Maguey or Agave americana is a native plant from Mexico, and it is now cultivated in many parts of the world. This plant, also known as the century plant or American aloe, is neither an aloe nor a cactus, as it is sometimes erroneously believed, but instead is a member of 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 9,000 feet.
Archaeological evidence from Guitarrero Cave indicates that agave was used at least as early as 12,000 years ago by Archaic foraging groups, to obtain fibers for clothing, bags and to make tools. There is no direct evidence of the process of domestication of agave, and 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 in ancient Mesoamerican societies, very little is known about the process of domestication of this species.
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.
- Learn more about Pulque and its role in ancient Mesoamerican cultures
To make textiles, maguey fibers must be obtained by processing the leaves. The leaves are cut from the body of the plant and the spines removed. The leaves are then cooked in an oven to make then tender. Once they are cooked, the leaves are used as food or scraped over a pounding slab to obtain long threads to make ropes or to spin to weave textiles.
The word mescal (sometimes mezcal) 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 Arabic traditions, 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 rarely identifiable in the archaeological record. Evidence of maguey use comes instead from the technological implements used to process and store the plant and its derivatives. Stone scrapers with plant residue evidence from processing agave leaves are abundant in Classic and Postclassic times, along with cutting and storing implements. Such implements are rarely found in Formative and earlier contexts.
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 were found in place within 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, dated 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.
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