Economic Botany

, Volume 66, Issue 4, pp 328–343

The Archaic Diet in Mesoamerica: Incentive for Milpa Development and Species Domestication

Authors

    • Unidad de Recursos Naturales, Centro de Investigación Científica de Yucatán A.C.
  • Alondra Flores-Silva
    • Unidad de Recursos Naturales, Centro de Investigación Científica de Yucatán A.C.
  • Patricia Colunga-García Marín
    • Unidad de Recursos Naturales, Centro de Investigación Científica de Yucatán A.C.
Article

DOI: 10.1007/s12231-012-9212-5

Cite this article as:
Zizumbo-Villarreal, D., Flores-Silva, A. & Colunga-García Marín, P. Econ Bot (2012) 66: 328. doi:10.1007/s12231-012-9212-5

Abstract

The Archaic Diet in Mesoamerica: Incentive for Milpa Development and Species Domestication. One of the central questions in the development of Mesoamerican civilization is how the alimentary, agronomic, and ecological complementarities were achieved within the milpa agroecosystem, which is one of its more important and distinctive cultural elements. In the Mesoamerican center of origin of agriculture and domestication of plants, located in western Mexico, we inquired among Náhuatl communities about the ancient dishes prepared with wild plants that are part of their ancient foodways, and the tools and technology used to prepare them. We found that the wild progenitors of Agave spp., Zea mays L, Cucurbita argyrosperma Hort. Ex L.H. Bayley, Phaseolus spp., Capsicum annum L., Solanum lycopersicum L., Physalis phyladelphica Lam, Spondias purpurea L., Persea americana Mill., and Hyptis suaveolens (L.) Poit are consumed in dishes that remain in the present food culture of the poor peasants, and are prepared with techniques and tools that were available in the Archaic period: Sun drying, roasting, toasting, baking, cracking, grinding, crushing, fermenting, and soaking in plain water or in water with ash, using three–stone fireplaces, stone toasters, crushers, grinders, rock pits, and three types of earth ovens. A remarkable finding was that beans could be incorporated into the diet without boiling, but just by toasting, stone grinding, and baking in corn dough tamales. Results obtained suggest that the basic Mesoamerican diet could have been shaped before the species involved were domesticated. Its nutritional complementarity since the Archaic period could have been one of the incentives for the development of the milpa system and the domestication of its species, achieving in this way also their ecological and agronomical complementarity.

Key Words

Archaic dietMesoamericadomesticationmilpafoodwaysAgaveZeaCucurbitaPhaseolusCapsicum

Resumen

La Dieta Arcaica en Mesoamérica: Incentivo para el Desarrollo de la Milpa en Mesoamérica y para la Domesticación de Especies. Una de las preguntas centrales acerca del desarrollo de la civilización Mesoamericana es cómo se logró la complementariedad alimentaria y agroecológica dentro del agroecosistema milpa, el cual es uno de sus elementos culturales más importantes y característicos. En el centro Mesoamericano de origen de agricultura y domesticación de plantas que se encuentra en el occidente de México, investigamos entre comunidades Náhuatls los platillos basados en plantas silvestres que forman parte de su cultura alimentaria antigua, y las técnicas e instrumentos que utilizan para elaborarlos. Encontramos que los ancestros silvestres de Agave spp., Zea mays L, Cucurbita argyrosperma Hort. Ex L.H. Bayley, Phaseolus spp., Capsicum annum L., Solanum lycopersicum L., Physalis phyladelphica Lam., Spondias purpurea L., Persea americana Mill., e Hyptis suaveolens (L.) Poit son consumidos en platillos que permanecen en la cultura alimentaria de los campesinos pobres, y que son elaboradas con técnicas y herramientas que estuvieron disponibles en el periodo arcaico: secado al sol, asado, tostado, horneado, triturado, molido, exprimido, fermentado y remojado en agua o en agua con cenizas, usando el fogón de tres piedras, los tostadores, exprimidores y moledores de piedra, los pozos de piedra y tres tipos de horno bajo tierra. Un hallazgo relevante es que los frijoles pudieron ser incorporados a la dieta sin ser hervidos, sino solo tostados, molidos en piedras y horneados en tamales de masa de maíz. Los resultados obtenidos sugieren que la dieta básica Mesoamericana pudo haberse conformado antes de que las especies involucradas fueran domesticadas. Su complementariedad nutricional desde el periodo Arcaico pudo haber sido uno de los incentivos para el desarrollo del agroecosistema milpa y la domesticación de sus especies, lográndose así también su complementariedad agroecológica.

Introduction

Mesoamerica is a geographical and cultural area extending from central Mexico to the northern and western portions of Central America. In it one of the prime ancient civilizations was developed. Its foodways were based on the agro–ecosystem known as milpa, composed of maize (Zea mays L.), beans (Phaseolus spp.), and squashes (Cucurbita spp.). These species, although cultivated in the same habitat, occupy different ecological niches. To this trio, other particular species of each subregion are integrated. In spite of their ancient and present importance, we know little about the way and time in which this agro–ecosystem was established. One of the central questions of its study is how the alimentary and agroecological complementarity of its species was achieved.

