From Drugs to Gambling, Mesoamericans Were Ahead of Their Time
The Mayans and the Aztecs remain two of the most well-known and hotly debated of the Mesoamerican civilisations. Despite the bloody history of the Aztecs, and to a lesser extent the Mayans, both civilisations discovered, invented and cultivated a mixture of food, items, and medicines which are commonly used today in the 21st century.
Medicine and drugs
The Aztecs discovered and used an extensive inventory of medicine consisting of a variety of different medicinal herbs and plants. Indigenous works recording the Aztec practices of medicine survived the Spanish conquest and are still used in Nahua (Aztecs of pre-conquest Mexico are a part of this group of people) communities today. The medical profession in Aztec society was practiced by both men and women. Aztec physicians were known as Tictil’s. Indeed, women were largely treated as equal to men in Aztec society -- in this regard, the Aztecs were far ahead of their European counterparts. When a warrior was wounded in battle, a Tictil would be called upon to take care of them. They would use knives made from volcanic glass to perform surgical procedures. The Tictil sewed wounds using fibers from planta or hair strands from an animal. Psychedelic mushrooms were given to patients to relieve them from pain, too. The Aztecs also believed that pressing a crushed plant envelope to a wound would speed up the recovery process.
Following the conquest, the Spanish wrote extensively about the medicine practiced by the Mesoamericans. Bernardino Sahagún, a Franciscan missionary who arrived in Mexico in 1529, eight years after the conquest by Hernan Cortés, describes in the text: “General History of the Things of New Spain: The Florentine Codex. Book X: The People, Their Virtues and Vices, and Other Nations” how he came to admire many qualities of the Aztecs and stated: [The Aztecs] “are held to be barbarians and of very little worth; in truth, however, in matters of culture and refinement, they are a step ahead of other nations that presume to be quite politic.”
The Aztecs and many other Mesoamerican communities also believed in magic and used it as a type of “medicine” to avoid illness. They wore amulets as a protection from illness, to avoid harm and to stave off evil. In the very late 19th century, prominent scientist Arthur Heffter managed to isolate mescaline from the peyote cactus, a plant frequently used by Tictil. He created the first isolation of a naturally occurring psychedelic substance in pure form.
Cultivating the fields
Both Mayan and Aztec civilizations gave rise to a series of cultural developments, in particular agriculture. Maize cobs in Mesoamerica date back to 3500 BC and were by far the most important crop in the region. Maize even had its own God, Hun Hunahpu who is still depicted throughout Mesoamerica. Of course, maize (corn) remains an important crop used in the 21st century.
Much of the Maya food supply was grown in gardens. However, there is evidence that both the Aztecs and Mayans used a farming technique known as “raised field” due to the numerous swampy areas of land.
Squash was also an important crop, and dates to 8000 BC. Related to the common day pumpkin, the squash was domesticated in the early Archaic period (before 2600 BC). The bottle gourd squash in particular proved extremely useful as it provided a storage space for collecting seeds for planting and was also used to transport water. Squash was also an important source of protein for the Mesoamericans, as were beans, which were another important food source.
Of course, the peoples of Mesoamerica domesticated many more plants, including, avocados, tomatoes, chilli peppers, green beans, papaya, and sunflowers.
Cotton domestication ensured the creation of textiles of multiple different colors too. In fact, a “brilliant new red” was sent to Europe by the Spanish. This so-called brilliant red was a red pigment created by the Aztecs using a parasitic scale insect known as the cochineal that lived on the cactus plant. When dried and crushed, these insects made a magnificent red colour which became highly sought by the Spanish.
Another important plant cultivated was cacao. Cacao was used both as a food, beverage, and as a currency to trade with. The Mayans used vanilla to add to the aroma of cacao and also to flavour the cacao. Tobacco in the form of dried leaves were grown regularly throughout the region and was used as a trade commodity. The Aztecs worshipped a goddess known as Cihuacoahuatl, who had a body consisting of tobacco. Priests performing human sacrifices wore tobacco gourds as symbols of divinity.
One fun fact you may not know is that popcorn came from the Aztec Empire.
Gambling in Mesoamerica
The people of the Mesoamerica cultures had fun too. Did the Aztecs like to gamble? You bet they did. Gambling influenced the culture of Mesoamericans like it has influenced almost every civilization. One of the most popular forms of gambling in ancient Mesoamerican times was betting on an ancient board game called Patolli. The board game was a feature of everyday life of the Aztecs. Several people were able to play the game at once, Diego Duran, the early Spanish investigator described Patolli:
“The goal was to come first in moving a set of pebbles from one end of the board to the other. Patolli was usually played on a mat but a board could be just traced out on the ground.
“The board was marked with 60 or 70 places for the pebbles. The places were of four kinds, apparently with distinct effects on the pebbles’ progress. The moves depended on the results of tossing dice. The dice could be made of dried beans.”
If the game looked to be a close one, onlookers would often crowd around the players to spectate. Alcoholic drinks were often at hand too. Gamblers would even call upon Macuilxochitl, the god of games for divine inspiration and help. Unfortunately, some players gambled themselves into slavery. Fights over cheating and swindling were common, especially as the stakes rose. According to one Spanish historian, “heads were constantly split open” which modern historians believe were down to fights.
It seems that in the 21st century, many gambling games have taken inspiration from Mesoamerica. History inspired high variance slots, many of which are based on the Aztecs, are popular among modern day gamblers. Indeed, in Aztec culture there seemed to be two choices for most of the underclass in society to gain wealth: gamble or join the army. Joining the army was more likely to yield wealth and standing.
Aztec parents did warn their children regarding gambling. Aztec kings tried to control the game to prevent a craze in Patolli. In Tenochtitlan (modern day historic center of Mexico City), Patolli was of immense popularity.
Calendar systems and 2012 end-of-the-world theory
Calendars were employed by lots of different Mesoamerican civilizations. The Maya created a complex calendar system dating back to at least 5 BC. This calendar system became rather notorious in 2012 when numerous commentators falsely stated that the Mayans predicted that the world would come to an end in 2012. In fact, the Maya never predicted that the world would end in 2012. Instead, a large period on the calendar came to an end on 21 December 2012 (the end of Bak’tun 13).
Boston University archaeologist William Saturno stated in National Geographic that the structure of the Mayan text confused modern minds that have a “penchant for literal, straightforward reading.” Many 21st-century thinkers used poetic flourish to initiate the thought that on the 21 December 2012, ‘the god will come down and start a new cycle, bringing an end to the old world with a new world being reborn.’ In reality, there was nothing in ancient Maya texts which stated this.
Those that believed that the Maya knew the exact date on which the world would come to an end were of pains to explain how the same civilization was not able to predict its own collapse through the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores.
Cortés and Moctezuma meet again
On Nov. 8, 2019, the descendants of Hernan Cortés and Moctezuma II (the ruler of the Aztec empire when the Spanish landed) met and shared a hug where their forebearers had met exactly 500 years to the day. When asked if Mexico needs an apology from Spain, Moctezuma’s descendant remarket “No, in the end, we are all family now.”