Evidence of pulque production in prehispanic Mesoamerica

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Less than an hour’s drive from the heart of Mexico City lies the expansive ruins of Teotihuacan, a massive city of nearly 120,000 people who built pyramids, temples and palaces before disappearing around 650 A.D.

Evidence of pulque production in prehispanic Mesoamerica
(A) Maguey plant (Agave salmiana), (B) maguey sap (aguamiel) pooled within a maguey
in the process of sap extraction, and (C) man transferring pulque to a 2.5-L container
 for sale in Apan, Mexico [Credit: (c) PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1408339111]

This civilization, which pre-dates the Aztecs, remains a mystery in many ways. But new research has found they brewed a tequila-like drink called pulque as a source of food and nutrition, not just to forget their woes.

Pulque is a milky-white liquor made from the maguey plant — a relative of the agave used in tequila — and is still popular among local residents. Traces of pulque have been found on pottery shards dating at Teotihuacan dating back to 150 B.C., according to a new study published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Pulque was not just reserved for the upper classes, according to Marisol Correa-Ascencio, a doctoral student in chemistry at the University of Bristol (UK) and first author on the paper.

“The beverage was consumed by greater part of the population,” Correa-Ascencio said. “It could have helped to compliment the diet of the people.”

While ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures brewed beer and wine before the rise of the Teotihuacan culture, this is the earliest finding of an alcoholic beverage in Mesoamerica, Correa-Ascencio said.

Her colleagues used a new approach to identifying chemical residue on the pottery using a lipid biomarker, or a tiny fat molecule that had bonded with the ceramic molecules of the vase-like amphoras that held the pulque and were sealed with pine resin.

“The principle is that when you process food like cooking or storing, the lipids are absorbed into the ceramic matrix and get encapsulated,” Correa-Ascensio said. “We take a potsherd, clean it, crush it and then perform lipid extraction.”

The researcher said this is the first time this method has been used to identify an ancient alcoholic beverage. Pulque was widely used by the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish conquest in 1521, and remains in use today.

One expert on the Teotihuacan people says the method could be used to research the history of other cultures use of alcohol.

“It is exciting to see definite evidence that it was already being used more than a thousand years earlier at the immense pre-Aztec city of Teotihuacan, where it formed an important part of the diet, especially at times when other staples, such as maize, were in short supply,” said George Cowgill, professor emeritus at Arizona State University.

“Having such a resource was part of what enabled Teotihuacan to flourish for more than six hundred years. Now that a method of detection is available, evidence for pulque’s use will likely be found even earlier at Teotihuacan, as well as elsewhere. Furthermore, the method is applicable everywhere, and it will shed new light on the earliest uses of other fermented beverages worldwide, such as beer, wine, and mead (from honey).”

Source: Eric Niiler | Source: Discovery News [September 15, 2014]

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