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Distillation in Western Mesoamerica before European Contact

Abstract

Distillation in Western Mesoamerica before European Contact. Fermented beverages are almost universal among ancient human societies. Ethanol is an analgesic, disinfectant, and mind-altering substance, and can help to preserve and enhance the nutritional value of food. Fermentation has therefore played a key role in human cultural and technological development. In Mesoamerica, codices and colonial-era sources describe a variety of fermented beverages produced before European contact. Distilled beverages, in contrast, have not been invented in all cultures, and their production in pre-contact Mesoamerica remains controversial. We tested the hypothesis of Needham et al. (1980) that Capacha gourd and trifid vessels described by Kelly (1974) for the Early Formative (1500–1000 BCE) in Colima state, western Mexico, could have been used to produce distilled beverages. Experiments using vessel replicas, techniques, and materials (including agave ferment) available in this region during this period successfully produced ethanol-containing distillates. We propose the possible origin and development of a “Capacha-type Mesoamerican still” from bean pots or from steamer pots used during this period, and discuss the possible production of spirits as part of the prevailing agricultural and cultural system. Average gourd and trifid vessel sizes, their archaeological context, and the ethanol yields of the replicas suggest that, if used as stills, they were used to produce a prestige product for ceremonial purposes, with high social and cultural relevance.

Resumen

Destilación en el Occidente de Mesoamérica Antes del Contacto Europeo. Las bebidas fermentadas son casi universales entre las sociedades humanas antiguas. El etanol es una sustancia analgésica, desinfectante y alteradora de la conciencia, y puede ayudar a preservar e incrementar el valor nutritivo de los alimentos. La fermentación, por tanto, ha jugado un papel clave en el desarrollo cultural y tecnológico de la humanidad. En Mesoamerica, los códices y las fuentes de la época colonial describen una variedad de bebidas fermentadas producidas antes del contacto con los europeos. Las bebidas destiladas, en contraste, no se han inventado en todas las culturas, y su producción en la Mesoamérica pre-Hispánica permance controversial. En este trabajo probamos la hipótesis de Needham et al. (1980) de que las vasijas Capacha tipo bule y trífidas descritas por Kelly (1974) para el Formativo Temprano (1500–1000 antes de Cristo [A.C.]) en el estado de Colima, en el occidente de México, pudieron haber sido usadas para producir bebidas destiladas. Los experimentos, usando réplicas de vasijas, técnicas y materiales (incluyendo el fermento de agave) disponibles en la región durante ese periodo, resultaron exitosos para producir destilados conteniendo etanol. Proponemos el posible origen y desarrollo de un “Destilador Mesoamericano tipo Capacha” a partir de las ollas frijoleras o de las ollas vaporeras que se usaban en ese período, y discutimos la possible producción de bebidas destiladas como parte del sistema agrícola y cultural. Las dimensiones promedio de las vasijas tipo bule y trífidas reportadas, su contexto arqueológico, y los rendimientos de etanol obtenidos experimentalmente con las réplicas, sugieren que, si se usaron como destiladores, lo fueron para elaborar un producto suntuario con fines ceremoniales, con alta relevancia social y cultural.

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Acknowledgments

The authors thank CONACYT and CICY for the sabbatical scholarship for D.Z.-V. and P.C.-G.M., and P. Gepts for his hospitality at U.C.-Davis. Field work was partially supported by the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia-Colima (INAH) through the Archaeological Project Ixtlahuacán No. 552. The University of Colima kindly provided logistical support. Guillermo Ríos-Alcalá (Museo Universitario de Artes Populares, Colima) and Edith Zizumbo-Villarreal (Colegio de Ciencia y Arte de la Vida, Toluca) made the vessels’ replicas. Apolinar, Macario, and Miguel Partida prepared the agave ferments. Saúl Alcántara helped with photographs. Felipe Barahona (Unidad de Materiales-CICY) kindly advised us in the ethanol quantification techniques.

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Correspondence to Patricia Colunga-GarcíaMarín.

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Zizumbo-Villarreal, D., González-Zozaya, F., Olay-Barrientos, A. et al. Distillation in Western Mesoamerica before European Contact. Econ Bot 63, 413 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12231-009-9103-6

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Key Words:

  • Agave
  • Capacha
  • Chinese and Mongol-type stills
  • distillation
  • early formative
  • gourd-shaped vessels
  • Mesoamerica
  • stirrup vessels
  • Western Mexico