Spirulina, a history of food in Ancient Mexico

Spirulina, a history of food in Ancient Mexico

Spirulina lovers & ancient history fans keep reading! This is the story of the most ancient modern food.

We will now explore the myths & origin of the cultivation of Spirulina related to the Lake Texcoco, which surrounded the Aztec capital named Teotihuacan on which the modern Mexico City is built. Its name means “City of the Gods” or “City of the Sun”.

 “It is said that when the earth was still dark, when there was yet no warmth, nor day, nor light, the Teteo (Gods) came together at Teotihuacan to take counsel"

/…/ Come here, oh Teteo! Who shall carry the sun? Who shall bear it? The warming, the dawning? The burning fire? The celestial Light? Who shall leap into the Spirit Fire?

From: “The Birth of the Fifth Sun", the Mexica (Aztec) sacred narrative which tells of the birth of our current Sun and Moon.

Here are some of the first historic descriptions written by monks and chroniclers about the uses and customs of Tecuitlatl, the ancestral Mexican Spirulina, classified as a mineral, the harvesting methods appear to be the same as in other areas of the world where Spirulina grows:

“They collect a very fine mud of blue color which they call Tecuitlatl meaning extract or secretions of stones. The original full name is Teocuitlahuatl.

“They put it to dry in the sun and eat it in small amounts with tortillas or use it to season the corn.”

“… and then fishermen and others sell some rolls that are made from slime, that they take from that great lagoon, which curdles and from which they make breads that have a flavor similar to cheese".

“They ate not only of the living things, but also of some silty substance that overflowed in the lake, which they collected with paddles and nets, dried a little in the sun and turned into cakes that were dried again and kept to serve as cheese, whose taste it mimics. They gave to this substance the name of Tecuitlatl” (stone excrement).

 “Accustomed to these and similar foods, the Mexicans did not discard them even in times of their greatest abundance, and thus the markets of a thousand spices were seen at all times … “.

 “When it is recent, its harvest is blue or green, of silty color when old, green turning to black, edible only in a very small amount, and this instead of salt or corn seasoning.”

Few were the Spaniards who ventured into tasting this “cheese" with a certain smell of silt.

The chief conqueror Hernán Cortés himself in his Reporting Letters (XVI century) mentions this slime once.

Origins and foundation

The early history of the Teotihuacan State is unclear. Around 300 BCE, people began to form large settlements in the central and southeastern area of Mesoamerica. The eruption of the volcano Xitle hastened the foundation of Tenochtitlan the largest urban center of Mesoamerica before the Aztecs, who ruled 1000 years later when the city was in ruins.

Colonial period texts, such as the Florentine Codex, mistakenly attributed the site to the Toltecs, because this name also means “craftsman of the highest level" and may not always refer to the Toltec civilization which flourished centuries after Teotihuacan.

Of a number of urban centers in central Mexico, the most prominent was Cuicuilco, on the southern shore of Lake Texcoco which was destroyed by the eruption of the Xitle volcano (100 BCE) and which may have prompted a mass emigration out of the central valley into the Teotihuacan Valley and probably contributed to the growth of the new capital Tenochtitlan.

 Lake Texcoco (Spanish: Lago de Texcoco) was a natural lake within the Valley of Mexico called “Anahuac". The predecessors of the Aztecs built the city of Tenochtitlan, which was located on an island within the lake.

After the conquest of the Aztec Empire, efforts to control flooding by the Spanish led to most of the lake being drained. The entire lake basin is now almost completely occupied by nowadays Mexico City, the capital of Mexico.

According to a traditional story, the Mexica wandered for 100 years before they came to the dense forests in the Valley of Mexico.

Tenochtitlan was founded on an islet in the western part of the lake in the year 1325, on the 20th of June, coinciding with the summer solstice, and important date in their religious calendar.

The vision of an eagle on a nopal cactus with a snake in its beak confirmed the chiefs it was the long sought-after place. This image is still the emblem of Mexico (country).

The city was surrounded by two ponds using a system similar to the creation of Chinampas (floating orchards) used to cultivate their food. To overcome the problems of drinking water and control the level of the lake, the Aztecs built a system of dams to separate the salty waters from the rain water and surrounding springs of sweet water. In the salty water pond, the Spirulina seaweed thrived and was part of their staple food. The city also had an inner system of channels and ingenious sewage discharge.

