General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 19 Sep 2017/8 Reed
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Graciela’s ancient molcajete (Mexican pestle and mortar)


Every Mexican alive today worth their salt knows that food prepared in a stone ‘molcajete’ tastes much richer than the same food mixed in a modern electric blender: this is a stone-age tool ‘par excellence’... Graciela’s molcajete is a generations-old family treasure! (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Molcajetes on sale in a traditional Mexican street market
Pic 1: Molcajetes on sale in a traditional Mexican street market (Click on image to enlarge)

The molcajete (derived from the Náhuatl molcaxitl from molli - seasoning or sauce - and caxitl - box) is the Mexican Spanish name for a traditional stone pestle-and-mortar, and is of pre-historic ancestry. Whilst perhaps not quite as ancient as the metate, it is a tool that was being used in Mesoamerica thousands of years ago. No Mexican kitchen is complete without one. Famously its prime purpose is for the preparation of spicy chilli sauce to accompany tortilla-based staple foods. It wasn’t always so...

Pic 2: Archaic Period ground stone tools, found in a cave, Yucatán, Mexico
Pic 2: Archaic Period ground stone tools, found in a cave, Yucatán, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

Some 10,000 years ago global climate change - the end of the last Ice Age - led to more pronounced seasons in ancient Mexico, with warmer, wetter weather generally, the decline in population of large game animals (mammoth, bison...), changing landscapes and an increasing reliance on fruits and seeds from grasses and seed pods. This meant the need to develop new tools to process these foods, and - during the ‘Archaic Period’ - the local people learned to make ground stone milling tools to supplement pre-historic flint knives and scrapers. In doing so a dietary revolution began: unlocking calories and protein from small domesticated plants that eventually became Mexico’s staples - maize, beans and squash.

Pic 3: The Aztecs were highly skilled stone cutters, Florentine Codex Book X
Pic 3: The Aztecs were highly skilled stone cutters, Florentine Codex Book X (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs inherited stone cutting and working techniques that must have barely changed for millennia. The tools and materials may have been simple, but they weren’t all immediately accessible to the Aztecs. As Warwick Bray writes:-

Copper was occasionally used to make small utilitarian objects like needles, fish hooks, drill-bits, chisels and axes, but stone and wood remained the usual materials for heavy tools and weapons. Iron was unknown, and the most common metals were gold, copper, and silver, which were used primarily in the manufacture of jewellery and trinkets.

These metals do not occur in the Valley of Mexico and had therefore to be imported from distant parts of the country, especially from the mountainous western region. At Cerro del Aguilar, in the territory of the Zapotecs, stone wedges have been collected and traces of fire are still visible at ancient mining sites. Probably the miners heated blocks of ore until cracks appeared, then enlarged the fissures by driving in the wedges until lumps of manageable size could be broken off...

Pic 4: ‘The good stone-cutter’, Florentine Codex Book X
Pic 4: ‘The good stone-cutter’, Florentine Codex Book X (Click on image to enlarge)

In the Aztec hierarchy a stone-cutter would have ranked somewhere between a ‘common person’ and a member of the ruling class. Book Ten of the Florentine Codex gives a good description of a skilled tetzotzonqui or stone-cutter:-

’The good stone cutter is honest, discreet, resourceful, moderate, successful. He is of skilled hands, able hands, accomplished [after the manner of] Tula. He quarries, breaks [the rocks]; pecks, smooths them; tumbles, breaks them from the [cliff’s] surface; forms the corner stone; places, fits [the stones] well; abrades them; pounds, hammers them; splits them with a wedge, marks them with black; forms curved stone - cuts it. He carves out habitations in the rock; sculptures in stone, carves it; forms works of artifice, of skill; labours with dexterity, with dexterous judgement; he makes things of all sorts...’

