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Meat What meats did Indians consume before the Spanish conquest? What was/is the relationship between meat consumption and ethnicity? How did the Spanish react to ‘Indian’ meats like guinea pigs, insects, turkeys and iguanas?

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  • What meats did Indians consume before the Spanish conquest?

  • What was/is the relationship between meat consumption and ethnicity?

  • How did the Spanish react to ‘Indian’ meats like guinea pigs, insects, turkeys and iguanas?

  • How successfully were European meats introduced to America after the conquest?

  • What ecological problems did European animals cause in America?


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  • Some foods classed as indigenous, including insects, iguanas, guinea pigs and capybara. Eating these foods tended to be interpreted as a sign of Indianness.

  • Alien to Europeans, did not eat insects, reptiles or rodents.

  • Turkey, by contrast, not seen as specifically indigenous, probably because they resembled birds with which the Spaniards were already familiar.


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Insects iguanas, guinea pigs and capybara. Eating these foods tended to be interpreted as a sign of Indianness.

  • Aztecs ate 91 different species of insect, including 21 species of beetle, 19 species of bugs and 16 species of hymenoptera (a family that includes bees, wasps and ants)

  • Insects a good source of protein and certain vitamins and minerals.

  • Easy to collect, prepare and store.

  • Eaten in various forms, including in tamales.


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Insect Egg Cakes iguanas, guinea pigs and capybara. Eating these foods tended to be interpreted as a sign of Indianness.


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European Reaction iguanas, guinea pigs and capybara. Eating these foods tended to be interpreted as a sign of Indianness.

  • Alexander von Humboldt (Venezuela, 1804): ‘I have seen Indian children, of the tribe of the Chaymas, draw out from the earth and eat millipedes or scolopendras eighteen inches long, and seven lines broad’.Elorduy and Pino Moreno claim that ‘in the convents of Puebla in the 18th century…the consumption of insects was applied as a form of punishment or penance for the novices who committed a misdemeanour’.


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Turkeys iguanas, guinea pigs and capybara. Eating these foods tended to be interpreted as a sign of Indianness.

  • Domesticated by the Indians over 2000 years ago. Important part of Mesoamerican diet.

  • The Spanish initially confused the turkey with the Asian peacock, or ‘pavo real’. They gave it the name ‘pavo’ for this reason. They called the female turkeys ‘gallinas de la tierra’ or ‘chickens of the land’ – another example of the use of old world names for new world fauna and flora.

  • Turkeys originated in the New World, but were introduced to Europe very soon after the conquest and subsequently reintroduced to North American by English colonists in the seventeenth century. The name ‘turkey’ is misleading. It stems from the fact the English, not realising that the bird was originally from Mexico, assumed that it had come from Turkey.


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Aztec Feast iguanas, guinea pigs and capybara. Eating these foods tended to be interpreted as a sign of Indianness.


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  • 1577 iguanas, guinea pigs and capybara. Eating these foods tended to be interpreted as a sign of Indianness. Relaciones Geográficas imply that turkeys and hens were raised together by Spaniards in the New World. The report from the town of Acatlán states that here ‘they raise chickens of the land [i.e. turkeys] and chickens of Castille [i.e. real chickens] in quantity. The report from Xalapa states, likewise, that ‘there are chickens of the land, which are called gallipavos, and there are chickens of Castille in abundance’.


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Aztec Drawing of a Turkey iguanas, guinea pigs and capybara. Eating these foods tended to be interpreted as a sign of Indianness.


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Guinea Pigs iguanas, guinea pigs and capybara. Eating these foods tended to be interpreted as a sign of Indianness.

  • Guinea pigs’ remains are often found on archaeological sites. Consumption dates back a long way. Guinea pig pens were discovered at Chan Chan, which is an ancient Pre-Colombian city on the coast of Peru.

  • José de Acosta: ‘The Indians regard guinea pig meat as ‘very good food, and in their sacrifices they frequently offer these guinea pigs’.

  • Bernabé Cobo: ‘[The Incas considered guinea pigs] a greater delicacy than anything the Spaniards make’.

