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Ethnohistoric Sources on Foodways, Feasts, and Festivals in Mesoamerica

  • John E. Staller
Chapter

Abstract

In the last 30 years, archaeologists worldwide have expanded their interests to include the significance of foodways to our understanding of prehistory. Many of the theories and ideas scholars currently have regarding the economic and cultural significance of food to the development of Mesoamerican civilization were directly influenced by ethnohistorians and sixteenth century documents, indigenous ­pictorial codices, and interpretations of hieroglyphic writing (Las Casas 1971 [1527–1565]; Gerbi 1985 [1975]; Boone 2000).

In this study, sixteenth century documents, pictorial codices, as well as iconographic and hieroglyphic texts are evaluated in order to consider how earlier Indo-European perceptions of the New World influenced our current understanding of the roles and importance of food to human sociocultural development. The goal of this analysis is to demonstrate that such colonial documents (both Native and European) are particularly useful for the purposes of studying foodways in general, and the roles and uses of certain plants and dishes in particular. Numerous figures in this study are derived from pre-Linnaean herbals from the sixteenth century. These botanical sources were of course not selected for their scientific value regarding taxonomy or classification, but rather, for what they can tell us about inherent European biases and perceptions regarding New World plant species and their subsequent roles in these cultures and their cuisines. The names given various food crops and statements made about them can potentially reveal a great deal about how they were perceived in the sixteenth century. Much regarding the roles of ancient foodways was transformed during the Age of Enlightenment. However, many earlier beliefs and preconceptions continued in various ways to influence our understanding of how New World food crops subsequently changed cuisines throughout the world. Emphasis is therefore given to inherent biases, both cultural and religious, and how such differences in perception may have influenced subsequent research on the roles of food crops and economic plants to our understanding of ancient political economy and the rise of Mesoamerican civilization. The earliest primary and secondary accounts regarding the role of food to rituals, festivals, and ancient economy are given priority (see e.g., Schwartz 2000; Anderson et al. 1976; Barber and Berdan 1998).

Keywords

Sixteenth Century Chili Pepper Maize Kernel Bottle Gourd Pumpkin Seed 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Notes

Acknowledgments

I wish to express my sincere gratitude to Michael D. Carrasco (Florida State University), Brian Stross (University of Texas), and Jeffrey R. Parsons (University of Michigan) for their comments, and the insights they brought to this study. Special thanks to Christine Giannoni (Field Museum Library), for providing access to the pre-Linnaean and colonial herbals in the rare books collection. All interpretations and statements of fact are my own, and any errors of fact or misinterpretation of the data should not in any way reflect on these scholars.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • John E. Staller
    • 1
  1. 1.Field Museum of Natural HistoryChicagoUSA

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