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  • Print publication year: 2000
  • Online publication date: March 2008

V.D.1 - Mexico and Highland Central America

from V.D - The History and Culture of Food and Drink in the Americas

The diversity of the natural environment in Mexico and highland Central America has influenced the development of food and dietary patterns. From the aridity of the great Sonoran Desert in the north, through the temperate basins of the Valley of Anahuac, to the tropical forests of the south, different climates and soils have conditioned what and how people ate. Within the larger regions, hundreds of microregions have had their own environmental and dietary characteristics, and for millennia cultures have modified these environments to suit their food needs. Three especially profound events that have influenced environment and diet are the emergence of agriculture, the arrival of Europeans (1519), and the technological and organizational changes of the twentieth century.

Early Diet

Before the advent of agriculture, hunting, fishing, and gathering provided the nutrients for Mexican diets. Most large mammals had become extinct by about 7200 B.C., and four plants in particular – mesquite, nopal, maguey, and wild maize (teozinte) – increasingly complemented a diminishing amount of animal protein provided by fishing and hunting. Even after the rise of sedentary societies dependent on agriculture, food gathering continued to provide essential nutrients for most indigenous groups. Densely populated communities in the central highland valleys and seminomadic peoples in the arid north enriched their food supply by collecting larvae, insects, and grubs, in addition to small mammals and reptiles.

As food production became more abundant, the quantity of collected foods declined, and it was on the base of domesticated crops that Mexican civilization rested. Maize, squash, beans, tomatoes, chillies, amaranth, several cactus varieties, and many fruits (among them avocado and guava) constituted the diet of the vast majority of Mexicans.

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The Cambridge World History of Food
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