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Hispanic American Historical Review 82.1 (2002) 129-130

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Book Review

Alcohol in Ancient Mexico

Alcohol in Ancient Mexico. By HENRY J. BRUMAN. Foreword by PETER FURST. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2000 . Photographs. Illustrations. Maps. Tables. Figures. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliographies. Index. xii, 158 pp. Cloth, $30 .00 .

Alcohol in Ancient Mexico is a comprehensive survey of all the various sources for native fermented drinks from the Arizona/New Mexico area to Central America. It does not include distilled products such as tequila, or beverages made from sugarcane; both of these were introduced by the Spanish after the conquest. It does, however, include modifications made to pre-Columbian beverages during colonial times.

Bruman, a geographer, organizes the book by geographical regions, which often coincide with a particular plant source. There were no aboriginal alcoholic beverages north of the Arizona/New Mexico area. The fundamental base for alcoholic drinks in Bruman's study area was the agaves, collectively named mescal. There is coprolitic evidence, dating back thousands of years to show that agave heads were baked and used as food before the onset of agriculture in Mexico. This long familiarity and widespread use led to fermentation of the sugary heads. Mescal wine was the most widely used alcoholic beverage, but, at the time of the conquest, it was the preferred drink of only one group, the Cora.

Bruman meticulously documents the geographic range of plant sources and the native groups who fermented them: sahuaro wine (Northern Mexico-Arizona/Papago, Seri); tesgüino, beer from sprouted maize (Sierra Madre Oriental, Tarahumara, Huichol); prickly pear and mesquite wines (arid central Mexican plateau, Otomi); cornstalk wine (Totonac); pulque, fermented agave sap (south-central Mexico, Otomi, Nahua); balché, honey fermented with the bark of Lonchocarpus longistylos (the predominant drink in the Maya area). A variety of other fruits were also fermented in various locations: pineapples, hog plums, capulin (Prunus capuli), and jocote (Spondias purpurea).

Bruman combed diligently through the colonial sources available at the time, for references to the use of alcoholic beverages. His fieldwork was thorough and wide-ranging, but is now somewhat antiquated. This book is the long-delayed [End Page 129] publication of his fieldwork carried out in 1938-39 and presented in his doctoral dissertation in 1940 . It has not been updated or revised much; the bibliography has only three citations later than 1940 . This fact has consequences. It documents many practices that no longer exist. On the other hand, it does not take advantage of many more recent monographic works: Jeffrey and Mary Parsons's Maguey Utilization in Highland Central Mexico (1990 ) is an excellent and much more detailed description of the making of pulque; William Merrill's Rarámuri Souls (1988 ) describes the social meaning of tesgüino for the Tarahumara; and Alfredo López Austin's The Myths of the Opossum (1993 ) explores the mythological relationships among the moon, pulque, and the opossum.

Given Bruman's extensive fieldwork and the period when he explored Mexico, it is a pity that he provides so few ethnographic details. Reading the book is almost like reading an annotated table. He clearly describes the geographic regions involved, the various plants fermented, the groups partaking of the brews, even the characteristics and taste of the various "wines," but we get practically no description of the role these beverages played in the social, religious, and mythological life of the imbibers. The book would have been much more valuable and entertaining if Bruman had extended the scope of this short book by expanding on these areas.

This book would be an useful reference for specialists who are interested in the variety of alcoholic drinks prepared and consumed by aborigines in Mexico. Historians and the general public will find it too narrow in scope and dry in tone.


Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano
Wayne State University



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