At Agave Festival Marfa, a cinematic journey into ancient Indigenous foodways
It's one of the planet's oldest agricultural traditions. The “Three Sisters” — corn, beans and squash — have been cultivated for more than 8,000 years. And these crops help sustain the world today.
Yet what are the roots of this enduring agricultural heritage? Why and how did ancient Native Americans domesticate these plants?
Biologists Patricia Colunga, Daniel Zizumbo and Alondra Flores have probed those questions, and their findings are featured in “Mesoamerican Diet: Origins.” A screening of the film is the kick-off event for Agave Festival Marfa, Thursday, June 1, at 2 p.m. at the Crowley Theater.
Three Sisters agriculture flourished across Indigenous North America, including in the Chihuahuan Desert. But it originated in central Mexico. The first people to arrive here found a rich diversity of edible plants — including the wild ancestors of corn, beans and squash. And, these researchers argue, they crafted a diet of that wild abundance. Only later, through selective breeding, did they transform the wild plants into crops.
To trace this deep story, Colunga and her colleagues traveled to the state of Jalisco, the likely birthplace of the Three Sisters. “Mesoamerican Diet: Origins” follows that journey.
“What we were looking for is if they know how to make these dishes with the wild ancestors,” Colunga said, “and without ceramics. And it was not difficult. They ate them when they were children.”
Archaic imprints endure here in traditional foodways. Corn, beans and squash are vital, but elders can also cook with wild foods. And they can prepare signature dishes with technologies used by their pre-agricultural forebears.
There is pinole, a flour made with toasted wild corn seeds and sweetened with wild anise plants. Seeds of the native elephant ear tree are roasted on hot coals, and mixed with chiles to make salsa. Rock hollows are used for fermentation, including for the fruit beverages called “tepaches.”
Such fermented drinks were central in the traditional diet. As Colunga's son, Geronimo Zizumbo, points out, there is growing recognition today of the probiotic qualities of such drinks.
“What we're talking about is a great example of how we have lost certain things,” Zizumbo said, “but then they have come back through other cultures — for example, kombucha. These fermented beverages with local plants are a great way to acquire microbiome and keep it healthy.”
Native peoples began slow-roasting agaves in the Ice Age, and in Jalisco, the researchers found that agave is key. It's used as a sweetener. Dried agave is eaten with atole, a hot corn-flour beverage. And agave is mixed with wild beans in tamales.
Indeed, tamales are a mainstay. While tortillas require a ceramic or metal comal, tamales can be cooked in earth ovens. It's a food that likely dates to the foraging past.
“Tamales — it's un platillo muy versatil,” Colunga said. “Tamales is one of the oldest dishes in the Mesoamerican diet, older than tortillas. Tamales has a great diversity, because you can mix it with anything you want — salty or sweet.”
It's compelling to consider that the roots of these dishes may lie in the hunter-gatherer past. But the implications for contemporary people are profound.
The microbiomes of those of Indigenous and mestizo descent are finely adapted to this 10,000-year-old cuisine. With the displacement of that diet by processed foods, diabetes and obesity have skyrocketed in Mexico and the borderlands. Colunga advocates an aggressive campaign to return to these ancient foodways.
“Mesoamerican Diet: Origins” is an intimate look at those foodways, and the people who've preserved them.
“The film is filled with amazing dishes,” Colunga said, “and the people who prepare them. It's almost like a cooking show. If you like food, and you like eating, you'll love this film.”
A Q and A with the researchers will follow the June 1 screening.