The Cycad Palm-Deadly Poison?

Several years ago I read of a study conducted on the island of Guam, by a famous neuropsychiatrist (Dr. Stach?). he was trying to determine why there was a huge incidence of Parkinson’s disease among the native inhabitants-something like 30% of the adults come down with it. He concluded that the most likely cause was the fact that the natives were using the seeds of an ancient plant (the Cycad palm) as a food source. On further reading, I learned that the cycad seeds are poisonous-in order to eat them, the natives have to laboriously grate them up, soak the paste in water, and then squeeze the water out. If this is not done several times, the stuff will kill you! Even with that, there is strong evidence that something remains which, ingested over many years, will destroy the motor center of the brain, producing the Parkinson-like symptoms. My question: why did primitive man ever experiment with such poisonous food? How many generations passed before people learned to de-toxify such deadly fare? Finally, on an island teaming with fruit and abundant fish from the sea, why experiment with such a bizarre food source? The same thing happened in S. America-the cassava plant (we know as tapioca) is a prized food-however. It must be either cooked thoroughly (or grated and washed) or else it is a deadly poison. Anyway-I was thinking of planting some cycads around my house-is this a good idea?

I think that might be your answer, they lived on an island! Food choices would be limited, and population growth could overwhelm the easily available food sources. Also perhaps the original people to try this side were trying to make alcohol. And we all know how far people will go in search of a good high.

Don’t forget the infamous macho male becoming-a-man-and-leaving-boyhood-behind angle. At one time, I’m sure it was customary for the islanders to prove what badasses they were to each other by eating this poisonous palm in small quantities. Then gradually people started diluting it out to make it more of a ceremonial food, and finally, what may be a common everyday food today. Hell, look at that shit brown foul tasting stink water they drink in Fiji (I think it’s called ‘cava’) or even the rotten egg crap they eat in the Phillipines (belute?). For that matter, how the hell did Koreans, who otherwise had access to the mainland, ever decide that spiced rotten cabbage was food (i.e. kimchi)?

You’re thinking of Oliver Sacks. Here’s the book:

You’re probably OK as long as you don’t eat them.

Ah, Island of the Colorblind. My wife is a huge Oliver Sachs fan and has most of his books.
IIRC, the reason they ate cycad palm flour was indeed because that was really the only source of flour they had for centuries. Even then, as you note, they didn’t eat it much because it was pretty nasty and took so long to prepare. Now that they have better contact with the outside world almost nobody eats it anymore.
I’m pretty much of the idea that any food we know and love (sic!) today came from serious experimentation. Was it Swift who said:

My take on it is a combination “God, we gotta find something to eat here - hey, that animal over there is chowing down on that stuff, maybe we can eat that too” and “Hey, I dare you to eat that and see what happens”.

All I wanna do is to thank you, even though I don’t know who you are…

I think Arnold and Olentzeros collective reply sums it up nicely. They live on an island and needed something to eat.

I post only to point out that taro, the polynesian staple root that provides poi and was the mainstay of the Hawaiian diet for +/- 1000 years is quite poisonous… uncooked.

Another question about the Cycads: why did such an ancient species continue to thrive (into modern times). I understand that this order was around before the dinosaurs-you would think that such a primative plant would face a lot of competition form more modern species. Also, is the poison there for a reason? Did the Cycads make the dinosaurs sick?