Archaeobotanical and genetic–molecular studies indicate that in the west of Mesoamerica, in the biogeographic region Balsas–Jalisco (BJR) (Fig. 1), maize and Cucurbita argyrosperma Hort. Ex L.H. Bayley were domesticated ca. 9,000 BP (Matsuoka et al. 2002; Piperno et al. 2009; Ranere et al. 2009; Sanjur et al. 2002), as was Phaseolus vulgaris L. (Kwak et al. 2009) and P. lunatus L. (Serrano–Serrano et al. 2012), being then possible that in this area they could have been integrated as an agro–ecosystem.
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Fig. 1

Western Mesoamerica, study area and communities.

The human groups that arrived in Mesoamerica between the years 10,600 BP and 10,000 BP, coming from the southwestern and the Great Central Plains of North America, had a culture based on hunting and gathering. They had ample utilization of plants, particularly mesquite (Prosopis spp.), oak acorns (Quercus spp.), grass grains, and century plant (Agave spp.) stems (Dixon 2000; Doebley 1984). Their previous knowledge of the alimentary use of agaves, cacti, grasses, and legumes from the semi–arid areas of North America might have been important for their peopling of Mesoamerica (Poinar et al. 2001; Wills 1995). They arrived with dogs (Canis familiaris L.) domesticated in the east of Asia (Leonard et al. 2002; Savolainen et al. 2002) and with a possible African domesticate, the bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria L.), as a container (Erickson et al. 2005). These instruments endowed small human groups with a high mobility, bountiful gathering, and the capacity to hunt minor wildlife (MacNeish 1964; MacNeish and Nelken–Turner 1983; Poinar et al. 2001).

For these human groups, fire became a key tool for hunting and for the initial use of species that were later domesticated. More than 220 groups of hunter–gatherers from the southwestern and the Great Central Plains of North America used fire to establish pastureland, guide and hedge animals, and to increase the production of fruits and grains (Griffin 2002; Lewis 1972; Parker 2002; Russell 1983; Williams 2003). They also used rocks as tools for grinding seeds and grains. Fireplaces and earth ovens were used for cooking tubers and roots rich in starch and inulin, as well as for cooking meat resulting from hunting. Fireplaces and earth ovens have been identified in Europe and Asia as early as 32,000 BP and 30,000 BP (Thoms 2009; Wandsnider 1997); whereas, in the North American Paleo–Indian sites, the oldest records come from Alaska and the Great Plains between 10,500 BP and 10,000 BP (Thoms 2009). In Mexico, the earth oven registries date from 6,900 BP in the north and west of the country (Dering 1999).

In the west and the south of Mesoamerica, between 10,000 BP and 9,000 BP, the cool–adapted flora was replaced by seasonal rain forest and acute, prolonged dry periods during spring, previous to the start of the summer rains (Metcalfe 2006; Piperno et al. 2007). The paleoecological records indicate an increased accumulation of carbon from the west of Mesoamerica to the south coast of Panama between 10,000 BP and 7,000 BP, suggesting the systematic human use of fire. The presence and accumulation of grass pollen of the genus Zea was also observed towards the western portion of the region (Piperno 2006; Piperno et al. 2007). The distribution and the increased density of species favored in situ by fire, and which turned out to be edible, could have defined areas of collection and the most apt sites for seasonal human establishments. In the initial stage of the transition to agriculture, fire, alongside direct human selection, became a potent selective force leading to the domestication of plants (Zizumbo–Villarreal and Colunga–GarcíaMarín 2010).

The archaeobotanical records show that before the development of agriculture, the agave species represented a basic food source for the hunter–gatherers of the semiarid and seasonally dry forest areas from north of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, up to the Gila River in Arizona. They consumed floral peduncles and the stems and bases of leaves, cooked in underground ovens (Callen 1965; Fish et al. 1985; Leach and Sobolik 2010; Smith 1986). Until recently, it was a very important food for the Apache, Rarámuri, Seri, Cora, Huichol, Náhuatl, and Purépecha of northwest Mexico. The agave heads were cooked in earth ovens, ground, and sun dried to make a kind of “bread” that could be re–hydrated whenever needed. They also made a hot beverage cooked with ground corn (atole) and fermented beverages like the tejuino (Bye et al. 1975; Castetter and Opler 1936; Castetter et al. 1938; Colunga–GarcíaMarín and Zizumbo–Villarreal 2007; Felger and Moser 1970; Lumholtz 1902).

The paleoarchaeological evidence for the period from 10,000 BP to 7,000 BP suggests an agricultural system based on fire (slash and burn) (Piperno 2006; Piperno et al. 2007). The archaeobotanical data identify archaic food–transforming technologies based on grinding with stones (Ranere et al. 2009) and cooking in fireplaces and earth ovens (Flannery 1986; MacNeish 1964; MacNeish and Nelken–Turner 1983).

Evidence of starch grains of maize and domesticated squash phytoliths in grinding stones mark a domestication of these species dating to at least 8,900 BP (Piperno et al. 2009; Ranere et al. 2009), whereas molecular genetic studies suggest the beginning in the differentiation between wild and domesticated populations of maize to be ca. 9,000 BP (Matsuoka et al. 2002). By 6,400 BP, maize already showed fixation of the alleles for disarticulated rachis, cobs with two to four rows, and grains with reduced glumes (Benz 2001; Piperno and Flannery 2001), indicating a strong human selection during harvest and grinding.