  • Jaime Baltasar Martínez de Compañón, Bishop of Trujillo, sent a stuffed guinea pig to Spain in 1789, along with an illustration of a live cuy (note he magnifies its ear – perhaps because the inner ear is seen as a delicacy?). Compañón commented that ‘the guinea pig is a type of rabbit…tender meat and tasty…it is eaten roasted, fried and stewed in different ways’. [1]

  • [1] Daniel H Sandweiss and Elizabeth S. Wing, ‘Ritual Rodents: The Guinea Pigs of Chincha, Peru’, Journal of Field Archaeology 24:1,1997, p.50


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Cuy (Guinea Pig) iguanas, guinea pigs and capybara. Eating these foods tended to be interpreted as a sign of Indianness.


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  • Guinea pigs are still eaten in modern Peru and Ecuador and are now regarded as a typical Andean food. Raised both commercially, on large scale farms, and domestically, in people’s houses.

  • Eaten on special ritual occasions, such as Saints’ days or rites of passage like weddings, births and baptisms.

  • Usually roasted and served with potatoes.

  • Particular body parts are accorded special value; the inner ear, for example, is sometimes seen as particularly delicious, whilst cuyes with 6 toes are regarded as auspicious and highly sought after.


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  • Guinea pigs seen as an Indian food. are now regarded as a typical Andean food. Raised both commercially, on large scale farms, and domestically, in people’s houses.

  • Susan De France: ‘Modern consumption of guinea pigs by some people and its rejection by other reflects the complex interaction between ethnogenesis, geography and history in the region’.

  • Mary Weismantel: ‘The contrast between serving a chicken-rice soup at a festive occasion and serving one made with cuy (guinea pig) and potato . . . is sharp and unmistakable’.


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Capybara are now regarded as a typical Andean food. Raised both commercially, on large scale farms, and domestically, in people’s houses.

  • Capybaras can be eaten during Lent because they live in the water and are conveniently classified as ‘fish’.


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Armadillo and Rabbit are now regarded as a typical Andean food. Raised both commercially, on large scale farms, and domestically, in people’s houses.


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Other Indian Meats are now regarded as a typical Andean food. Raised both commercially, on large scale farms, and domestically, in people’s houses.

  • Bernal Díaz del Castillo – Moctezuma’s banquet: ‘Every day they cooked fowls, turkeys, pheasants, local partridges, quail, tame and wild duck, venison, wild boar, marsh birds, pigeons, hares and rabbits, also many other kinds of birds and beasts native to their country, so numerous that I cannot quickly name them all’.

  • Peter Martyr: ‘[For some] time none of the Spaniards had ventured to eat [iguanas] because of their odour, which was not only repugnant but nauseating’, explained Martyr, ‘but the Adelantado [a Spanish official], won by the amiability of the cacique's sister, consented to taste a morsel of iguana; and hardly had his palate savoured this succulent flesh than he began to eat it by the mouthful. Henceforth the Spaniards were no longer satisfied to barely taste it, but became epicures in regard to it, and talked of nothing else than the exquisite flavour of these serpents, which they found to be superior to that of peacocks, pheasants, or partridges.’


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Meat, Race and Nutrition are now regarded as a typical Andean food. Raised both commercially, on large scale farms, and domestically, in people’s houses.

  • Belief that Indian meats were inferior and the Indians could become more Spanish if they ate European meats.

  • Sahagún: ‘[Indians should eat] that which the Castilian people eat, because it is good food, that with which they are raised, they are strong and pure and wise…Raise Castilian maize [wheat] so that you may eat Castilian tortillas [bread]. Raise sheep, pigs, cattle, for their flesh is good. [But do] not eat the flesh of dogs, mice, skunks, etc. For it is not edible. You will not eat what the Castilian people do not eat, for they know well what is edible’.

  • 16th-century European, commenting on Indians in the Mexican village of Citlaltepec: ‘Their complexion has almost been transformed into our own as a result of being given beef, pork and lamb to eat and wine to drink, and of sleeping beneath a roof’.

  • Indian diet considered lacking in protein because of low meat consumption (19th century).

  • Indians also criticised for eating raw meat.


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Francisco Bulnes, are now regarded as a typical Andean food. Raised both commercially, on large scale farms, and domestically, in people’s houses. El porvenir de las naciones latinoamericanas ante las recientes conquistas de Europe y Norteamérica (1899)

  • ‘Before the conquest the American races of maize could not feed themselves with chicken’s eggs, because the only poultry that existed was the turkey; they could not drink milk from cows, donkeys, goats or mares, because these animals did not exist . . .In order to obey the supreme law of self-conservation the American races of maize were obliged to have recourse to the dog, as an especial delicacy . . .They were obliged to consume disgusting animals such as the iguana, ants, and serpents both with rattles and without, the tail-less scorpion, worms from the maguey plant or from maize, and other reptiles and insects’.


