns or other food derivatives from guáyiga could be harmful or lethal for those that eat them, as it was noted by Abbad y Lasierra around 235 years ago in southern Puerto Rico. Interestingly, until the mid 20th century, guáyiga buns, or sorullos of marunguey as they are known in Puerto Rico, continued to be used as food in the south central region of the island, and even then this food was prepared basically in the same fashion as described by Las Casas and Abbad y Lasierra hundreds of years ago. In the east and south of Hispaniola guáyiga byproducts are still used to make various food dishes such as chola, arepa de guáyiga and hojaldre (puff pastry). Nonetheless, the use of guáyiga for making mentioned dishes in Hispaniola focuses in the extraction and cooking of starches, either boiled (chola) or baked in pots together with other ingredients (arepa). In these cases, and different to ancient dishes shown above, the mass of shredded tubers are discarded.

Map of the Circum-Caribbean area showing islands, and regions within them, where microbotanical evidences for the use of guáyiga has been registered by researches from the Caribbean and northeastern South America.

Archaeological research carried out in recent years by the Caribbean Research Group of the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University, alongside with the paleoethnobotanical work conducted by the author with the same university and with other colleagues, has made possible to provide new information on the use and consumption of guáyiga in the Caribbean islands beyond Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. These interesting results have been possible because starches that are naturally stored in the underground stems of guáyiga can survive hundreds or thousands of years in the pores, fissures, crevices and charred crust of the processing and cooking tools that our ancestors used to make their dishes. So far, we know that the earliest use and possible consumption of this plant is registered at the site of Saint John in the island of Trinidad, almost 7800 years ago, although other later pre-Columbian evidences for the use of this plant have also been documented through the recovery of ancient starches in cooking tools or human tooth in the islands of Aruba, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Guadeloupe, Saba and St. Martin. Guáyiga derivatives were probably super-foods during the later pre-Columbian periods in the Greater Antilles and perhaps in some of the Lesser Antilles.

In the past, foods made with guáyiga sometimes provided not only carbohydrates from the starchy masses, but also good amounts of protein by means of the larvae, and all of this in a singular dish. One of the themes currently studied by Nexus 1492 is the historical trajectory of the use of this plant as a food source among pre- and post-Columbian inhabitants of islands like Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Lesser Antilles. Indeed, we aim to shed new light on what is possibly the oldest autochthonous food plant source of the Caribbean islands, as it was once suggested by Veloz Maggiolo. Thus, this new research is directed to provide new scientific evidence to understand, among other things, how the use of guáyiga foods could resist the onslaught of the Spanish conquest and colonization, as well as the impact of modernity and industrialization in the Caribbean islands.

Acknowledgments: To Arlene Álvarez and Jorge Ulloa (both from Nexus 1492, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University) for giving us access to the guáyiga underground stems used in the experimental stage. Thanks also to Shaëeza Ramjiawan and Andy Ciofalo (Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University) for making the visual recording of the experimental work with guáyiga.