The Aztecs were the last of the great Mesoamerican civilization that dominated parts of modern-day Mexico up until more than five centuries ago. The largest of all ancient American civilizations the vast Aztec Empire was supported by a simple grass, maize. Easily grown throughout the continent, maize could be eaten a number of different ways however it was most commonly crushed into a flour and used for baking. The Aztecs also grew peanuts, squash, several types of beans and peppers and gathered cactus fruit, nuts, and other wild edibles. Most impressive of all, the Aztecs devised an amazingly complex agricultural system constructing artificial floating islands in ponds and lakes used to grow crops. Known as ‘chinampas’, these floating farms could grow up to seven crops at a time and a single chinampa could provide enough food each year to feed 20 people; a far more efficient system than many other agricultural schemes of the time.
Maize was the Aztec Empire’s most important crop, a fact reflected in their culture:
The Aztecs were also known for their abundance of alcoholic beverages; fermenting several different crops such as maize, honey, pineapple and even cactus fruit to create a number of special brews. Recipes like cacao and atolli were concocted for several reasons, such as a medical remedy or as an elixir for spiritual enlightenment. Although the Aztecs are commonly depicted as aggressive and violent, they actually rarely ate meat. Game and large prey animals were scarce and a meal of rabbit, turkey or even armadillo was a rare treat not to be passed up. Instead the Aztecs survived mainly on their well-designed agricultural system.
The Maya Civilization that once dominated Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula share several cultural traits with their neighbors, the Aztecs. Not surprisingly, this also includes their diets. Known as the ‘Three Sisters’, the Maya and Aztec both survived on three staple crops, maize (corn), squash and beans. Nutritionists and scientists agree that these three crops, when eaten with one another, provide nearly all the nutritional needs a person needs, one of the reasons meat was not a major necessity. The Yucatan Peninsula is also a difficult place to hunt for food, so the Maya ate meat rarely. When small game was available, it was quickly taken; there are even reports of hunters killing everything from tapirs to monkeys when they could not find food. Living in the forested Yucatan also gave the Maya access to many unique species of plant. The Maya were able to cultivate several chilies, fruits and vegetables that other civilizations could not grow as well as several hybrid and cross-breeds of other crops.
Maize (corn), beans and squash were historically the three main foods of the Americas:
Unlike the Aztecs, the Maya did not have the topography needed to construct the floating chinampas and the thick jungles of the Yucatan require clearing in order to farm. As a result, the Maya used a primitive technique known as ‘slash and burn’ where trees and vegetation are cut down and/or burned in order to clear land for farming. Oddly enough, this ancient and rather simple technique makes the land far more fertile by returning nutrients to the soil.
Without doubt, the most impressive ancient culture of South America was that of the Inca Empire. Centered in the Andes Mountains around modern day Peru, the Inca were forced to eat a diet of foods that had adapted to the rocky and rather infertile soil of the Andes. Their answer came in the form of the many roots and tubers that had evolved a preference for the rocky mountain soil like the potato. Indigenous to the Andes, there are hundreds of different species of potato, each of which is a different size, shape texture, color, etc. Once potatoes were discovered by Europeans, they quickly shipped back to the continent to be grown by the poor and in the worst soils. In addition to the potato, the Inca Empire also grew maize, beans, squash, chilies and many other crops found throughout Central and South America.
Potatoes supported and Inca for generations and today they are grown around the globe:
Unlike the Aztecs and the Maya, the Inca had the luxury of having a bounty of animals around. The Andes Mountains run right along the coast of the Pacific Ocean making them a biodiversity hotspot. The sea provided a bounty of fish, mollusks and other edibles that were commonly gathered by the Incas. The Inca also hunted the many species of deer, bird, rabbit and other small game that lived in the mountains and highlands along the Pacific Coast. In addition to hunting game, the Inca were responsible for the domestication of the guinea pig which was raised as a food animal. Guinea pig meat was commonly cut into pieces and ‘freeze-dried’, a process that later inspired the modern product of beef jerky.
Very thorough answer. I just wanted to add that a key component of the Inca diet was also quionoa, a leafy grain that is now becoming popular in health food circles, and was considered sacred by the Incas.
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