Mary Karasch. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
A robust annual herb with seeds as small as mustard seeds, amaranth belongs to the genus Amaranthus of the family Amaranthaceae, with 50 to 60 species scattered throughout the world in wild and domesticated forms. Most are weeds, such as pigweed (A. retroflexus), which commonly invades gardens in the United States, whereas others are raised as ornamentals. The genus derives its name from the Greek meaning “unfading,” “immortal,” or “not withering” because the flowers remain the same after they are dried. Poets have favored the amaranth, therefore, as a symbol of immortality (Sauer 1976; Berberich 1980; Tucker 1986; Amaranthus 1991).
It is as a food, however, that amaranth was and is most important to human populations, either for its leaves or seeds. Two species of amaranth, A. tricolor and A. dubius, are popular among Chinese-Americans for soup and salad greens. But the most versatile and nutritious are the grain amaranths, because the genus Amaranthus, although a non-grass, is capable of producing great amounts of edible grain (Cramer 1987).Three species of amaranth that were domesticated in the Americas and are commonly utilized as grain are A. hypochondriacus, known as “prince’s feather” in England, from northwestern and central Mexico; A. cruentus of southern Mexico and Central America, whose greens are widely utilized in Africa; and A. caudatus of the Andes, known as “love-lies-bleeding” in the United States (Sauer 1976; Cole 1979).The first two species are now cultivated in the United States as seed grains, but A. caudatus does not do as well in the United States as in the Andes (Tucker 1986).
The amaranth plant grows from 1 to 10 feet tall in an erect or spreading form. It is a broad-leaved plant that bears up to 500,000 black, red, or white seeds on a single large seedhead, made up of thick fingerlike spikes (Cole 1979;Tucker 1986).The leaves are “often variegated with bronze, red, yellow, or purple blotches” (Wister 1985), and the flowers may be orange, red, gold, or purple. Its beautiful colors have led people throughout the world to raise amaranth species as ornamental plants and to cultivate A. cruentus, which is a “deep red” form of the plant, as a dye plant (Sauer 1976).
The principal advantage of amaranth is that both the grain and the leaves are sources of high-quality protein. While most grain foods, such as wheat and corn, have 12 to 14 percent protein and lack the essential amino acid lysine, amaranth seeds have 16 to 18 percent protein and are “lysine-rich” (Barrett 1986; Tucker 1986). In areas of the world where animal protein is lacking, the amaranth plant can stave off protein deficiencies. When amaranth flour is mixed with wheat or corn flour in breads or tortillas, the result is a near-perfect protein (eggs which can supply most of the body’s protein requirements). Moreover, amaranth has more dietary fiber than any of the major grains (Tucker 1986). Amaranth seeds also contain calcium and phosphorus, whereas amaranth leaves, which can be eaten like spinach, provide dietary calcium and phosphorus as well as potassium, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and vitamins A and C. Amaranth is also richer in iron than spinach (Cole 1979; Tucker 1986).
The amaranth grain (which resembles a miniature flying saucer) is covered with a tough coat that the body cannot digest. Therefore, to obtain nutrition from the seeds it must be processed, and by toasting, boiling, or milling transformed into starch, bran, germ, or oil. Milling the grain yields 28 percent germ-bran and 72 percent white flour. Once processed, the tiny seeds have a “nutty flavor” and are used in breakfast cereals and made into flour for breads (Barrett 1986). Amaranth may also be popped like popcorn or made into candies. The Mexicans mix honey or molasses and popped amaranth into a sweet confection they call “alegría” (happiness) (Marx 1977; Cole 1979). Amaranth may even be brewed into a tea (Barrett 1986).
In addition to its nutritional advantages, amaranth “grows like a weed” in many different environments in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Although it tends to do best in warm, dry climates with bright sunshine, some species flourish in the wet tropical lowlands, and others do well above 10,000 feet in the Andes. They also tolerate adverse soil conditions, such as high salt, acidity, or alkalinity, in which corn will not survive (Brody 1984; Tucker 1986). Besides growing rapidly under bright sunlight, amaranth has the ability to conserve water by partially closing its leaf pores. It can also tolerate dryness up to a point without wilting (Tucker 1986). Thus, it can be cultivated on marginal soils subject to periodic dry spells, which is an important consideration in semiarid regions.