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Clorinda Matto de Turner, are now regarded as a typical Andean food. Raised both commercially, on large scale farms, and domestically, in people’s houses. Birds without A Nest (1889)

  • ‘It is proven that the Indians’ diet has caused their cerebral functions to degenerate. As you have no doubt noticed, these disinherited beings scarcely ever eat meat, and the advances of modern science have proven to us that cerebral activity is in direct relation to its nutritional sources. With the Indian condemned to eat an extremely limited vegetable diet, living on turnip greens, boiled beans, and quinoa leaves, with no albuminoids or organic salts, his brain has no source from which to draw phosphates and lecithin for psychic effort; it serves only to fatten the brain, which plunges him into the depths of cognitive darkness, making him live at the same level as his work animals.’


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  • Antonio de Leon Pinelo (17C): ‘The Charrúas of the Río de la Plata are known wherever they go by the odour that they give off, which is like a slaughterhouse, meat market or butcher’s shop. It must come from the fact that they subsist on raw meat, and that the most preparation that they give to it in order to eat it is to cover it with hay…and set fire to it, allowing it to burn for a few seconds, which leaves it barely warm and less clean that it was to start with. [They will also] often kill a cow, a horse or another animal and drink the blood as it runs out [of the carcass]’.[1]

  • 19th-century Argentine explorer Francisco Pascasio Moreno: ‘Nothing is more revolting than the food of the Tehuelches, and more than once I have felt nausea at having to witness such a spectacle’.[2]

  • [1] Antonio de León Pinelo, El Paraíso en el Nuevo Mundo, Lima, 1943, Vol. II, p.19

  • [2] Moreno, Francisco Pascasio, Viaje a Patagonia Austral, 1876-77, Buenos Aires, Librería Hachette, 1969, p.121


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European Meats de la Plata are known wherever they go by the odour that they give off, which is like a slaughterhouse, meat market or butcher’s shop. It must come from the fact that they subsist on raw meat, and that the most preparation that they give to it in order to eat it is to cover it with hay…and set fire to it, allowing it to burn for a few seconds, which leaves it barely warm and less clean that it was to start with. [They will also] often kill a cow, a horse or another animal and drink the blood as it runs out [of the carcass]’.

  • Spanish introduce European meats into Spanish America during and after the conquest. Pigs, sheep and cattle flourished there, giving the conquistadors an adequate supply of food during their expeditions.

  • 1540s - horses introduced to the Argentine pampas.

  • 1549 - first sheep and goats arrived in Río de la Plata.

  • 1555 - first cows and bulls arrived in Argentina.


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Milking Cows and Making Cheese in 18 de la Plata are known wherever they go by the odour that they give off, which is like a slaughterhouse, meat market or butcher’s shop. It must come from the fact that they subsist on raw meat, and that the most preparation that they give to it in order to eat it is to cover it with hay…and set fire to it, allowing it to burn for a few seconds, which leaves it barely warm and less clean that it was to start with. [They will also] often kill a cow, a horse or another animal and drink the blood as it runs out [of the carcass]’.th C Peru


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  • Venezuelan Agustín Marrón (1775) ‘All the people of this province, without distinction of age or sex, eat meat at least 3 times a day’.

  • Since America had a surplus of meat, some countries began to export it. Until the late 19th century, preserving meat in a fresh state was not possible, so only dried meat or jerky (from the Indian term ‘charquí’) could be exported. In the 1860s, however, the Frenchman Charles Tellier invented an ammonia compression refrigeration plant which surmounted the problem of shipping beef from Argentina to Europe. In 1876, the first consignment of fresh beef was sent from Rouen in France to Buenos Airs as a tester in the ship Le Frigorifique. It was judged edible, though not great. The following year, a cargo of Argentine beef was shipped back to France aboard the Paraguay, with various improvements having been made to the refrigeration system. The quality of meat was considered excellent by diners, and the large scale export of Argentine beef commenced soon thereafter.


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Ecological Issues province, without distinction of age or sex, eat meat at least 3 times a day’.

  • Ungulate irruption.

  • Cattle damage Indian crops.

  • Deforestation to create pasture for animals.

  • Ecological damage.


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Jean Baptiste Debret ‘Dinner in Brazil’ (19 province, without distinction of age or sex, eat meat at least 3 times a day’. th C)


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