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The Food of the Mayas, Aztecs and Incas


Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Chung, Sangyun
Term Paper, AP European History Class, September 2008



Table of Contents
I. General Concepts about the Food of the Maya, Aztecs and Incas
II. Food of the Maya
II.1 Food Sources of the Maya
II.2 Food Culture of the Maya
III. Food of the Aztecs
III.1 Food Sources of the Aztecs
III.2 Food Culture of the Aztecs
IV. Food of the Incas
IV.1 Food Sources of the Incas
IV.2 Food Culture of the Incas
V. Conclusion
VI. Bbliography



I. General Concepts about the Food of the Maya, Aztecs and Incas
            The original, traditional food of the three high cultures of native America - the Maya, Aztecs and Incas - are quite different from what we know as 'Mexican food' or 'Peruvian cuisine' today. Modern Mexican food is based on the combination of ancient traditional trends and Spanish culinary trends, and modern Peruvian cuisine is basically a mixture of Inca heritage and other various cultures including Spanish, Basque, other West European and African; on the other hand, traditional food of the Mayas, Aztecs and Incas do not include food, recipes or ingredients that came from other off-land civilizations.
            Food of the Mayas, Aztecs and Incas were heavily influenced by the surrounding environment where they were located; various climates and soils have conditioned how people cultivated and ate. They mainly included a variety of grains and meat that were originated in the areas people lived in, having maize (corn) as their most important staple food and using it for various purposes other than just for food. Mayas, Aztecs and Incas also consumed numerous kinds of fruits and fish that were abundant in rivers.
            While Aztecs and Maya were geographically closely related with each other- being Mesoamerica civilizations and located in where is now Mexico, Inca, as one of the Andes civilization, was located in a mountainous range of South America, where is now called Peru. Because of this, it is possible to say that the food culture of Incas differed from that of Aztecs and Peru; for instance, even if all three civilizations regarded maize as important food, it was possible for only Aztecs and Maya to cultivate them in enormous quantity, while it was impossible for Incas.
            To Mayas, Aztecs and Incas, food were used as various meanings beyond eating. In some cases, they were used as medicines and anesthetics, and many kinds of grains and food were used for numerous religious rituals.

II. Food of the Maya
            From the beginning of Maya civilization, Maya cuisine showed a variety of kinds. Numerous kinds of different food sources, both plants and animals, were raised and cultivated. Hunting, foraging and large-scale agricultural production was used. Unlike the Aztecs, the Maya had a variety of meat sources.

II.1 Food Sources of the Maya
            It has been said that Maya agriculture was the foundation of civilization. Despite living on the lands which agriculture did not actually fit well, with numerous skills and techniques, Mayans cultivated various staple plants and focused their diet on four primary crops : Maize, squash, common beans, and chili pepper.
            Among these staple plants, maize was considered as the most important staple food, which was used and eaten in various ways. In order to prepare maize to be suitable for making food, Mayans always conducted nixtamalization, a process in which the grain is soaked and cooked in limewater and hulled. When maize underwent nixtamalization, it could be more easily ground, its aroma increased, and its harmful substances could be reduced. Especially, nixtamalization made maize more nutritious, which actually prevented Mayans from suffering from health defects. After this process, maize was used to make various kinds of food, mostly tortillas and tamales. Mayans also made bread in a number of ways with these ingredients.
            Beans were also considered as important; several kinds of beans were grown and used in various kinds of food of Maya. Other than important plants, various kinds of fruits and vegetables were cultivated, including tomato, avocado, guava, papaya, pumpkin, pineapple, and sweet potato. Various herbs were also grown, including vanilla, oregano, allspice, hoja santa, and garlic vine.
            Along with crops, Mayan people also consumed various kinds of meat; Mayan people mostly gained their meat by hunting, but they also domesticated dogs and turkeys for food. Mayans hunted large animals like deer, along with various kinds of birds including wild turkey, partridge, quail, and wild ducks, and some other animals such as iguanas and armadillos. In order to hunt animals, Mayans used various kinds of instruments, such as blow guns, bow and arrows, and traps. Mayans also ate a variety of sea animals by gathering and hunting, or using stupefying drugs in rivers and coastal areas, mostly fish, lobster, shrimp, crabs, and shellfish, which were dried, roasted, and salted over.
            Mayas also made various kinds of cacao drink by mixing cacao extracts with maize grounds and little amount of pepper. They drank these drinks during common days and festivals by many ways.

