Honey, I’m Home. . .What’s for Dinner?
An examination of agrarian food sources and procedures of the Cochimi of central Baja
Agave in Arroyo By Marc Ryckaert (MJJR) – Own work, CC BY-SA
When a visitor to central Baja recovers from the inevitable first reaction to the beauty and stark reality of the semi-desert, they often wonder how it is that people survive here. That was the case for me when I first visited the Mulege area a few years ago. Where does the water come from? How do the trees and shrubs survive?
Later, once I got interested in the rock art of the Cochimi and those who came before them, I started to wonder how they managed in a time before horses, the gun, the Trans-peninsular highway, Wallmart in Ensenada, and the ubiquitous automobile.
I have found out that the Cochimi were a nomadic group of indigenous natives inhabiting the central Baja region for maybe the last 5,000 years or so until they were wiped out or/and assimilated by the Spanish subsequent to their arrival in the late 1600’s . They had no written language. Did not practice agriculture. Had no horses, sheep, cattle or goats and did not keep dogs. They did not use or make ceramic or pottery ware had no metal tools or weapons and would best be considered as hunter-gatherers. They fished in the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific, they gathered turtle eggs, and every type of shellfish the sea could offer. They hunted deer and other critters, trapped and shot birds and were expert in bow and arrow use as well as the use of the atlatl or spear throwing device. They gathered fruit and seeds from plants, trees and cactus. They utilized the body, roots, leaves and flowers of many types of plants. They wove fabrics and spun yarn for making snares, fishing lines and nets. . . and they managed in this marginal environment sufficiently well enough to thrive.
From this land then, what plants, shrubs and trees formed an important part of the diet and herbal medicines that enabled their fragile lives?
Agaves are perennial plants which usually have stout woody stems. The spirally arranged leaves are thick and succulent and usually have marginal teeth and a strong terminal spine at the tip. The plant flowers after several years (eg century plant) and usually dies thereafter.
The plant is found throughout the region inhabited by the Cochimi from the gentle slopes on the Pacific side of the peninsula where the sea fogs contribute moisture, to the higher faldas of the mountains of the central spine. In the eastern part of the peninsula they tend to be found at altitudes of about 800 meters or so and higher where the cooler air encourages moisture from the clouds.
The Spanish documented the Agave or Mescal’s use by the Cochimi on arrival in Baja and noted that the plant formed an important source of food, drink and fibre since ancient times. It was also documented that Agave plants were burned down in an oxygen poor environment to produce a charcoal like substance which was used for tattooing the body. It was also reported that the Cochimi chewed the leaves of the Agave when water was in short supply.
The Agave plant can provide food in several different stages of growth.
The central core or head was trimmed of leaves, placed in a pit with preheated stones, covered over with the leaves and dirt on top and a fire built on top for a period of two to three days. When removed from the fire the base can be eaten or stored for the future. This is a very starchy food that would replace our use of potatoes.
The central stalk is harvested before the flowering stage and again roasted in a pit as above then mashed into a pulp that can be boiled into a drink.
The flower of the Agave produces a thick nectar that is quite sweet and was also collected and drank with relish.
Agave flowers can be eaten as in a salad.
Agave seeds can be ground into an edible flour.
Various drinks can be made from the Agave. Aguameil is an unfermented drink that is drunk fresh. Pulque is produced by fermentation somewhat like beer. And nowadays, the famous Tequila and Mescal (remember the worm?) is the distilled version.
This plant then forms an important part of the diet of the Cochimi and no doubt, in some of the rituals and ceremonies as well.( See the images at the Montevideo site and one petroglyph image at the Piedras Pintados site)
The fibers of the Agave was used to weave baskets, mats, nets and as a strong cord for fishing. The sharp spiny tip of the leaf, with long central fibre attached can be used as one would use a needle and thread. Even today this can, and is, used by ranchers and hikers as an emergency first aid tool to stitch wounds.
Sometimes called Zacate, Sotol or Palmita and often confused with Yucca
Recognized by having their older leaves folded down below the younger green leaves. The plant may or may not have a trunk and the trunk may or may not be branched.
