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Illustration of traditional Mexican crop storage method by Alberto Beltrán

Aztec advances (12): crop storage

This is the twelfth in a series of entries based on information in the Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World by Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield (Facts on File, 2002). The illustration (right) by Alberto Beltrán bears the caption ‘There has been little change in the cuezcomate or corn bin that has served the needs of Indian farmers since pre-Hispanic times’. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore).

Pic 1: Model reconstructions of ancient ‘cuezcomate’ grain bins
Pic 1: Model reconstructions of ancient ‘cuezcomate’ grain bins (Click on image to enlarge)

‘One of the main goals of crop cultivation for American Indians was to produce a surplus of food that would enable them to eat during the winter and times of crop failure. Tribes in Meso-, South and North America devised ingenious ways to store these harvests. At the outset, they understood the principles of cold storage, keeping grain, especially seeds they had saved for future planting, in caves where they would remain cool. When these natural storage lockers were not readily available, they devised their own systems.’ (The authors go on to reference the Maya, Incas, Aztecs, Hohokam, Anasazi and other groups in using grain stores of all kinds).
’By AD 1200, American Indian farmers in the Ohio Valley were constructing sophisticated underground silos that could hold 30 to 40 bushels of shelled corn. These cylindrical storage tanks were lined with grass and rawhide and covered with caps made of grass...’

Pic 2: ‘Cuezcomate,’ San Nicolás Panotla - photo by Frederick Starr, 1908
Pic 2: ‘Cuezcomate,’ San Nicolás Panotla - photo by Frederick Starr, 1908 (Click on image to enlarge)

‘In the early seventeenth century the English explorer Henry Hudson reported seeing a great quantity of maize stored from the year before in a corn house “well constructed of oak bark and circular in shape with the appearance of being built with an arched roof.” A century later, Father Joseph Lafitau found Senecan “granaries of bark in the form of towers, on high ground, and they pierce the bark on all sides, to allow the air to penetrate and prevent the grain from moulding.”’ (Fussell, 1992: 152) Such descriptions, written by travellers, historians and chroniclers of the New World in the last few centuries are today most useful in documenting both the existence of and the technologies involved in ancient crop storage methods that have stood the test of time. In his book Indian Mexico Frederick Starr writes that ‘The granary, or cuezcomate, is particularly characteristic. It is built of clay, in the form of a great vase or urn, open at the top, above which is built a little thatch to shed rain and to protect the contents. The cuezcomate is often ten feet high. One or more of them is found in connection with every house.’ (Pic 2).

Pic 3: In the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (fol. 28), Cortés’s men are given a ‘sumptuous’ reception at Veyotlipan, in the state of Tlaxcallan; far right, a Spaniard climbs a ladder to remove corn from tall ‘cuezcomites’
Pic 3: In the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (fol. 28), Cortés’s men are given a ‘sumptuous’ reception at Veyotlipan, in the state of Tlaxcallan; far right, a Spaniard climbs a ladder to remove corn from tall ‘cuezcomites’ (Click on image to enlarge)

These anecdotal observations are valuable precisely because, in José Luis de Rojas’s words ‘the study of Mesoamerican storage systems is still in its infancy’ (2017: 224). Given the organic nature of the materials used (see below), grain stores simply don’t exist in the current archaeological record, with the result that ‘we have only quotations about storage’ to go by (Rojas, 2016: 297). Bernal Díaz de Castillo mentions granaries (trojes in Spanish), as does Fray Diego Durán, but the most commonly referenced quotation comes from Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: in the Florentine Codex (Book VII, chapter 8):-
’Petlacalco: there was stored all the food. Dried maize grains thus were kept in wooden grain bins; more than two thousand [measures of] grains of dried maize - a store of twenty years for the city. And in wooden storage bins were dried beans, chía, amaranth seeds, wrinkled chía, salt jars, coarse salt, baskets of chilis, baskets of squash seeds, and large squash seeds.’

