General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 23 Nov 2017/8 Flint
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‘Chocolat’
‘Chocolat’
Juliette Binoche uses Graciela’s metate in the atmospheric 2000 film
Wikipedia entry on ‘Chocolat’
Painting of Aztec woman using metate

Metate

The grinding stone, like maize (corn) itself, is an essential part of Mexican culture. They’re inseparable ... Graciela’s metate was the first artefact we took to schools when Mexicolore began in 1980 - it’s been in Graciela’s family for generations. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Graciela’s family metate
Graciela’s family metate (Click on image to enlarge)

The metate (a Mexican Spanish word from the Náhuatl metlatl) can be called a quern, milling stone or grinding stone. It is one of the oldest domestic tools in the Americas - as old as the domestication of maize (corn) itself, around 7000 BCE. (Click on the quote by Eric Wolf, below)

Detail from Diego Rivera’s mural ‘Maize’ in Mexico City’s National Palace
Detail from Diego Rivera’s mural ‘Maize’ in Mexico City’s National Palace (Click on image to enlarge)

After birth, an Aztec girl’s umbilical cord was always buried under the metate, in the heart of the home.

A quote from Eric Wolf book ‘Sons of the Shaking Earth’
A quote from Eric Wolf book ‘Sons of the Shaking Earth’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Metates are made of porous volcanic stone. There are many images of them in pre-Hispanic Mexican codices.

Aztec codex image of metate
Aztec codex image of metate (Click on image to enlarge)

The image on the right depicts the metate with corn dough (masa harina) flowing from it, from the Codex Vindobonensis Mexicanus (now in Vienna, Austria)

Woman in Michoacan mixing ‘masa harina’ to make tortillas
Woman in Michoacan mixing ‘masa harina’ to make tortillas (Click on image to enlarge)

Metates have always been made with 3 small legs, to support the stone at the right angle on the ground, at an incline, as you can see (below) in the Codex Mendoza (now in Oxford).

Codex Mendoa image of metate used by Aztecs
Codex Mendoa image of metate used by Aztecs (Click on image to enlarge)

Traditionally women kneel on the ground when grinding on and cleaning the metate.

Traditional Aztec style metate
Traditional Aztec style metate (Click on image to enlarge)

One of the first sounds to be heard in Aztec houses, often before dawn, was what Jacques Soustelle called the ‘dull rumble’ of the rolling pin (mano in Mexican Spanish, metlapil or ‘son of metate’ in Náhuatl) on the stone, as the mother prepared maize dough for tortillas.

Aztec style metate from a Mixtec codex
Aztec style metate from a Mixtec codex (Click on image to enlarge)

Image on the right from the Codex Borgia (now in Rome)

‘Metate’ corn grinding stone with ‘hand’ roller
‘Metate’ corn grinding stone with ‘hand’ roller (Click on image to enlarge)

Ancient metates have been found in archaeological sites dating back 6 or 7 thousand years, from Central America to the USA (for just one example, click on the Indian History site below, and scroll down to 6,500 BCE).

Codex Borgia: metate with broken rolling pin
Codex Borgia: metate with broken rolling pin (Click on image to enlarge)

In the Codex Borgia, drawings of metates (right and above) relate to sacred scenes and calendar days; here you can see the rolling pin is broken symbolically and the woman is pointing to the heavens - probably indicating a fateful aspect of the deity associated with that particular day. In this case the deity (not shown) is Xochiquetzal (Flower-Feather). We know from the Florentine Codex (Book 5) that if a metate broke in action it was ‘an omen of evil’ that would bring death to the unfortunate grinder or others in her household.

Museum of Mankind workshop recreating Aztec food preparation
Museum of Mankind workshop recreating Aztec food preparation (Click on image to enlarge)

Graciela’s family metate has been handled by many hundreds of children throughout England! On the left: part of a workshop at the Museum of Mankind, London, in the early 1990s.

London children trying Aztec food and drink preparation techniques
London children trying Aztec food and drink preparation techniques (Click on image to enlarge)

On the right: Wyvil Primary School, London, early 1980s.

Click to hear the sound of a metate in action!

‘Indian History’: scroll down to 6,500 BCE
A teaching worksheet on the metate
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