Huautli food of Toltecs: The production and consumption of amaranth in Mexico

08/04/2021

Today, the amaranth plant produces cheerfulness. The mixture of this product with honey, peanuts and raisins sweetens even the most bitter days. More than two thousand years ago, the consumption of this seed prevented the Toltecs from suffering famines due to droughts.

Studies carried out in 1999 in a rural area of Tula called Tepetitlán, where a large number of amaranth seeds were discovered, both in pre-Hispanic cultivation fields and in residential areas (kitchens and places of worship), demonstrate the importance of this plant for the region in pre-Hispanic times.

Amaranth, huautli, or alegría, the name by which it is known today, was a basic crop in pre-Hispanic times in various cultures of the country, including the one that settled in Tula, Hidalgo, as archaeological evidence and ethnohistoric data on its cultivation show.

Since Tula is a high-risk area for rainfed maize crops, due to its altitude, presence of frost, and poor soil quality, crops such as amaranth played an important role in the diet of the population of the ancient city and its surrounding rural area, as a complementary and alternative food, especially in times of drought. 

This seed was not only important for Tula but in all Mesoamerica, because it was an easy plant to cultivate, in addition to having a high degree of resistance to dry and frosty seasons.

In pre-Hispanic times they constantly suffered frost problems because in this area the climate is very cold and corn is a much more delicate plant that dies with low temperatures, on the other hand, amaranth is more resistant and grows in all kinds of fertilized soils, therefore in the absence of grain, huautli was the one that covered the food needs of the population.

In addition to its resistance to frost, another characteristic of amaranth is the possibility of storing it in clay pots for long periods of time without decomposing. This, together with its high nutritional value, led it to be considered the most important crop in Tula, even more, important than corn.

In fact, one of the tributes that the provinces of Ajacuba and Jilotepec, which included Tula during the Late Postclassic period (1200-1521 A.D.), gave to the Triple Alliance -in addition to corn and beans- was precisely amaranth, which indicates that this plant was an important crop during that period.

This seed, therefore, was not only used as food but also as part of the offerings and rituals; in this sense, the use of the grain was documented by Sahagún and other chroniclers, who describe its use in some ceremonies where figurines made with agglutinated amaranth were used.

The ritual figurines of huautli were made with the technique used today to make amaranth sweets. That is, amaranth was toasted and then mixed with maguey honey to obtain a malleable mass to form anthropomorphic figures of some deities, which were used in ceremonies. 

At the end of the ceremonies, the food (in the form of figurines) was distributed among the entire population. If we compare it with the Catholic ritual, perhaps the amaranth was the equivalent of the communion wafer.

Finally, it seems that its ritual importance may have been the cause of its prohibition after the Conquest, and its cultivation decreased until it almost disappeared from some regions during the colonial period.