The Aztec ruler Ahuitzotl attempted to build an aqueduct that would take fresh water from the mainland to the lakes surrounding Teotihuacan. The construction failed, and the city suffered a major flood in 1502.

The destruction of the Tenochtitlan State sadly confirmed the astronomical predictions made by its rulers several centuries before:

Helped by Tenochtitlan’s local enemies, Cortés’s siege and capture of the city, 26th May to 13th August 1521, resulted in severe damage to the gardens and dams especially which were destroyed, and never rebuilt, so flooding became a recurrent problem for the new Mexico City built over Teotihuacan.

Some scholars think its further cultivation was even discouraged by the conquerors, and disrupted by the damage to the environment. The consumption of Tecuitlatl fell progressively in disuse, and is not mentioned in any text from the 16th century on.

At the beginning of the 17th century the lake flooded the city twice. In 1629 another flood kept most of the city covered for five years, the drains were inefficient. Nevertheless Spanish authorities decided to keep the current location instead of relocating the city.

Not even the efforts to drain the lake into the Pánuco River succeeded, leaving the city under the water level for centuries. The construction of the Drenaje Profundo (“Deep Drainage System”) in 1967 finally succeeded at the cost of the whole ecological balance of the area which turned semi-arid.

Today Mexico City still suffers from lack of water and its floor level has dropped 10 meters this last century due to excessive extraction depleting the water reserves beneath the city.

Built on the very unstable soil composed by soft lake sediments, Mexico City is vulnerable to earthquakes. In 1985 earthquake hundreds of buildings collapsed resulting in thousand causalities.

The salt marshes situated 4 km east of Mexico City, which covers the ancient lake bed are the only remnants of it, together with the diminished lakes of Chalco, Xochimilco, and Zumpango whose fauna and flora has been irreparably endangered.

The Mexican company, “Sosa Texcoco S.A" exploits an 800-hectare solar evaporator known as El Caracol used to process the waters and extracting salts from it.

An attempt was made by the company to take advantage of the Spirulina which grew accidentally in its installation and made an effort to regrow it, but failed to do so.

What was Teotihuacan?

The eruption of the **Xitle volcano may have prompted a mass emigration out of the central Valley of Mexico into the Teotihuacan area. These settlers may have contributed to the foundation of Teotihuacan, the “City of the Gods” and its accelerated growth.

 After wandering for about 260 years in the Valley of Mexico guiding their people, to find their “promised land”, a group of intellectually eager leaders and priest-astronomers had a spark of genius, and with the knowledge they had accumulated, took the first steps to build the largest, most impressive city in Mesoamerica. (Actual Mexico and Central America)

The legend has it that they were also guided by mystic revelations and were looking for a marvelous lake with an island in the middle “where the eagle standing on a nopal * would devour the snake”. This would be the signal they had arrived to the promised land.

*The nopal, also known as prickly pear, is a species of cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica)

**estimated at 1 century BCE or 4th CE

They found it and settled, no matter how hard the struggle with surrounding original inhabitants to make the area accessible and suitable for living. The visionaries’ “signal" is the emblem of modern days Mexico.

Those were the first steps of the period known as Proto-Teotihuacano or Patlachique, which lasted approximately from 100 BCE to the beginning of our era, followed by the period known as Teotihuacan I or Tzacualli, which lasted for 150 years. Since then, the news of the existence of the city had spread throughout Mesoamerica, and with them, people began to arrive from distant lands, some in ceremonial visit, others to settle.

Founded around 100 BCE, with major monuments continuously under construction until about 250 CE the city had about 30,000 inhabitants and extended between 13 and 17 km2.  Testimony of the increase due to emigration was a colony of people from Oaxaca, about 3 km west of the City. The city going through constant growth and change lasted until the 7th or 8th centuries CE, but its major monuments were sacked and burned around 550 CE.

Teotihuacan began as a religious center and became fast the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas, with a population who ended up reaching around 125,000 or more inhabitants making it at least the sixth largest city in the world during its epoch.

Spanish conquerors’ sources estimate the population reached 200,000 by the end of the XV century (1487).

Putting things into perspective, that would be like a city of the size of New-York or Tokio nowadays.