Pic 4: Glyphs for ‘petlacalco’ (?) or warehouse (‘house of reed’) (L) and ‘petlacalcatl’ or tribute official (R); Codex Mendoza, fols. 20r & 70r (detail)
Pic 4: Glyphs for ‘petlacalco’ (?) or warehouse (‘house of reed’) (L) and ‘petlacalcatl’ or tribute official (R); Codex Mendoza, fols. 20r & 70r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Petlacalco, incidentally, may not have been, as is easily imagined, the name of some great centralised imperial warehouse in Tenochtitlan. It was the name of a provincial tributary town and of a neighbourhood along the western canal (just short of Popotla). Linda Manzanilla refers to it as ‘a dependency specialised in economic affairs’ (2016: 17), akin to a Ministry of Trade complex today. The Codex Mendoza shows it ambiguously (pic 4) as a building AND as the title of a government tribute official - both with the same gloss of a governor petlacalcatl. Whether a building(s) or not, it appears that Sahagún’s claim that the royal storehouse had enough to supply the city for twenty years was optimistic to say the least: Isaac (2013: 443) asserts that a) the storehouses were located ‘in the tributary city states, not in the core capitals’, b) the state ordered that any famine relief should be supplied ‘as fully prepared food (tamales and atole or pinole) ready for immediate distribution, obviating the need for storage...’, c) the state was unable to prevent widespread hunger in the two major reported famines (1454 and 1506), d) its policy was to prioritise supplies to the noble class ‘until the situation became dire’, and e) the mass famine in Tenochtitlan set in after only seventy-five days of siege in 1521.

Pic 5: ‘Chalco paid the richest foodstuff tribute of any imperial province: 6 bins of maize, 2 of beans, 2 of chia and 2 of amaranth’. (‘The Essential Codex Mendoza’ p. 97). Codex Mendoza, fol. 31 (detail)
Pic 5: ‘Chalco paid the richest foodstuff tribute of any imperial province: 6 bins of maize, 2 of beans, 2 of chia and 2 of amaranth’. (‘The Essential Codex Mendoza’ p. 97). Codex Mendoza, fol. 31 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Fray Durán was fullsome in his praise of emperor Moctezuma II’s concern for the plight of his people during the terrible famine in the year 1-Rabbit (1454), writing that Moctezuma questioned his officials ‘as to the amount of maize, beans, chile, chian seed, and other grains and foodstuffs kept in the royal storehouses. All this was collected for the maintenance of the palace and came from the provinces, especially from Chalco, which sent a large quantity of maize as tribute each year...’ (1964 [1581]: 238) (pic 5). His prime minister, Tlacaelel, advised him that ‘from the grain that is stored enough maize cakes [such as tamales] and gruel can be made every day, be brought to the city in canoes, and be distributed among the poor and needy’ (ibid, 239).

Pic 6: An early example of a ‘cuezcomatl’ food storehouse: Codex Egerton, fol. 27 (detail)
Pic 6: An early example of a ‘cuezcomatl’ food storehouse: Codex Egerton, fol. 27 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Rojas (2016: 302) confirms that the Aztec imperial storage system was very much decentralised, with different organisations involved ‘at domestic, community, town and city state levels’. Ixtlilxóchitl is another colonial-era chronicler who mentions storehouses in Texcoco as well as the capital (ibid, 304), Batalla (2012: 200) shows storehouses in the town of Yanhuitlan (Códice Yanhuitlan), and Berdan and Anawalt (1992, Vol 1: 66, n34) confirm that ‘there is extensive information on the presence and maintenance of large storehouses in the provinces for tribute purposes’. Of course, these stored more than just foodstuffs - the most extensive storage facilities of all being the six state armouries in Tenochtitlan (Isaac 2013: 443). In terms of crop storage, however (our main interest here) there appear to have been two kinds of facility, both with a long pedigree. The first, depicted in pre-invasion codices and specifically named in the Florentine Codex, is the cuezcomatl (also found as cuezcomitl, cuezcomate, cuescomate, cuexcomite...) from the Nahuatl cuez (adobe) and comitl (pot or jar) (Santamaría 1978: 332).

