The Geographical Journal 154(3): 324-336 (Nov 1988)
Manioc, A long concealed key to the enigma of Easter Island
Robert Langdon

Manioc (Manihot esculenta), a food plant of American origin, is not generally thought to have been introduced to the Pacific Islands until the mid-nineteenth century. However, a book published recently in Madrid has revealed hitherto unknown evidence that manioc was reported on Easter Island in 1770 by members of a Spanish expedition from Peru. The term they used for it was yuca, a word borrowed into Peruvian Spanish from Quechua. Many of the documents reproduced in the new book had not previously been published in their original Spanish, although early this century the most significant documents were translated into English and published in volumes of the Hakluyt Society. However, the English translator concealed or obfuscated the evidence on manioc. In one instance he rendered the word yuca as taro; in three others he left it untranslated, adding an erroneous footnote in one case. This paper argues that, in the climate of his times, the translator acted as he did because, simply, he could not believe that manioc would have been present on Easter Island in 1770. It also argues that the evidence greatly strengthens the case for prehistoric American Indian influence on Easter Island and other islands of eastern Polynesia.

WHEN THE NORWEGIAN SCHOLAR Thor Heyerdahl addressed members of the Royal Geographical Society on 31 March 1958 on'The Enigma of Easter Island', the Society's President Sir James Marshall Cornwall put the subject in its context in a few introductory words.

Easter Island's geographical position, 2000 miles from the South American mainland, made it a possible link between the prehistoric cultures of Polynesia and America, he said. That, however, was a controversial matter about which scientists held conflicting opinions.

The conflicting opinions of which the President spoke have continued unresolved for the past three decades. Heyerdahl (1978) himself holds the view that American Indians first settled on Easter Island early in the Christian era, that a second wave of immigrants came from the same direction about 1100 AD, and that the Polynesians did not arrive until more recent times. Most Pacific scholars strongly oppose this hypothesis, maintaining that Polynesians were the island's only effective settlers, and that American Indian influence was either minimal or non-existent (Golson, 1965-66; Emory, 1972; Bellwood, 1978; McCoy, 1979; Clark, 1979; Kirch, 1985; Bellwood, 1987). Nevertheless. Heyerdahl has received an increasing measure of support in recent years (Langdon, 1975; Blixen, 1977; Langdon, 1982, 1983; Langdon and Tryon, 1983). Now, some hitherto unknown historical evidence has been published in Madrid that adds weight to the American hypothesis. It is the revelation that manioc, a plant of American origin, was reported on Easter Island in 1770 when a Spanish expedition went there under Captain Felipe Gonzalez.

Manioc, also known as cassava and tapioca, is a tropical tuber propagated by stem cuttings (Jennings, 1976). It is not generally thought to have been introduced to the Pacific Islands until the mid-nineteenth century (Jacquier, 1960; Barrau, 1962). If the new evidence had already been known half a century ago, Heverdahl might never have made his celebrated voyage on the raft Kon-Tiki to prove that prehistoric American Indians could have reached eastern Polynesia in the same way.

Mr. Robert Langdon is a Visiting Fellow. Department of Pacific and South East Asian History. Research School of Pacific Studies. The Australian National University. Canberra, Australia. This paper was accepted for publication in October 1987.