Paleobotanical registries suggest that between 7,000 BP and 5,000 BP agriculture was intensified through the use of tools that permitted the extraction and elimination of shrubs and tree roots, as well as the alignment of rocks that improved the gathering of rainwater and aeration of the cultivation system of the cultivated plants, allowing the farming of sites in foothills and valley terraces (Zizumbo–Villarreal and Colunga–GarcíaMarín 2010). The molecular–genetic evidence indicates that people succeeded, during the late pre–ceramic period (5,550–4,300 BP), in fixing alleles that determine the architecture of maize, allowing beans to climb on it (Jaenicke–Després et al. 2003; Jaenicke–Després and Smith 2006).

The three plants—maize, beans, and squashes—now occupy the same agro–ecosystem: The milpa. But each has its own, different ecological niche and nutritional role (Zizumbo–Villarreal and Colunga–GarcíaMarín 2010). The maize plant supports beans, which in turn fix nitrogen useful for squash and maize; the squash protects the area against insects, with its ground–covering habit and secretion of cucurbitacins, which attracts and poisons them (Chen et al. 2005). Maize provides carbohydrates, squashes provide lipids, and beans provide proteins, minerals, and vitamins. Other plants, like agaves, chilis (Capsicum spp.), tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum var. cerasiforme [Dunal] Spooner, Anderson & Jansen), ground cherries (Physalis spp.), chan (Hyptis suaveolens [L.] Poit), and hog plums (Spondias purpurea L.) also are part of the milpa in western Mesoamerica. Agaves provide retention of water and soil when planted on slopes; they also provide fiber, food, syrup, and a fermented beverage. Chilis, tomatoes, and ground cherries provide vitamins A and C, and chan provides essential oils and antioxidants. The milpa farming system is one of the most basic and distinctive cultural features of Mesoamerican civilization.

In the late pre–ceramic period, grinding stones, cook–stone grill fires, and earth ovens were still in use for food transformation (Flannery 1986; Ranere et al. 2009). The first ceramics recorded in Mesoamerica date from 4,300 BP, from the Pacific coast; they are pot, vessel, and cup fragments associated with the cooking, storage, and consumption of food (Brush 1965).

Considering this background, we hypothesize that if western Mesoamerica was the cradle of the milpa agro–ecosystem and the domestication of maize, beans, and squash, we could still encounter today remnants of their archaic (pre–ceramic) food use reflecting the transition from gathering to agriculture and domestication. As a consequence, our main objective was to identify food items cooked without clay cooking implements and the putative wild progenitors of the species that are found in pre–ceramic sites. We were also interested in finding this type of preparation for the other putative ancestors of the species that are part of the milpa in West Mesoamerica—agaves, chilis, tomatoes, ground cherries, chan, and hog plums.

Methodology

The study was conducted in the west of the BJR, México, in the western foothills of the Colima Volcanoes, which border three reserves, namely the Manantlán Biosphere Reserve (dedicated to the conservation of the wild relatives that gave rise to maize), the Colima Volcanoes National Park, and the private ecological reserve “El Jabalí.” The culture that developed during the Early Preclassic (1,800–1,000 BP) in this area was named “Capacha” (Kelly 1980). It is towards this area that the survivors of the native population of the Colima valley fled the Spanish conquest in the early sixteenth century (Sauer 1948).

The study area is the municipality of Zapotitlán de Vadillo, Jalisco (Fig. 1). We selected this municipality because the people’s traditional cultural practices and agro–ecosystems have maintained considerable continuity from the pre–Hispanic period. Even today, some farmers plant associated maize, beans, squash, and chili (milpa), using fire as a method to clean the area in which the milpa is grown (Zizumbo–Villarreal et al. 2012).

We inquired with the political authorities of the municipality about communities and informants who knew the Náhuatl language and possessed information about the oldest dishes in the region, as well as plants and technology involving these dishes. We contacted these people and, in turn, they led us to new informants in their community or nearby communities. The communities studied (see Fig. 1) and the numbers of informants were these: Cruz Blanca (3), Huitzometl (1), Mazatán (3), Perempitz (2), Telcruz (12), Tetapán (2), Zacalmecatl (3), and Zapotitlán (14), all with culturally Náhuatl origins (Bautista 1580). The 40 informants interviewed were between 45 and 98 years old, with an average age of 69 years. Twenty–six were women and 14 were men.

Based on open–ended interviews, we inventoried the dishes and drinks made with native wild species that people consider to be ancient (i.e., that have been prepared in the same way since the time of the grandparents of their grandparents), collected herbarium specimens of the wild plants used, and recorded the technology used through participant preparation of all the dishes described, led by the informants. At the same time, we made a photographic record of the plants and cooking implements. The botanical specimens collected were deposited in both the herbarium of the Center of Scientific Research of Yucatán (CICY) and of the Institute of Botany, University of Guadalajara (IBUG).

