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Mexicolore contributor on the Aztecs Jennifer Mathews

Chewing Gum used for other Purposes

As a ‘footnote’ to our features on chewing gum in ancient Mexico, Professor Jennifer Mathews has kindly written this extra article. Though we have no firm evidence, it is virtually certain that Mesoamerican peoples made use of gum latex to stick, bind and seal materials together...

Pic 1`; ‘Chapopote’ (bitumen) was certainly used to seal Aztec aqueducts and vessels
Pic 1`; ‘Chapopote’ (bitumen) was certainly used to seal Aztec aqueducts and vessels

In addition to chewing chicle latex, ancient peoples undoubtedly used it for many practical purposes such as adhesives or sealants. Although chroniclers often failed to document these uses, we can find examples of how similar kinds of natural materials were used in other ways around the world. For example, we know that in addition to chicle latex, the Aztecs chewed bitumen, or chapapote, an aromatic and flaky black natural petroleum tar that washed up onto the beaches of the Gulf Coast of Mexico, an area of major oil drilling today.

Pic 2: Close up of the baked bricks and bitumen mortar of the ziggurat at Ur
Pic 2: Close up of the baked bricks and bitumen mortar of the ziggurat at Ur

In different parts of the world, bitumen and other naturally sticky substances have been used as adhesives and sealants. For example, the ancient Sumerians used it to waterproof their ships, as a kind of glue to stick pieces together on their carvings, or even as a kind of mortar between the bricks used in their buildings. Ancient Europeans, like Ötzi the Ice Man, a 5,300-year-old ice mummy found in the Italian Alps, also heated birch wood to force the tar to seep out and used it to haft his copper axe on a wooden handle.

Pic 3: Pair of ancient gold ear rods from the Coclé river region of Panama
Pic 3: Pair of ancient gold ear rods from the Coclé river region of Panama

We also know that the artisans among the Coclé people of Panama filled large gold ear rods with chicle latex. The gum served to hold separate pieces of goldwork together, as well as reinforced the thin sheets of gold from which the rods were made. Ancient Maya artisans used a thin layer of copal incense, which is a resin that was often mixed with chicle and burned, to adhere cinnabar to greenstone objects. The also used it as a binder for the paint pigments in the famous murals at the site of Bonampak in Chiapas.

Pic 4: Gum from the spruce tree
Pic 4: Gum from the spruce tree

In North America, Native American Indians and Inuit have used gum from the spruce tree to waterproof canoes as well as for chewing. One Pima legend even describes a wind spirit telling a man and woman to collect the chewing gum to protect them from disaster. “Suha, you and your good wife are the only people worth saving. Go and make a large, hollow ball of spruce gum in which you and
your wife can live as long as the coming flood will last.” They obeyed the spirit, and after the great flood they emerged from their chewing gum ark to find that they were the only survivors on earth.

NOTE: Professor Mathews has kindly supplied academic references in support of the points mentioned in her article. If you would like details of these, please contact Mexicolore.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: photo by Carl Wendt, from arqueomex.com
• Pic 2: from http://allmesopotamia.wordpress.com/tag/bitumen/
• Pic 3: Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
• Pic 4: photo by Judy Kavanagh, from http://jumaka.com/birchbarkcanoe/materialspage/gum.htm

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on May 06th 2012

‘The Birth of the Chewing Gum Tree’

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Mexicolore replies: Interesting question! Not that we know of, but we could easily be wrong. Perhaps someone will put us right on this...