Pic 7: The ubiquitous ‘cuezcomate’ maize storehouse beside a residence; Codex Vindobonensis, pl. 43 (detail)
Pic 7: The ubiquitous ‘cuezcomate’ maize storehouse beside a residence; Codex Vindobonensis, pl. 43 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

This is where the descriptions by 20th-century writers are so helpful, since they evidence impressive continuity from pre-invasion times. Take, for instance, this from Horcasitas (1979: 109-110):-
’The ears of corn are allowed to dry in the sun for the last time in the yard of the house and then stored in a large turnip-shaped cuezcomate or corn crib. This thatched, clay construction in the yard near the house is built with more care than the house itself and is usually accessible only by a movable ladder set in place when corn is needed. In the more precarious economies of Mexico, the cuezcomate is the Indian’s treasure trove and safeguard against starvation for the entire year until the next harvest.’
Clearly, as Rojas stressed, the domestic facility was the primordial unit in the chain of food storage management. Bonfil (1982: 63) notes:-
Trojes y cuescomates que son almacenes de origen prehispánico son muy comunes en las áreas rurales. También se suele almacenar el maíz con totomoxtli [dried corn husks] o sin él, encima del fogón, para prevenir el ataque de insectos y otros predadores. Es frecuente guardarlo en sacos y cajones o depositarlo en el piso de algún cuarto, con capas de cal y de otras materias que ayuden a la conservación del grano.

Pic 8: No, not a wheelie-bin on steroids but a traditional ‘cuezcomate’ on stones; Codex Vaticanus 3773, pl. 51 (detail)
Pic 8: No, not a wheelie-bin on steroids but a traditional ‘cuezcomate’ on stones; Codex Vaticanus 3773, pl. 51 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Bonfil introduces here not only the second type of storage unit, most commonly known in Spanish as troje, but also some of the practical science behind these simple outdoor structures. According to Rojas (2016) and Escalante (2004) the cuezcomate served for grain storage and the troje for unshelled maize. The former was made of wattle-and-daub (mud and straw) and ‘globular’ in shape (Rothman and Manzanilla, 2016: 318), and placed on stones to avoid the effects of rodents and water, whilst the latter was wooden and more rectangular/square in shape. The irregular wooden slats allowed fresh air to circulate through the gaps. The Nahuatl name, less commonly found, was quauhcuezcomatl (quauitl meaning wooden). Depictions of these are only found in codices from Central Mexico (Batalla, 2012: 198) - eg pic 5.
Trojes were made traditionally of hardwood that was ‘difficult to break or to get moth eaten’. The description here is given by Clavijero (Rojas, 2016: 301-2): ‘These trojes had the door in the upper side and a little window in the lower one. They were so huge that they contained five or six thousand hanegas of maize.’
Both constructions were clearly large, though scholars are unable to come to a consensus as to exact volumes, ranging from a low of 2,000 to a high of 5,000 fanegas (also found as hanegas). A bit like converting miles into kilometres, a rough guide is 5,000 fanegas to 8,000 bushels.

Pic 9: 1948 lithograph ‘El Maíz’ by Mexican artist Leopoldo Méndez, depicting huge cuezcomitl grain stores, Cuautla
Pic 9: 1948 lithograph ‘El Maíz’ by Mexican artist Leopoldo Méndez, depicting huge cuezcomitl grain stores, Cuautla (Click on image to enlarge)

Another distinguished anthropologist, Oscar Lewis, described both types of store in the Nahua community of Tepoztlan in the 1960s: the cuezcomatl he calls a ‘vasiform granary, plastered inside and out with clay’, whilst the troje he refers to by a different name cincolote, writing ‘This is square, of poles laid horizontally, one pair upon another at right angles to the first until the structure is raised tall enough to contain the maize to be stored’ (Berdan and Anawalt, 1992, Vol 2: 36, n5). Clearly the Nahua of yesteryear and of today knew and know their onions, evolving structures that stored and conserved foodstuffs as efficiently as possible. As Rojas (2016: 303) explains ‘Storehouses need specific designs, proper construction, using adequate materials, and constant maintenance... the Mexicans knew a lot about building, maintenance and management, as the Chapultepec aqueduct shows...’