The communities studied are located on an altitudinal west–east gradient, between 600 and 1,600 meters above sea level (masl), at three different levels: 1) communities situated between 600 to 800 masl, with a warm and dry climate, 579 mm mean annual rainfall, 25 °C mean annual temperature, and a tropical dry forest with cacti (Cruz Blanca and Mazatán); 2) communities from 800 to 1200 masl, with a warm subtropical climate with summer rains, a mean annual average temperature of 22.5 °C, a mean average annual rainfall of 665 mm, and tropical dry forests (Tetapán and Perempitz); and 3) communities at altitudes from 1,200 to 1,600 masl, with a semi–warm and humid climate with summer rainfall, an average temperature of 21.5 °C, an average rainfall of 715 mm, and a tropical dry forest and oak forest (Zapotitlán, Huitzometl, Telcruz, and Zacalmecatl) (Vázquez et al. 1995). All three areas have a long dry season (October–June), rain from July to September, and a short midsummer drought in August.

Results

Wild Food Species

We registered and collected 68 species of wild plants that are consumed or were consumed until recently as food (Table 1). These plants include wild relatives of domesticated agaves (Agave angustifolia Haw. and A. rhodacantha Trel.); of maize (Z. mays ssp. parviglumis Iltis & Doebley and Z. perennis [Hitchcock] Reeves & Mangelsdorf); of beans (P. vulgaris var. mexicanus Doebley and P. lunatus var. silvester Baudet); of cucurbits (C. argyrosperma ssp. sororia [L.H. Bailey] L. Merrick & D. M. Bates); of chan (H. suaveolens); of chilis (Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum [Dunal] Heiser & Pickersgill); of tomatoes (S. lycopersicum var. cerasiforme); of ground cherries (Physalis angulata L., P. philadelfica Lam.); of hog plums (S. purpurea); and of avocadoes (Persea americana ssp. drymifolia Berg & Ellstrand).
Table 1

Wild plants eaten in the municipality of Zapotitlán, Jalisco: Form of transformation, part used, method of preservation, and harvest period.

Scientific name

Local name

Transformation

Part used

Preservation

Harvest

Plants used all year (basic diet)

Agave angustifolia Haw.

Mezcal cimarrón verde

Baked

Stem, Leaf base

Dried, Baked

All year

Agave rhodacantha Trel.

Mezcal cimarrón amarillo

Baked

Stem, Leaf base

Dried, Baked

All year

Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum (Dunal) Heiser & Pickersgill

Chili

Fresh, Dried, Grilled, Crushed

Fruit

Dried

Oct–Apr

Cucurbita argyrosperma ssp. sororia (L.H. Bailey) L. Merrick & D. M. Bates

Tululunche or calabacilla

Washed, Toasted, Ground

Seed

Dried

Sep–Mar

Phaseolus lunatus L. ssp. silvester Baudet

Frijol cimarrón ancho

Toasted, Ground, Baked.

Seed

Dried

Jan–Mar

Phaseolus vulgaris L. ssp. mexicanus Doebley

Frijol cimarrón

Toasted, Ground, Baked.

Seed

Dried

Nov–Jan

Physalis angulata L.

Tomate de gallo

Fresh, Dried, Grilled, Crushed

Fruit

Dried

Jul–Sep

Physalis philadelphica Lam.

Tomate de milpa

Fresh, Dried, Grilled, Crushed

Fruit

Dried

Aug–Sep

Solanum lycopersicum var. cerasiforme (Dunal) D.M. Spooner, G.J. Anderson & R.K. Jansen

Chaltomate

Fresh, Dried, Grilled, Crushed

Fruit

Dried

Oct–Apr

Spondias purpurea L.

Ciruelo cimarrón

Dried, Salted, Crushed

Fruit

Dried

May–Jul

Zea mays ssp. parviglumis Iltis & Doebley

Teocintle/Milpilla

Toasted, Ground

Grain

Dried, Toasted

Dec–Jan

Zea perennis (Hitchc.) Reeves & Mangelsd.

Teocintle/Milpilla

Toasted, Ground

Grain

Dried, Toasted

Dec–Jan

Plants used all year (complementary or famine foods)

Brosimum alicastrum Sw.

Mojo

Fresh, Dried, Ground

Fruit

Dried

Jan–Apr

Ceiba aesculifolia (Kunth) Britten & Baker

Pochote

Fresh

Root

None

All year

Chenopodium ambrosioides L.

Epazote

Fresh, Dried

Stem, Leaf

Dried

Apr–Dec

Enterolobium cyclocarpum (Jacq). Griseb

Parota

Fresh, Dried, Grilled, Toasted

Seed

Dried

Mar–Apr

Euchile citrina (La Llave & Lex.) Withner

Olorica

Fermented

Flower

Fermented

Feb–Mar

Guazuma ulmifolia Lam.

Guázima

Dried, Ground

Fruit

Dried

Feb–Apr

Lippia graveolens Kunth

Orégano

Fresh, Dried

Stem, Leaf

Dried

All year

Pithecellobium dulce (Roxb.) Benth.

Guamúchil

Dried, Grilled

Fruit

Dried

Apr–Jul

Psidium guajava L.

Guayaba

Dried, Salted

Fruit

Dried

Sep–Feb

Psidium sartorianum (O. Berg) Nied.

Guayabilla

Dried, Salted

Fruit

Dried

Jul–Jan

Tagetes filifolia Lag.

Anís

Fresh, Dried

Leaf, Flower

Dried

Aug–Sep

Plants available in short periods of the year

Acanthocereus occidentalis Britton & Rose

Jajinco

Fresh

Fruit

None

Jun

Begonia barkeri Knowles & Westcott

Agrios

Grilled

Root, Stem

None

Nov

Bromelia pinguin L.

