When Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic in search of Pacific spices 500 years ago, it was a famous miscalculation. Columbus instead made landfall in the Caribbean among the Taíno, a peaceful people who lacked any peppercorn or nutmeg or mace — but who had mastered an equally important plant.
The Taíno mainly cultivated manioc, a starchy root vegetable much like the potato. Manioc, also known as cassava or yuca or tapioca, is a highly caloric staple that today feeds billions of people around the world. And the Taíno, also known as the Arawak, were experts at growing it.
“The Spaniards were much impressed with the productivity of manioc in Arawak agriculture in the Greater Antilles,” historian Jonathan Sauer recounts in his history of crop plants. “[A Spanish historian] calculated that 20 persons working 6 hours a day for a month could plant enough yuca to provide cassava bread for a village of 300 persons for 2 years.”
By all accounts, the Taíno were prosperous — “a well-nourished population of over a million people,” according to Sauer. And yet the Spanish, who ultimately colonized and ravaged the people, considered them primitive. The Taíno lacked the monumental architecture of the Maya or the mathematical knowledge of the Aztec. And most importantly, they were not organized in the type of complex, far-reaching, hierarchical social structure that is considered one of the hallmarks of civilization and was far more widespread in Europe and Asia.
Scholars have long puzzled over the different fates of the world’s peoples. Why, on the eve of the modern world, were some societies so technologically and politically complex? For centuries, leading intellectuals from Adam Smith to Karl Marx believed that agricultural abundance had propelled the rise of advanced civilizations. The Assyrians and Babylonians of ancient Mesopotamia, for instance, flourished thanks to their fertile farms, which fed an upper class that devoted itself to religion and empire.
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