The global rise in the popularity of agave spirits has been meteoric. This rise in popularity has brought with it conversations about exploitation, history, and resource usage among many political topics. History and the stories we tell about humanity’s past are often weaponized by various groups to promote their agendas. One of the hot button issues within the world of mezcal is whether it could have been distilled before the arrival of the Spanish.
At the moment, we simply do not know with 100% certainty if spirits were or were not distilled by indigenous, pre-hispanic Mesoamerican people. The dominant narrative would say no, it was clearly brought by the Spanish, who knew how to distill before this period with techniques learned from Middle Eastern distillers. But just because we do not have a smoking gun of pre-hispanic distillation, say a painted mural showing the distillation process like we have for fermentation or a fully articulated modern looking still, does not mean that it did not exist. Nor does it mean that future archaeology will not produce this smoking gun.
There are numerous problems with trying to assess whether indigenous Mesoamericans were distilling alcoholic spirits and specifically with agave before the Spanish Conquest. Only 15 indigenous books, or Codices, survived the Spanish Conquest and subjugation intact. That is an unfortunately small number considering almost every city had a library.
All that is left of these libraries are bases of walls since 99.9% of books were burned, most notably by Diego de Landa, or were hidden by priests for safe keeping but never recovered. Archaeologist Edwin Barnhart recalls that during many of his excavations he would find a mess of pigments buried underground that 500 years ago was certainly a book. So without these written resources we have to rely on archaeology, experiments and theory to piece together whether the distillation of alcohol a) happened and b) was prevalent in Indigenous Prehispanic Mesoamerica. It is unfortunately an assemblage of circumstantial evidence, but we persist.
Here then is an attempt to present the evidence and circumstances available at this moment that are important in considering whether alcohol was distilled in Prehispanic Mesoamerica.
Familiarity with Agave
For semi-arid and arid parts of Central America the agave was perhaps the most important plant they knew. It provided sustenance, clothing, rope, needles, roofing, and fermented beverages such as the ancient superfood pulque. Agave has been a key plant utilized by Indigenous people in Mexico for at least 10,000 years, but we must always keep in mind that this is just our first evidence of agave usage and not the absolute beginning, it is most likely much, much earlier. (Flannery, 2009)
We have plenty of evidence that singular agaves were cooked underground going back as far as 10,000 BP. (Flannery, 2009) Even as early as 3000 BP we have evidence of multiple agaves being cooked in large pits with heated stones from Tlaxcala in particular. (Goguitchaichvili, 2018)
Because of this familiarity and near daily interaction with agave indigenous mesoamericans would understand its properties and know that it was capable of producing alcoholic beverages even without knowing the exact chemical reactions that were taking place to produce that alcohol.
As an outsider and layman, it would seem that if there were any humans to experiment with distillation in the most simple sense, the agave would be high on the list of vehicles to experiment with.
The Capacha Culture (4,000-3,200BP) of West Mexico seems to be a key to answering the question of prehispanic distillation. Predating even the venerable Olmec culture, the Capacha peoples created unique forms of pottery from their base in the Colima region. Capacha influence extended along the Pacific coast of Mexico. Historian Michael Coe even goes so far to say “At the site of Capacha, in Colima, Isabel Kelly unearthed grave goods dating to about 450BC which emphasize pottery bottles and stirrup sprouts, and which unmistakably point to an Ecuadorian origin.” (Coe, 2013) This further emphasizes the possible sea faring mobility of the Capacha people. The Capacha culture also had definite links to the interior, especially with the El Opeño culture of modern day Michoacan. This was a highly influential culture before even the Olmec culture spread through Mexico.
For our purposes, the Capacha Culture is most intriguing for the ceramic so-called bean pots they created. These bean pots bear a striking resemblance to the earliest Chinese double chambered stills that are known to have definitively produced distilled alcoholic beverages. (McGovern, 2019) These two vertically stacked chambers were connected by either one or two legs, bifid and trifid. They have only been found in context in graves and burials. As we will see later, it is possible these could have also been used to distill alcohol in an internal capture system.