Guámara

Grilled, Baked

Fruit

None

Jan–Feb

Bromelia plumieri (E. Morren) L.B. Sm.

Chucuhuixtle, cocuixtle

Grilled, Baked

Fruit

None

Dec–Feb

Casimiroa edulis La Llave & Lex.

Zapote blanco

Fresh, Grilled

Fruit

None

May–Jun

Celtis iguanaea (Jacq.) Sarg.

Granjeno

Fresh

Fruit

None

Sep–Oct

Crataegus pubescens Steud.

Manzanita o tejocote

Fresh

Fruit

None

Nov–Jan

Cyrtocarpa procera Kunth

Copalcojote

Fresh

Fruit

None

Sep–Oct

Dioscorea remotiflora Kunth

Camote de cerro

Grilled, Baked

Root

None

Oct–May

Epiphyllum anguliger (Lem.) G. Don

Pitayita

Fresh

Fruit

None

Nov–Jan

Ficus obtusifolia Kunth

Higuerilla

Fresh

Fruit

None

Dec–Jan

Ficus padifolia Kunth

Camichín

Fresh

Fruit

None

Jul–Sep

Fuchsia fulgens DC.

Biznaguita

Fresh

Fruit

None

Jun–Jul

Heliocereus speciosus (Cav.) Britton & Rose

Pitayita de tasajo

Fresh

Fruit

None

Apr–May

Hylocereus ocamponis (Salm–Dyck) Britton & Rose

Pitahaya

Fresh

Fruit

None

Jul–Aug

Hylocereus purpusii (Wein.) Britton & Rose

Pitahaya

Fresh

Fruit

None

Jun–Jul

Inga laurina (Sw) Wild

Canicuil

Fresh

Fruit

None

Sep

Inga vera Willd

Canicuil

Fresh

Fruit

None

Sep

Jacaratia mexicana A. DC.

Bonete

Fresh, Grilled

Fruit

None

Dec–Jan

Lantana camara L.

Capulín

Fresh

Fruit

None

Sep

Leucaena esculenta (Moc. & Sessé ex D.C) Benth

Guaje de las aguas

Fresh

Seed

None

Sep–Oct

Leucaena leucocephala (Lam.) de Wit

Guaje

Fresh

Seed

None

Dec–Feb

Morisonia americana L.

Chico

Fresh

Fruit

None

Jan–Aug

Myrcianthes fragans (Sw) McVaugh

Lentisco

Fresh

Fruit

None

Jul–Jan

Nopalea karwinskiana (Salm–Dyck) K. Schum

Nopal

Grilled

Stem

None

Mar–Apr

Opuntia fuliginosa Griffiths

Nopal

Grilled

Fruit

None

Mar–Apr

Opuntia puberula Pfeiff

Nopal

Grilled

Stem

None

Mar–Apr

Opuntia sp.

Tuna

Fresh

Fruit

None

Sep

Otatea acuminata ssp. aztecorum (McClure & E.W. Sm.) R. Guzmán, Anaya & Santana

Otate

Grilled, Baked

Shoot

None

Aug–Sep

Oxalis latifolia Kunth

Agrito

Fresh

Root, Stem

None

Jun–Jul

Pachycereus pecten–aboriginum (Engelm. ex S. Watson) Britton & Rose

Pitaya de cuervo

Fresh

Fruit

None

May–Jul

Pachyrhizus erosus (L.) Urban

Jícama de monte

Fresh

Root

None

Jan

Passiflora foetida L.

Granadillo

Fresh

Fruit

None

Jul–Aug

Persea americana ssp. drymifolia Berg & Ellstrand

Aguacate

Fresh

Fruit

None

Jun–Jul

Prosopis laevigata (Humb. & Bonpl. ex Willd.) M.C. Johnst.

Mezquite

Fresh, Ground

Fruit

None

Mar–Jun

Quercus rugosa Née

Avellano

Washed, Toasted, Ground

Fruit

Dried

Dec–Feb

Rubus sp.

Zarzamora de monte

Fresh

Fruit

None

Jun–Nov

Sideroxylon cartilagineum (Cronquist) T.D. Penn.

Huizilacate

Fresh

Fruit

None

May–Jun

Sideroxylon portoricense Urb.

Comenjal

Fresh

Fruit

None

May–Jun

Solanum sp.

Huevo de zopilote

Fresh

Fruit

None

Feb–Mar

Stenocereus fricii Sánchez–Mej.

Pitaya de las aguas

Fresh

Fruit

None

Aug–Sep

Stenocereus queretaroensis (Weber) Buxb.

Pitaya

Fresh, Dried

Fruit

None

Apr–Jun

Thevetia ovata (Cav.) DC.

Yoyote

Fresh

Fruit (latex)

None

May–Jul

Vitis popenoei J. L. Fennell

Uva de monte

Fresh

Fruit

None

Jun

Vitis tiliifolia Humb. & Bonpl. ex Roem. & Schult.

Uva cimarrona

Fresh

Fruit

None

May

Ancient Dishes and Beverages

Dishes and drinks considered ancient in the region, made from wild species, and the techniques used to prepare them, are presented in Table 2. We also recorded complementary or famine foods involving more than 50 other species of plants (Table 1) that supplemented the diet. These additional foods are eaten fresh, grilled, or toasted, and are available in different seasons of the year.
Table 2

Dishes and drinks made from wild or domesticated species in the municipality of Zapotitlán, Jalisco, México and techniques used to cook them.

