The story of alcoholic beverages is a story of humans and their interactions with and utilization of plants. Agave spirits are no different. We hear stories of some indigenous Mesoamerican civilizations every so often and their interactions with agave, some of which verges into mythmaking. We hear much, much less about what the relationship was for humans and agave before these monument building, agricultural societies arose.
The long and complex peopling of the Americas most likely began around 16,000 years Before the Present as humans moved from Beringia and possibly farther away in Asia by water and land into this new hemisphere. It was a New World with new and different animals and plants, erratic and difficult weather with challenging landscapes and climates. These Lithic and Archaic periods, roughly 16,000 BP to 4,000 BP, spanned dramatic and disruptive global shifts in climate, extinctions of Pleistocene megafauna and the eventual settling of the global Holocene climate. (Raff, 2022)
Agave, also known as maguey, was a foundational piece of Mesoamerican life long before it spread to almost every country in the world. Maguey was crucial to the first peoples of Central America and their descendants, in particular Mexico, but also as far away as El Gigante in modern Honduras. (Rosenwig, 2015) From providing food to clothing and tools, agave had a profound impact on these humans and generations that followed them for millenia. It is important we recognize the historical importance of agave to more fully appreciate the wonderful spirits we enjoy today. So what exactly was the importance of agave to Early Mesoamericans?
1. Agave as Food
The early indigenous Mesoamerican diet included agave, fruit, vegetables, pine nuts, prickly pear and meat to name just a few. (Zizumbo, 2016) Like many of the foods listed, agave needs to be harvested and then cooked to be edible for humans. Early Mesoamericans would have used stone adzes and scrapers to remove the leaves and roots of the agave. Using technology first evidenced in Siberia around 30,000 years BP they would dig a small pit, lay a handful of rocks at the bottom of the pit and build a fire to heat the rocks. Then they would add the agave and cover it over with dirt. After a few days, they could dig it up for a tasty meal. Much like caramelizing an onion, cooking an agave heart breaks down complex sugars into edible and fermentable sugars, while also softening the heart to allow a human to chew it.
Beyond producing a ready source of sugar, this heart can be consumed in a number of ways. Pieces can be ripped or cut off, chewed and spit out, called quids, as were found at Guila Naquitz in Central Oaxaca from nearly 9000 years BP in small piles around a fire. (Flannery 2009) At palanques, mezcal distilleries, it’s always a nice little treat for a producer to hand one a small piece of agave to chew on and spit out. It’s delicious, a lovely burst of sugar. Thin bread-like slices could also be cut from the heart, dried in the sun, stored, carried much easier than a whole agave.
The pieces can also be dehydrated when ready to eat. Free of its water weight this agave bread could be transported over great distance and rehydrated whenever it needed to be consumed. Harvesting and cooking an agave is intensive labor but one agave could feed a small hunter gatherer band or small family for a couple days, perhaps longer depending on the size and sugar content of the agave.
Agave quiote’s flowers could also be eaten and are a somewhat tart, delicious treat. It is also possible that agaves are pressed or squeezed to provide a safe way of consuming liquid. While it is probably impossible to know when humans realized that the juice, if left alone in a container, could ferment. Nearly all human societies discovered fermentation of some plant very early, it would be likely this was also the case with agave.
But perhaps the most important value of agave to early Mesoamericans is that it could provide a caloric backstop and a readily available source of food year round, through drought or inclement weather. Agaves can be harvested and their hearts cooked underground at any time of year.They are such a hearty plant that they can survive years of drought and sometimes too much water.
Food insecurity before and after the move to settled agriculture for many regions could be almost wholly alleviated by utilizing agaves. In many semi-arid and arid regions of Central America, agave was far more productive than maize, and less dependent on ideal weather conditions even into classical and post-classic times (2,000 – 500 years BP). Zapotec farmers in the Oaxaca valleys could plant a field of agave that would provide on average a higher caloric intake than the more rain dependent maize. (Flannery, 2009)
While in general comparisons of Mesoamerican societies to Eurasian societies are unhelpful as they tend to become competitive and not descriptive, Parsons and Darling made an apt comparison of agave to sheep and goats in marginally productive areas of Eurasia. The two were hearty potential sources of food in difficult times that also provided clothing and textiles. (Parsons, 2000)
2. Agave as the Beginning of Agriculture
The term ‘hunter gatherer’ has generally been used pejoratively in studies of societies and history as indicating a lower level of societal complexity. The transition from hunter gatherer societies to settled agriculture has been seen as the logical progression of advancing societies and civilization. Those who did not transition to settled agriculture were traditionally seen as less than, lacking in work ethic or smarts, or simply barbarians. Hunter gatherers, nomads and other societies that aren’t settled agricultural societies, especially in the European canon that dominates American education, have been described this way despite the clear evidence of their complex societies and obvious independent agency to live like they did. (Graeber 2021) This narrative is obviously false and naive, but in this context, we’ll persist with the terminology because there are few alternatives to use in its stead.