In the now famous experiment Daniel Zizumbo-Villareal and his team used clay from the foothills of Colima and four specially constructed replicas of the vessels described above Daniel Zizumbo-Villareal et al, conducted an experiment to see if it was technically possible to use these trifid vessels to distill alcohol. These tests were a response to hypotheses from the turn of the 19th century by Bourke and Lumholtz that supposed indigenous stills in use at the time were markedly different from the stills the Spanish introduced to Mexico during the Conquest and Colonization period and therefore distillation was most likely an indigenous invention. (Zizumbo-Villareal, Colunga-GarciaMarin, 2009) Bruman later refuted this idea, saying that these stills were too similar to stills introduced by Filipinos in Mexico. (Bruman, 2000)
A gourd ‘copita’ was placed in the upper condenser by researchers and held in place with agave fiber to a larger gourd placed at the top of the vessel that sealed the vessel and would allow for condensation of ethanol in the smaller hanging gourd. Fermented agave mash was poured into the vessel and heated, alternately with fire and gas as a test and a control. A local expert in traditional methods of cooking beans, Margarita Nava, was brought in to demonstrate how long it would take to cook beans in these vessels and using that as a time limit the team decided to try and distill for two hours, after which the effects would be observed. (Zizumbo, 2009) This was a quintessential scientifically executed experiment.
The experiment was a success and yielded alcohol percentages as high as 35.5% and as low as 12.2%. It demonstrates that it would have been possible for distillation to occur in Mesoamerica before the Spanish Conquest.
- Patrick McGovern
Patrick McGovern led a team to find out if any of the Capacha Culture vessels that were available to analyze contained organic material. They used advanced biomolecular archaeology techniques to locate any organic compounds that might have been contained in the vessels, especially looking for evidence of agave and alcohol. The resulting experiments gave absolutely no evidence for agave being present inside the vessels, let alone as a distillate and no carbon on the outside of the vessels which would have shown them being used for cooking of something. (McGovern, 2019)
These results do not end speculation, however, as no bean pots have ever been found outside of a burial context. Burials for Egyptian pharaohs do not include many used objects. Instead, they generally preferred to create objects specifically for the pharaoh’s afterlife. It is well within reason that these goods were created specifically for the buried person’s afterlife as something they will need to take with them. There simply isn’t enough archaeological data in the region to know exactly what these were for, but hopefully we will be able to find out in the future.
Possible Methods of Production
The pre-hispanic household generally featured three houses arranged around a center courtyard. Here is where production of goods for trade, preparation of food, and communal gatherings for special events would take place. This would seem the most likely place for distillation of spirits to have occurred in much of Mesoamerica as the pattern for production of other goods such as clothes, mats, and ceramics has been established. (Barnhart) This is not to say there were no other methods of production at any point, but just a general pattern.
This photo of a sculpture from Nayarit of a family celebrating and drinking most likely pulque from the NY Museum of Natural History is a great depiction. I would expect any distillation of fermented beverages would have taken place here, at home, but distillates may also have been reserved for the elites of society, such as priests and nobles. We can only hypothesize at the moment.
Much like today in rural areas of Mexico families and communities would have specialized in the production of particular goods. In Oaxaca in particular, San Jose Mogote was a center for production of mirrors, the Etla Valley specialized in farming Maize, San Bartolo Coyotepec produced Barra Negra specifically as it still does, and today San Martin Tilcajete specializes in producing Alebrijes. (Barnhart) Could there have been town specializations in distilling alcohol? Could it have been a bit more like modern regions of Mexico where each town or region has a few families that distill spirits? Unfortunately at present it is impossible to say.
