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Agave Americana or Maguey

Plant of Ancient Mesoamerica

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Agave cultivation in Jalisco, Mexico

Agave cultivation in Jalisco, Mexico

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Maguey or Agave americana is a native plant from Mexico, but is now cultivated in many parts of the world. This plant, which is also known with the name of century plant or American aloe, is neither an aloe nor a cactus, as it is sometimes erroneously believed, but pertains to the Agavaceae family. Maguey is one of the many species of agave plants that exist in the Americas. They grow in semi-arid environments from the sea level to an altitude of about 9000 feet.

Archaeological evidence indicates that agave was used as early as 12,000 years ago by Archaic foragers groups, to obtain fibres for clothing, bags and to make tools. There is no direct evidence of domestication of agave, but it seems that only an handful of species, of the hundreds existing in nature, have been fully domesticated.

Agave americana grows in the semi-arid highlands of Mexico and has been used for many purposes both in pre-Hispanic as well as Colonial and modern times. Despite its importance for ancient Mesoamerican societies, very little is known about the process of domestication of this species.

Agave Products

In ancient Mesoamerica, maguey was first collected and then cultivated and used for a variety of purposes. From its leaves people obtained fibers to make ropes, textiles, as well as construction materials, and fuel. Its thorns were an important tool used as perforators in bloodletting rituals. However, the most important product obtained from maguey was a mildly alcoholic beverage called pulque, obtained by the fermentation of aguamiel, ("honey water" in Spanish), the sweet, milky juice extracted from the plant.

Pulque

Pulque is obtained through the natural fermentation of the sap produced by maguey plants.

  • Learn more about Pulque and its role in ancient Mesoamerican cultures

Maguey Fibres

Maguey fibres were obtained by processing the leaves. The leaves were cut from the body of the plant and the spines removed. The leaves were then cooked in an oven to make then tender. Once they were cooked, the leaves were used as food or scraped over a pounding slab to obtain long threads to make ropes or to spin to weave textiles.

Mezcal

The word mescal comes from two Nahuatl terms melt and ixcalli which mean "oven-cooked agave". To produce mescal, the ripe maguey plants are cut down and the leaves removed. The core, or head of the plant is then baked into earth ovens. Once the agave core is cooked, it is ground to extract the juice. The juice is then put into containers and let there to ferment. When the fermentation is complete, alcohol (ethanol) is separated from the non-volatile elements through distillation to obtain the pure mescal.

Archaeologists are still debating if this alcoholic beverage was known in pre-Hispanic times or if it was an innovation of the Colonial period. Distillation was a well-known process in Europe, derived from Arab tradition, whereas the evidence from pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica and the accounts from the early Contact period about this process are not straightforward.

However, recent investigations in the site of Nativitas, Tlaxcala, Central Mexico, are providing an interesting set of evidence about the possibility of mezcal production in pre-Hispanic times.

Archaeological Evidence for the Use of Maguey

Because of their organic nature, products derived from maguey are hardly identifiable in the archaeological record. Evidence of maguey use comes instead from the technological implements used to process and store the plant and its derivates. Stone tools such as scarpers used to scrape the leaves to obtain fibres exist, but are scarce from Formative and earlier contexts. They are abundant, instead, in Classic and Postclassic times, along with cutting and storing implements.

Ovens - probably used to cook maguey heads - have been found in archaeological sites, such as Nativitas in the state of Tlaxcala, Central Mexico, at Paquimé, Chihuahua, and La Quemada, Zacatecas. At Paquimé, remains of agave have been found in one of these subterranean ovens. In the site of Nativitas,archaeologists identified several large jars, possibly used to store the maguey sap during the fermentation process, or used as distillation devices.

In Western Mexico, ceramic vessels with depiction of agave plants have been found in several burials, dating to the Classic period. These elements underscore the important role that this plant played in the economy as well as social life of the community.

The Aztecs/Mexica had a specific patron deity for this plant, the goddess Mayahuel.

Finally, many Spanish chroniclers, such as Bernardino de Sahagun, Bernal Diaz del Castillo and fray Toribio de Motolinia stress the importance that this plant and its products had within the Aztec empire.

Sources

This entry on Agave is a part of the About.com guide to Ancient Mesoamerica, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Parsons, Jeffrey R. and Parsons Mary H., 1990, Maguey Utilization in Highland Central Mexico: an archaeological ethnography. Anthropological Papers, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan ; no. 82. Ann Arbor.

Rakita, Gordon F.M.,2006, Emergent Complexity, Ritual Practices, and Mortuary Behavior at Paquimé, Chihuahua, Mexico, in Religion in the Prehispanic Southwest, edited by Christine S. VanPool, Todd L. VanPool, and David A. Phillips, Jr., AltaMira Press, Lanham

Serra, M. Carmen and Carlos A. Lazcano, 2010, The Drink Mescal: Its Origin and Ritual Uses, in Pre-Columbian Foodways. Interdisciplinary Approaches to Food, Culture, and Markets in Ancient Mesoamerica, edited by John Staller and Michael Carrasco. Springer

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