The established belief that the process of distilling alcohol arrived in Mexico with the Spanish invasion of the 1500s has been debunked by the research of two university professors.
Studies conducted over more than 10 years by Mari Carmen Serra Puche and Jesús Carlos Lazcano Arce of the Anthropological Research Institute at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) have shown that distillation was employed in Mesoamerica at least 2,500 years ago.
The researchers’ field investigations took them to the states of Tlaxcala and Oaxaca, among other mezcal-producing regions, and culminated in a recently published book that details the results of their archaeological, historical and even chemical studies.
In their book, El Mezcal, Una Bebida Prehispánica (Mezcal, a pre-Hispanic beverage), the professors refer to a discovery in the pre-Hispanic city of Xochitécatl-Cacaxtla, in Tlaxcala.
There, Serra and Lazcano found houses with ovens that didn’t appear to have been used for common activities such as firing pottery.
“On the oven walls we observed runoff stains; we didn’t know what had made them, but we inferred that organic matter had to have been cooked there,” said Lazcano.
A large number of burned stones were also found within the ovens. “These had no immediate apparent utility, but we were certain they were not needed in the elaboration of pottery. We now know they were used to conserve heat,” he added.
A chemical analysis performed by UNAM specialists on samples of the runoff stains determined that they were organic in origin, and they were identified as having come from the cooked hearts of the maguey plant, known as piñas.
Serra said that while clay fragments had been found, they were not the common discarded remnants of pottery manufacturing. Instead, “the fragments belonged to the lower half of very large pots, which we were to later identify as part of the stills.”
Until now it has been thought that the only alcoholic beverage in pre-Hispanic Mexico was pulque, the fermented sap of the maguey plant.