Yuca is a South American plant that probably first evolved around the same time as the other flowering plants, about 350 million years ago. When the first people walked south into what is now central Brazil, high up the Amazon River, about 12,000 years ago, they immediately started eating yuca root. Yuca was pretty similar to other wild roots people were also eating at the same time – potatoes and wapato. By about 8,000 BC, people in Brazil were farming yuca. That was about the same time Norte Chico people started farming potatoes in Peru. Yuca comes from the Caribbean word; another Caribbean word for yuca is “cassava”. Tupi people in Brazil called yuca “manioc”.
Yuca farming slowly spread all across South America and north to Central America. Moche people in Peru often represented yuca in their art. By 600 AD, Mayan farmers were growing yuca too. You plant yuca by chopping yuca plant stems into sections and planting each section at the beginning of the wet season. Then after it grows big, you harvest the roots by pulling up the plant.
After harvesting, you have to peel the roots with a knife and pound them into flour. You soak yuca flour in water or ferment it to get the bitter flavor (and poisons) out. Our word “tapioca” comes from the Guanari word for this wet, squeezed flour. Then you mix the flour with water and bake it to get yuca bread. People also ate yuca leaves, boiled like other greens – the roots have a lot of carbohydrates and the leaves have a lot of protein, vitamins, and fiber.
When Spanish and Portuguese soldiers from Charles V‘s Holy Roman Empire conquered South America in the 1500s, they also started to farm yuca and eat yuca bread and yuca leaves. Yuca would keep on long ship voyages when European wheat bread got moldy. So European traders took yuca (along with peanuts and sweet potatoes) with them to Africa and Asia to feed Africans on slave ships.
Many African people welcomed yuca. Yuca was a lot like the yams that Africans already ate, so it seemed familiar to them. Africans ate yuca a little differently from South Americans: many people in Africa made yuca into fufu, a mush made by mixing yuca flour with hot water. By 1600 many people in Africa and Southeast Asia, up into southern China, were also growing yuca as one of their main foods. Yuca’s still a staple food in Africa, Southeast Asia, and southern China today.