Dishes and drinks

Cooking techniques

Ash tamale

Dough made of maize grains soaked in ash water overnight, ground, added with bean pinole, wrapped in tamale plant leaves and baked in earth oven

Bate

Hyptis and maize pinoles diluted in water and sweetened with mezcal syrup

Bean pinole

Toasted and ground bean seeds

Bean tamale

Dough made of maize grains soaked overnight in water, ground, added with bean pinole, wrapped in tamale plant leaves and baked in earth oven

Chili sauces

Crushed fresh or dry chili combined with fresh or dry tomatoes, ground cherries, hog plums, and fresh avocado or guaje seeds

Horchata

Washed and ground squash fresh seeds, diluted with water, and sweetened with mezcal syrup

Hyptis pinole

Toasted and ground wild Hyptis seeds

Mezcal bread

Baked Agave stems sun–dried

Mezcal syrup

Baked and crushed Agave leaf bases

Mezcal tamale

Dough made of maize and bean pinole sweetened with Agave syrup wrapped in tamale plant leaves and baked in earth oven

Panile

Washed, toasted, and ground squash seeds

Picadillo

Washed and ground squash fresh seeds with chili–tomato sauce

Pinole atole

Maize pinole diluted in water sweetened with Agave syrup

Plum atole

Sun–dried hog plums soaked overnight, mashed in water

Plum tamale

Re–hydrated hog plums, crushed and wrapped with husks of corncobs

Ponteduro

Aggregation of toasted maize and squash seeds, maize pinole, bee honey (Melipona sp. or Trigona sp.) or mezcal syrup

Popcorn

Capsules of teocintle or maize grains toasted with ashes

Tejuino

Maize soaked in water for two or three days, ground, diluted in water, and sweetened with Agave syrup

Tepache

Agave or hog plum juice fermented in rockpits

Teocintle or maize pinole

Toasted and ground capsules of teocintle or maize grains

Sour atole

Maize grains soaked for two or three days in water, ground and diluted in water; Panile on top

White atole

Maize grains soaked for one night in water, ground and diluted in water

Ancient Tools and Techniques

For the preparation of these dishes, several tools, also considered ancient, were used: A three–stone fireplace, stone toasters (Fig. 2a), sets of ancient holes in a stone (possibly used as fixed crushers and grinders) (Fig. 2b), mobile stone crushers and grinders (Fig. 2c), and rock pits or fermenters (Fig. 2d). Additionally, we registered as accessory tools the otate (Otatea acuminata ssp. aztecorum [McClure & E.W. Sm] R. Guzmán, Anaya & Santana), used to stir up the fire and to make a type of cooking tweezers, and water containers made from L. siceraria, C. cujete and C. argyrosperma ssp. sororia.
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Fig. 2

a Corncob grilled in a fireplace and cook–stone grill. Perempitz, Jalisco, México. b Set of fixed ancient holes in a stone, possible used as crushers and grinders. Tetapán, Jalisco. c Individual stone bases and pins and a stone mortar. Perempitz, Jalisco, México. d Rock pit or fermenter stone. Perempitz, Jalisco, México. e Circular earth oven for cooking agave heads. Zapotitlán, Jalisco, México. f Rectangular earth oven. At the bottom are the remains of the firewood; upon them, the red–hot stones; and at the top squashes and tamales (corn dough wrapped with corn leaves) ready to be covered for baking. Zacalmecatl, Jalisco, México.

We found three types of earth ovens: (a) circular of 1.0 to 1.5 m in diameter and of 0.6 to 1 m in depth, mainly devoted to the baking of agave “heads” (stem and leaf bases) (Fig. 2e); (b) rectangular of 1.5 m long, 1.5 m wide, and 1 m deep (Fig. 2f); and (c) duplex, with one circular hole and another rectangular one, which were joined underground (Fig. 3). The rectangular and duplex earth ovens are dedicated mainly for cooking squash fruits and tamales.
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Fig. 3

Duplex earth oven. a Circular and rectangular holes connected below ground. b Putting a river–stone vault on circular pit. c Baked bean tamales in the rectangular pit, over the hot rocks. d Baked squashes and sweet potatoes in the circular pit, ready to be baked. Perempitz, Jalisco, México.

In the circular and rectangular ovens, wood is placed at the bottom and then covered with river rocks. When the wood is consumed, the red–hot stones are distributed evenly. In the former, heads of mezcal are placed on top of the stones and coals; in the latter, squash fruits and, on top, tamales, tubers, and roots of Dioscorea remotiflora Kunth and Ipomoea batatoides Choisy, and tender corncobs (Fig. 2f). In order to close the square oven, a network of branches covered with fresh corn leaves is put in place, and this network is placed below a fabric made of Agave spp. fiber (ixtle) and then finally covered with earth. The oven remains covered all night and is opened the next day.

In the duplex oven, the firewood is placed at the bottom of the circular pit. Above it, at the surface of the pit, a river–stone vault is constructed. The wood is set on fire through the rectangular opening and stoked as needed. When the stones are red–hot, the vault is purposely collapsed, and the squashes, tamales, and sweet potatoes are placed over the red–hot stones. Both openings are sealed for several hours in the same fashion as the rectangular oven, until the food is ready (Fig. 3).

