Ancient People of Teotihuacan Drank Alcohol as Nutrient Booster
Archaeologists have found evidence that the ancient people of Teotihuacan in Mexico, one of the largest and most important sacred cities of ancient Mesoamerica, made and drank a traditional alcoholic beverage known as pulque, a milky drink made from the sap of the agave plant. According to a report in Live Science, the drink may have held an important role in providing essential nutrients during times of drought.
The discovery was made when a team of scientists analysed hundreds of pottery fragments from Teotihuacan, which dated to between 200 and 550 AD, for traces of the alcohol-making bacterium Zymomonas mobilis. The results revealed a number of fragments containing the bacterium, suggesting that the original pottery vessels had been used to store the fermented sap used to make pulque. The study, which has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provides the earliest direct chemical evidence for the making of pulque in Central America.
Figure holding a small vessel of alcohol from the ‘Mural of Drinkers’. Photo Héctor Montaño INAH
Pulque is an alcoholic drink that is traditional to central Mexico. It has the colour of milk, somewhat viscous consistency and a sour yeast-like taste. The drink was considered sacred, and its use was limited to certain classes of people. There are many references in Aztec codices of pulque use by nobility and priesthood to celebrate victories. Among commoners, it was permitted only to the elderly and pregnant women. It was also drunk at rituals by priests and sacrificial victims, to increase the priests' enthusiasm and, supposedly, to ease the suffering of the victim.
A pottery vessel containing pulque. Image source.
A lot of information about pulque use has also been gained through the discovery of murals depicting its consumption. The most well-known mural, known as Los Bebedores or ‘The Drinkers’, dates back 1,800 years and depicts a scene of drunken revelry as part of a pre-Hispanic ceremony dedicated to the goddess Mayahuel. The figures are engaged in various activities, including drinking, making offerings, serving, and even vomiting and defecating. They all appear to be in a state of intoxication. Measuring over 60 metres in length, it is one of the longest pre-Columbian murals found in Mexico.
Los Bebedores - The Mural of the Drinkers. Image source.
Correa-Ascencio, lead study author and archaeological chemist at the University of Bristol in England, explained the findings of the study “are a critical first step in providing new information about the subsistence patterns of the inhabitants at Teotihuacan that could not have been gathered using traditional archaeological methods."
The ancient city of Teotihuacan, whose name means "the city of the gods" in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, once supported an estimated population of 100,000 people, who raised giant monuments such as the Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon. Much about Teotihuacan remains unknown, including the origin and language of the people who lived there.
Prior studies have suggested that pulque may have played an important nutritional role, as well as a sacred and ritualistic one. The agave (maguey) plant from which the sap is extracted, survives frost and drought much better than maize, which was a key crop for the people of Teotihuacan. So when crops of maize were destroyed by difficult climate conditions, the pulque made from the agave could have provided vital calories, essential nutrients, and probiotic bacteria. Tequila is also made from agave plants, but this alcohol is made from the baked hearts of the plants, not the sap.
After the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, pulque became secular and its consumption rose, reaching its peak in the late 19th century. In the 20th century, the drink fell into decline, mostly because of competition from beer, which became more prevalent with the arrival of European immigrants. However, it is still available in Mexico and is marketed to tourists as the traditional drink of the nation.
Featured image: Ancient Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan in Mexico. Source: BigStockPhoto