Agriculture in Mesoamerica

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Varieties of maize

Agriculture in Mesoamerica dates to the Archaic period of Mesoamerican chronology (8000-2000 BCE). During this period, many of the hunter gatherer micro-bands in the region began to cultivate wild plants. The cultivation of these plants probably started out as creating increased surplus and known areas of fall back, or starvation foods, near seasonal camps, that the band could rely on when hunting was bad, or when there was a drought. The plants could have been brought purposely, or by accident. The former could have been done by bringing a wild plant food closer to a camp site, or to a frequented area, so it was easier to get to or collect. The latter could have happened as certain plant seeds were eaten and not fully digested, causing these plants to grow wherever human habitation would take them. By creating these known areas of plant food, it would have been easier for the band to be in the right place, at the right time, to collect them.

As the Archaic period moved on, these cultivated plant foods became more and more important to the people of Mesoamerica. The reliability of the cultivated plant foods would allow the micro-bands to increase in size. These larger bands would require more food, and that would lead to even greater reliance on purposely-cultivated plant foods. Eventually, a subsistence pattern, based on plant cultivation, supplemented with small game hunting, became much more reliable, efficient, and generated a larger yield. As agriculture grew to become a larger part of the Mesoamerican diet, the people would have increasingly settled down in permanent villages and developed increased division of labor and social stratification as surplus grew.

Another group to consider in the origins of Mesoamerican agriculture is the sedentary fishers. These people would have already lived in semi-permanent villages, and could have experimented with cultivating wild plants to supplement their shellfish diet. As cultivation became more focused, many plant species became domesticated. These plants were no longer able to reproduce on their own, and many of their physical traits were being modified by human farmers. The most famous of these, and the most important to Mesoamerican agriculture, is maize.


Huitlacoche at a Mexican market

Richard Stockton MacNeish has done an extensive archaeological survey of Mesoamerica, and determined that the most likely place for the first cultivation for maize was probably in the Tehuacan Valley around 5000 BC. Maize arrived at this point through the [[]] of Teosinte,[1] the ancestor of maize. Note that because of this genetic mutation maize is the only domesticated plant that does not grow in the wild. It became the single most important crop in all of Mesoamerica. Maize is storable for long periods of time, it can be ground into flour, and it easily turns into surplus for future use. Maize became vital to the survival of the people of Mesoamerica, and that is reflected in their origin, myths, artwork, and rituals.

The second most important crop in Mesoamerican agriculture is the squash. Cultivated and domesticated before maize, dated to 10,000 years ago[2] in Oaxaca, the people of Mesoamerica utilize several different types of squash. The most important may be the pumpkin, and its relatives. The seeds of the pumpkin are full of protein, and are easily transportable. Another important member of the squash family is the bottle gourd. This fruit may not have been very important as a food source, but the gourd itself would have been useful as a water container. Another major food source in Mesoamerica are beans. These may have been used as early as squash and maize, but the exact date of domestication is not known. These three crops form the center of Mesoamerican agriculture. Maize, beans, and squash form a triad of products, commonly referred to as the "Three Sisters," that provided the people of Mesoamerica a complementing nutrient triangle. Each contributes some part of the essential vitamin mix that human beings need to survive. The other benefit that these three crops have is that planting them together helps to retain nutrients in the soil.

Many other plants were first cultivated in Mesoamerica; tomatoes, avocados, guavas, chili peppers, manioc, agave, and prickly pear were all cultivated as additional food resources, while rubber trees and cotton plants were useful for making cultural products like rubber balls and clothing. Another culturally important plant was the cacao. Cacao beans were used as money, and later, the beans were used for making another valuable product, chocolate.

Domesticated plants[edit]

A list of Mesoamerican cultivars and staples:

  1. Maize* - domesticated from teosinte grasses in southern Mexico)
  2. Squash* (Cucurbita spp.) - pumpkins, zucchini, acorn squash, butternut squash, others
  3. Pinto bean - "painted/speckled" bean; nitrogen-fixer traditionally planted in conjunction with the "two sisters", maize and squash, to help condition soil; runners grew on maize
  4. Tomato*
  5. Potato*
  6. Avocado*
  7. Cacahuate* (Arachis hypogaea)
  8. Chicle* (Manilkara chicle) - sap made into chewing gum
  9. Chili peppers* - many varieties
  10. Cacao*
  11. Vanilla
  12. Mora (Rubus blackberry)
  13. Rubus glaucus
  14. Strawberry (Fragaria spp.) - various cultivars
  15. Pineapple - cultivated extensively
  16. Nopales* - stem segments of Opuntia species, such as Opuntia ficus-indica
  17. Tunas* - fruits of Opuntia species
  18. Jícama* (Pachyrhizus erosus)
  19. Papaya* (Carica papaya)
  20. Guayaba* - guava fruit
  21. Huautli* (Amaranthus cruentus, Amaranthus hypochondriacus) - grain
  22. Cherimoya* (fruit)
  23. Mamey sapote* (Pouteria sapota) - fruit, other parts of plants have noted uses
  24. Epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides) - aromatic herb
  25. Sunflower seeds - under cultivation in Mexico and Peru for thousands of years, also source of essential oils
  26. Cassava* - edible starchy root also known as manioc; also used to make tapioca
  27. Tobacco*
  28. Chaya

* Asterisk indicates a common English or Spanish word derived from an indigenous word

Land Use[edit]

Much of the Maya food supply was grown in orchard-gardens, known as pet kot.[3] The system takes its name from the low wall of stones (pet meaning circular and kot wall of loose stones) that characteristically surrounds the forest garden plot.[4]

One of the greatest challenges in Mesoamerica for farmers is the lack of usable land, and the poor condition of the soil. Several different methods have been used to combat these problems. The two main ways to combat poor soil quality, or lack of nutrients in the soil, are to leave fields fallow for a period of time in a milpa cycle, and to use slash-and-burn techniques. In slash and burn agriculture, trees are cut down and left to dry for a period of time. The dry wood and grasses are then set on fire, and the resulting ash adds nutrients to the soil. These two techniques are often combined to retain as many nutrients as possible. However, in the jungle environment, no matter how careful a farmer is, nutrients are often hard to retain.

To combat the lack of large tracts of usable land, farmers in Mesoamerica have found ways to create more land. The first way to create land is to form terraces along the slopes of mountain valleys. Terraces allow farmers to use more land on the mountain slopes, and to move further up the mountain than they normally would be able to. Some terraces were made out of walls of stones, and others were created by cutting down large trees, and mounding soil around them. In the valleys themselves, there is evidence that the Maya used raised fields in some of the swampy areas, and onto the flood plains. These practices were also used by the Aztecs. However, the Aztecs created floating plots of land called chinampas. These were floating plots of mud and soil, placed on top of layers of thick water vegetation.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Iltis 1983
  2. ^ Harrington 1997
  3. ^ Michael Ernest Smith and Marilyn A. Masson (2000). The Ancient Civilizations of Mesoamerica. p. 127. ISBN 9780631211167. 
  4. ^ David L. Lentz, ed. (2000). Imperfect Balance: Landscape Transformations in the Precolumbian Americas. p. 212. ISBN 9780231111577.