Mesoamerican Regional Bed: by Cameron Lee

Take an Agricultural Tour of the World with Gateway Greening!  For the next few weeks, we’ll be posting a new blog post each Monday highlighting a regional bed from our Demonstration Garden. While these posts will not include growing instructions, they will be history lessons on the agricultural practices of regions around the world.

Similarly to the Andes Mountains in South America, Mesoamerica developed their form of intensive agriculture throughout the Valley of Mexico. Built by the Aztecs, chinampas are a form of intensive agriculture that was carried out on a large scale in and around Lake Texcoco. Aztec engineers artificially constructed small rectangular shaped areas of fertile arable land to grow crops on the shallow lakebeds. These floating lakebeds were referred to as “floating gardens” by the Spanish conquistadors, primarily centered around the lakes Xochimilco and Chalco. Near the natural springs that flow alongside the south shore of the lakes. The Aztecs cultivated maize, beans, squash, amaranth, tomatoes, chilies, and a diverse array of flowers, which were prevalent in Mesoamerican festivals and feasts. The fields surrounding the imperial capital of Tenochtitlan were estimated to have provided enough food to feed at least one-half to two-thirds of the populace of the city. 

Map showing Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztecs and the lakes of the Mexico Valley showing the locations of the Chinampas.

The majority of farming in the forested areas of Mesoamerica was conducted using slash and burn agriculture. By using this particular method, the chinampas were fertilized by cutting and burning the vegetation to clear ground. Fernando de Oviedo’s description of “slash and burn farming” stated, “The Indians first cut down the cane and trees where they wish to plant it… After the trees and cane have been felled and the field grubbed, the land is burned over, and the ashes are left as dressing for the soil, and this is much better than if the land were fertilized.” (Fernandez de Oviedo 1969 [1535]: 13-14). The initial preparation of agricultural plots was followed by the construction of small earthen mounds or platforms, that measured one foot high and three to four feet in diameter in some areas. Mounds on which they grew their crops on. Their fields or “conucos” consisted of a series of small circular earthen mounds, on which a variety of plants were grown. This method of farming would spread into what is now the United States. Roughly two centuries later, English and French explorers encountered the Iroquois who practiced a similar approach, cultivating the “Three Sisters,” maize, beans, and squash which grew on similarly constructed large earthen mounds.

The Maya would also develop raised field systems near the Candelaria River. At first, the Spanish Conquistadors did not recognize the significance of the fields. However, it would be noticed by the chronicler Francisco Lopez de Gomara who informed General Cortes in 1519 that the Mayan agricultural fields; “both worked and in fallow…” [are] “difficult to cross… [that those on foot could], “walk on a straight line, crossing ditches at each step.” On the Gulf Coast, the Cempoalans constructed a series of aqueducts that flowed from the river into storage tanks or cisterns. From these storage facilities, water was then channeled to other cisterns through the aqueducts until finally emptying into the canals.

Some of the few remaining chinampas

While maize played a significant role in these pre-Columbian societies, cacao and vanilla beans were also important, serving as an important commercial crop during the pre and post-contact times. Cacao and vanilla beans served as forms of currency, while other major commercial crops like beans, manioc, and squash were commonly featured in their diets. 

Corn, beans, and squash as grown in a traditional Mesoamerican agricultural system

The arrival of the Europeans also brought with them their dietary categories, either intentionally or subconsciously, imposed their food and cuisines to the New World. While crops like maize were likened to wheat, many of the traditional Mesoamerican foods and processes were alien and at times revolting to European tastes. Particularly the insect-based or rotten foods such as, “large fat spiders, white worms that breed in rotten wood, and other decayed objects: did not resonate with established European tastes, despite the fact that rotten foods such as aged cheese, pickled fruits, and aged smoked meat were essential components of Western diets. When Columbus first encountered the Taino tribes he established relatively friendly terms; the “other decayed objects” included a specialty-zamia bread, which was manufactured from a species of cycad, made by grating the zamia root and then shaping the grated pulp into balls. After leaving them in the sun for two or three days to ferment, they turned black in color and wormy. When ripe, the zamia balls were then flattened into cakes and then baked over a fire on a griddle. The Tainos informed the Spaniard if it is eaten before it was black of not full of worms, then the eater would die. Zamia pulp unless fermented or thoroughly washed may be highly toxic. The societies of Mesoamerica had and still has, a long tradition of eating plump insects and algae that were plentiful in their environment. The maguey worm or the chinicuiles was a delicacy much favored by the Aztec court and still is a delicacy today. One dish that was more tolerable to the Spaniards was a bread made from the toxic yuca plant. Manioc roots were peeled and grated, and the juices were squeezed out under heavy pressure. When boiled, it was used to make a harmless cassareep sauce, which then can be transformed into tapioca. The Spaniards enthusiastically adopted cassava; in some accounts even claiming it as being superior to wheaten bread. 

Crops like maize had significant religious importance to the pre-Columbian societies, noting that shamans still use kernels to interpret omens. Its ancient divinity is evident by its iconographic and hieroglyphic association with primary deities and origin myths. According to iconographic interpretations on Classic Maya stelae and architecture suggested that the maize god was the “first father” and the Quiche Maya term Qanan or maize meant “Our Mother.” In the Mayan creation story known as Popol Vuh, it states that the gods used maize from the Mountain of Sustenance at Paxil Cayola as the main ingredient for the design of humankind. The mountain was filled with, pataxte (similar to cacao), cacao, zapotes (soft edible fruit), annonas (from the sugar apple family), jocotes (plum-like fruit), honey, and most importantly, yellow and white ears of maize. According to the creation story, Xmukane ground white and yellow kernels of maize that was provided by the Mountain of Sustenance. Modern Maya believes that eating maize offers a means of incorporating the divine or their ancestral flesh into their bodies allowing access to their ancestral language and esoteric knowledge regarding the spiritual realm. 

“Mesoamerica.” MesoAmerica. Accessed August 21, 2019.

“Pre-Columbian Civilization.” Pre-Columbian Civilization. Accessed August 21, 2019.

Staller, John, and Michael Carrasco. Pre-Columbian Foodways Interdisciplinary Approaches to Food, Culture, and Markets in Ancient Mesoamerica. New York, NY: Springer New York, 2010.