II.2 Food Culture of the Mayas
            One notable thing about the agriculture of Mayas was that agriculture was not an easy task in their environment; they had to overcome the factors that restrained them from successful cultivation of crops. These factors included poor soil quality which lacked nutrients that were quite important for plant cultivation, constantly reducing amounts of rainfall, shallow soil deposits, and exposed bedrock pavements. Despite all these obstacles, Mayan people were skilled farmers who build numerous kinds of establishments that helped them cultivate crops, such as underground reservoirs. As time passed, people of Maya underwent several innovation of farming, gradually developing their skills of cultivation. Also, Mayans used a number of techniques that helped them take care of crops; they used slash-and-burn technique and crop rotation technique to cultivate in a large area of fields.
            Mayans had their own way of dining manners. The men were n0t accustomed to eat with women, and ate on a floor or off a mat. They also cleaned themselves by washing their hands and mouths after eating. They ate well when food was abundant, but when food was scarce, they managed to endure hunger and survive on little amount of food. Since Mayans had their own way of treating common people equally in society, it has been said that they could not have encountered excess poverty.

III. Food of the Aztecs
            People of Aztecs ate two, or sometimes three, meals per day, though it is sometimes controversial whether they counted drinking atolli as one meal, since drinking thick atolli could intake much calories that could be earned by eating regular meals. Since the beginning of their civilization, around 13th century, Aztecs had a variety of vegetables, fruits, meats, and other stuff that could be used for food. According to Oxford Companion to Food p.44, it has been recorded that ¡®Aztec food is a subject for which relatively rich written source material exists¡¯, along with various kinds of vegetables, dozens of varieties of fruits, and other edible food sources including a short list of domesticated animals, which contradicts the original view of Aztecs as abstemious and frugal people.

III.1 Food Sources of the Aztecs
            One of the most important staple food of the Aztecs was maize, along with other vegetables, including beans and tomatoes. Maize, in particular, was considered as the most common plant of the Aztecs, which existed in many different varieties, adapted to specific local conditions of soil and climate, and was eaten in a variety of forms. One form was tortilla, which was considered as their main dish. Aztecs considered maize as "our precious flesh and bones", and treated them with excess care, like blowing on them before putting them into cooking pot so that they will not 'fear' the fire. Beans were considered as second most important staple food to the Aztecs, being used in numerous kinds of food and served in almost every meal. Several kinds of squash, squash seeds were also used as their food materials.
            In addition to staple vegetables, numerous kinds of spices and herbs were used in their meals. Among many kinds of spices, chili peppers were the most important ones, coming in a wide variety of species, both domesticated and wild. These varied in taste, some being mild and others being sweet, fruit-like, and firey hot. Other herbs and spices such as culantro and allspice were used as popular ingredients. Due to its rich environment where crops would grow without any particular detriments, Aztecs were able to have a variety of vegetables which enriched their meals.
            The diet of Aztecs was mostly vegetarian. Although it has been known that Aztecs consumed a considerable amount of acocils, a kind of small shrimp, other animals they consumed, including various kinds of fowls, gophers, and green iguanas, were only a minor contribution to their diet. In fact, archeologists rarely find the bones and leftovers of large animals in the Aztec area. Instead, for protein consumption, the Aztecs ate various kinds of insects, which contained more protein than some animals. Types of Insects Aztecs consumed include chapulines, maguey worm, ants, larvae, etc. For protein consumption, Aztecs also gathered considerable amounts of certain types of blue-green algae known as tecuitlatl, which was extremely high in protein.
            Aztecs also had their unique kinds of drinks: Atolli and cacao. Atolli, a thick cornstarch-based hot drink, mostly made by maize, was a daily drink for Aztecs and was an important calorie-intake source for Aztecs. Atolli was also used as ingredients for other kinds of food Aztecs consumed. Cacao, on the other hand, was not as common as Atolli, but had immense symbolic value. Cacao was a rare luxury for Aztecs, and the beans of cacao were considered as prestigious food. Cacao was mostly drunk as xocolatl, which means ¡®bitter water¡¯. Chocolate we eat today is derived from this xocolatl. Unlike hot and sweet chocolate we drink today, xocolatl, as the name goes, was cool and bitter. Cacao was widely used for religious uses.

III.2 Food Culture of the Aztecs
            Aztecs, with their abundant food, had numerous kinds of Aztec feasts and banquets. These feasts and banquets included various kinds of courses, mostly vegetarian, and table manners which showed the imitation of warrior movements. Most of their feasts would start with tobacco tubes, then main dishes, then conclude with chocolate. Separation of sexes existed in these kinds of feasts.
            Notable thing about the Aztecs is that they practiced ritualistic cannibalism. Prisoners of war were used as victims during religious rituals, and were sacrificed in front of the public, on the top of the temples and pyramids. After victims were killed by cutting out their hearts, bodies were dismembered and distributed to the elites, mostly warriors and priests. The meats of the victims were consumed as an ingredient of stew, or along with tortilla. Although the main reason of this cannibalism is not exactly known, some scholars assume this tradition as a protein intake, a substance which Aztecs lacked for their vegetable-based diet.

            There was one disadvantage in the Aztec food culture; since it largely depended on vegetables, especially on maize, severe drought could have severely defected the Aztec food life, since considerable amount of maize would decrease, leaving Aztec people to suffer from hunger and die. In face, climatic uncertainties and constantly recurring droughts that happened during 15th century lead to deficiencies in food supply, causing many to die.

