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Examples of variegated maize ears and a figurine from the Casas Grandes culture c. 1200 - 1450.

Drinking in the Past: Centuries Old Evidence for Consumption of Corn Beer Found in Mexico

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By analyzing calculus on the teeth of the remains of people who died in an influential Mexican city hundreds of years ago, researchers are getting clues about their diet. One finding was that the people drank corn beer.

The ruins of the city of Casas Grandes are in Chihuahua State about 80 miles (130 kilometers) from the New Mexico border. The city, which numbered about 3,000 people at its peak in the 1300s, is also known as Paquimé. The Casas Grandes culture stretched across several river valleys in northern Mexico.

The town was probably a hub of culture and trade between central Mexico and the Southwestern United States.

Map showing the location of the Casas Grandes culture.

Map showing the location of the Casas Grandes culture. (Beloit College map)

The stuff trapped in the teeth as tartar, which fossilizes to become calculus, is probably from the last few weeks of their lives, says an article in Western Digs.

Anne Katzenberg of the University of Calgary is analyzing the remains of people excavated at Casas Grandes in the 1950s and ‘60s. Some of the bodies were buried, others dismembered and put in urns, and others were just exposed to the elements.

The research team are doing the teeth analysis of 110 people buried in and around Casas Grandes between 700 and 1450 AD.

Part of the Paquimé (Casas Grandes) site, Mexico.

Part of the Paquimé (Casas Grandes) site, Mexico. (HJPD/CC BY SA 3.0)

Of the samples, teeth from 63 bodies provided microscopic traces, the most common of which were starch granules, corn mostly. They also found tiny mineral fragments from squash and grasses.

About 10 percent of the bodies had corn smut traces. Corn smut is a nutritious fungus that grows on corn. Even today it is a delicacy called by its Aztec name huitlacoche.

Researcher Daniel King told Western Digs that the most interesting aspect of the tooth analysis was the presence of corn alcohol. Three people’s teeth showed maize remains that apparently had been fermented. The swollen, fragmented grain particles apparently resulted from the brewing of chicha, which has been made in Central and South American for about 5,000 years.

Chicha de jora. Huancayo, Perú.

Chicha de jora. Huancayo, Perú. (Public Domain)

But this may be the first evidence of corn beer that far north, King said. The corn fragments date to the period of 1200 to 1450. And the researchers don’t know when it may have been introduced from more southerly communities in Peru or Mesoamerica.

A Beloit College website says the Casas Grandes culture, which extends from Sonora to Chihuahua up into present-day New Mexico, was more closely related to Mesoamerican cultures to the south than to the Hohokam or Mogollon peoples to the north.

A Casas Grandes culture figurine.

A Casas Grandes culture figurine. (Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts)

Like people to the south, the Casas Grandes people had platform mounds and ball courts, apparently used in rituals. They lived along river drainages and had irrigation systems. Paquimé was a major center of trade, through which macaws, pottery, shells, and copper were shipped from Central America into Arizona and New Mexico.

The people had shallow pit houses arranged around a large community house. The homes were made of jacal, a wattle-and-daub type of construction. As time went on, a plaza design became more prevalent, and, Beloit College says that people probably lived in the houses with common ancestors. Later they developed poured adobe walls.

A partially reconstructed residential building in Paquimé, Chihuahua, Mexico.

A partially reconstructed residential building in Paquimé, Chihuahua, Mexico. (HJPD/ CC BY 3.0)

Featured Image: Examples of variegated maize ears (Sam Fentress/ CC BY SA 2.0) and a figurine from the Casas Grandes culture c. 1200 - 1450. (Public Domain)

By Mark Miller



I think this is a very cool find. I understand that there is not alot of evidence of corn growing by these people. I do have a question, Did they trade to get the corn to make corn mash? I think that there was corn growing widespread because of this quote from, “When the English settlers arrived in 1607, corn was a key food crop of the Native Americans in Virginia. The English colonists plannned to trade for food (as did the Spanish in Florida). From the beginning, the colonists were planning to eat corn grown by the Native Americans in Virginia.”

I think it is really cool that around the world people that lived neolitic and peleolithic modes of society all knew and utilized fermentation. I wonder if it was a way to cleanse water without boiling it. I wonder who was the first society mode to distill, was it the agricultural based society?  

Troy Mobley

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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