Pic 5: A rock-solid molcajete!
Pic 5: A rock-solid molcajete! (Click on image to enlarge)

This evidence clearly suggests that the Aztecs smoothed and polished stones, just as they ‘polished’ (varnished) some of their clay pots. Unfortunately written sources like the Florentine and Mendoza codices confuse us when we seek information on household objects such as molcajetes, because mention of ‘sauce bowls’ could refer either to molcajetes (as mortars and pestles) or to serving bowls, which would have been ceramic. As any Mexican will tell you, the molcajete is often used BOTH to prepare AND to serve the sauce in. This confusion has led some writers to suggest that ceramic molcajetes would have been more common than stone ones in Aztec times. We feel this is unlikely, since the best molcajetes are traditionally made of hard, dark, fine-grained stone such as basalt. (Preferred materials for ancient ground stone tools generally are known to have included basalt, andesite, chert, granite and sandstone).

Pic 6: Folio 60r of the Codex Mendoza shows a molcajete alongside metate and comal
Pic 6: Folio 60r of the Codex Mendoza shows a molcajete alongside metate and comal (Click on image to enlarge)

Molcajetes traditionally are ‘tripod sauce bowls’, formed with three sturdy legs to provide maximum support for ‘the daily grind’. This tripod shape reminds us of the three hearth stones (and their link to the Old Fire God of the Aztecs) - follow the link below for more on this. Both the Codex Mendoza and the Florentine Codex include several references, written and drawn, to (three-legged) sauce bowls, shown alongside the all-important metate. There’s even a ‘toponym’ (place sign) in the Codex Mendoza called Molanco - a small tributary town in the Huaxtec province of Tzicoac - with a tripod bowl glyph (see Picture 9): scholars think this could mean ‘In the Place of Many Rubber Bowls’ (Berdan & Anawalt) or ‘In the place of spring’ (Cooper Clark); either way, the glyph is clearly based on a sauce bowl!

Pic 7: Banquet time, Florentine Codex Book IX
Pic 7: Banquet time, Florentine Codex Book IX (Click on image to enlarge)

That a molcajete would have been a valued item in Aztec times is hinted at in the description of an Aztec banquet in Book 9 of the Florentine Codex, in which even the position for holding such an item when being brought to a banquet was regarded as important enough to be noted in the Codex, in words and in pictures:-
‘And then they followed with the food. To carry it one held the sauce dish in his right hand, not holding it by its rim, but only going resting it in the palm of his hand. And there in his left hand he went bearing the basket filled with tamales. Neither did he take it by the rim; only on the palm of his hand did he set the basket. And then they ended with the chocolate. To carry it one placed the cup in this right hand. He did not go taking it by its rim, but likewise went placing the gourd in the palm of his hand. And the stirring stick and gourd rest he went bearing there in his left hand. These were to pay honour to the lords. But those who followed all [were served with] only earthen cups.’

Pic 8: The New Fire Ceremony celebrated in a household, Florentine Codex Book VII
Pic 8: The New Fire Ceremony celebrated in a household, Florentine Codex Book VII (Click on image to enlarge)

Finally, it seems significant that the molcajete is depicted near the fire at the centre of a household scene during the celebration of the New Fire Ceremony, held every 52 years. There must be truth in the idea that molcajetes take a ‘generation’ to season with the oils and acids from the foods seeping further into the stone, year after year...

Pic 9: Toponym ‘Molanco’, Codex Mendoza folio 54r
Pic 9: Toponym ‘Molanco’, Codex Mendoza folio 54r (Click on image to enlarge)

Sources of information:-
• Warwick Bray: Everyday Life of the Aztecs, B. T. Batsford Press Ltd., 1968
• Susan Toby Evans: Ancient Mexico & Central America, Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2004
• Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt: The Essential Codex Mendoza, University of California Press, 1997
• Charles E. Dibble and Arthur O. J. Anderson (Eds.): Florentine Codex, School of American Research and University of Utah, 1959.

Picture Sources:-
• Graciela with molcajete: photo by John Goldblatt/Mexicolore
• Pictures 1 and 2: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Picture 5: illustration specially drawn for Mexicolore by Felipe Dávalos
• Images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence): scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Images from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford): scanned from our copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938

Read more about the metate

Read more about the three hearthstones

Learn more about just how molcajetes are made... article on the molcajete article on the mortar and pestle
knappersanonymous: article on Ground Stone article on stone working
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Mexicolore replies: Thanks for this interesting comment, Tecpaocelotl.