Posts Tagged ‘History’

History and Culture: The Ritual Ballgame

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Painting of a ballplayer from a mural in Teotihuacan, Mexico.

Yesterday was America’s biggest sports day, Super Bowl Sunday, and as a Broncos fan, it was a miserable time. But there was one good thing that happened yesterday: while skimming my Facebook news feed during the game, I found a very cool video of the Mesoamerican ritual ballgame. To the Aztecs it was known as Tlachtli, and if you look at it strictly from a popularity point of view, it was their equivalent of football. People were known to lose everything they owned betting on this game, and it was a sport enjoyed by both the poorest and richest alike. The game had great religious meaning as well; the Ritual Ballgame was the favorite sport of the gods, and the Mayan Hero Twins were famous for having taken on the gods and beaten them.

The Ritual Ballgame plays an important part at one point in The Bone Flower Throne, to determine which of two brothers will inherit the throne of Xochicalco after their father dies. The one in the video linked below is played by slightly different rules, but the basic rules was that players couldn’t touch the rubber ball with either hands or feet while it was in play, and they often wore specialized yokes and elbow and knee pads to make it easier to bounce the ball around. In BFT, the players aren’t allowed to let the ball hit the ground nor could they climb the walls of the field, whereas in the game in the video both of those are allowed.

Click here to see the video (unfortunately the owner doesn’t allow embedding)

To find out more about the Ritual Ballgame, this website is a particularly good resource.


Bone Flower Throne on Scalzi’s The Big Idea

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the-bone-flower-throne-displayI got the opportunity to talk about my new novel The Bone Flower Throne over at John Scalzi’s blog, so if you’re curious about what inspired the story and why it took me four years to get it finished, hop on over there and give it a read. Here’s a little sample:

I’m an Aztec geek; whether it’s history or mythology, I devour it all. It’s a love affair that began in college and has taken over my fiction writing life. It gives me immense joy to immerse myself into that world, digging up the forgotten treasures and intrigues, and finding voices and figures my high school history and English classes never bothered to mention.

Like Quetzalpetlatl, the most famous woman no one knows anything about: the woman the gods used to ruin Mesoamerica’s greatest hero.

Food in Mesoamerica – Domesticated Food Animals

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Last time, we looked at the four staples of the Mesoamerican diet: maize, beans, squash, and chile.  This time, we take a look at some of the meat sources, specifically from domesticated animals.

When you think of Mexican cuisine, you probably think of dishes that include beef, chicken, and pork; one can hardly imagine a taco without beef. All three of these meats come from European livestock that was unknown in the Americas…well, except with one possible exception, but more on that later. Mesoamerica had its own domesticated livestock, some of it gracing the tables of every American household come Thanksgiving, while some others probably will make dog-lovers cry. So without further ado, here are the primary domesticated food animals of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

The Turkey

Domesticated Food Animals - Turkeys

Gobble, gobble, gobble

The turkey is one of two large domesticated birds found in the Americas, and it’s domestication dates back to about 200 BCE. As a food animal, it’s importance is unparallelled; it is said that in the market in Tenochtitlan, over 18,000 birds were sold every five days. Turkeys were important in all sorts of rituals for the Maya, from medicine, to planting, to calling for rain. The turkey was an instant hit with Europeans, and soon took the place of peacock as a choice meat at feasts for the nobility back in Europe. The meat was roasted, baked, or boiled in soup, cooked into tamales or baked in casseroles. Turkeys were among the offerings sent to Cortes and his men by natives to test what kind of beings these strange pale-skinned men were; the stories go that slaves were sent as well, to see which ones the Spaniards would eat; if they ate the turkeys, they must be humans, but if they ate the slaves…then they must be fierce, bloodthirsty gods.

The Muscovy Duck

Domesticated Food Animals - Muscovy Duck

The Muscovy Duck – the Mesoamerican Chicken

Known today as the “Barbary Duck” in recipes, the Muscovy is the second large domesticated bird of the Americas. Little is known of how they were kept and raised, and they seemed to have been consumed primarily in Central America. Interestingly, chickens were found in Peru prior to the Europeans’ arrival, and had been there long enough for them to become an important economic item to the Inca. It’s theorized that these New World chickens came from contact with the Polynesian Islands. As of yet there is no evidence of chickens in Central America though.

The Dog

Domesticated Food Animals

In his letters to Charles V, Cortes called these hairless dogs “Quite tasty.”

