Bernard Ortiz de Montellano’s review of Aztec dietary practices conclude that this culture exploited a vast range of food sources in creative ways, allowing for intakes of protein and other critical nutrients that may be surprising to modern nutritionists in the developed world. His analysis of the diet of the ancient Aztec is intensely illuminating, even given its self-admitted deficiencies. Of course, modern scholars cannot know exactly what these ancient people ate, but the guesses and inferences are shrewd and moderate, and use many nutritional markers that were not available in an earlier article in a similar topic by Ortiz de Montellano (Ortiz de Montanello passim). More importantly, they take into consideration, without squeamishness or derogation, nutritional sources which were sometimes discounted or ignored in earlier centuries and even in earlier decades.
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Thus, readers learn the role of spirulina, mesquite, agave, maguey, amaranth, and insects; just a few examples of the sorts of non-European foodstuffs with which the Aztecs supplemented the modest quantities of more familiar foods they consumed. Ortiz de Montellano also discusses the techniques used to collect, process, and store their foods; critical elements in garnering the greatest yield of nutrients from each source. An obvious example is the slaking of corn with lime; a less well-known example is the collection of spirulina from the lakes. With this information in hand, the achievement of the Aztec empire becomes more of imaginable. It is so difficult to imagine it today, just looking at the climate and the poverty in the region today. Ortiz de Montellano make
The discussion of illness goes over the relatively small number of illnesses that probably plagued the Aztecs before contact with the Europeans. Ortiz de Montellano also notes the illnesses that inconvenience the population now. He also addresses the public health measures that they followed.
Ortiz de Montellano takes some space to discuss the relationship between a culture’s notions of the origins of illness and the steps that they take to address it. In the case of the Aztec, their attribution of illness to supernatural, magical, or moral causes affected the way they treated them. They used divination, ritual incantation, and tonalli, or what could be described as personal essence, important to health, and crucial to understanding their approach to healing. He also reviews their understanding of natural causation, which was rather sophisticated in some instances, for example in noticing that intercourse during the last month of pregnancy could be associated with infection of the amniotic sac (Ortiz de Montellano 153).
In discussing the cures that the Aztecs attempted, Ortiz de Montellano goes into a great deal of detail regarding their religious ideas. At times, this detail threatens to seriously overwhelm the reader and digress from the issue of health. However, an explication of their religious system is crucial because their ideas of illness were ineluctably tied to their notions of the sacred. This complex and largely poorly understood religious system warrants reader attention.
The author addresses the traditional practices’ potential for effectiveness through such phenomena as the placebo effect, or the reduction of stress. A growing body of research validates this relationship.
This chapter series winds up by considering the modern syncretism that is visible in Mexico today. The confluence of traditional medicine, the Catholic Church, and modern science have created the unique healing practices and belief that are in effect today. As an example of how these influences are syncretized, the author describes ceremonies to ensure good crops that are performed on the day assigned to a saint called Tepozteco, who is a holdover from pre-contact times (Ortiz de Montellano 212).
Thus, Ortiz de Montellano brings the reader fully into the modern era, having demonstrated that the ancient Aztecs possessed a complex and highly evolved diet and medical structure based on a sophisticated religious system. The evidence is plentiful and well-supported, and the whole is profoundly thought-provoking.
Ortiz de Montanello, Bernard R. “Aztec Cannibalism: An Ecological Necessity?” Science 200.4342 (611-617 ). Web. 2012.
Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard R. Aztec Medicine, health and Nutrition. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990. Print.