The Domestication History of Agave, Maguey, and Henequen

Arid, Semiarid, and Temperate Plant Domesticate of North America

Agave Plant, Genoa Italy
An agave is displayed at Euroflora 2011 International Flower Fair held at Fiera di Genova on April 22, 2011 in Genoa, Italy. Stefania D'Alessandro / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Maguey or agave (also called the century plant for its long life) is a native plant (or rather, lots of plants) from the North American continent, now cultivated in many parts of the world. Agave belongs to the family Asparagaceae which has 9 genera and around 300 species, about 102 taxa of which are used as human food.

Agave grows in arid, semiarid, and temperate forests of the Americas at elevations between sea level to about 2,750 meters (9,000 feet) above sea level, and thrives in agriculturally marginal parts of the environment.

Archaeological evidence from Guitarrero Cave indicates that agave was first used at least as long as 12,000 years ago by Archaic hunter-gatherer groups.

Main Species

Some of the major agave species, their common names and primary uses are:

  • Agave angustifolia, known as Caribbean agave; consumed as food and aguamiel (sweet sap) 
  • A. fourcroydes or henequen; grown primarily for its fiber
  • A. inaequidens, called maguey alto because of its height or maguey bruto because the presence of saponins in its tissue can cause dermatitis;  30 different uses including food and aguamiel
  • A. hookeri, also called maguey alto, is used primarily for its fibers, sweet sap, and sometimes used to form live fences
  • A. sisalana or sisal hemp, primarily fiber
  • A. tequilana, blue agave, agave azul or tequila agave; primarily for sweet sap
  • A. salmiana or green giant, grown mainly for sweet sap

Agave Products

In ancient Mesoamerica, maguey was used for a variety of purposes.

From its leaves, people obtained fibers to make ropes, textiles, sandals, construction materials, and fuel. The agave heart, the plant's above-ground storage organ that contains carbohydrates and water, is edible by humans. The stems of the leaves are used to make small tools, such as needles. The ancient Maya used agave spines as perforators during their bloodletting rituals.

One important product obtained from maguey was sweet sap, or aguamiel ("honey water" in Spanish), the sweet, milky juice extracted from the plant. When fermented, aguamiel is used to make a mildly alcoholic beverage called pulque, as well as distilled beverages such as mescal and modern tequila, bacanora, and raicilla.

Mescal

The word mescal (sometimes spelled mezcal) comes from two Nahuatl terms melt and ixcalli which together mean "oven-cooked agave". To produce mescal, the core of the ripe maguey plant is baked in an earth oven. Once the agave core is cooked, it is ground to extract the juice, which is placed in containers and left to ferment. When the fermentation is complete, alcohol (ethanol) is separated from the non-volatile elements through distillation to obtain the pure mescal.

Archaeologists debate whether mescal was known in pre-Hispanic times or if it was an innovation of the Colonial period. Distillation was a well-known process in Europe, derived from Arabic traditions. Recent investigations in the site of Nativitas in Tlaxcala, Central Mexico, however, are providing evidence for possible prehispanic mezcal production.

At Nativitas, investigators found chemical evidence for maguey and pine inside earth and stone ovens dated between the mid- and late Formative (400 BC-AD 200) and the Epiclassic period (AD 650-900).

Several large jars also contained chemical traces of agave and may have been used to store sap during the fermentation process, or used as distillation devices. Investigators Serra Puche and colleagues note that the set up at Navititas is similar to methods used to make mescal by several indigenous communities throughout Mexico, such as the Pai Pai community in Baja California, the Nahua community of Zitlala in Guerrero, and the Guadalupe Ocotlan Nayarit community in Mexico City.

Domestication Processes

Despite its importance in ancient and modern Mesoamerican societies, very little is known about agave's domestication. That is most likely because the same species of agave can be found in several different gradations of domestication. Some agaves are completely domesticated and grown in plantations, some are tended in the wild, some seedlings (vegetative propagules) are transplanted into home gardens, some seeds collected and grown in seedbeds or nurseries for market.

In general, domesticated agave plants are larger than their wild cousins, have fewer and smaller spines, and lower genetic diversity, this last a result of being grown in plantations. Only a handful have been studied for evidence of the onset of domestication and management to date. Those include Agave fourcroydes (henequen), thought to have been domesticated by the Pre-Columbian Maya of Yucatan from A. angustafolia; and Agave hookeri, thought to have been developed from A. inaequidens at a currently unknown time and place.

Henequen (A. fourcroydes)

The most information we have about maguey domestication is henequen (A. fourcroydes, and sometimes spelled henequén). It was domesticated by the Maya perhaps as early as 600 AD. It was certainly fully domesticated when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century; Diego de Landa reported that henequen was grown in house-gardens and it was of much better quality than that in the wild. There were at least 41 traditional uses for henequen, but agricultural mass production at the turn of the 19th-20th century has depressed the genetic variability.

There were once seven different varieties of henequen reported by the Maya (Yaax Ki, Sac Ki, Chucum Ki, Bab Ki, Kitam Ki, Xtuk Ki, and Xix Ki), as well as at least three wild varieties (called chelem white, green, and yellow). Most of them were deliberately eradicated around 1900 when extensive plantations of Sac Ki were produced for commercial fiber production. Agronomy manuals of the day recommended that farmers work towards eliminating the other varieties, which were viewed as lesser-useful competition. That process was accelerated by the invention of a fiber-extracting machine which was built to fit the Sac Ki type.

The three surviving varieties of cultivated henequen left today are:

  • Sac Ki, or white henequen, most abundant and preferred by the cordage industry
  • Yaax Ki, or green henequen, similar to white but of lower yield
  • Kitam Ki, wild boar henequen, which has soft fiber and low yield, and is very rare, and used for hammock and sandal manufacture

    Archaeological Evidence for the Use of Maguey

    Because of their organic nature, products derived from maguey are rarely identifiable in the archaeological record. Evidence of maguey use comes instead from the technological implements used to process and store the plant and its derivatives. Stone scrapers with plant residue evidence from processing agave leaves are abundant in Classic and Postclassic times, along with cutting and storing implements. Such implements are rarely found in Formative and earlier contexts.

    Ovens which may have been used to cook maguey cores have been found in archaeological sites, such as Nativitas in the state of Tlaxcala, Central Mexico, Paquimé in Chihuahua, La Quemada in Zacatecas and at Teotihuacán. At Paquimé, remains of agave were found inside one of several subterranean ovens. In Western Mexico, ceramic vessels with depictions of agave plants have been recovered from several burials dated to the Classic period. These elements underscore the important role that this plant played in the economy as well as social life of the community.

    History and Myth

    The Aztecs/Mexica had a specific patron deity for this plant, the goddess Mayahuel. Many Spanish chroniclers, such as Bernardino de Sahagun, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, and Fray Toribio de Motolinia, stressed the importance that this plant and its products had within the Aztec empire.

    Illustrations in the Dresden and Tro-Cortesian codices show people hunting, fishing or carrying bags for trade, using cordage or nets made from agave fibers.

    Sources

    Edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst