General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 23 Nov 2017/8 Flint
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Neolithic gum!
Neolithic gum!
A UK student found the oldest piece of chewing gum yet found - on an archaeological dig in Finland in August 2007...
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Boy chewing gum

Strictly ‘tzictli’ – sticky chicle!

Mexico is the home of chewing gum, and we hope the following will give you plenty of interesting facts to get ‘stuck’ into... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

1. Chewing gum assortment
1. Chewing gum assortment (Click on image to enlarge)

First, the history bit. Chewing itself is as old as we are as a species, as instinctive as sucking for milk, and the chewing of gum is an older tradition than you’re probably thinking. The ancient Greeks chewed ‘mastiche’ gum from the resin of the Mastic tree (hence our word ‘masticate’) for the same reasons North American Indians quenched their thirst by chewing the sap from spruce trees and the ancient Maya chewed latex from the Sapodilla tree in Central America: for fresh breath and clean teeth!

2. Illustration by Mary Louise Alley-Crosby
2. Illustration by Mary Louise Alley-Crosby

It can’t be a coincidence that Sapodillas (tropical evergreens known locally as Chico Zapotes) have been found near most ancient Maya city sites – suggesting they were planted by Maya farmers to provide resin for chewing gum... and much more besides.

3. Illustration by Mary Louise Alley-Crosby
3. Illustration by Mary Louise Alley-Crosby

Sapodilla resin may well have been used in the mortar sticking together the great carved stones of ancient Maya temples, to make shoes (dip your bare feet into the resin and it’ll thicken into the shape of your feet – perfect fit each time!) and to make incense.

4. Sapodilla fruit
4. Sapodilla fruit

What’s more, the wood itself is particularly fine (many Maya temple door lintels were made of Sapodilla) and the plum-sized fruits it gives were an important source of food for humans and animals.

5. Sapodilla leaves
5. Sapodilla leaves

Finally, its leaves were used to make teas to cure fevers and diarrhoea. Little wonder, then, that the Sapodilla was considered sacred by the ancient Maya.

6. Sapodilla resin
6. Sapodilla resin (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs were quick to appreciate the benefits of the sticky milky juice (resin) from the Sapodilla and, like the Maya, cooked it, mixed it with bitumen and other natural products... and then used it – to burn (mixed with tobacco) as incense, build with as glue (and also as an excellent water-proofer), and chew as gum!

7. Chicle - the real thing
7. Chicle - the real thing (Click on image to enlarge)

They called it TZICTLI (from the Náhuatl verb ‘tzicoa’, to stick – interesting that the Náhuatl for ‘sticky’ is ‘tzictic’!): this is probably the origin of the Mexican Spanish word for chewing gum CHICLE (though it could possibly come from the Maya word ‘tsicte’), and chicle is the origin of the popular US chewing gum Chiclet, marketed by the Adams company. Interesting too that the modern Greek word for chewing gum is ‘tsikles’...

8. Lake-asphalt in the Caribbean
8. Lake-asphalt in the Caribbean (Click on image to enlarge)

Black tar-like bitumen, incidentally, is a naturally occurring ‘thermoplastic polymer’, the ancient equivalent of Superglue. In Mexico it’s found mainly in the form of coastal surface deposits (‘lake-asphalt’, the residue from evaporated petroleum). In the Middle East it’s been used as a strong glue and/or mortar for tens of thousands of years – first for attaching stone tools to wooden shafts, and later by the Sumerians as a brick mortar and as a waterproofing for boats and buildings.

9. ‘The gathering of bitumen’
9. ‘The gathering of bitumen’ (Click on image to enlarge)

The Náhuatl word for bitumen is ‘chapopohtli’, and both it and tzictli were important enough not only to be mentioned several times but also illustrated in the Florentine Codex (the famous encyclopaedia of Aztec life prepared by Aztec scribes under Spanish rule).

10. Florentine Codex
10. Florentine Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

In Book 10, where the main products sold at major markets are described, the paragraphs on bitumen and chicle run together. The fragrant, pleasing scent of the bitumen was obviously striking – ‘When it is cast in the fire, its scent is spread over the whole land’ – and, combined with chicle, it became a mouth-freshener, popular particularly with women:

11. ‘The chicle chewer’
11. ‘The chicle chewer’ (Click on image to enlarge)

‘It is used by women; they chew the bitumen. And what they chew is named chicle. They do not chew it alone; they provide it with ‘axin’. They mix it with axin. It cannot be chewed alone; it crumbles. And in this manner it is improved: axin is provided, axin is mixed in, so that it is softened, smoothed.’

12. ‘Axin as medicine’
12. ‘Axin as medicine’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Axin is an oily yellowish grease obtained by crushing an insect called Axin, that lives on tropical Spondia trees; the Aztecs also used it as lip balm, and as another remedy for diarrhoea. So now you know the Aztec recipe for chewing gum: aromatic tar, chicle and crushed insect grease!

13. ‘The harlot’
13. ‘The harlot’ (Click on image to enlarge)

The Florentine Codex stresses the main purpose of chewing gum: ‘For this reason the women chew chicle: because thereby they cause their saliva to flow and thereby the mouths are scented; the mouth is given a pleasing taste. With it they dispel the bad odour of their mouths, or the bad smell of their teeth.’ Apparently only women chewed gum in public, and they took care to be discreet:

14. ‘The harlot’
14. ‘The harlot’ (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Bad women, those called harlots, show no fine feelings; quite publicly they go about chewing chicle along the roads, in the market place, clacking like castanets.’ Well, at least the Aztecs only frowned on noisy gum chewing: after the Spanish Conquest the Catholic Church frowned on chewing gum (just like they frowned on most things...) and it’s been banned in many parts of the world (including schools!) ever since. But that’s a long story.

15. Modern gum
15. Modern gum

If the ancient Mexicans gave us chewing gum (just as they gave us chocolate and many other foods making up nearly 40% of our modern diet) today’s products are a far cry from the ‘real thing’. If a bar of commercial chocolate has precious little genuine cocoa butter in it, a packet of typical chewing gum has virtually NONE of the genuine resin from the chewing gum tree. The reason?

16. From The 1923 Wonder Book of Knowledge
16. From The 1923 Wonder Book of Knowledge (Click on image to enlarge)

The big chewing gum companies like Adams and Wrigleys have long since discovered they can manufacture the all-important ‘gum’ part of chewing gum more cheaply and in greater quantities by using ‘gum base’ (officially in the US a ‘non-nutritive masticatory substance’!), which consists largely of artificial rubbers, waxes, plasticizers and emulsifiers. (Incidentally, 60% of modern chewing gum is sugar (surprise, surprise), yet the US chewing gum industry for some reason is allowed to put sugar second on the list of ingredients).

17. Filtering chicle resin
17. Filtering chicle resin (Click on image to enlarge)

At this point we need a bit more history. Chewing gum is a sticky business, and Mexicans twice lost out to foreign interests (US and British) in the 19th. century through chicle.

18. General Santa Anna
18. General Santa Anna

The first loss was ‘thanks’ to Antonio López de Santa Anna (of El Alamo fame), the corrupt Mexican general who lost half of Mexico’s territory to the USA between 1836 and 1847. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he gave away the idea of making commercial chewing gum to a US businessman, Thomas Adams, while in exile in New York in 1869. The rest, as they say, is history.
Learn more - including how the real thing is made - in Tzictli Part 2...

Tzictli Part 2

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