“Clash of civilizations” is a common rhetorical trope these days. But it is as well to remember that good things can — and often do — happen when cultures come together. A paper just out in GRACE gives an example involving agrobiodiversity.1 In it, Daniel Zizumbo Villareal — the doyen of Mexican coconut studies, among other things — and his co-author set out the evidence for the origin of mezcal, the generic name for agave spirits in Mexico.2
It turns out that this most Mexican of drinks is unknown from pre-Columbian times, although of course the cooked stems and floral peduncles of various species of Agave were used as a carbohydrate source by the ancient populations of what is now western Mexico, and drinks were made from both these and their sap. But, apparently, distillation had to wait until a Filipino community became established in the Colima hills in the 16th century. They were brought over to establish coconut plantations, and started producing coconut spirits, as they had done back home. The practice was eventually outlawed in the early 17th century, and this prohibition, plus increased demand for hard liquor by miners, led to its application to agaves instead, and its rapid spread. The first record of mezcal is from 1619. Mexicans (not to mention other tequila afincionados the world over) have a lot to thank Filipinos for.
- Daniel Zizumbo-Villarreal & Patricia Colunga-GarcÃaMarÃn (2008) Early coconut distillation and the origins of mezcal and tequila spirits in west-central Mexico. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 55:493-510. [↩]
- So “tequila” is a DOC for the mezcal made from Agave tequilana Weber in the state of Jalisco and others, for example. [↩]