Discussion

Wild Food Species

Among the 68 plants found and reported as edible, we found 13 species that are progenitors of several domesticated Mesoamerican crops. All of them were growing in close proximity with the crops, except Z. mays ssp. parviglumis (teocintle). We believe teocintle grew inside or near the milpas until recently because we observed maize plants inside the milpa with cobs that had only four rows of grains. These plants, according to Wilkes (1977, Figure 16), are segregates resulting from the introgression of Z. mays ssp. parviglumis into Z. mays ssp. mays. The disappearance of wild maize could be due to the impact of caprine livestock, particularly the goats that have also produced an accelerated disappearance of wild beans, squashes, and chilis (Wilkes 2007; Zizumbo–Villarreal and Colunga–GarcíaMarín 2010).

We recorded the ancient use, and successfully prepared horchata, sour atole, and picadillo using wild squash seeds. Wild beans (P. vulgaris var. mesoamericanus and P. lunatus var. silvester), remain at the table as an ingredient of three kind of tamales (mezcal, bean, and ash). To prepare these tamales, wild beans are toasted, ground, and mixed with maize dough. They can be wrapped with four types of leaves: Z. perennis leaves, Oreopanax peltatus Linedn ex Regel leaves (“tamale tree”), maize cob husks, or maize leaves. They are then baked in earth ovens. Wild chili is sun dried and eaten alone, or is ground together with fresh tomatoes or ground wild cherries to make a wide variety of sauces that are still very common nowadays. Teocintle no longer grows in the milpas, but we successfully made popcorn, pinole, and atole of pinole as people used to prepare it, using teocintle seeds from a nearby location.

Archaic Basic Diet

Previous evidence and the results of this research suggest that agaves, together with maize, constituted the center of the archaic diet in western Mesoamerica, and that squashes, beans, chilis, chan, ground berries, and tomatoes were later incorporated, ensuing a complex food system (Fig. 4). Macro and micro botanical remains (starch grains, phytolits) and molecular assays support this sequence of an intensive use of agaves ca. 9,000 BP (Callen 1965; Smith 1986) and the domestication of maize and squash ca. 9,000 BP (Matsuoka et al. 2002; Piperno et al. 2009; Ranere et al. 2009).
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Fig. 4

Hypothetical Archaic food system in West Mesoamerica.

A remarkable finding of our research is that the two species of wild beans (P. vulgaris var. mexicanus and P. lunatus var. silvester) could have been incorporated into the Mesoamerican diet in the pre–ceramic period because they do not need to be boiled. Rather, they can be prepared through the technology of toasting, grinding, and baking in earth ovens (Fig. 5). It is probable that in future archaeobotanical investigations bean remains will be found in the same grinding stones used to make maize and squash pinoles.
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Fig. 5

a Mezcal tamale. b Ash tamale. c Bean tamale. Zapotitlán, Jalisco, México.

We also registered the consumption of wild beans that were soaked in water for one night, then rinsed and boiled in ceramic pots, with their water changed multiple times. This procedure has already been reported for western Mexico (Zizumbo–Villarreal et al. 2005).

The use of agave and hog plum juices for the production of tepache and tejuino by means of fermentation could play an important role in the Mesoamerican culture since the Archaic period. Fermentation for the production of alcoholic beverages has been reported in practically all archaic societies, which can be explained by its multiple properties as an analgesic, disinfectant, its mind–altering effects, and because alcohol preserves and enhances the nutritional value of food (McGovern et al. 2004, 2005).

Archaic Tools and Techniques

The results from this study suggest that the archaic technology related to the preparation of foodstuff was composed by sun drying on otate beds, roasting, toasting, cracking, grinding, and crushing in rocks, soaking in water and water with ash, fermentation in stone pits, and earth oven baking. Additionally, liquid containers were used from plants like L. siceraria, C. alata, and C. argyrosperma ssp. sororia. Part of this technology was already in use by the human groups that passed through the plains of North America and came into Mesoamerica (Turner and Hester 1999). This technology became a tool of human selection as it was applied and adapted to the wild plant species that became the Mesoamerican domesticates.

In the study area, there are no archaeological reports of fireplaces or earth ovens for the pre–ceramic period, in part due to the scarcity of archaeological studies but also because of the difficulty of finding them due to the high mobility of the groups that made them, resulting in structures with a dispersed distribution. In addition, they are perishable structures that are destroyed after their use. Earth ovens are reported for this area in the late Pre–classical and Early Classical periods, when they presented a circular shape and stone lining, acquiring an enduring structure (Zizumbo–Villarreal et al. 2009). Earth ovens were common until European contact. They came in various dimensions, were utilized ritually and for daily life, and had a high cultural and social importance (Zizumbo–Villarreal et al. 2009). From the colonial period up until the present, the use of earth ovens has been focused in cooking agaves for the elaboration of spirits (Colunga–GarcíaMarín and Zizumbo–Villarreal 2007) as well as for the cooking of squash fruits, sweet potato tubers, and tamales.