Dogs weren’t kept as pets in Mesoamerica; instead, they were bred as a food source and raising such animals was a lucrative business. The dogs fattened for the dinner plate were a hairless variety related to the modern Xoloitzcuintle (not the Chihuahua), and after the Conquest, the breed nearly disappeared due to the Spanish pickling them in high quantities as food for their sailors. These dogs were thought to be particularly tasty because they were never fed meat, only a steady diet of maize mush or avacados.

The Honey Bee

Domesticated Food Animals - Stingless Bees

The Trigona, one of several species of stingless bees that produced honey in the Americas.

Beekeeping was a very important trade among the Maya, though archeological evidence shows that even the ancient Toltecs practiced beekeeping, in logs they hung from the roofs of their houses. Indigenous species of stingless bees produced large quantities of honey not only for local use, but for export across Central America. The honey was used primarily as a sweetener of atolli, or was made by the Maya into the alcoholic ritual beverage Balché.

Next time, we’ll take a look at the wild game that rounded out the meat sources of the Mesoamerican diet.

Food in Mesoamerica – The Four Staples (History)

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Mexican food is probably my favorite food there is; I love burritos, tacos, enchiladas, and chile rellenos, though I do find it difficult to handle the hotter sauces (I blame my having grown up eating a steady diet of bland American food). Much of the Mexican food eaten in the United States isn’t authentic Mexican food, but rather Tex-Mex, an Americanized cuisine heavy with cheeses and meats and uses non-Mexican spices such as cumin. Though even authentic Mexican food is different from the true authentic foods of the Americas. The diets of the Pre-Conquest native tribes were broad and flavorful, and while they greatly influenced modern Mexican cuisine, much has gone missing. Over the course of several blog posts, we’ll take a look at food in Mesoamerica, starting with the basic stables of the Mesoamerican diet: maize, beans, squash, and chile.

Food in Mesoamerica - Maize

Maize came in all manner of colors and shapes.

Maize – The Most Important Cereal

The maize plant was domesticated early in human history and practically every part of the plant is edible at one stage or another. The Aztecs made sweet drinks from it, or ground it and added it to water to make atole, a sort of watery-mash consumed daily at the noon hour. They had countless varieties of tlaxcala (tortillas), each made from a different type of maize, and they there were just as many varieties of tamales, made with various meats and maize dough wrapped in maize husks, for easy transportation. During times of famine, they even ate the tassels. There was no more important ingredient in all the Americas than maize, and this is reflected in how many tribes worshiped it in deity form; Centeotl to the Aztecs, “First Father” to the Maya, and Zaramama to the Inca.

Food in Mesoamerica - beans

Beans, beans, the magical fruit….

Beans – the Protein Powerhouse

The domestication of beans in the New World began around the time of Christ and the Aztecs used a wide variety in their food as a primary source of protein. They were mostly boiled and eaten in stews, though they were also baked and ground into powder for later reconstitution. Some of the common and most popular beans were string beans, Lamon, ayacotli (scarlet runner), and sieva beans. The Lamon bean in particular became a big hit with the Italians and stories speak of them being among the tribute sent to the Pope by Charles V after the conquering of the Americas.

Food in Mesoamerica - squash

Aztec nobility drank their chocolate in calabash cups.

Squash – the Earliest Dinnerware

Squash finishes out the traditional triad of Mesoamerican foodstuffs. Domestication of squash plants predates the invention of pottery in the Americas, for hollowed out calabash gourds were used as cups and bowls even as late as the Aztec period. Like maize, the Mesoamericans utilized practically all parts of the plant, eating them either cooked or raw, but the most important part of the squash was the seeds, which could be boiled, or baked then ground into powder to make sauces or added to water or juice.

Food in Mesoamerica - chile

If you were a naughty child, your mother might have held you over these while they roasted.

Chile – the Forgotten Staple

The final staple is the chile. Most historians only name maize, beans, and squash as the most important ingredients in Mesoamerican diet, but chile is just as pervasive. The native tribes cultivated three species of chile and they used them in practically every dishes. In fact, chile was so important that when one performed religious penance, one gave up both salt and chile for the duration of that time. They used the fumes from roasting them to not only fumigate their homes of bugs, but to also discipline unruly and defiant children; there’s even stories of it being used as a chemical weapon when stuffed along with smoldering ash into gourds and thrown over the walls of enemy fortresses. The natives ate chiles raw, cooked, dried and ground, mixed in stews, in sauces, and cooked onto meat; they even added chile powder to their cups of chocolate.

Next time, we’ll take a look at some other popular food items, some of them readily recognizable while others might make your stomach turn.

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