The Miraculous Running Food!

Thomas Jefferson once said, "No service can be rendered to a country that is more valuable than to introduce a new plant to the culture." Although not a new plant, for centuries, Native Indian Peoples in the Americas have used the Chia seed (Salvia Hispanica L) as a staple food. Aztec warriors of Mexico subsisted on the seeds during their battles and hunting expeditions. Indians of the Southwest would eat as little as a teaspoon of chia seeds during a 24-hour march. Indians ran from the Colorado River to the Pacific Ocean to trade turquoise for shells, carrying only a pouch of chia seed for nourishment. Sustained by chia seed, the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico hunted by running their prey to exhaustion.

52 year old wonder

In the late 1990's, a 52 year old Tarahumara Indian, Cirildo Chacarito, won the Nike-sponsored 100-mile run in California. He completed this astonishing feat in a time of 19 hours, 37 minutes and three seconds. He beat hundreds of competitors with more
than a half- hour lead, Cirildo competed against some of the world’s best young endurance runners. He didn’t have the fancy running equipment and hi-tech training that the others had, amazingly he didn’t even train for the event himself! He arrived in a native homemade pair of sandals made from auto tire treads! What did Cirildo do that day that the trained athletes didn’t do? He ate chia before and during the race. Something his ancestors have been doing for centuries. They knew that eating chia seeds (Salvia Hispanica L) gave them the energy and endurance to keep going without feeling tired.  

The Ancient Crop

At the time of the Spanish conquest, Mesoamerica had at least 29 domesticated botanical species, each having a different use. Of these, four stood out from a nutritional point of view, and these were the basis of the daily diet. The four crops were: amaranth, beans, chia, and maize or corn. The importance of these four crops in Aztec diets is supported by Codices written about the same time as the conquest of America took place. Among these is the Florentine Codex which was written between 1548 and 1585 by Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, and is titled the General History of the Things of New Spain. The entire 12 volume work, written in Nahuatl (the native language) and Spanish, is in the Medicca Laurentziana library in Florence, Italy. Various aspects of Aztec chia production and use are described in this monumental work.There is evidence that chia seeds were first used as a food as early as 3500 B.C., and served as a cash crop in central Mexico between 1500 and 900 B.C. Chia seeds were eaten as a grain alone or mixed with other seed crops, drank as a beverage when dissolved in water, ground into flour, included in medicines, and pressed for oil and used as a base for face and body paints. Aztec rulers received chia seeds as an annual tribute from conquered nations, and the seeds were offered to the gods during religious ceremonies.
The Aztecs made great advances in agriculture. As an example consider their unique system of growing crops. Using what they learned from their predecessors, the Toltecs, they were able to turn the marshy grounds that they lived on into firm soil. They wove bark from trees into large mats and anchored these to stakes in the lake. They covered the mats with soil and grew amaranth, beans, chia and maize on these man-made islands which were called chinampas or hanging gardens.

The Aztecs tending to the chinampas

The Diet that predated the World Health Organization (WHO)

It is interesting to note that the Aztec diets, when derived solely from these four grains, meet today's dietary requirements as set out by the Food and Agriculture Organization-World Health Organization (FAO-WHO).Chia was one of the main dietary components of not only the Aztecs, but also of another great Pre-Columbian civilization that developed in Mesoamerica, the Mayans. The Mexican State of Chiapas, located within the limits of what was ancient Mayan territory, derives its name from the Nahuatl word Chiapan which means "river of chia". This indicates that existance of chia as a crop in this region also extends from very early times.

The Ancient Seed threatens the Spaniards

The conquest of America repressed the natives, suppressed their traditions, and destroyed much of the intensive agricultural production system that was in place. Many crops that had held a major role in Pre-Columbian American diets were banned by the Spanish because of their close association with religion, and were replaced by foreign species (wheat, barley, carrots, etc) which were in demand in Europe.

In recent years chia seeds were only consumed by small groups of people. Primarily they were mixed in water, along with lemon juice and sugar, and consumed as a refreshing beverage in Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua as well as the southern USA (California and Arizona). It is interesting to note that 500 years later, modern science has concluded that Pre-Columbian diets were superior to present day diets. Formerly forced into obscurity, chia seeds are now emerging as a new food, and offer a great opportunity to improve human nutrition by providing a natural source of omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and dietary fiber.

From Ancient Aztec Culture, to Modern Society

Although chia (Salvia hispanica L) was an important grain during pre-Columbian times, its cultivation decreased following the discovery of America. Until recently this species was cultivated only on a few hectares in its native location. Additionaly there were minimal possibilities of increasing the planted area in these regions. This is due to social and political factors which subdivided the land into small farms, and which brought about the corn culture and the use of the popular Mexican "tortillas".
The lack of a reliable source of chia led a group of growers and others to unite and work together as part of the Northwestern Argentina Regional Project, to initiate a chia research and development program. This effort included selection of new production areas and the development of practices aimed at bringing chia to the market as a new commercial product. Today chia is grown in different countries on a commercial basis. Producing the crop in different, distinct areas decreases climatic and political risks, and avoids concentrating the harvest season.
Modern science explains why ancient mesoamerican civilizations considered chia a basic component of their diet. Chia's composition and nutritional value gives it a very high potential for use in human and animal markets. Thus modern technological information has provided an excellent opportunity for creating an agricultural industry which can offer a "new, old crop" to the world.