The Aztec diet was more nutritious than it may seem at first

by on March 31, 2015 at 1:41 am in Food and Drink, History, Uncategorized | Permalink

Colin M. MacLachlan, in his splendid Imperialism and the Origins of Mexican Culture, reports:

1. Corn gruel and tamales were reinforced with fish, seeds of various kinds, fruit, and honey.

2. Beans were supplemented with meat from iguanas, armadillos, and rabbits.

3. The calcium content of corn was (and still is) increased by alkaline cooking with lime (“nixtamalization,” duh).

4. “Pulque” has “substantial food value,” “whether fermented or fresh.”

5. Dried red maguey worms have 71 percent protein.

6. Axayacatl (a species of aquatic insect sometimes called “water boatmen“) have 68.7% protein.

7. Mesquite pods and seeds have high caloric value.

8.”Tecuitlatl (spirulina), the green scum collected from lakes with high saltwater content, was sold in the market to be eaten with chilies and tomatoes and has been shown to be a modern wonder food.”

As you can see, the world of food really could have evolved along very different lines.

I also enjoyed this line from the book:

The fundamental belief that the gods sacrificed themselves to create the Earth and continued to do so to sustain it locked the gods and humans into a circular dependency — a relationship characterized by fearful respect coupled with regulated violence.

Definitely recommended, and oh yes that reminds me, here is the livestream for my chat later today with Peter Thiel.

1 Steve Sailer March 31, 2015 at 1:52 am

“regulated violence”

That’s one way of phrasing it!

2 John Donner March 31, 2015 at 7:23 am

Wasn’t the Iraq war just a blood sacrifice to the mad god that is the american public as a ward against ill omens?

3 Daniel March 31, 2015 at 9:30 am

We’re talking about brown-skinned beings – as we all know, they don’t count as being human.

Just ask Steve if you don’t believe me.

4 ivvenalis March 31, 2015 at 10:40 am

Human sacrifices to dark heathen gods: pro or con?

5 TallDave March 31, 2015 at 2:57 am

And thanks for the corn. That was quite the breeding project.

6 Vivian Darkbloom March 31, 2015 at 2:58 am

2. Beans were supplanted with meat from iguanas, armadillos, and rabbits.

I strongly suspect that beans were not eliminated from the Aztec diet. One probably meant “supplemented with” not “supplanted (by)”.

7 M March 31, 2015 at 3:11 am

There a number of ways people can hunt and gather to supplement an agricultural diet. A question is how often people did or could practically do them (a question oft ignored by historians of the experimental archaeology variety) – if not very often for a large population….

8 Ronald Brak March 31, 2015 at 4:31 am

In Europe children often hunted and gathered while adults were primarily agriculturalists, with only a few adults specialising in hunting and gathering as there were limits to what the land could support and it was a highly dangerous occupation. For example, the Black Act passed in England in 1723 made being in a forest while disguised punishable by the death penalty. But it was common for children and some adults to engage in hunting and gathering activities in Europe into the second half of the 20th century.

9 Thor March 31, 2015 at 7:20 pm

“Pappy Pappy! I got me a squirrel with the scatter gun!” So, not so uncommon even in the 20th century.

And: to this day in our region, kids under 16 don’t need a gov’t issued fishing licence to go fishing in lakes and creeks.

10 ivvenalis March 31, 2015 at 10:56 am

Yeah, this has limited relevance to what the “Aztec Diet” was as far as how the median Aztec ate unless he can show evidence of large-scale cultivation and/or transportation. There were supposedly 500,000 people living in Tenochtitlan–how many were scavenging bugs?

That being said, it looks like the guy’s thesis is more along the lines that Mexican cuisine is more European than commonly believed. In a counterfactual world where Aztec culture thrived into modernity Mexican food would be much different. He may not really need to show that the average Aztec ate these things regularly anymore than someone tracing the origins of the modern Western diet needs to show that the typical Frenchman got substantial nutrition from pork. You’d still expect (and do) find evidence of large-scale pig production in ancient Europe though.

11 HL March 31, 2015 at 4:31 pm

Aztecs ate meals of bugs while listening to polka music

12 Ray Lopez March 31, 2015 at 4:18 am

I hear human blood is also more caloric than beer…where did I read that? BBC maybe.

13 rluser March 31, 2015 at 5:48 am

where is the convos with tyler chat?

14 chuck martel March 31, 2015 at 5:54 am

Dogs were a feature of the pre-Columbian diet and are probably still eaten by some Indians.

15 Rich Berger March 31, 2015 at 6:13 am

How long before the first authentic Aztec restaurant opens in NoVa? Water boatmen! Yummy with green scum.

16 JonFraz April 1, 2015 at 2:57 pm

Probably become the new healthfood fad.

17 T. Shaw March 31, 2015 at 8:27 am

The “long pork” from the human sacrifices added needed protein . . .