Two disadvantages of amaranth are that the tiny seeds are awkward to work with and should be harvested by hand. In the United States, machine harvesting is possible after the first severe frost, but yields are lower (Tucker 1986). Yet hand-harvesting is not a major obstacle in countries where agricultural labor is plentiful and its cost is low. Another problem is that the domesticated species easily hybridize via wind pollination with the weedy varieties, yielding low-quality seeds (Marx 1977). Like so many plants, amaranth is also attacked by insects and plant diseases (Tucker 1986). These disadvantages may limit amaranth cultivation to gardeners in the United States and small farmers in the developing world.
According to J. D. Sauer (1976), wild amaranth seeds were gathered by many Native American peoples. As such, they may have contributed significant protein, as well as essential vitamins, to hunting and gathering populations after the big game animals died out in the Americas. Archaeologists can establish a gradual process of domestication with the appearance of pale, white seeds having improved popping quality and flavor. Notably when seed selection is relaxed, the plants return to producing dark seeds. One of the oldest dates for pale-seeded amaranth is 4000 B.C. from Tehuacan, Puebla, in Mexico, where A. cruentus has been found. By 2000 B.C., amaranth was part of the basic Mexican diet (Walsh and Sugiura 1991). The Andean species of A. caudatus was discovered in 2,000-year-old tombs in northwestern Argentina (Sauer 1976). A more recent date of A.D. 500 marks an additional amaranth species, A. hypochondriacus. By the fourteenth century A.D., A. hypochondriacus was being cultivated in what is now Arizona.
As Sauer’s maps illustrate, the cores of amaranth cultivation in the pre-Columbian period were in Central Mexico, as well as in the Andes from Peru to northwestern Argentina. Additional pockets were in Ecuador close to the equator, Guatemala, southern and northwestern Mexico, and southwest North America. By the time the Spanish arrived at Vera Cruz in 1519, amaranth had evolved into a major crop staple employed to satisfy tribute obligations to the Aztec Empire. Moctezuma II received tribute from 17 provinces each year in ivory-white seeds known as huauhtli (Sauer 1950), which permitted the Aztecs to fill 18 imperial granaries. According to W. E. Safford (1916) and Sauer (1950), each granary had a capacity of 9,000 to 10,000 bushels. That so many seeds were collected each year is certainly impressive testimony to the widespread cultivation of amaranth in central Mexico before the Spanish conquest.
In addition, the Aztecs raised amaranth on chinampas (floating gardens) and utilized the plant in many ways: as a toasted grain, as green vegetables, and as a drink that the Spanish found “delicious.” They also popped it. Since the Aztecs used both the leaves and the seeds, amaranth must have been an important supplement to their diet, especially in times of drought when corn crops died. Why then did the Spanish not adopt such a useful crop? Indeed, not only did the Spanish not adopt amaranth, they actually prohibited it, leaving us to wonder about the extent to which the abolition of such an important source of protein, minerals, and vitamins may have contributed to widespread malnutrition in the sixteenth century.
The Spaniards objected to amaranth because of its ritual uses as a sacred food associated with human sacrifice and “idolatry.” In the early sixteenth century, the Aztecs celebrated a May festival in honor of their patron god, Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, at the great pyramid of Tenochtitlan. The ritual centered on an enormous statue of the god made of amaranth dough and included human sacrifices. Placed on a litter, the statue was carried in procession through the city and then returned to the temple where it was broken up by using other chunks of the same dough.The resulting pieces were subsequently consecrated as the flesh and bones of Huitzilopochtli, then distributed among the people, who ate them with a mixture of reverence and fear. The Spanish missionary and ethnographer Bernardino de Sahagún called the ceremonial paste zoale or tzoalli and noted that it was also fed to those who were to be sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli (Sauer 1950).
Other deities were also represented by zoale, such as the fire god Xiuhtecutli or the goddess Chicomecoatl, but the Tepanecs used it to form bird effigies, and the Tarascans made little figures of animals with the bread of bledos (the Spanish term for amaranth). On other occasions, such as the new fire ceremony, this celebration of the new 52-year cycle concluded with everyone present eating the bread of bledos and honey (Sauer 1950).
