Amaranth

The Origin and Use of Amaranth in Ancient Mesoamerica

Amaranth, Maricopa County Extensive Office
Amaranth, Maricopa County Extensive Office. Eileen M. Kane

Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) is a grain with high nutritional value, comparable to those of maize and rice. Domesticated in the American continents about 6,000 years ago and very important to many preColumbian civilizations, amaranth virtually dropped out of use after the Spanish colonization. However, today amaranth is an important cereal because it is gluten-free and contains about twice the crude protein of wheat, rice, and maize and is high in fiber (8%), lysine, iron, magnesium, and calcium.

Key Takeaways: Amaranth

  • Scientific Name: Amaranthus cruentus, A. caudatus, and A. hypochondriacus
  • Common Names: Amaranth, huauhtli (Aztec)
  • Progenitor Plant: A. hybridus 
  • First Domesticated: ca. 6000 BCE
  • Where Domesticated: North, Central, and South America
  • Selected Changes: Seed color, shortened leaves

An American Staple

Amaranth has been a staple in the Americas for thousands of years, first collected as wild food, and then domesticated multiple times beginning about 6,000 years ago. The edible parts are the seeds, which are consumed whole toasted or milled into flour. Other uses of amaranth include animal forage, textile dyeing, and ornamental purposes.

Amaranth is a plant of the family of Amaranthaceae. About 60 species are native to the Americas, and only 15 are the species originally from Europe, Africa, and Asia. The most widespread species are A. cruentus and A. hypochondriacus native to North and Central America, and A. caudatus, from South America.

  • Amaranthus cruentus, and A. hypochondriacus are native of Mexico and Guatemala. A. cruentus is used in Mexico to produce typical sweets called alegría, in which the amaranth grains are toasted and mixed with honey or chocolate.
  • Amaranthus caudatus is a widely distributed staple food both in South America and in India. This species originated as one of the staple foods for the ancient inhabitants of the Andean region.

Amaranth Domestication

Amaranth was widely used among hunter-gatherers in both North and South America. The wild seeds, even if small in size, are produced in abundance by the plant and are easy to collect. The domesticated versions share a common ancestor, A. hybridus, but appear to have been domesticated in multiple events.

The earliest evidence of domesticated amaranth in the New World consists of seeds from Peñas de la Cruz, a mid-Holocene rock shelter in Argentina. The seeds were found in several stratigraphic levels dated between 7910 and 7220 years ago (BP). In Central America, domesticated amaranth seeds were recovered from Coxcatlan cave in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico, in contexts dated to 4000 BCE, or about 6000 BP. Later evidence, such as caches with charred amaranth seeds, has been found throughout the southwest United States and the Hopewell culture of the U.S. Midwest.

Domesticated species are usually larger and have shorter and weaker leaves which make the collection of the grains simpler. Like other grains, amaranth seeds are collected by rubbing the inflorescences between the hands.

Use of Amaranth in Mesoamerica

In ancient Mesoamerica, amaranth seeds were commonly used. The Aztec/Mexica cultivated large quantities of amaranth and it was also used as a form of tribute payment. Its name in the Aztec language Nahuatl was huauhtli.

Among the Aztecs, amaranth flour was used to make baked images of their patron deity, Huitzilopochtli, especially during the festival called Panquetzaliztli, which means “raising banners.” During these ceremonies, amaranth dough figurines of Huitzilopochtli were carried around in processions and then divided up among the population.

The Mixtecs of Oaxaca also assigned great importance to this plant. The Postclassic turquoise mosaic covering the skull encountered within Tomb 7 at Monte Alban was actually kept together by a sticky amaranth paste.

Cultivation of amaranth decreased and almost disappeared in Colonial times, under the Spanish rule. The Spanish banished the crop because of its religious importance and use in ceremonies that the newcomers were trying to extirpate.

Edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst

Selected Sources