Nolina grows mostly in the fine soil of the western flanks of the mountains northwest of Mulege down to sea level. Some are to be seen on the falda of the Three Virgins mountains north of Santa Rosalia.
These plants have narrower softer leaves than the Agave that are sometimes eaten by deer in times of drought. They may also seem to be shedding some of the fibers from the body of the leaf. The leaves are sometimes used to bind or tie items together into a bundle as they are relatively soft to handle yet strong. They can also be used to thatch structures like ramadas and to make woven mats and screens.
The flowers are atop a stem similar to Agave but thinner and the colours may be bright yellow to pure white.
Sometimes called Spanish Bayonet, Lechuguilla and Datillo
Sometimes confused with the Joshua tree of the south west USA.
Like the Nolina, the Yucca can have stems or trunks that are non-existent, short or long, singular or branched. The leaves also are narrow and pointed with a fine toothed edge. The flowers are usually a creamy white colour and fragrant.
The Datillo variety grows to 10 meters and is the dominant plant in the Vizcaino desert region. The fruit is green and fleshy and look like immature dates from which this Yucca got its name. After a time the fruit turns black, is harvested by the natives, boiled or roasted and eaten.
Fiber from the leaves is coarse and is used to make sandals and can be shredded for stuffing material.
A tea infusion can be made from the flowers that is used to relieve muscle pain and the pain of rheumatism. The flowers can also be cooked and ground to make a sweet tasting candy or Colache
The roots of the Yucca can be used to make a viable soap and can be used to soften animal hides as well as your own hide! This Yucca soap can also be used to make a paint thinner to add with the binder and pigment for the production of paint for rock art.
As with the Agave, the Nolina and the Yucca, all have flowers that can be eaten, and flower stems and heart that can be roasted and eaten. The different plants flower at different times of the year ranging from early spring through the rainy season to late summer so there will usually be some available at those times for harvesting by the Cochimi.
This seems to suggest that these times of year the Cochimi will be inhabiting the western range of their territory. More coming!!!
Canatillo, Mormon Tea, – Ephedra Family
This plant or shrub is low and straggly up to 2 meters high. Spiny shaped yellow-green rigid stalks with sparse leaves that are scale like and almost clear in colour with no chlorophyl. The tips of branches are blunt and there are no thorny projections. Hey, this is one plant in Baja that doesn’t bite you! The flowers are small, and conelike and usually of a yellow hue. This plant is reminiscent of the marsh grass of my native Scotland.
Bees and other insects are attracted to the blooms in Spring. So when you come across this plant in arroyos when you’re hiking look out for aggressive bees!
The plant is found at lower elevations below say 500 meters near, or with, communities of creosote bush in alluvial fans or bajadas and in arroyos.
Usually a medicinal tea is made from the stalks steeped in water and has been reportedly used as a sedative, blood purifier, and for kidney ailments, colds, stomach ache, and ulcers.
The seeds are brown, small and quite hard and can be ground into a bitter meal and again used to flavour drinks and potions and as an adjunct to types of bread in modern times.
Orchilla, Rocella – Lichen family
The fog and Pacific breezes bring moisture to the western part of the Baja peninsula. This enables Lichens to grow on some of the plants and structures there. The most common lichen in this area is Orchilla, sometimes called Spanish Moss.
The lichen can be gathered from plants like Cirio or Ocotillo and used as a stuffing for bedding or as a bed for embedding and carrying a hot ember from a fire. The lichen can also be processed to make a dye that can vary in colour from a dark red to purple. To make the dye, take the lichen and add some salt and urine and pound the mixture into a paste. Keep it moist for some days then add more urine and some ashes from the fire. Stir the mixture frequently for a few more days. The process involves fermentation and the urine is a form of ammonia. The resulting paste can be used directly or it can be dried then reconstituted with urine when needed.
