Mezcal is centuries older than originally thought

The distillation process, which today allows the production of alcoholic beverages, was practiced in Mexico since before the time of the conquest, Mexican archaeologists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico ( UNAM ) discovered. Centuries before the arrival of the Spaniards to Mexico, the Tlaxcaltecas already created mezcal.

This discovery overturns the belief that pulque was the drink of the ancestors, and that they learned the distillation process of the Spaniards; now it is known that mezcal was consumed for hundreds of years and that the distillate was a technique that was already dominated in Mexico before the conquest.

“This shows us that 25 centuries ago these societies were not nomadic hunter-gatherers, but highly sophisticated, with knowledge on par with Arabs and Europeans,” said Avto Goguitchaichvill, a researcher at the Institute of Geophysics of the UNAM, in Morelia.

Scientists of the National Archeomagnetic Service (SAN) of the UNAM and of the Institute of Anthropological Investigations discovered a series of furnaces in the archaeological zone Xochitécatl-Cacaxtla, Tlaxcala, that were used in the production of mezcal between 600 and 400 years before our era. Many centuries earlier than previously thought.

In that area, they found cavities that, at first, they thought were used for ceramic cooking, since in that same area they located evidence of work that was done with green stone (jadeite), production of objects with animal bones and agricultural activities. They later discovered that these cavities were actually ovens for cooking maguey heads.

“Until recently it was considered that the process of distillation was brought in the sixteenth century to the new world by the Spaniards, who in turn learned it from the Arabs, and that the main alcoholic beverage in Mesoamerican societies was pulque, a type of ferment of the maguey “, indicated the UNAM in a press release.

In an article published in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports, the scientists Avto Goguitchaichvill, Juan Morales, Mari Carmen Serra Puche and Carlos Lazcano Arce published their analyzes on the subject, which confirm that these furnaces were used between 557 and 487 BC to process maguey and produce mezcal.

What followed after the first finding, was to perform analysis of stains and runoff in the ovens; Through the Faculty of Chemistry and the Chemistry Institute of the UNAM, the presence of burned maguey pineapple materials was identified.

“It was interesting, because it was difficult to detect material from mezcal, because it is volatile, however, there is a chemical decomposition route to go from maguey sugar to mezcal, that route was reproduced and the evidence was found, therefore, there is no possibility of error “, emphasized Lazcano Arce.

To know the time in which the ovens were used, archaeologists turned to carbon 14, one of the most used dating methods, and to have greater certainty, they went to the National Archaeological Service.

The team of Goguitchaichvill carried out studies on 35 objects found in the area such as rocks, soil samples and fragments of two vessels on which they performed different temperature and magnetism experiments.

One of the properties of most archaeological materials is that they contain magnetic particles, so they can acquire magnetization at a specific time.

The results of the studies revealed two possible ranges of use of the kilns: between the years 878-693 BC and between 557-487 BC, and when comparing the data with the archaeological records they found that they coincide with the first occupation of the area, Therefore, they give greater certainty to the hypothesis that they were used between 600 and 400 BC.

This period was characterized not only by having the cooking ovens, but also by the intense production of ceramics, both ceremonial and utilitarian, and the lithic workshops.

The experts will continue with their work on the site, so they plan new excavations that will include the SAN team to obtain a better dating of the kilns that could be found.

About the author

This article was written by Ian Hayden Parker, Oaxaca Life staff writer, the leading source for English news in Oaxaca, Mexico.

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