 80 to 90 percent of the total population of the surrounding valley resided in Teotihuacan. Besides the pyramids, Teotihuacan is also anthropologically significant for its complex, multi-family residential area, a sort of multi-floor apartment compounds built to accommodate the large population.

Teotihuacan became the center of a state empire, with influence throughout Mesoamerica; evidence of Teotihuacanos’ presence can be seen at numerous sites in the Mayan region.

Scholars have suggested that Teotihuacan was a multi-ethnic state composed by Nahua, Otomi ethnic groups that lived and ruled together in relative harmony.

Spirulina already as a staple food

From the above, the question arises about how such a large population was fed, especially in a country whose agriculture and livestock were not extensive.

How was the food supply organized for such a big city?

The staple food was corn (70 to 80 % of the diet); however, the varieties that were cultivated at that time were of course not massively produced. According to the descriptions of the conquistadors about the large market of Tenochtitlán, it seems that the general population didn’t have neither varied nor abundant food resources yet appeared to be in good health. Warriors who were famous for their strength and endurance and elite probably had better access to proper resources and nutrition.

The challenge to cover basic food needs was in part ingeniously solved by the use of the famous Chinampas, known as floating orchards and food sources obtained from the lakes.

According to sixteenth-century chroniclers, Spirulina was one of those foods that were made available.

The micro algae spirulina, or Tecuitlatl, as they called it, was collected from the surface of lakes in the Mexican basin, and was particularly important as a source of protein, vitamins and minerals, especially in times were other staple food were scarce due to climate irregularities or other natural disasters like floods.

The Aztecs, one of the most developed late civilizations of pre-Columbian America, formed by the ancient settlers of Mexico-Tenochtitlán, maintained a diet based on corn (approx. 80% of the diet), tomatoes (xiltomatl), various plants from the cucurbits family (squash, zapayo, chayote), roots like jicama, chilies, onions, nopal (cactus), several seed like chia (another staple considered a superfood today) and amaranth, fruits, fowl, insects & insects’ roe, and tecuitlatl (spirulina), among other foods. The addition of spirulina to their staple food (corn) had a very important role to ensure a sufficient, correct and balanced diet.

Some Spanish conquerors duly compiled lists of all the animals, plants and food they found in the new conquered territories. Recent researchers have found mentions of this algae in the works of several monks and friars who befriended the local population and learned their language:

Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, Francisco Hernández and the friar Toribio de Benavente, among others, described with great precision the harvest by the Aztecs, at certain times of the year and in some places of the lake of Texcoco of a “very fine mud of blue color" which consisted mainly of this seaweed.

Tecuitlatl is a shortened Nahuatl term that means “extract or secretions of stones”. The original complete name is teocuitlahuatl.

Nevertheless, as the city was taken over by the conquerors, the use of tecuitlatl was progressively abandoned and almost forgotten; it was not mentioned anymore after the late sixteenth century, according to renowned Miguel León Portilla, Mexican anthropologist and historian and main authority on Nahuatl thought and literature.

Many efforts have been made recently to reintroduce the consumption of tecuitlatl in Mexico and beyond, as part of a cultural revival movement of ancestral roots. This ancestral staple food has an incomparable value and deserves a rewarded place in our modern food chain too.

One of the oldest foods on Earth. Spirulina’s presence on Earth is prior to that of any vegetable or animal that we know, has no parallel with any any food grown or occurring naturally on earth and is a great promise for the future of the entire humanity. Further even the NASA acknowledge it would be the staple food per excellence for any space mission, particularly even a prospective colonization and settlement on planet Mars.

Spirulina first developed on earth some 3,5 billion years ago (only!) on the central part of the Mexican high plateau, a land of lakes and ponds ideal for its growth and an area where volcanoes created fertile valleys and amazing climatic conditions.

The prehistoric times and the ancient history of central Mexico cover at least ten thousand years and algae, especially microalgae, have been used as food since then; the ancient memories and traditions have been preserved through the ancient codex by the invaders and the oral tradition transmitted not only by the Aztecs, but also their Texcocan, Tlaxcala, and other neighbors, as well as their Toltec predecessors.