I am suggesting that it is possible the resulting dye could be rubbed on the body to produce a red coloured skin on one half of the torso. The other half of the torso could be coloured with charcoal derived from the Agave plant and rubbed into the skin. This would produce the black and red skin tones reproduced in the anthropomorph figures in the Cochimi cave art. Hmm!
Mexican Blue Palm, Palma Ceniza – Palm family
This is quite a large tree to 25 meters tall and has bluish fan shaped foliage and fairly sweet fruit that would have been eaten by natives despite the large seed and small amount of flesh. This Palm is endemic to Baja; all others, including the date palm were imported to Baja.
Wild Plum, Ciruelo
Is endemic to the southern areas of Baja and may have been available to the Cochimi in early years. It is a widely spreading thick trunked tree to about 10 meters. White to white/green flowers with fruit to about the size of a lemon. The sweet tasting flesh is pale yellow with a large stringy seed. Related to the Mango so it seems.
Laurel Sumac, Sumac, Lentisco – Rhus family
An evergreen bush, densely leaved, narrow leaves with whiteish yellow flowers. A tea from the leaves is said to be mildly antiseptic, used to treat colic and provoke uterine contractions. The flexible twigs are used to weave baskets and mats
Milkweed, Talayote, Jumette, – Milkweed family
A very widely dispensed family found world wide. Some subspecies endemic to Baja. Some are considered poisonous.
Jumette; is reputed to contain a remedy for rattlesnake bites
Talayote: a scrambling vine like shrub found in sandy arroyos. Greenish white flowers. The fruit and seeds are tasty and supposedly nutritious to eat raw or cooked
Copal, Torote Elephant Tree, – Torchwood Family
A drought deciduous aromatic shrub – tree grows the length of Baja but prominent in central region. Branches and trunk are larger in proportion to height. Papery bark.
Copal: Up to 3 meters high. Red drooping fruit about 10mm long may have been a historical source of food for Cochimi. Powder made from skin of fruit is used on lip sores and on cuts. The bark can be toasted and crushed to form a powder used for itchy skin. Bark can also be used for tanning purposes. Cuts on tree produce an aromatic gum called Copal which is burned as incense.
Torote and Torote Colorado: Can smell like turpentine. Can grow to 10 meters with a very large trunk. The purple tinged fruit is about 6mm round and is edible. A tea made from twigs is used for stomach trouble. The gum is used in some “Indian medicines”.
Barberry, Algerita: – Barberry Family
Normally a shrub with yellow flowers that can be solitary or in racemes. The fruit can be a berry or capsule. In Baja it grows to about 2 meters high with numerous spineless (doesn’t bite!) Gray coloured branches. Holly type leaves. A yellow dye was obtained from the roots and bark. The berries were used to make a tart tasting drink.
Goatnut, Jojoba – Box family
Jojoba is a longlived evergreen shrub that can grow to 4 meters with leathery leaves 2 – 5 cms long. The fruit is acorn like and about 2cm long, bitter tasting and tannin filled. It is eaten raw or roasted and ground to make a drink. A tea is made to treat stomach problems and rheumatism. The oil from the fruit is apparently of the same chemical properties as whale oil in that it can withstand very high temperatures without breaking down. This would have been handy for the Cochimi to know when it came time to specify lubricating oil for precision machinery (edit)
The seeds ripen first after the dry season. Seeds can be ground and eaten. causes eater to have bad breath and the smell also seems to emanate through the pores of the skin. So a group of Cochimi in the close confines of a mission church would be rather rank.
beautiful name that conjures up images of Llamas in the high Andes. The fruit ripens in June and must be cooked to avoid burning the mouth with its bitter taste.
(Jimson weed, Datura) Usually found in the main caja of arroyos. White trumpet flower, spiked seed pods the size of large walnut. The seeds of this plant are said to produce hallucinations but can be fatal in large doses. Liquid from crushed herb contains the drug Atropine.
Golondrina. Very small four petal white flowers, low growing in flat mats over rocks and sand. Quite pretty. A tea is said to be used for rattlesnake bites and other ailments. Milky juice is toxic.
More coming here . . . .