[00:00:00] My entry into Mesoamerican studies took a rather interesting route. I originally had been interested in the archaeology of the Near East. But when I got to graduate school at the University of Michigan that year, the Near East archaeologist, Henry Wright, was on leave, and I took courses on Mesoamerica. I came under the wing of Kent Flannery, who at that time was continuing to work on his Human Ecology in the Valley of Oaxaca Project. I was writing papers on ethnobotany, and he became so interested in this that he decided that I should come down [with him] to Oaxaca to do ethnobotanical work there. That first year, which was 1971, I went to Oaxaca and was directed to go into at least two towns, where I collected plants. My job was to describe how [the plants] fit into the local ecology, from both a scientific-botanical perspective and also from the perspective of the local people. That was the beginning of my experience and my continuing fascination and real identification with work in Mesoamerica. I spent a total of thirty-six months in Oaxaca over the ten-year period from 1971 to ’81 working on plants, and moved then from what was quite strictly ethnobotany to looking at changes that were affecting plant use, as well as diet and medicine in Oaxaca, particularly in Mitla.
[1:24:00] I became interested in all aspects of the plants. Part of that was due to the tremendous influence of Señora Petrona Quero, who was the mother of one of my original field guides. He [this field guide] would take me home, and we would talk about the plants with his mother and father and whoever else was around. And it was quite clear that she was the person that used plants most extensively, not only for her food preparation but also for her work in folk medicine. This was one of the ways she used the local environment very effectively—to heal her children, to cure them of some of the local stomach ills and other aches and pains. As I was collecting plants during the summer, and [as] she would be talking to me afterwards, what I realized is that there seemed to be many more medicinal plants than food plants in this environment. And furthermore, there were multiple medicinal plants for each type of ache and pain, each location, whether it was head or foot or stomach. There seemed to be multiple herbs to treat each of these ailments. And when I asked her over and over and over again, from a very naïve perspective, how it was they decided which was the most significant herb to use in a particular case, she finally looked at me (this was probably the day before I left to go back to graduate school after that first summer season) and said, “Hasn’t anybody told you that some plants are hot and some plants are cold?” And there I had it from her, her category—not one that I had introduced—about the way in which humoral medicine existed in Mitla, Oaxaca, Mexico.
[3:02:00] Maize really is the most important crop for indigenous peoples. In Zapotec we would talk about the maize as being yähl, which is the field that includes the maize and also the beans and squash that grow along with it. If someone in traditional society would want to say “How are you?” they would ask, “How is your milpa yähl?” That is, “How are you doing? How is your life?” Maize came in every society in a whole range of colors, but for cosmological purposes it was always described in terms of four main colors: white, dark, yellow and red. And what these coded were the four corners of the four sides of the universe. I can’t give you just one set that would say white is north and dark is south because these dimensions varied according to the culture. One of the ways we interpret this is that each of the societies had their own particular description of the universe, and this was one of the ways in which they set themselves apart from those that were next door. We see this kind of a maize cosmological classification extending all the way up through what is the contemporary U.S. Southwest. This was a very widespread way of looking at the world, through maize.
[4:25:00] Maize provided most of the products that people ate. These products included “tortillas” [and] various kinds of beverages that were called “atoles.” There was also a range of “tamales,” boiled maize dough in one or another kind of leaf. What is important about Mesoamerican diet—and important to stress because it was such a healthful diet—is that maize was prepared with limestone, which was chipped and put into the boiling water into which the seeds were placed. This had two effects on the maize. One was it softened the maize, and it allowed the women who were preparing the maize to release the skin. But the second was a nutritional impact. This kind of alkali preparation changes the nutritional content of maize. [The women] would tell you that unless you prepare maize this way, you can’t make tortillas; the maize doesn’t hold together. That happens to be true. But what we also know is that the transformation that takes place with the alkali processing makes available more of the amino acids in maize. There is more lysine; there is more tryptophan. You can live almost exclusively on maize if it is prepared in this way, but not if it is simply boiled. You will suffer from pellagra, a terrible disease that afflicted maize-eating populations in Europe that didn’t know about this kind of preparation.
[5:47:00] One of the distinctive features of the Mesoamerican diet is its focus on the piquant [“picante”] chili pepper, the capsicum. How could this “biting” plant have ever become so pleasurable and so central to the diet? The nutritional answer is that it not only provides a bite that leads to a pleasant buzz but, more significantly, a diet that is based principally on a neutral, mostly tasteless, starchy staple food, such as maize, is hard to take in large quantities, unless there is a component such as chili. What chili does is it gives you that socking feeling in the back of your salivary glands, and that begins the salivation process that will help you digest the tortillas or “atole.” Next, as the chili goes into your gut, it increases gut motility; it really helps digestion along. So, what the chili is doing is improving appetite, and it is improving digestion at least two points along the gustatory channels. The other dimension of chili peppers is that they are very, very rich in vitamins A and C. There is not the kind of vitamin-A-deficiency malnutrition that is seen in some other comparable areas that may not be eating chili peppers. These [chilis] are providing the basic vitamins that improve appetite as well as improve the vitamin adequacy of the body.
[7:23:00] Chocolate, at the time of the Spanish contact, was consumed as a beverage without sugar because sugar was not yet part of the Mesoamerican dietary sphere. It might be served with a bit of vanilla and honey, or might be served with chili pepper. Chocolate had an extremely important role, not only in diet but also in ritual and society. Chocolate beans were a major element of currency. In terms of the annual round that every household celebrates, chocolate in Oaxaca is the principle element associated with Todos Santos, in Zapotec, togól, the Day of the Dead. In addition, the life-cycle festivals are marked by chocolate. Chocolate is also important as a medicinal element. It is used to cure certain skin ailments. The preparation in the household of chocolate with water, where it is whipped or beaten by a special chocolate stirrer, produces a foaming chocolate. And what is very important when you talk to people is not the taste of the chocolate but the foam. And as we look at the other foaming foods or beverages across the ritual space (some of the others are the products that are prepared from maguey), what we find is that foam really is a representation of life, of the air and the water that comes together in the chocolate foam. And so. the next time you take your candy bar, realize that you are taking a commercial product that has an origin that had a basic, elemental, fundamental, symbolic significance in the society, economy, and the cosmology of Mesoamerican peoples.