With that aside, it does seem logical that agave was crucial to some hunter gatherer societies in Mesoamerica developing agricultural practices. Noted British botanist Barbara Pickersgill considered agave to have been crucial to agricultural development in arid and semi-arid regions of Mesoamerica. She also notes that the lead botanist in Kent Flannery’s excavations in the Tehuacan valley, Earl Smith said ‘‘in spite of lack of evidence to prove it, I am convinced that nopal and maguey are the earliest cultivated plants the Tehucan region.” Linguist Cecil H. Brown, has recreated agave, avocado, maize and nopal in the Proto-Otomanguean language and concluded that by at least 7000 BP these plants were significantly important to these speakers. (Pickersgill 2016) Indeed, agave remnants are found at nearly every level of every excavation of semi-arid hunter gatherer camps in Mexico.
Agave is a fairly easy plant to cultivate, or at least cultivate with in situ techniques of agriculture, which we in the United States would recognize as minimal intervention farming. Agaves reproduce three ways. Most important for early mesoamericans would have been asexual bulbil reproduction and offshoot, or hijuelo, reproduction. While harvesting a fully mature agave it would have been easy to notice that the plant was sprouting small offshoot agaves from its base. By harvesting the mother plant and allowing the hijuelos to grow, even the smallest act of moving an hijuelo and replanting it to a more suitable location a yard away would have been an important and significant act in developing an understanding of the potential of agricultural activities. It seems highly probable that early mesoamericans in semi arid and arid regions that were migrating and foraging would have made sure that each of their campsites had an assortment of available agave to meet their needs.
Likewise it would be a small but significant step in agricultural practices to notice that agaves were also forming seeds on their quiotes which could also grow into agaves and those could be planted by human hands. It’s difficult to comprehend in our modern age not understanding how the mechanics of agriculture work, but what seem like small jumps in knowledge to us most likely amounted to giant leaps in knowledge for our ancestors. By observing and utilizing agaves for years and years and millenia it’s possible, even probable, humans developed an understanding of how other plants, and indeed agriculture might improve their lives.
3. Agave and Tools
Hunter gatherers exploited a diverse assortment of agave we can still recognize today for different purposes. In the Tehuacan Valley, Richard MacNeish and his team found evidence of a flint chip tied to a handle, presumably an ax of some kind, tied together with agave leaf fiber. (MacNeish 1967) With more excavations of prehistoric caves, we would expect the number of tools using agave fiber as cordage to increase.
4. Ixtle- Other Uses of Agave Leaf Fibers
The excavations at Guila Naquitz in Oaxaca’s Tlacolula arm of the Central Valleys conducted by Kent Flannery and his team revealed yucca and agave leaf fibers used for making baskets and fishing nets, providing food, and food storage. These fibers were found during periods of occupation roughly 6-7,000 years ago. (Flannery 2009)
We also have evidence of ixtle sandals which presumably would have been far more comfortable and healthy to wear than leather shoes or boots in the heat of Mexico. In Tehuacan Richard S Macneish and his team found agave soled sandals made with a warp and weft technique. (Macneish 1967) These coarse agave fibers were not refined to the point they later would be with smaller spools for making clothing, they needed to be tough and hearty to be worn every day. Would they have been as comfortable as your modern sneakers or sandals? No, but they certainly would have been more breathable and comfortable than leather, and probably would have led to less foot and skin related illnesses.
5. Agave as a Firestarter
Karwinskii agaves quiotes seem to have been preferred as a fire starting material according to Kent Flannery. The soft and flammable quiotes served as a hearth for fire drills at Guila Naquitz. While the fire drills are as of yet unidentified, according to Flannery it is possible they were made from a different species of agave quiote. Easy access to fire would have been hugely important for early Mesoamericans as would be expected. (Flannery, 2009)
Early Indigenous Mesoamericans utilized agave in a number of ways and it also may have been crucial to the beginnings of agriculture. Because of how many ways agave was utilized by early Mesoamericans it is reasonable to conclude that agave was crucial in their first attempts at agriculture by providing a classroom and easily understandable lessons in how plants reproduce and how they could be harnessed by humanity. If this is indeed the case, we must thank agave not just for the delicious distilled beverages we now consume, but also for its role in the development of agriculture in Mexico, and therefore, for modern corn, beans, avocado and chilis to name just a few of the foods that Mesoamerican farmers nurtured for generations into what we know them as now.
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