heirloom corn

The Prehispanic Diet

The Prehispanic Diet

by Carmen Caelen

 

Anyone who delves deep into the ancient history of Mexico will be surprised to find that most of the food sources that made up the Prehispanic diet are still present in the common foods consumed by Mexicans today, as are like many cooking techniques dating back to that time.  Contemporary Mexican cuisine incorporates quite a lot from its ancient gastronomical ancestor, including the nutritional benefits of its main staples, and is the result of a living mestizaje or mixture of old indigenous culinary traditions with European ingredients. In that sense, what we currently call Mexican gastronomy is the fusion of Prehispanic and Spanish elements.

Prehispanic gastronomy had a wide variety of foodstuffs, materials, methods, and cooking techniques. The ancient Mesoamericans used up all of the parts of the plants and animals they consumed. Those elements that were not eaten would be transformed into tools or utensils. After the Spanish conquered the area, the diversity of ingredients that were native to Mesoamerica were easily combined with European recipes, products, and cooking techniques to develop a whole new variety of flavors and textures.

The indigenous cultures of ancient Mesoamerica developed a vast amount of knowledge based on the observation of the biological cycles of their surroundings and the possible connections between some of these cycles and certain cosmic phenomena they aimed to understand and interpret. The struggle for survival pushed them to maximize the resources they found in their environment, like vegetables, animals, and minerals.

In Mesoamerica, the emergence of agriculture did not cause a dietary deficiency due to the dependency on one food source as it did in most parts of the world. Though corn became the main staple in the Prehispanic diet, meals were always complemented with other crops, such as beans, squash, chile, and amaranth, as well as some animal products and seasonal fruits. Archaeobotanical studies have confirmed that maguey, beans, squash, tomatoes, maize, epazote, and guava were available all year long, either in fresh or dried forms. Additional products like zapote, tejocote, sweet potato, pitaya, nopal, tuna, jicama, avocado, and mesquite were consumed seasonally.

The combination of corn, beans, and squash as an essential part of the Prehispanic diet was crucial to the healthy development of indigenous populations since their nutrients are highly complementary. In addition, the versatility of tomatoes and chiles, which can be consumed cooked or raw, provided a wide variety of seasonings for many dishes and additional nutritional benefits. Given the predominance of vegetables in the Mesoamerican diet, salt was necessary to maintain a nutritional balance. Salt was exchanged and collected as tribute in many regions and was used to season and preserve food.

Ancient Mesoamericans had a profound knowledge of nature and had a very harmonious relationship with it. This can be seen in many aspects of their lives: astronomy, botany, medicine, religion, architecture, and agriculture. Their deep knowledge of plants allowed them to develop a perfectly balanced diet that procured all the necessary nutrients for living a healthy life. Archaeological evidence has corroborated that each of the Prehispanic civilizations that thrived in Mesoamerica manifested its own cultural characteristics concerning food. The soil composition, the weather, and the resources available favored regional gastronomical adaptations.

 

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Cholula Pyramid

Prehispanic Cholula

Prehispanic Cholula

by Carmen Caelen

 

Prehispanic Cholula is one of the most impressive Mesoamerican settlements.  Mesoamerica, refers to a cultural development that lasted around 2,000 years (from approximately 600 BCE to 1521 AD).  The territory comprised in this culture area includes the center and south of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador.  The history of Mesoamerica is divided into three main chronological periods: the Preclassic (1500 BCE – 300 AD), the Classic (300 – 950 AD), and the Postclassic (950 – 1521 AD).  In some areas, including the center of Mexico, an additional period is added; it is called the Epiclassic (700 – 900 AD) and it corresponds to the moment immediately following the collapse of Teotihuacan.  Cholula, located in central Mesoamerica, is one of the few Prehispanic sites that has an occupation that goes from the Preclassic Period all the way to the Postclassic.

In Prehispanic times, Cholula was known by several names.  The most common one was Tlachihualtepetl which means “hand-made hill”, making a direct reference to the Great Pyramid.  It is believed that it was the Tolteca-Chichimeca who first used the name Cholula, although in the Nahuatl language the city was called Tollan Chollolan Tlachihualtepetl.  In the codex Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca, the pyramid is shown as a hill with a large toad on top.  Another one of its names, Chalchiutepec or “jade hill”, derives from a legend that narrated that a jade stone fell from the sky and landed in the shape of a toad.  The Nahuatl term for jade is chalchihuitl and it was one of the most valuable stones, associated to corn, water, and fertility.  A third name was Cholollan-Tamazol-Xamiltepec in which Tamazol means toad and Xamiltepec means hill made out of adobe.

The etymology of Cholula can also be interpreted in several ways.  Cholollan means “the place where water springs up”.  The verb choloa means “to flee or run” and Cholo-yan means “place where you run”.  This is consistent with an image in the codex Lienzo de Tlaxcala that shows Cholula represented by three men running, a road, and a pyramid.

