Mexican cuisine has been one of the country’s most successful cultural exports over the past twenty years or so and most large towns in North America and Europe now boast at least one Mexican restaurant, even if the menu is not necessarily “authentic”. For those wanting to experiment, the basic ingredients for Mexican meals can now be bought virtually everywhere. The increasing popularity of Mexican food has been rivaled only by an extraordinary increase in the consumption of Mexican drinks, including Corona beer and tequila.
Archaeologists have also taken much more interest in Mexican food in recent years.
By 1970, studies carried out at various locations, ranging from Tamaulipas in the north of the country to Oaxaca in the south, had gradually led to the conclusion that the earliest plants to be domesticated in Meso-America were corn, beans and squash, and that all three had been domesticated between about 7000 and 10,000 years BP (Before Present, not British Petroleum…).
Further research subsequently led most archaeologists and palaeo-botanists to believe that squash was actually domesticated much earlier than corn. Re-evaluating cave samples, originally collected in the 1950s, using an improved carbon-14 dating technique, anthropologist Bruce Smith found that the squash seeds from one location were between 8,000 and 10,000 years old, while the oldest corn and bean seeds were much younger, less than 6,000 years old.
While Smith’s study does appears to confirm that squash was domesticated first, it does not necessarily mean that this squash was domesticated for its food value. Many experts think that early varieties of squash may have been domesticated primarily for their gourds, which could be used as ready-made drinking vessels and fishing floats.
The domestication of squash may have improved life, but it did not fundamentally change it. On the other hand, the eventual domestication of corn, about 7,000 years BP marked a true watershed in pre-Hispanic life, enabling the abandonment of a nomadic hunter-gathering existence in favor of settlement in semi-permanent villages. How important was this? In the words of renowned archaeologist Michael Coe, “it was the cultivation of maize, beans and squash that made possible all of the higher cultures of Mexico.”
With the passing of time, the ancient peoples of Mexico domesticated and cultivated many other native plants, including tomatoes, chiles, potatoes, avocados, amaranth, chayote (vegetable pear), cotton and tobacco.
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