Ashes from the three–stone fireplaces and the earth ovens may have had an important role in the archaic diet. Hot ashes are used today to pop the seeds of teocintle (Z. mays parviglumis and Z. perennis), parota (Enterolobium cyclocarpum [Jacq.] Griseb), or “maíz reventador” (exploded corn) in the toasting stone. Ashes are mixed with the seeds to facilitate their explosion. They are also used to soak the maize seeds to ease the grinding. The use of ash may have taken place prior to the use of lime for making corn dough, or nixtamalización, which allowed a better management of the dough to make tortillas, and an improvement of food quality. The soaking eased the grinding of corn. It was probably the step prior to the fermentation, which was applied to corn, agaves, and hog plums in the making of tejuino and tepaches, consumed as moderately alcoholic beverages.

Another important technique in the Archaic period may have been the earth oven cooking, for its key role in the cooking of roots and stems with high starch and inulin contents. It may also have been particularly important for beans, because of their high content of anti–nutritional elements (Ballhorn et al. 2009; Van der Poel 1990) that makes cooking necessary in order to eliminate these substances before consumption. Earth ovens may also have been very important for long–lived foods that are cooked in them. The mezcal tamales, made with pinole of maize, toasted–milling beans, and agave syrup, are preserved up to one year under local environmental conditions. These tamales are now considered useful food for the long journeys made by producers during the annual pilgrimage on foot to worship the Virgin of Talpa, lasting 15 days, or to venerate the Virgin of Guadalupe, which lasts from 21 to 28 days.

Sun drying was also a very important technique that made resources available all year round. Hog plum fruits, sun–dried during the spring, may be preserved up to one year. They are re–hydrated and ground to make atole, tamales, and tepache. Of great importance also are the sun–dried chilis and tomatoes, which formed part of the staple diet throughout the year. Additional resources—seeds of squash, E. cyclocarpumn and of Pithecellobium dulce (Roxb.) Benth.—were dried and roasted with an extended durability of almost a year, providing the diet a variety of flavors all year round.

Evolution and Continuity of Diet

The cultural relevance of what may be archaic foods continued until the mid–twentieth century, when it was common to find pinole, white atole, ash, bean, and hog plum tamales, as well as agave tepache and tejuino in the markets of Zapotitlán and Colima. Even nowadays, we can find the full range of chili sauces with wild tomatoes and wild hog plums, all of them much appreciated for their flavor. At present, poor peasants eat as the first meal of the day the white atole or the sour atole with baked squash and squash seeds; at noon, the mezcal, bean, and ash tamales with chili sauces, accompanied with bate or tejuino as beverages; in the afternoon, the hog plum tamale, the ponte duro, and popcorn balls. The sour atole, tepache, and tejuino generally are consumed at midday and during festivals.

The permanency until the present day of many of the dishes prepared with wild plants and pre–ceramic technology suggests the great relevance these foodstuffs had in the diet over a vast period of time. Nonetheless, the food technology has undergone significant changes during the various historical periods, both in the preparation and consumption of food.

Sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum L.), a plant introduced in the early seventeenth century to the region by Europeans and promoted and cultivated in the conquered lands (Zizumbo–Villarreal 1996), has replaced agave syrup as a sweetener. The maize pinole, the atole of pinole, the tejuinio, and the bate are sweetened now with sugar cane. In the tejuino, the fermented maize grains have also been replaced with nixtamalized maize dough. In ash tamales, the ash–soaked maize has been replaced with nixtamalized dough, and the toasted beans have been replaced with boiled and ground beans. The agave and hog plum tepaches have been replaced by pineapple (Annanas comosus L. Merr.) tepache with sugar cane.

The production and consumption of mezcal “bread” has disappeared and this has decreased the daily consumption of high levels of fiber and inulin. The replacement of the non–digestible inulin and fiber contained in the agave syrup, or prebiotics, with the sucrose contained in sugar cane, in all staple foods consumed by the native and mestizo population of the entire region, is partly the cause of their high incidence of diabetes and obesity (Kuhnlein and Receveur 1996; Leach 2007). The cultural reinforcement of traditional food consumption and re–created dishes and beverages, using agave syrup, would lead to strengthening both the productive base of traditional farming systems (Zizumbo–Villarreal et al. 2012) and improving the health of the local population.

Conclusions

This study suggests that the basic Mesoamerican diet, based on maize, beans, squashes, and chili peppers, could have been shaped in the pre–ceramic period before these species were domesticated. This is suggested by the fact that populations of their putative wild ancestors can be consumed in dishes that remain in contemporary foodways and are still prepared with tools and techniques that were available in the Archaic period: Sun drying, roasting, toasting, cracking, grinding and crushing in rocks, soaking in water and water with ash, fermentation in stone pits, and earth oven baking. Agaves were integrated into this archaic diet as sweeteners and as an essential energy source.

The fact that the consumption of these species was at the foundation of a food culture with nutritional complementarity since the Archaic period suggests that it could have been one of the incentives for the development of the milpa system and the domestication of its species, achieving in this way not only nutritional but also agroecological complementarity.

Acknowledgements

The authors thank Jerónimo Zizumbo–Colunga for help in translation, Verónica Limones and Victor Canché for technical assistance, Francisco Santana and Ofelia Vargas for help in botanical identification, and the families of Cruz Blanca, Huitzometl, Mazatán, Perempitz, Telcruz, Tetapán, Zacalmécatl, and Zapotitlán for their hospitality and generosity.

Copyright information

© The New York Botanical Garden 2012