Despite the Spanish prohibition, however, in the more remote parts of Mexico people continued to cultivate the plant and use it for food and ritual.A half century after the conquest amaranth continued to be an important food throughout much of Mexico (1950). As for ritual in 1629 in Guerrero, the priest Ruiz de Alarcón complained that the Indians were still milling amaranth to make dough for the manufacture of little idols of zoale to break up and eat in what appeared to the Spaniards to be a sort of parody of holy communion (Sauer 1950; Early 1992). Even as late as about 1900, a Huichol village of northern Jalisco celebrated one of its major festivals with “cakes” confected to represent animals. Made from amaranth seeds mixed with water, these cakes were usually employed ceremonially (Sauer 1950).
Over time, amaranth was also assimilated into Christian rituals. In the late nineteenth century, a visitor to Mexico described rosaries made of little balls of dough that were called suale (Sauer 1950). Sauer himself met a woman near Guadalajara in 1947 who was growing grain amaranths, making dough of them, and fashioning them into little cakes and rosaries (Sauer 1950). On a field trip to Mexico and Guatemala, Sauer discovered amaranth being cultivated in many patches, often unknown to outsiders. He found it to be most important in the Federal District, State of Mexico, and Morelos. Other states where it was grown were Guerrero, Tlaxcala, Puebla, Michoacán, and Sonora, Chihuahua, and Sinaloa. Thirty years after Sauer, Daniel Early (1977) visited Tulyehualco in Mexico where he observed techniques of amaranth planting on chinampas. In Guatemala, Sauer found that A. cruentus was still being planted by the Maya Indians in association with other crops, as they had done in the pre-Columbian period (Sauer 1950, 1976; Morley and Brainerd 1983).
As in highland Guatemala, Indian farmers in the Andes plant amaranth on “the fringes” of their maize fields. Sauer and others have reported amaranth crops in the highlands of Peru and Bolivia and in northwestern Argentina (Sauer 1950). At that time amaranth plants were known by a variety of names: Achis, achita, ckoito, coyo, or coimi in Peru; and coimi, cuime, millmi, or quinua millmi in Bolivia.As Sauer (1950) notes, the term quinoa was often used for amaranth as well as quinoa.
Amaranth was apparently widely cultivated in the pre-Columbian Andean highlands. A funerary urn has been found at Pampa Grande in Salta, Argentina, that was full of maize, beans, chenopod seeds, amaranth flowers, and pale seeds identified as A. caudatus (Sauer 1950). In 1971, A. T. Hunziker and A. M. Planchuelo reported finding A. caudatus seeds in tombs at least 2,000 years old located in north-western Argentina (Sauer 1976). But in the Inca period, good descriptions of amaranth are lacking, perhaps because it did not play the same ceremonial role as among the Aztecs. The Incas used maize for their sacred bread rather than amaranth. The first Spanish record that Sauer found (1950) is that of the Jesuit chronicler Bernabé Cobo who reported in 1653 that both red and white bledos were commonly consumed by Native Americans. Cobo also recognized that bledos were different from quinoa (Sauer 1950).
Sometime in the sixteenth century A. caudatus was taken from the Andes to Europe. In his Rariorum Plantarum Historia, Carl Clusius published the first illustration of the species in Antwerp in 1601 (Sauer 1950). He identified it as Quinua, sive Blitum majus Peruanum. Citing Clusius in 1737, Carl von Linné (Linnaeus) named the plant Amaranthus caudatus and indicated that it came from South America (Sauer 1950). A pale-seeded variety of A. hypochondriacus turned up in a sixteenth-century German collection that was found by P. Hanelt in 1968 (Sauer 1976). According to Sauer (1976), all three domesticated species may have been introduced to the Old World via Europe; henceforth, the American varieties of grain amaranth would be grown as ornamental plants in Europe. Other species of European amaranth now grow wild as weeds.
Asia and North America
The global distribution of amaranth before A.D. 1500 suggests that its cultivation is of “great antiquity,” and there is no clear picture of the historical diffusion of American amaranths to Asia, or to Africa, for that matter. Amaranth in Asia probably predates 1492, because it is so widely scattered from Iran to China in remote places, such as Manchuria and eastern Siberia; and it is cultivated by isolated populations in high mountain valleys in the Himalayas. It seems to have been a staple in southern India for centuries (Sauer 1950, 1976), and the Indians argue that it was domesticated in India (Cole 1979).