Algae (seaweeds) today have an important role in the culinary traditions of many countries, especially in Asia, in China and Japan, in some areas around like Tchad in Africa and to a lesser extent in Latin America. (Chile, Mexico). Arthrospira maxima is the strain that grows in Texcoco and other lakes in Latin America, while Arthrospira platensis is the one found in Africa.

Close to the Aztec influence area, the Mayan culture of the Yucatan Peninsula lived in a fragile balance in the middle of the jungle, whose conditions were not suitable for agriculture. Their tribes extended from Yucatan to Central America and little is known about their eating habits, and there are not many data about the consumption of spirulina among the Mayans.

However, some researchers specialized into these micro algae, such as the Belgian Jean Leonard, the Japanese Hiroshi Nakamura and the American Christopher Hills mentioned in their writings that there is evidence that the Mayans also used spirulina in some foods such as bread or soups, as part of their daily diet and that these referred to foods with spirulina as recommended combinations for a healthy life.

There is much more evidence and records from Aztec sources about their eating habits which were usually complete and balanced, both quantitatively and qualitatively. This can be attributed, among other factors, to certain special foods such as the tecuitlatl, the Nahuatl name given to spirulina who was an important ingredient in the Aztec diet.

Despite being forgotten a few centuries later, several authors today suggest that this microalgae was one of the most important foods, if not the most important food that contributed to the growth of the population in the Aztec period.

The tecuitlatl, whose scientific name is Arthrospira maxima, was a palatable food for the natives of central Mexico, also liked by some of the Spaniards who consumed it, who compared it with European cured cheese.

The first historic record about the human consumption of spirulina comes from Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of the companions of the troops of Hernán Cortés, who pointed out in 1521 that spirulina was harvested from the waters of the Lake Texcoco, sieved and dried in the sun and then sold in the market of Tenochtitlán.

Protagonist of the Conquest in the sixteenth century, he was one of the first Spaniards to enter the great Tenochtitlan. He describes his vivid experiences visiting the markets of that time, mentioning briefly but clearly, this slime or silt:

“… and then fishermen and others sell some rolls that are made from slime, that they take from that great lagoon, which curdles and from which they make breads that have a flavor similar to cheese".

Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztecs, was built on an island within Lake Texcoco, whose saline waters were not suitable for human consumption. The island was connected to the rest of the Texcoco extensions through three raised path.

The former lake area of what is now the Valley of Mexico ranged from Xochimilco to Texcoco, was divided into two segments, one with fresh water in the South, in which some fish lived; and the other in the North, saline and smaller.

Its high concentration of mineral salts resulted in non-drinkable water. It was surrounded by an elevated path which allowed its level to be higher than the larger segment. For the Spaniards, the Northern saline segment was considered useless, while for the initial settlers it was their sacred food source Europeans had never seen before: spirulina.

But it is precisely this alkaline water that allowed tecuitlatl to thrive. Spirulina is an extremophile organism able to adapt and reproduce in extreme conditions of alkalinity and salinity such as those prevailing in this part of the lake. In these conditions, spirulina proliferates almost as a monoculture.

The drinkable water supplying the populated city came from the largest Southern segment and was channeled through an aqueduct.

The size and sight of Tenochtitlan astonished Hernán Cortés and his companions upon their arrival in 1520. Nevertheless his estimates of the population were always ridiculed as exaggerations; however, Cortés’s description of sixty thousand families is perfectly reasonable and agrees with the estimate that Humboldt would make later on. Even from a moderate estimate, it was a much more populated cities than those in Europe.

It was astonishing to see that such large settlements were able to provide sufficient food to their population and beyond. Spirulina (Tecuitlatl) was probably traded with the Mayans and other nearby populations.

The use of this seaweed to reach a balanced diet was overlooked during a long time by scholars and conquerors alike. Nevertheless, it seems to have been the key of their strong health. It was sold in the markets and was consumed by adding it to corn preparations, especially patties, breads and traditional tortillas, and added to a sauce containing chilies and tomatoes with little to no indications about the amount used. Other texts mention combinations of amaranth and beans with some insects.

The conquerors observed that the ponds were often covered by a foamy green mantle, and that the slime seemed to adhere to the shores of the pond and its stones, giving the impression to emanate from them. Hence the meaning of the name tecuitlatl.

