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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