Pic 10: ‘Cencalli’ wooden maize store huts in the Nahua community of San Miguel Canoa, Puebla
Pic 10: ‘Cencalli’ wooden maize store huts in the Nahua community of San Miguel Canoa, Puebla (Click on image to enlarge)

Interestingly, Robelo’s Diccionario de Mitología Nahuatl lists the term cencalli as ‘casa de maíz’ (maize house), and it is this word that is commonly used today by Nahua communities to describe their corn bins (pic 10). Sandstrom (1991: 205-6) explains some of the environmental context in which these artefacts exist, in his rich study of the Nahua community of Amatlán:-
’Villagers generally store crops inside their houses after the harvest [see pic 12], although some families build separate storage sheds, called trojes in Spanish. Dampness from the tropical climate destroys a portion of all stored produce. A more serious problem is the ubiquitous vermin that feed on corn and beans despite the best efforts to safeguard it. These pests include corn weevils, cockroaches, field mice, and rats. Under conditions obtaining in Amatlán, there is a continuous loss of any produce that is held in reserve... Corn is [like beans] difficult to store, but it is far less fragile than beans. It is kept in the husk until ready for use in the market. The husk protects the cob to a certain extent, allowing for longer storage.’

Pic 11: Harvested corn and beans piled outside a Nahua house. The woman to the left is spreading beans on palm sleeping mats to dry them; the woman on the right holds a homemade broom
Pic 11: Harvested corn and beans piled outside a Nahua house. The woman to the left is spreading beans on palm sleeping mats to dry them; the woman on the right holds a homemade broom (Click on image to enlarge)

The mention of beans by Sandstrom is apposite since, as we saw in Sahagún’s text above, storehouses would have been used for other foodstuffs beyond maize. This is confirmed in the Matrícula de Tributos which mentions cuezcomatli in etl cintli (‘bins of beans and maize’) (Berdan and Anawalt, 1992: vol. 1, 62).
Sandstrom’s research suggests that in rural Mexico today in-house storage is more common, at least...
’In the southern Huasteca, the people do not use trojes to store maize but rather they stack it neatly inside their dwelling...

Pic 12: Stages in harvesting and storing corn in the southern Huasteca today
Pic 12: Stages in harvesting and storing corn in the southern Huasteca today (Click on image to enlarge)

‘It is interesting that people leave the pile in its disordered state for a few days to demonstrate their farming skills and to affirm that seeds, water, sun, and earth have come together in response to their ritual offerings to produce an abundant harvest’ (2020, personal communication).
Picture 12 shows (top) Nahua men bagging newly harvested corn before taking it to market; (middle) men piling harvested corn before it is taken inside the house and neatly stacked; and (bottom) corn stacked inside a Nahua house. ‘The Huastecan Nahua say that the cross image made from darker-colored shucks is the sun-Christ (tonatiuh-Jesús).’

Pic 13: Two possible depictions of underground food stores; Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 13: Two possible depictions of underground food stores; Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Finally, there is some limited evidence for the ancient use of subterranean granaries (mentioned with reference to North American customs in the first paragraph above), that Rothman and Manzanilla (2016: 318) call ‘tronco-conical pits’. Batalla (2012: 201) gives the Nahuatl term (found in two early dictionaries) tlallancuezcomatl, and suggests they may be depicted in the Florentine Codex (pic 13). Clearly further research is needed...

NOTE: There is a single, comprehensive, academic work in this area we would like to have consulted:-
• Bortot, Séverine, Dominique Michelet and Véronique Darras (eds.) (2012) Almacenamiento prehispánico del Norte de México al Altiplano Central, Laboratoire Archéologie des Amériques, Université Paris Pantheon-Sorbonne, Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí, and Centro de Estudios Mexicanos y Mesoamericanos, Mexico City. It’s bloody hard to get hold of, so we did our best without it...! However, Juan José Batalla generously sent us a copy of his chapter, for which we’re most grateful.