Tecuitlatl (te-cuit-latl) is the short form for teocuitlahuatl. Very likely the Spaniards found it hard to pronounce and preferred to use tecuitlatl instead. The Florentine Codex gives three more names for the tecuitlatl: acuitlatl, azoquitl and amomoxtli.

What is behind the name teocuitlahuatl?

Teo in náhuatl means sagrado or divinity,

Cuitla excretion, exsudation, emanation or germination,

Tlalli means earth

Hua, is used to describe containers, vases or bowls or a matrix;

tl the ending of the word (sufix) is the article “the".

So here we have:

Teo-cuitla-hua-tl: the sacred excretion emanating from the earth.

From similar etymology the name Teotihuacan, their sacred city, meaning the “City of the Gods” or “City where humans become Gods” or maybe also Teouacan the “City of the Sun”.

The peasants who lived near the edges of the lagoon, collected on the water itself this floating substance or tecuitlatl, that was squeezed to make bread or cheese like squares and sold it in the markets for the rest of the population.

The reference that the chroniclers use of the cheese is only an analogy so that it can be understood what is meant by this food unknown to Europeans; this comparison, although it helps in the form and in a certain appearance, hides the great difference: the nutritional value, of course in favor of spirulina, who also seemed to have a special place during certain festivities, the new harvest was offered to the elite, the chiefs & warriors, and only sold afterwards into the markets.

“… which turned into cakes when cooked, remains with a dark green color, which the Spaniards call the cheese of the earth"

From tecuitlatl to spirulina, its rediscovery and recent use

The modern name of spirulina comes from its spiral like shape, once investigated under a microscope. Laboratory researched discovered a wide range of properties and nutrients which are outstanding.

The seaweed was unfortunately unknown by most Mexican in our times and despite of efforts to reintroduce it into the normal diet, even in schools, it failed to reach the level of acceptance it had in the past.

An experiment was even made by school canteens to mix spirulina powder into the chocolate topping of donuts, but children preferred the regular taste of donuts, being heavy influenced by the “American way of eating", mainly attracted by junk food.

Yet there is some vague collective memory reminiscence that was kept alive by a small group trying to rekindle the ethnic customs of Aztecs.

Nowadays Spirulina as a superfood is ironically being reintroduced due to the appreciation it has in the developed nations. Its (re)discovery also followed some success in Africa, where the Kanembus kept using it during centuries. Several scientists and research institutes confirmed the nutritional value of the seaweed.

The physical well being and athletic resistance of the Kanembus was attributed to their regular  consumption of Spirulina harvested in their lakes.

Meanwhile, in Mexico the company Sosa Texcoco exploiting the lake of the same name, after many problems declared bankruptcy and the initial project of Spirulina production which was very promising was totally stopped and the area sold to build a residential complex. Despite the efforts to some groups, even supported by the government, to grow it nearby, they had to stop the project again due to the heavy contamination or the area and transported their project as a whole to the desert of Atacama in Chile, where the environmental conditions were far better. For now, most of the spirulina consumed in Mexico is imported. Hawai and China are the main recent producers.

The cultivation of tecuitlatl in its original ancient site is now a vestige of the past, the ancient city and the archaeological site of Teotihuacán are located in what is now the San Juan Teotihuacán municipality in the State of México, approximately 40 kilometres northeast of Mexico City.

It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 being the most visited archaeological site in Mexico.

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Departmento de Bioquímica, Facultad de Medicina e Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas; Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. P.O.B. 70-159, México D.F. 04510, México.

Soutelle, J. (2006). La vida cotidiana de los aztecas en vísperas de la Conquista (decimosexta ed.). México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Taylor, E. (1861). Anahuac. London: Longmans.

  • Vargas, L. A. (2000). The history and culture of food and drink in the Americas. En K. Kiple, & K. Ornelas, The Cambridge World History of Food (Vol. II, pá 1248-1254). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Recent researchers have found mentions of this algae in the works of:

Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún (Ciferri, 1983),

Francisco Hernández and the friar Toribio de Benavente (Ramírez LO, 2006),

Websites

https://www.algaespirulina.mx/pub/uploads/PDF%20ESPIRULINA/28.pdf

https://ethnobiology.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/JoE/21-1/Ortega-etal.pdf

United Nations World Health Organization (WHO)

http://iimsam.org/en/iimsam-spirulina-resource-centre/

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0191887#abstract0https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5788361/