IV. Food of the Incas
            Documents about the Inca Empire claim that the growth of Inca Empire could not have been possible if they didn¡¯t develop the technique of storing and preserving food. Like other numerous early civilizations, Inca people had storehouses to keep their food throughout their history. With their storehouses, it was possible to store their food for several years.
            It has been said that the food of the Incas, or Andean cuisine in other words, has originated in pre-Columbian times, around 10,000 BC, by the first horticulturists; they mainly included plants like potato and yucca, and they used tubers to grow these platns. Since Inca civilization, which started to develop around 12th century AD, developed in the Andean region where their own agriculture and horticulture developed firmly, it had no particular difficulties that hindered them from flourishing. It has been also known that people of Inca ate two times per day.

IV.1 Food Sources of the Incas
            Important staples of the Incas included various tubers, roots, and grains. Among these vegetables, it has been said that potato, sweet potato, maize and amaranth were their main staple food, along with varying other edible tubers and roots; in total, hundreds of varieties of plants were available, especially with potato, which was considered as Inca¡¯s most important staple food and naturally originated and began to be cultivated in Inca approximately 7,000 years ago. Oca, a type of root plant, was also popular as an ingredient for food and sweeteners. Although they used maize as their popular food source, in some northern parts of the Inca it was hard for them to cultivate maize, largely due to their environment. Yet their environment did not hinder them from growing plants; in fact, a variety of vegetables were available to be cultivated in Inca civilization due to Inca's particular environment, which is a set of mountain ranges that vary in growing zones and altitudes stretching from north to south.
            Along with various kinds of plants, Incas consumed various sources of meat. Mainly, Incan people usually domesticated llamas, alpacas, and vicunas, all of them being large-four legged animals that resemble camels. They were commonly used in providing meat and milk. Another common source of meat was cuy, a type of guinea pig that lives in Andean region. Once domesticated, they were used as useful food, since they were easy to keep and multiplied rapidly. They also caught the fish, dried them, and used them as their primary food source.
            Along with Inca cuisine, Inca people had their own unique kind of drink, which was Chicha, a fermented drink with a little or no amount of alcohol. Chicha was usually made with yellow maize, but sometimes it was made by other grains and fruits.
            One interesting thing about the Incas is that they used edible clay as food. Inca had several types of edible clay like chako and pasa, which were used as a sauce for vegetable dishes and religious uses. Edible clays, in fact, were quite important to Incan food life, since they were part of the essential ingredients of Inca cuisine.

IV.2 Food Culture of the Incas
            As various social classes existed, there were some differences between the food of the nobles and common people. Especially, the food of the imperial family of Inca was more plentiful and varied than that of the other classes. Food of the upper classes also had more ways of cooking, including some methods and ingredients which common people could not afford to have.
            Food of the Inca was used not only for eating but also for religious uses. During religious rituals or festivals, various kinds of food were used, some of them being essential. For instance, Amaranth was used for making sculptures of animals during religious ceremonies, and Chicha, which Inca people used to consume in vast amount during numerous religious festivals, was used for ritual purposes; in some religious rituals, participants were supposed to drink only chicha instead of other drinks including water. Also, they sometimes buried their dead with plants like potatoes.

V. Conclusion
            Although these Inca, Aztec and Maya civilization were not said to be widely renowned as the 4 major civilizations of the world and therefore were known by many people to be ¡®somewhat less developed¡¯, these civilizations were highly developed, and much of their development could not have been done without the food and the food culture they had. Despite being in rather harsh environments compared to other civilizations, especially Maya and Inca, they adapted to their environment with various ways and developed their agriculture and skills of hunting and taming wild animals, eventually forming their own unique food culture.
            If there was one disadvantage about their food life was that they heavily depended on their staple food such as potato and maize. If the amount of staple food people of Inca, Aztecs and Maya consumed decreased by a considerable quantity, especially potato for Incas and maize for Aztecs, they would have suffered from mass hunger, and their civilization could not have recovered and developed in their history. Yet, they successfully managed to sustain their food.
            Without these food of the Mayas, Aztecs and Incas, there would be no modern Mexican food and Peruvian cuisine people eat today. Like food of the other civilizations, these food were also used as the fundamental basis of what is now to be called food of the Mexico, Peru, and other several nations which are located on the region where civilizations of Mayas, Aztecs and Incas once existed.

VI. Bibliography

Note : websites quoted below were visited in December 2007.
1.      Oxford Companion to Food, by Alan Davidson, Oxford : UP 1999
2.      Why did Columbus go to west ? by Seong-Hyung Lee, Kkachi, 2003; in Korean
3.      The Food Timeline - Aztec, Maya & Inca food, http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodmaya.html
4.      Article : Maya cuisine, from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_cuisine
5.      Article : Andean cuisine, from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andean_cuisine
6.      Article : Aztec cuisine, from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aztec_cuisine
7.      The Cambridge World History of Food : Mexico and Highland Central America http://www.cambridge.org/us/books/kiple/mexico.htm


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