The first major permanent settlement in the Oaxaca Valley was at San Jose Mogote, just outside of the modern city of Oaxaca at the beginning of the Etla arm of the valleys of Oaxaca. (Flannery, 2005) Next to the school in the modern town is the museum of Mogote housed in the old plantation house. Here there are curiously small copitas, much the same size as a modern copita or shot glass made of clay. Museum rules do not allow photography otherwise I would include an accompanying picture. These would seem impractical to use to drink water, and even pulque or tepache would surely have been easier and more practical to drink from a gourd. Perhaps they were used to store food or incense? Again, it would seem impractical to store maybe ten beans in these vessels. There is no way to say definitively they were used to drink distilled beverages, but they are intriguing.
Another analogous, or perhaps circumstantial idea about the possibility of distillation comes from liquid mercury. For ancient Mesoamericans, liquid, or elemental, mercury must have been an incredible sight. This metallic substance was fluid, denser than most metals, shiny and poisonous. It must have been extremely difficult to procure and reserved for the priestly class because of how inefficient it would have been to produce. Thus it was most likely reserved for elite burials or rituals. (Cook, 2022)
There are two things fascinating about liquid mercury in our context. Firstly, to create liquid mercury you have to heat the cinnabar in a closed container. Cinnabar is an ore that appears naturally in the earth’s crust, such as in the Sierra Gorda in Mexico. Cinnabar would have been fairly common for Mesoamericans as it was used as a red pigment for painting statues and buildings. By heating cinnabar in a closed ceramic vessel liquid mercury is distilled, or separated, into its elemental form. This process would have been roughly analogous to the process of distillation in which ethanol is separated and concentrated through the use of heat from its less alcoholic previous form. (Marchini, 2022)
Second, liquid mercury has been found in different sites in its original form, hundreds of miles and years apart in two vastly different cultures. Recently in Teotihuacan, a team of Mexican archaeologists led by Sergio Gomez found liquid mercury in a tunnel under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent which dated to about 1,800-2,000 years BP. (Demarco, 2015) The mercury formed lakes, perhaps representing lakes near to Teotihuacan. Most notably in the Maya world both cinnabar and liquid mercury have been found, with liquid mercury appearing in no less than ten Maya burial sites with the most recent appearing in Lamanai around 1,100 BP. (Cook, 2009) But none has been found that predates the Capacha period as yet.
It could be that Capacha distillation spurred these other cultures to distill cinnabar as the internal capture system could have been a forerunner to cooking cinnabar in a closed container. The fact that although 600-800 years apart, and nearly 1,000 miles apart distillation of cinnabar to create liquid mercury was known to Indigenous peoples is quite remarkable. While Teotihuacan-Maya interchange is well established, that the distance and duration of the knowledge of how to distill mercury did not disappear as empires and cities rose and fell shows its enduring importance.
It is perhaps a stretch to say that the proliferation of liquid mercury throughout Mesoamerican space and time has any relation to distillation. After all, it could have been a simple happy accident with one person looking to bake cinnabar as a way to change the tone of the pigment they were using to a darker red and ended up with a mysterious silver liquid at the bottom of their brazier. To process the mercury, the cooking instrument would have to have been capped or closed, something that could have happened using techniques learned from distilling with internal capture systems. Alternatively, it could have been immediately clear that cooking this material poisoned the individuals involved in the process had they let any vapors escape or handled the mercury and so capped it on the next attempt.
We may never know exactly whether agave or other fermented beverages from different plants were distilled before the arrival of the Spanish. But the pace of archaeological discovery is quickening dramatically as new technologies such as LiDAR i.e. Light Detection and Ranging becoming more prevalent. It is these archaeological discoveries we must rely on to find more answers to the question. In the past, the emphasis in Mesoamerican archaeology has been on the monumental. The focus has been the large pyramids and cities that can increase tourism revenue and generate headlines. Precious few cities and just a handful of pre-agricultural caves have been fully excavated. But that seems to be changing globally and in Mexico. Archaeologists are becoming more and more fascinated with studying foodways and lifestyles. Perhaps with the global popularity of agave spirits, a new emphasis may be placed on the importance of agave and the possibility of an indigeneity of distillation.
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