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Mexico, central america, and the caribbean

In 1513 Nunez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and became the first known European to view the Pacific Ocean. Although by the end of the 15th century the Aztec Empire had passed its zenith, in 1519 there were still 60,000 households in Tenochtitlan and the population of the empire has been estimated to have been about 5,000,000 with 25,000,000 to 30,000,000 overall in Mexico. Both Mexico and Peru (as we shall see later) were very densely settled. The two American foods - maize and potatoes – were higher in caloric value than any old world crops except rice and this allowed a denser population per square mile than anyplace outside the East Asian rice-paddy region. Maize alone leads to niacin deficiency and the disease, pellagra, but middle American Indians soaked maize in a lime solution that broke down the molecules to make "hominy grits" and allowed human digestion to synthesize the needed vitamin. In some areas the native tomatoes were cultivated and eaten also and this further supplied the otherwise missing vitamins. It is of interest that in the New World, pellagra became known as "Columbus' sickness". But even before the Spaniards came, soil erosion in Mexico was already becoming a problem.

The Aztecs ate chiefly tortillas. Beans supplied some protein, the tomato (originally a weed in the maize fields) supplied vitamins A and C. They occasionally had wild game and raised small dogs for eating. This dog and the turkey were their only domesticated livestock. They also ate tadpoles, water flies' larvae, white worms, frogs, fresh water shrimp, newts, winged ants, agave worms (Maguey slug) and the iguana. We have mentioned in the last chapter that they were also somewhat prone to eat human flesh. Throughout the Caribbean people ate large, fat spiders and plump insects from decaying wood. Manioc was a Cuban poisonous plant, but properly prepared it was edible. The roots were peeled and grated and the juice squeezed out and subsequently boiled to make a harmless sauce, with the residual sediment making tapioca. The pulp was sieved and shaped into flat cakes, cooked slowly to make a soft, flexible bread called "cassava". When dried, it could be kept 2 or 3 years. The manioc root, itself, although protein deficient, was not eaten by locusts and could be left in the earth as long as 2 years, without deteriorating. (Ref. 211 )

NOTE: Insert Map 56. The Aztec, Maya and Inca Empires

Columbus and those who followed started a great exchange of foods. From Europe to the New World came wheat, chick-peas, sugarcane, some vegetables and cows. Back to Europe went maize (soon a staple in northern Spain, Portugal and Italy), potatoes (a source of vitamin C), chocolate, peanuts, vanilla, tomatoes, pineapples, lima beans, scarlet runner, red peppers, green peppers, tapioca and the turkey. (Ref. 211 ) In Mexico the climate favored the growth of many medicinal plants which were used by Aztec doctors. Among these were narcotics, medications for abortion, diarrhea, skin diseases and fever. It is interesting that the Spanish soldiers, after their arrival, of ten preferred the Aztec physicians to their European educated ones and in the latter part of the century Philip II sent one of his physicians, Francisco Hernandez, to Mexico to study native medicine and make a catalog of medicinal plants. (Ref. 125) We insert parenthetically the fact that the great majority of the Spanish troops were simple men, merely fleeing the poverty of Europe. No important Spanish family took any interest financially, militarily or intellectually in the conquest of the Americas. (Ref. 62 )

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Source:  OpenStax, A comprehensive outline of world history (organized by region). OpenStax CNX. Nov 23, 2009 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10597/1.2
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