There is a growing movement among Indigenous cultural practitioners that advocates for the adoption of a vegan diet (or plant-based diet). Often times, the claim is made that our Indigenous ancestors maintained a vegan diet in pre-columbian times.
This blog entry is devoted to a) identifying the pre-Columbian diet that existed in Mexico, b) analyzing the nutritional value of this diet and c) exploring the claim that this diet was vegan or plant-based.
To begin the primary sources we have available to us are frustratingly scant in details about actual meals that were eaten in Pre-Columbian times. For example, although we know our ancestors didn’t drink animal milk (because they were lactose intolerant and physically couldn’t even if they wanted to. Many of us today have inherited this genetic trait.), we don’t know what they used if they wanted to acquire a milk-like drink. We also don’t know what they used in place of eggs, butter, cheese, and cream (if anything). The actual foods that were eaten however are very well-documented. We can therefore use this information to reconstruct the Pre-Columbian diet pretty accurately although it is more difficult to know exactly how these foods were combined together to construct meals. Most likely these meals closely resembled modern day dishes found across Mexico minus the foreign ingredients (or substituted with a Native animal such as deer or turkey for example instead of pork or beef).
The Codex Mendoza
The second part of the Codex Mendoza contains a very important section that details the tribute sent to Tenochtitlan from various altepetls throughout the solar year. Many items such as feathers and gold are included in the tribute list. Fortunately for us, food is also listed. Various food items such as honey and cacao were sent to Tenochtitlan but four food sources were clearly the most important: corn, beans, chia, and amaranth. They were clearly the most important because these foods appear in the tribute list the most frequently and also volume-wise they are the most numerous (they were sent in large bins compared to ‘little jars of honey’ for example).
The Florentine Codex
If we reference only the Codex Mendoza tribute list it would appear that Mexicans were indeed vegan in pre-Columbian but the Florentine Codex tells a different story. Book 11, is devoted to Earthly things, is one of the largest books in the series, and details all of the different foods eaten by Mexicans in pre-Columbian times. It is a very exhaustive list and fortunately it also details which plants and animals were eaten. To summarize, Mexicans ate pretty much any plants, animals, and insect they deemed to be edible. Of the rabbit, it is written for example “it is good-tasting, savory, healthful, the best.” Of the wild turkey, it is written “it is edible, savory, good-tasting, fat.” Anyone familiar with modern Indigenous cuisine will not be surprised that insects were also consumed in pre-Columbian times. Black ants were said to be “eaten, savory, and cooked in an olla” and the maguey worms were said to be “edible, savory, good-tasting.”
Based on the food descriptions that are detailed in Book 11 it appears as though fish and turkey were likely the most widely consumed animals in pre-Columbian times. Fish because of the various bodies of water in and around Mexico and turkey because it was one of the species of animal that was domesticated. Intentionally bred to be large (compared to its wild counterpart) to maximize the amount of meat on its bones unintentionally led to the loss of flight and the domestic turkey was further fattened up on a diet of “corn, tortillas, tamales, chili, and greens.” Indeed, the Nahua authors of Book 11 proclaim “the turkey leads the meats; it is the master. It is tasty, fat, savory” and go on to explain that the turkey was actively raised in homes across Mexico.
At the end of book of the Florentine Codex there appears a very important section that details “our sustenance.” Five foods appear on this list: squash, beans, corn, amaranth, and chia (for brevity’s sake these five foods will be referred to as ‘our sustenance’). This conveniently substantiates the foods that appear in the Codex Mendoza tribute list above. Whenever Nahuas write about “our sustenance (tonacaiotl),” they quite literally mean to say these are the most essential foods that keep everyone alive and not only alive, but also healthy, or using an indigenous concept, full of tona.
In the table that follows, you will find a breakdown of every single micronutrient and macronutrient that the human body needs that are provided by squash, beans, corn, amaranth and additionally, fish. Altogether, the calories from these food are a little over 2,000 calories, the amount of food energy a typical sedentary human needs to eat to maintain their current weight. The last page of the table shows the totals for the plant-based version and the final total after the addition of fish.
|Food||Grams||Calories||Vitamin A||Vitamin C||Vitamin D||Vitamin E||Vitamin K||Thiamin||Riboflavin||Niacin||Vitamin B6||Folate||Vitamin B12||Protein||Calcium||Iron||Magnesium||Phosphorus||Potassium||Sodium||Zinc||Copper||Manganese||Selenium||Carbs||fiber||tot fat||sat fat||Mono fat||poly fat||omega-3||omega-6|
Nutritional Analysis of Our Sustenance
A quick glance at the table above shows that squash, beans, corn, and amaranth alone account for almost all of the nutrition our bodies need. No wonder so many of our native foods have been declared “super foods”!
Vitamin A, D, E, and K are very important vitamins that are stored in the body. According to the table above, ‘our sustenance’ provides 65%, 0%, 14%, and 69% of our suggested daily intake. Your first instinct reading that is probably that the numbers seem low. Well, they are, and when it comes to fat-soluble vitamins that is actually a good thing because ingesting too much can easily lead to toxicity and several unpleasant symptoms including death. Vitamin D is produced in the body with the help of sunlight so as long as we get enough sun, this is not a problem that it is not ingested in food. In addition, these low levels can be easily boosted with the addition of vitamin A, D, E, and K-rich foods such as avocados and sweet potatoes. For example, eating one avocado a day adds 4% of the suggested daily value of vitamin A, 16% of the suggested daily value of vitamin E, and 39% of the suggested daily value of vitamin K.