Pic 14: A written reference in Nahuatl to the ‘cuezcomatl’ in the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca
Pic 14: A written reference in Nahuatl to the ‘cuezcomatl’ in the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca (Click on image to enlarge)

References/sources:-
• Batalla Rosado, J.J. (2012): ‘Análisis de la representación de depósitos de almacenamiento en los códices’ in Bortot et al (eds.), op. cit.
• Berdan, F. and Rieff Anawalt, P. (1992) The Codex Mendoza, Vols. 1 & 2, University of California Press, Oxford
----- (1997) The Essential Codex Mendoza, University of California Press
• Bonfil Batalla, G. (1982): El Maíz, Fundamento de la Cultura Popular Mexicana, Museo de Culturas Populares/SEP, Mexico DF
• Durán, Fray D. (1964 [1581]): The Aztecs: The History of the Indies of New Spain translated with notes by Doris Heyden and Fernando Horcasitas, Cassell, London
• Escalante Gonzalbo, P. (2004): ‘La casa, el cuerpo y las emociones’, chapter 7 in hiscoria de la vida cotidiana en México, vol. I, Colegio de México/Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico DF
• Fussell, B. (1992): The Story of Corn, University of New Mexico Press
• Horcasitas, F. (1979): The Aztecs Then and Now, Editorial Minutiae Mexicana, Mexico DF
• Isaac, B. L. (2013): ‘Discussion’, chapter 18 in Merchants, Markets and Exchange in the Pre-Columbian World, edited by Kenneth G. Hirth and Joanne Pillsbury, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington DC
• Manzanilla, L. (2016): ‘Preface’ in Storage in Ancient Complex Societies: Administration, Organization, and Control, edited by Linda Manzanilla and Mitchell Rothman, Routledge, London
• Robelo, C.A. (1951) Diccionario de Mitología Nahuatl, Ediciones Fuente Cultural/Librería Navarro, Mexico DF
• Rojas, J.L. de (2016): ‘Storage and Administration in the Aztec Empire’, chapter 13 in Storage... op. cit.
----- (2017): ‘Tenochtitlan’, chapter 15 in The Oxford Handbook of The Aztecs, edited by Deborah L. Nichols and Enrique Rodríguez-Alegría, Oxford University Press
• Rothman, M. and Manzanilla, L. (2016) ‘Final Thoughts’, chapter 14 in Storage... op. cit.
• Sahagún, B. de (1979): Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain Book 8 - Kings and Lords (Translation of and Introduction to Historia General de Las Cosas de La Nueva España; 12 Volumes in 13 Books), trans. Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O Anderson, University of Utah Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico
• Sandstrom, A. (1991): Corn Is Our Blood: Culture and Ethnic Identity in a Contemporary Aztec Indian Village, University of Oklahoma Press
• Santamaría, F.J. (1978): Diccionario de Mejicanismos, Editorial Porrua, Mexico DF
• Starr, F. (1908): Indian Mexico: A Narrative of Travel and Labor, Forbes and Co.

Picture sources:-
• Main pic: illustration scanned from The Aztecs Here and Now, op. cit.
• Pic 1: photo by Pedro Camon, Wikimedia Commons (Cuescomates)
• Pic 2: photo from Indian Mexico, op. cit.
• Pic 3: image downloaded from http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/tlaxcala/Tlaxcala-lienzo-13.jpg
• Pix 4 & 5: images from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, Waterlow & Sons, London
• Pic 6: image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Egerton 2895, Graz, Austria, 1965
• Pic 7: Image from the Codex Vindobonensis scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pic 8: image from the Codex Vaticanus 3773 scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1972
• Pic 9: photo downloaded from https://brierhillgallery.com/leopoldo-mendez-1902-1969
• Pic 10: photo by, © and courtesy of Scott Hadley
• Pix 11 & 12: photos by, courtesy of and © Alan R. Sandstrom
• Pic 13: 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
• Pic 14: image downloaded from https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b84559448/f11.image.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jun 16th 2020

emoticon Q. What’s the connection between reading a magazine in England and storing it in Arabia?
A. Our word ‘magazine’ comes via the French ‘magasin’ and the Italian ‘magazzino’ from the Spanish ‘almacén’ - which in turn is derived from the Arabic word ‘al-mahzan’, meaning store or deposit.

‘Where did the Aztecs store their food?’

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