Very little is known about the first inhabitants of Cholula during the Preclassic Period.  During the Classic it grew into a large ceremonial center that was contemporary with the great Teotihuacan.  Archaeological evidence indicates that there was a strong connection between the two cities; however, the nature of this relationship remains unclear.  Some consider Cholula to have been a secondary center, others believe the two to have been sister cities, and still others suggest that Cholula was the greater city that influenced Teotihuacan, although, given the evidence the latter seems unlikely.  What we do know for sure is that the connection between the two sites can be clearly seen in architecture and pottery.

It is important to note that after the collapse of Teotihuacan, Cholula maintained its status as a great religious and political center, continuing its influence well into the Postclassic Period.  After the downfall of the great metropolis Cholula flourished due to its role as a commercial center and sacred sanctuary.  It has been suggested that after the fall of Teotihuacan a considerable amount of the metropolis’ population migrated to Cholula, giving the sacred city a multiethnic composition.  In the 8th century a new group emerged in the region, the enigmatic Olmeca-Xicalanca, who established their capital at Cacaxtla but conquered and took over Cholula.  During the Postclassic a new wave of migrations brought the Tolteca-Chichimeca into the region.  They fought against the Olmeca-Xicalanca and took Cholula from them.

Cholula seems to have evolved into a large regional center during the Classic Period; however, its true moment of growth began with the arrival of the Olmeca-Xicalanca between 750 and 950 AD.  The power vacuum left by the collapse of Teotihuacan allowed many new regional centers to emerge as the political and economic structures reorganized throughout Mesoamerica.  The Sacred City “thrived along with its (…) contemporaries Cacaxtla, Xochicalco, and El Tajín until a new ceremonial center was constructed under the direction of Tolteca-Chichimeca peoples who moved into the region from Tula around A.D. 1100. Cholula then became, in the words of one Spanish chronicler, a New World Mecca, the largest pilgrimage center in highland Mesoamerica and the nucleus of a Nahua commercial exchange network that extended from the Basin of México to El Salvador.”[1]

During the Postclassic, Cholula once again presents close ties to another great Mesoamerican city: Tula.  The exact relationship is, once again, not fully known, but there are some who claim that the former became the heiress to the Toltec capital.  This is supported by the fact that after the fall of Tula, at least a faction of Toltecas arrived at Cholula and conquered it.  This is recorded in the codex Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca.

In the centuries leading up to the Spanish conquest, Cholula became the main economic and political center in central Mesoamerica.  “Its authority was derived from the cult of Quetzalcoatl, in whose name two priests entitled the nobility of all Toltec kingdoms by conferring them with the title Tecuhtli or “Lineage Head.””[2]  The other part of Cholula’s importance came from the fact that it controlled the trade routes that crossed through the Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley.

According to the archaeological data, during the Preclassic Period Cholula occupied around 2 km2.  This territory expanded to 4 km2 during the Classic and up to 8 km2 in the Postclassic.  It is estimated that the population was between 30,000 and 50,000 people, though some sources say it might have reached 100,000 based on the ethnohistorical information.   The layout of Postclassic Cholula, as seen in the Codex of Cholula, was set up around a central market called Tianquizco.

 

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[1] Famsi (n.d.), retrieved from: http://www.famsi.org/research/pohl/sites/cholula.html

[2] Idem.


Archaeological site Cholula

History of Cholula: The Forgotten Sacred City

History of Cholula: The Forgotten Sacred City

by Carmen Caelen

 

The history of Cholula is one of the most interesting and enigmatic in ancient Mesoamerica.  Few people know that it is the oldest continuously occupied settlement in the entire western hemisphere and that its pyramid is the largest in the world in terms of its base.  The current city is known for the Great Pyramid, its many colonial churches, and constant religious celebrations, making it a widely visited place; however, the tremendous importance of Prehispanic Cholula has been lost in the historical accounts of Puebla and even Mexico as a whole.

Located in the Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley within a very fertile area, the Prehispanic city of Cholula was founded around 500 BCE.  It soon developed into an important city and the construction of its Great Pyramid began around 200 BCE.  During the height of Teotihuacan’s influence in the Classic Period and the expansion of the Aztec empire in the Postclassic, Cholula managed to maintain its independence and grew to become the greatest religious center in central Mesoamerica.  As the main site for the cult of the god Quetzalcoatl, Cholula received pilgrims from many Prehispanic cities.  The two high priests of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl were charged with confirming the legitimacy of these foreign rulers, making their role one of great importance in the region.

In addition to its religious relevance, Cholula was also a very important commercial center.  Many lavish and exotic goods were traded at its market.  The city’s merchant class also exported a variety of luxury crafts produced in Cholula, such as richly adorned textiles and very fine polychrome pottery.

Cholula is mentioned on some level in most important works concerning Mesoamerica; however, in most cases it is simply named alongside a list of other Prehispanic sites.  In the majority of these sources, all the information offered is that Cholula was a great religious center with a large pyramid where a terrible massacre took place upon the arrival of the Spanish, but other than that this impressive city remains mostly unknown.  “It is paradoxical that in Cholula, that which the conquistadors set out to accomplish in 1519 persists till this day: that no one would know or value its past.”[1]  Despite its irrefutable importance, Cholula continues to be undervalued in comparison to other Prehispanic sites.

 

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[1] Ashwell (2004, p. 8), translation mine.