The Pre-Colonial Wine Of Indigenous Peoples
Before the first colonizers set foot in the Americas, Indigenous peoples were creating fermented beverages from the plants that grew nearby. In Mexico, there were over 30 different types of alcoholic drinks made from honey, palm sap, wild plum, pineapple, and other native plants.
Most of these drinks were relatively low in alcohol since only the Aztecs knew how to distill them before colonization.
The Indigenous cultures that did have alcohol had different rituals and customs around the drinks and did not drink recreationally. Here are some of the ancient, fermented wines that indigenous people of North and South America enjoyed.
Was There Grape Wine In The Americas Before Colonization?
Most of the Indigenous wines and fermented beverages we find are made from diverse plants, yet we know that grapes were abundant in the Americas before Europeans arrived. Early studies show that the natives from the American Southern Plains might have fermented grapes. Pottery from the Toyah Phase (1300 -1600, right before Spanish colonization) contained succinic and tartaric acid, biomarkers for wine.
Because these ingredients are highly sensitive, it was hard to conclusively rule that this was wine, but the research opens up further exploration. There is evidence that native peoples made their own wine from different fruits and ingredients, though.
Balche: A Mayan Bark and Honey Wine
Made from honey and blache bark, Mayan Natives influenced many other tribes with this concoction. It was made with virgin cenote water, macerated blache bark, and melipona honey and left to ferment for three days in jicaras. The Mayans then used the beverage in ceremonies. Some texts think that blanche bark could modify consciousness, creating a trance for religious rituals.
Pulque: An Aztec Agave Wine
The Aztecs made a light wine from the sap of agave called pulque. Sap was collected by carving out the agave heart and scraping the cavity until the agave sap flowed. The sap was then put in a cask and ferments in only a few hours. You can still enjoy pulque in central Mexico. The same sap is used to make tequila today, but the process is different.
The Aztecs believed that there were supernatural origins to pulque, and they closely controlled its use to only religious ceremonies. The Aztecs only condoned drunkenness during rituals.
Pulque has nutritional benefits. It could help with indigestion and has Vitamin B and C
Pitahaya: A Piman and Papago Cactus Wine
The wine made from haren a pitahaya or the saguaro cactus was used in religious rituals of many of the tribes from southern Arizona and northern Sonara. Women were only allowed to make the beverage. They’d gather the last of the harvest’s cactus red fruits to make wine. The tradition spread to other tribes, and each created different ceremonies around the beverage.
Coyol Wine: Central American Palm Wine
Also known as chica de coyote, the alcoholic beverage is made from the sap of coyol palms and is common in southern Mexico and Central America. Different tribes from the area used coyol to eat and drink. The wine is made wine from the sap of felled trees with many legends surrounding it.
Many believe that the drink only produces a buzz when the sun is out. The beverage actually has low alcohol content but the enzyme in the coyol mimics the tipsy feeling from alcohol. Natives believe that you can feel the effects of coyol up to days later, as long as you’re in the sun.
Cacao Wine: The Earliest Chocolate
Before chocolate, there was wine. We have the fermented cacao beverage to thank for our modern-day cocoa.
Cacao is grown in pods with beans inside. The fruits were often left to ferment to better access the beans, producing a low-alcoholic beverage. Early archeological evidence from 1400 BC Honduras shows evidence of a cacao wine on pottery. It would be later when Mesoamericans experimented with water and spices to improve the taste of the cacao wine.
The Importance of Discovering Indigenous Wines
Discovering the remains of alcoholic beverages and learning more about traditional fermented drinks is more than interesting. It breaks down common stereotypes that Native Americans didn’t have alcohol until colonization.
Hopefully, more research will come out about the different alcoholic beverages the ancient indigenous peoples enjoyed.
This Day In Wine History
July 15, 2020: Dr. Crystal Dozier, an assistant professor of anthropology, published the first archeological evidence for caffeinated beverages and opened the door to further exploring grape wine evidence in pre-colonial Americas. She said of her findings, “Native Americans were making and likely consuming alcohol before European colonizers. The effects that we see in the modern era have much more to do with colonialism and poverty than it has to do with the history of making alcoholic drinks.”
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 Chemical residue evidence in Leon Plain pottery from the Toyah phase (1300–1650 CE) in the American Southern Plains. Crystal Dozier. August 2020. Balché: Sacred Maya drink. Yuncatan times. April 20, 2018. American Indian and Alaska Native Aboriginal Use of Alcohol in the United States. Patrick J. Abbott, MD. 1996.