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Amaranth

The Origin and Use of Amaranth in Ancient Mesoamerica

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Amaranth, Maricopa County Extensive Office

Amaranth, Maricopa County Extensive Office

Eileen M. Kane

Amaranth is a grain with high nutrition value, comparable to those of maize and rice. Amaranth has been a staple in Mesoamerica for thousands of years, first collected as a wild food, and then domesticated at least as early as 4000 BC. The edible parts are the seeds, which are consumed whole toasted or milled into flour. Other uses of amaranth include dye, forage and ornamental purposes.

Amaranth is a plant of the family of Amaranthaceae. About 60 species are native to the Americas, whereas less numerous are the species originally from Europe, Africa and Asia. The most widespread species are native of North, Central and South America, and these are A. Cruentus, A. caudatus, and A. hypochondriacus.

  • Amaranthus cruentus, and A. hypochondriacus are native of Mexico and Guatemala. The first one is used in Mexico to produce typical sweets called alegría, in which the amaranth grains are toasted and mixed with honey or chocolate.
  • Amaranthus caudatus is a widely distributed staple food both in South America and in India. This species originated as one of the staple foods for the ancient inhabitants of the Andean region.

Amaranth Domestication

Amaranth was probably widely used among hunter-gatherers in both North and South America. The wild seeds, even if small in size, are produced in abundance by the plant and are easy to collect. Evidence of domesticated amaranth seeds comes from the Coxcatlan cave in the Tehuacan valley of Mexico and dates as early as 4000 BC. Later evidence, like caches with charred amaranth seeds, has been found throughout the US Southwest and the Hopewell culture of the US Midwest.

Domesticated species are usually larger and have shorter and weaker leaves which make the collection of the grains simpler. As other grains, seeds are collected through rubbing the inflorescences between the hands.

Use of Amaranth in ancient Mesoamerica

In ancient Mesoamerica, amaranth seeds were commonly used. The Aztec/Mexica cultivated large quantities of amaranth and it was also used as form of tribute payment. Its name in Nahuatl was huauhtli.

Among the Aztecs, amaranth flour was used to make baked images of their patron deity, Huitzilopochtli, especially during the festival called Panquetzaliztli, which means “raising banners”. During these ceremonies, amaranth dough figurines of Huitzilopochtli were carried around in processions and then divided up among the population.

The Mixtecs of Oaxaca also recognized a great importance to this plant. The precious Postclassic turquoise mosaic covering the skull encountered within Tomb 7 at Monte Alban was actually kept together by a sticky amaranth paste.

Cultivation of amaranth decreased and almost disappeared in Colonial times, under the Spanish rule. The Spanish banished the crop because of its religious importance and use in ceremonies that the newcomers were trying to extirpate.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Plant Domestications, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Mapes, Christina and Eduardo Espitia, 2001, Amaranth, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures, vol. 1, edited by David Carrasco, Oxford University Press. pp: 13-14

Sauer, Jonathan D., 1967, The Grain Amaranths and Their Relatives: A Revised Taxonomic and Geographic, Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Vol. 54, No. 2, pp. 103-137

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