The remaining vitamins in the table are present in very high amounts with Vitamin C the highest at 368%. This type of vitamin is not stored in the body and any excess is expelled in urine. Therefore, in contrast to fat-soluble vitamins, the risk of toxicity is not a concern.
A common claim by vegans is that plants produce enough protein to sustain the human body. Based on the analysis of ‘our sustenance’ in the table above before the addition of fish, we can see that 143% of a person’s daily required protein is provided. This is a very high number for plant-based foods and is one example of the power of our ancestral foods. A common counterargument proposed by meat-eaters is that although plants do contain protein, they have incomplete amino acid profiles. Amino acids are very important because they combine together to make new protein in the body. Without an adequate supply of each amino acid, the new protein will not form. A glance at the amino acid profile of both corn and beans however quickly dispels this notion. The plant-based diet of ‘our sustenance’ provides more than enough protein and also contains a complete amino acid profile.
Omega 3 is a type of fat that has recently been discovered to have a myriad of functions in the human body. Consumption of Omega 3 is not as straightforward as the previous macro nutrients and vitamins because to be helpful it needs to be consumed in an amount that is higher than that of Omega 6, another type of fat. Compounding this problem is the fact that very few foods world-wide contain a large amount of Omega 3s while many contain an abundance of Omega 6s. The typical Western diet for example maintains an Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio of about 15/1. This is a terrible ratio that greatly contributes to cardiovascular disease, various cancers, and a multitude of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Studies have shown that successful reduction of this ratio to 4/1 decreases the chance of death by a staggering 70% (source: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12442909/)! In the nutritional analysis above with and without the addition of fish, the Omega6/Omega 3 ratio of our ancestral diet is about 1/2. This is an extraordinary ratio that would be very hard to find in other places of the world. Based on this ratio alone (and taking into account that many of the other foods our ancestors ate such as peanuts have high Omega 6 and low Omega 3 content) we can safely conclude that our ancestors probably maintained extremely low rates of diet-related cardiovascular, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
Up to this point, a compelling case can be made that our ancestral plant-based ‘our sustenance’ diet proves our ancestors didn’t need to eat meat. Referring again to our nutritional analysis table above, the plant-based ‘our sustenance’ diet contains 0% of the B12 our body needs whereas the addition of fish increases that number to 99%. A Vitamin C deficiency leads to scurvy which causes bleeding gums, bruising, and fatigue. A Vitamin A deficiency leads to dry skin, frequent infections, and eventually blindness. A Vitamin B12 deficiency leads to irreversible brain and nerve damage and left untreated can trigger irreversible early onset dementia. All of these symptoms are scary for sure but the permanency of the Vitamin B12 deficiency stands out. Now that we are on the same page about how important this vitamin is, it needs to be understood that despite numerous claims on social media, Vitamin B12 can only be produced by animals. To be more precise, its not actually produced by animals but by the bacteria that live in the stomachs of animals. When the animal is killed and eaten, we reap the benefits by ingesting the B12 into our bodies.
Claims have been made by vegans that various foods such as seaweed and the spirulina grown (the Nahuatl word for sprirulina is tecuitlatl or rock shit) by our ancestors in Tenochtitlan contain B12. These foods however have been shown to contain pseudovitamin B12 which is very similar chemically to the vitamin b12 but can’t be used by the human body. B12 supplements do exist, the best of which come in the Cyanobalamin form. Theoretically, it is possible to maintain a plant-based diet similar to the one discussed at length here with the addition of B12 supplements and be completely healthy. Many people who are in the process of decolonizing their diets manage this successfully. It is very important to note that supplements come in massive doses of B12. For example, one brand contains 3,000 mcg of Vitamin B12 in each tablet whereas the daily recommended dose of Vitamin B12 for humans is only 2.4 mcg. This is because the human body only absorbs Vitamin B12 at an efficient rate when it is present in the meat of an animal. Everybody is different and some people may not be able to acquire the required amount of B12 even with heavy supplementation. I recommend that if you are attempting a vegan diet to get your B12 levels checked regularly to ensure a deficiency does not develop. It is also important to note that our bodies can store high amounts of B12 in our liver for up to three years and like other water soluble vitamins, intaking very high amounts of B12 cannot harm you (any excess will be expelled in urine).
Analysis of our ancestral diet, tonacaiotl “our sustenance,” shows that it is highly nutritious especially when compared to the Western diet many Indigenous people consume today. A review of the primary sources available to us show the claim that our ancestral diets were vegan is unsubstantiated and our ancestral diet was instead composed of various plants, animals, and insects. Unfortunately there is not enough data to reach a definitive conclusion, but it is possible (because of how b12 is stored in the liver) that our ancestors maintained a plant-based diet most of the time and ate meat sparingly. In conclusion, we should strive to decolonize our diets, reclaim the foods that have been lost to us over time, and take pride in the foods that have survived in our diets to the present day.
Want to get started with an Indigenous plant-based diet? Check out Luz Calvo’s recipe book Decolonize Your Diet:
Nutritional Analysis Sources: