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  • Substance & Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica ed. by Stacey Schwartzkopf and Kathyrn E. Sampeck
  • Kent Mathewson
Stacey Schwartzkopf and Kathyrn E. Sampeck, eds. Substance & Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017. vxii and 220 pp. Figures., notes, bibliography, index. $27.95 paper (ISBN 978-1-4773-1387-9) and $85.00 cloth (ISBN 978-1-4773-1386-2).

This collection covers the main suite of psychoactive substances in Mesoamerican history and culture, from the post-Conquest period to the nineteenth century. These were the stimulants cacao and sugar; the intoxicants tobacco and alcohol, specifically balché, pulque, and aguardiente; and the hallucinogens, primarily peyote and [End Page 184] psilocybin mushrooms. Through the agency of these six substances, the contributors interpret and explain a range of cultural and historical traits and circumstances particular to Mesoamerica. This collection joins a literature that originated in Spanish colonial observers' descriptions (and often proscriptions) of local and indigenous practices, and later leavened by the accounts of enlightened travelers depicting local color, or more modern scholars probing local customs. This volume shows, once again, that ingestible substances with psychoactive properties not only have seductive powers for their consumers, but also exert fascination for the casual observer or serious scholar.

In the past century, the scholarly literature has been centered in several arenas: the ethnobotanical, the anthropological, and the historical. Geographers have only been peripherally involved, though not surprisingly Carl Sauer was an early advocate of preserving pulque culture contra the Mexican modernization campaign to promote commercial beer over artisanally produced alcoholic beverages. His student Henry Bruman produced a legendary dissertation on "Aboriginal Drink Areas in New Spain" (1940) that was published (60 years later!) as Alcohol in Ancient Mexico (2000). Much of his material came from extensive ethnographic surveys in the 1930s as well as archival research of the colonial period, rather than archaeology. Similarly, Richard Evans Schultes, Harvard ethnobotanist and doyen of psychoactive plant hunters, combed Mexico and Amazonia starting in the 1940s for hallucinogens, both "lost" (outside modernity's notice) and new to science. His enterprise spawned a cadre of students, a large literature, and a popular following of readers and adventurers. A number of anthropologists have also followed in Schultes's wake, recording the details of the cultural embeddedness of psychoactive substances in Neotropical indigenous and traditional societies. It has taken historians slightly longer to focus directly on these substances. Generally Mesoamerican and Caribbeanist historians' studies of sugar (and its derivative alcohol), tobacco, and cacao have treated them as commodities within social and economic institutional contexts. For example, William Taylor's Drinking, Homicide, and Rebellion in Colonial Mexican Villages (1979) considered alcohol in the context of social disorder, while Sidney Mintz's classic Sweetness and Power (1985) shows how cane sugar helped to order and make the modern world.

The authors of the essays in Substance & Seduction also place substances within varying cultural, social, and economic contexts, but put their focus on the substances more directly. In what must be a neologism, the editors speak of the "thingyness" of substances: their essential properties of scent, taste, touch, color, and texture. And through these properties they have the power of seduction – both materially and mentally. Together they are realized through the processes of ingestion – or incorporation, whether it be eating, drinking, masticating, or inhaling – as substances become literally "embodied." The editors, an archaeologist (Schwartkopf) and an anthropologist (Sampeck), suggest that these three conceptual bases – substance, seduction, ingestion – underpin the discussions of different [End Page 185] substances in each of the six chapters.

The contributors include three archaeologists, two socio-cultural anthropologists, three historians, and a geographer. (Oddly, the short biographical sketches that are customary in edited volumes are lacking here, possibly an oversight and definitely an inconvenience for reviewers and other readers.) In her foreword, historian Marcy Norton, author of Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World (2008), apprises the reader of a few key themes threaded throughout the chapters. She suggests that, among other qualities, "Mesoamerican ritual consumption [of these substances] was framed in terms of synesthesia" (p. vii). Collision with the colonial world brought a...


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