Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Mexico's Wonder Plant Volume 55 Number 5, September/October 2002
by Gary M. Feinman, Linda M. Nicholas, and Helen R. Haines

Scholars seek clues to the Prehispanic importance of the hearty maguey in Oaxaca's southern highlands.

For centuries, the prickly fronds of the maguey plant have provided residents of Mexico's highlands with building material, clothing, and rope. (Linda M. Nicholas) [LARGER IMAGE]

Imagine a plant that can be used to build your house and put clothes on your back, render the raw material for strong twine, and provide you with a nourishing meal or a heady drink after a long day of work. Such a plant has for millennia been used in ingenious ways by the people of Mexico's highlands, who once worshiped it for its abundance of life-giving properties and now distill it into the main ingredient in a margarita.

This wonder plant is maguey, also known as agave and the century plant, a hearty succulent surviving southern Mexico's long, dry winter by storing liquid in its heart. The plant's many varieties--some large, others small--all generally have long, sturdy leaves bordered with sharp spines. People who live in the Oaxaca Valley's eastern or Tlacolula arm today depend heavily on maguey, harvesting the hearts to sell to factories in Jalisco, where extracted maguey juice is distilled and processed into tequila. In the eastern Oaxaca Valley, many local residents distill the juice to make a less-refined alcoholic beverage, mescal, which is traded throughout the valley and beyond. Some valley dwellers also still twist maguey fibers into rope, though that craft is dying as imported synthetic rope captures the market. Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers traveling through Mexico's highlands marveled at the various uses of maguey, and the Aztecs and Mixtecs, neighbors of the Zapotec, celebrated the plant in the earlier bark-paper and deerskin pages of Postclassic period (A.D. 800-1520) codices.

[image] Mescal is still an important part of the economy in the towns around El Palmillo and is often made in the villagers' yards. Once the sap-filled hearts are cut from maguey plants, they are collected, roasted in outdoor ovens, then crushed to extract the juice for distillation. (Linda M. Nicholas) [LARGER IMAGE]

Recent excavations in the Oaxaca Valley have added to the list of maguey's impressive credentials, providing the key to a question that has long puzzled archaeologists: how did the Classic period Zapotecs (A.D. 200-800) living high in the valley's rocky hills--which are not particularly well suited for growing maize, Mesoamerica's principal staple crop during this time--support themselves?

Over the past four years, we have excavated six terraces at El Palmillo, a Classic period site located on a rocky ridge in the Tlacolula arm of the Oaxaca Valley, and have found abundant evidence for the use of maguey for food, drink, and fiber, suggesting it was essential to the Prehispanic economy there. Our research at El Palmillo has shown that the Oaxaca Valley's terraced hilltop settlements were long-term residential communities, and, despite their formidable locations, the Zapotec inhabitants did not live in isolation. Instead, they were linked to exchange networks that criss-crossed the valley and connected them to the world beyond, just as their contemporary descendants are today.

Gary M. Feinman is the curator of Mesoamerican anthropology at The Field Museum. Linda M. Nicholas is an adjunct curator at the museum. They have conducted archaeological research in the Oaxaca Valley for over 20 years. Helen R. Haines, a postdoctoral research scientist at the museum, is presently studying the stone artifacts from El Palmillo.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America