Humanosity says…We are always amazed at the human desire for knowledge. However often we don’t think about the amount of effort that has gone into acquiring knowledge. In modern times we can see the effort that goes into the advancement of scientific knowledge. What about in ancient times? In this great article, the author explores how we have learnt to cook some foods that are naturally poisonous.
The story begins in 1860 in Australia when an expedition into the continents largely unknown interior ran into trouble. The three explorers found that they had run out of food on the return journey.
They became stranded at a stream called Cooper’s Creek, having found no way to carry enough water to cross a stretch of desert to the nearest colonial outpost at the unpromisingly named Mount Hopeless.
Having eaten their camels and not being able to find anything to eat they were helped by the local Yandruwandha people who seemed to doing well in the conditions that were so badly affecting the explorers.
The locals gave the explorers a type of cake that was made from the crushed seeds of a local plant called nardoo. However, in an act of stupidity one of the explorers fell out with the locals and drove them away with his gun. They then found the nardoo plant and began preparing the cakes themselves.
That seemed to be the start of their problems. despite eating the cakes their condition worsened and they got progressively weaker. Within a week only one explorer was left alive. It turns out preparing nardoo is a complex process.
Nardoo, a type of fern, is packed with an enzyme called thiaminase, which is toxic to the human body. Thiaminase breaks down the body’s supply of Vitamin B1, which prevents the body from using the nutrients in food. The Yandruwandha roasted the nardoo spores, ground the flour with water, and exposed the cakes to ash, each step making the thiaminase less toxic. It is not something one learns to do by chance.
Just how long it took the Yandruwandha to learn the necessary steps to prepare the nardoo so that its toxicity is reduced, no-one will ever know.
It’s not just nardoo, Cassava is a staple food for many people in Africa. However like nardoo it’s highly toxic and requires a tedious and complex process to render it safe to eat, otherwise, it will release deadly hydrogen cyanide when consumed.