General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 24 Sep 2017/13 Flint
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Metate grinding stone today in Mexico

The daily grind...

One of the oldest artefacts - and traditions - in Mexico is the use of the ‘metate’ or grinding stone for preparing staple foods such as corn (maize) tortillas. Volcanic stone metates have been found in caves and burial offerings dating back thousands of years. The preparation was certainly one long grind - but it was worth it! (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

‘Con las manos en la masa’ - hard at work in a family house in Michoacán
‘Con las manos en la masa’ - hard at work in a family house in Michoacán (Click on image to enlarge)

As Professor Warwick Bray (on our Panel of Experts) writes (in Everyday Life of the Aztecs):-

The preparation of maize was a daily task for the housewife, and even now in country parts of Mexico it still occupies up to six hours of a woman’s day. The kernels were steeped in lime overnight to loosen the hull, then boiled and skinned, and finally ground to flour by crushing between a grooved stone roller and a metate (a stone slab standing on three little legs). The maize was usually made into tortillas, thin round cakes of unleavened meal baked on flat clay griddles about a foot in diameter. Tortillas become dry and inedible after a few hours and were accordingly made fresh for each meal. The daily ration for a three-year-old child was half a tortilla, and the amount was gradually increased until a five-year-old had a whole tortilla to himself and by the age of 13 was eating two per day.

An Aztec mother teaching her daughter to use the metate and comal (griddle) to make tortillas, Codex Mendoza
An Aztec mother teaching her daughter to use the metate and comal (griddle) to make tortillas, Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

Can you spot the daily ration of two tortillas in the illustration from the Codex Mendoza (right), for the 13-year-old girl? According to David Carrasco, ‘a girl who could grind corn and make the atole drink was considered a maiden of marriageable age’.

Ancient metates among other artefacts found in a cave in the Yucatán peninsula
Ancient metates among other artefacts found in a cave in the Yucatán peninsula (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec families were up at the crack of dawn: usually the first sounds an Aztec child would hear on waking would be the grinding of stone on stone and the pat-pat of hands making tortillas (you can hear both these sounds by following the links below...!)

There was usually no breakfast as such - this came later, around 10 am, after several hours of work, and usually consisted of a bowl of atollli - now called ‘atole’ - a maize porridge/drink either sweetened with honey or seasoned with pimento.

The main meal came later, during the hottest hours of the day in the early afternoon, by which time there were plenty of freshly made tortillas ( tlaxcalli in Náhuatl) on hand... The midday meal was also the last, except for a bowl of gruel made from amaranth, sage, or maize, which was taken just before going to bed.

Picture sources:-

• Photos of metates in use in Mexico today by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

• Image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian LIbrary, Oxford) scanned from our copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, London

• Photo of ancient metates by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

Learn more about the metate, and hear its sound

The early morning sound of tortilla-making

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Ian does too! Back in 1971 as a volunteer in San Isidro Buensuceso, near Puebla, he became a ‘tlachiquero mayor’ to a local farmer, sucking the aguamiel from the maguey cactus using a long ‘bule’ gourd. Fun - and delicious!