18 JonFraz April 1, 2015 at 2:59 pm

I was eating in a little hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant last summer with a friend. The place had a mural on a wall showing a scene of an Aztec market. You had to look at it for a while to notice, but along with fowl and fish and plenty of corn and veggies there were human limbs on sale, and even a whole corpse. What fun to discover in the middle of lunch!

19 stubydoo March 31, 2015 at 8:39 am

The extra calcium from nixtamalization is nice, but the extra Vitamin B3 is the real matter of life and death. The B3 deficiency used to routinely kill corn-fed white people in the southern USA. It took until the 1930s for scientists to figure it out.

20 Ray Lopez March 31, 2015 at 9:18 am

@stubydoo- Same with polished (white) rice in Japan…beri-beri was epidemic in Japan from not eating the outer layer which has vitamin B1. Ironically, now the latest food fad scare is ‘arsenic in rice’ which accumulates in the brown husk area, so brown rice is not recommended for food fad purists. I personally think the scare is overdone, as Asian people, who eat much more rice than in the West, don’t have any higher cancer rates of the kind caused by arsenic.

21 KevinH March 31, 2015 at 9:07 am

Obviously they found a way to make it work, but when I look at that list, I see a lot of high-effort food sources. So while they almost certainly had a various and nutritious enough diet to maintain a healthy lifestyle, it is also likely that they spent more effort on a personal and societal level to acquire that nutrition.

22 Axa March 31, 2015 at 9:48 am

Yes, food could be different but the commercial farming of iguanas, armadillos or maguey worms does not exist. Instead of farming, people hunted and gathered these foods until depletion. You can’t hunt/gather food for millions of people.

It’s curious, one of the few Aztec delicacies that enjoys commercial success today it’s not on the list. Nowadays people isolates the virus and injects it into healthy corn to produce huitlacoche:

23 Sir Barken Hyena March 31, 2015 at 12:32 pm

Bernal Diaz in The Conquest of New Spain makes it seem as though a lot of turkeys (or “fowls”) were eaten. And the Spanish were certainly taken aback by the thick population of the area; the cities were far larger than those in Europe at the time.

24 JonFraz April 1, 2015 at 3:05 pm

No crowd plagues– and the sanitation was better. The Aztecs were assiduous about carting away human waste– it was used as fertilizer. European cities at the time were little better than open cesspits with human and animal dung everywhere and left to rot.

25 Jeronimo March 31, 2015 at 12:51 pm

Al, what in the world is “fresh pulque”??? To the best of my knowledge (and preteen experience at Plaza Garibaldi with “all the guys”), ALL pulque is fermented, though not all pulques are equal. The “fresh” stuff is AGUA MIEL (honey water) and is ALWAYS to be rejected so that it can be fermented into the “drink of the GODS”.
You may recall the Aztec legend wherein Quetzalcoatl took ill and a man in his court gve him a BIG drink of Pulque..which “cured” him. HOWEVER, while under the influence of the drink, ole “Quetsa” sent for his sister, Quetzalpetlarl, who also partook of the elixir, and the two wound up giving new meaning to the word ROYAL INCEST.. Just a little trivia history from our younger days.

26 Eduardo March 31, 2015 at 12:53 pm

Given widespread human sacrifice and resulting cannibalism, how important was man flesh to the Aztec diet?


27 Hadur March 31, 2015 at 1:50 pm

Human flesh is for Huitzilopochtli, not for you or any other mortal, you heretic.

28 Art Deco March 31, 2015 at 1:47 pm

Is this part of your ongoing campaign to get Americans to eat like Mexicans?

29 Tom Warner March 31, 2015 at 6:16 pm

The world of food did evolve very differently. Imagine Italy with no tomatoes. India with no chilis. Ukraine with no sunflower. Ireland with no potatoes. France with no green beans.

30 Dr. Atl March 31, 2015 at 9:07 pm

Fish was reserved for the priest and ruling class. The masses lived off that green pond scum glorified above. Lake Texcoco was depleted of fish shortly after the arrival of the Mexicas (Aztecs), so the fish was brought in by runners from the Gulf of Mexico. The short description of this new book at the Amazon page states, “the Aztecs seemed poised on the brink of a golden age in the early sixteenth century.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The Mexicas were keenly aware of their role as a declining, doomed offspring of earlier civilizations much greater than theirs. That’s why they fell so easily to the Spanish.

31 jorod March 31, 2015 at 10:03 pm

I think it was more a sign of desperation than nutrition. Rising population? MacLachlan sounds like a flake.

32 Ronald Brak April 1, 2015 at 9:50 am

What would be interesting is to compare the skeletons of the Aztecs of that time to European bones from the same time, since anywhere in Europe in around then would have a lot of hungry people by our developed world standards. In the middle ages English females were apparently about 3cm shorter than now and males about 5 cm shorter. And by the time of Cortez they were even shorter than that, according to Steckel:

33 Lucky April 13, 2015 at 3:23 am

It should be in more detail.

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