D. Merrill (Cole 1979), however, believed that the Portuguese brought amaranth from Brazil to the Malabar coast of India after 1500, where it was widely cultivated by the nineteenth century. Yet Chinese sources may document its antiquity in Asia. According to Sauer (1950), there apparently is a reference to a grainamaranth in a medical tract of A.D. 950, written for the Prince of Shu in modern Sichuan. It lists six kinds of hien, a name that is used for grainamaranths in the same area in modern times.
Most descriptions of cultivated amaranths in Asia are modern, from the nineteenth century on, with a few eighteenth-century references to a European role in diffusing the American plants from Europe to Asia. By the early nineteenth century, amaranth was being cultivated in India, principally in the far south where it was a staple crop in the Nilgiri Hills, and in the north in the foothills of the Himalayas (Sauer 1950, 1976). In the south the people raise it for its seeds, which they convert into flour. Although also grown in the plains regions during the dry winter monsoon, amaranth is especially important in the foothills and mountains of the Himalayas from Afghanistan to Bhutan.
Mongoloid nomads on the Tibetan frontier harvest grain at elevations of more than 3,500 meters, while farmers raise A. caudatus along with A. leucocarpus for grain in Nepal (Sauer 1950). According to Sauer (1950), the Himalayan plants are rich and variable in color with brilliant crimsons and rich yellows (Sauer 1950). Around Tehri in the hills of northern India the grain is popped and made into a dough to form thin cakes. In Nepal the people roast the seeds and eat them in sugar syrup like popcorn balls (Sauer 1950).
Similar popped seeds mixed with a hot sugar syrup are eaten in China, where amaranth seeds are known as tien-shu–tze, or millet from heaven. Sauer (1950) received dark-seeded tien-shu-tze, grown at elevations of 2,000 to 2,500 meters in northwestern Sichuan and Muping in Sikang. His informant reported that grain amaranths were not grown in Chengtu but in far-off mountain areas. Amaranth was also reportedly grown by the Chinese, who used the seeds to make little cakes (Sauer 1950). In addition, amaranth greens are used for food in China (Zon and Grubben 1976).
In Southeast Asia, amaranth is widely cultivated. In 1747 A. caudatus was identified in Indonesia, but the variety widely raised as a vegetable in modern Indonesia and other parts of Asia is A. tricolor, as well as species other than A. caudatus, such as A. dubius. Amaranth is a commercial crop from the Philippines to Taiwan and in Myanmar (Burma), where A. tricolor and A. viridis are grown (Zon and Grubben 1976).
As A. P. M. van der Zon and G. J. H. Grubben (1976) note, the use of amaranth as a green vegetable is quite extensive in tropical and subtropical regions of Asia and Southeast Asia, where there are many popular names for the plant: épinard de Chine, amarante de Soudan, African spinach, Indian spinach, brède de Malabar, and Ceylon spinach. Its consumption is nearly always in the form of a cooked spinach.
As of the middle 1970s, pale-seeded A. hypochondriacus constituted the bulk of the Asiatic crop; dark-seeded A. hypochondriacus and pale-seeded A. caudatus were minor components, although their leaves were widely used as a vegetable (Sauer 1976; Zon and Grubben 1976).The third American species, A. cruentus, has generally been planted as an ornamental dye plant or herb in Asia. Amaranth cultivation has been spreading in India, and Sauer (1976) believed at that time that India was the one place where amaranth was likely to experience expanded cultivation, perhaps stimulated by plant breeding. This was, of course, before scientists in the United States began extensive research on grain amaranths in the late 1970s and 1980s and American farmers initiated commercial production of amaranth in 1983 (Robinson n.d.).
The Rodale Research Center in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, is one of the leading amaranth research centers in the United States. In part because of amaranth’s seed distribution and partly because of promotional efforts, American small farmers are increasingly cultivating the grain. Breads, cereals, cookies, and “Graham” crackers made with amaranth are now available in health-food and grocery stores in the United States.
How and when amaranth reached Africa is also uncertain. It is widely found as an ornamental plant or weed throughout the continent: from Senegal to Nigeria in West Africa, from Equatorial Africa to Zaire; and to a lesser extent in East Africa. Species have even been identified in Morocco, Ethiopia, and Sudan (Sauer 1950). A. cruentus is widespread in Africa, and A. caudatus is used as an ornamental and grain amaranth.
According to Zon and Grubben (1976), a variety of A. cruentus was introduced “recently” to southern Dahomey (now Benin) from Suriname and has proved to be resistant to drought. Other varieties of A. cruentus were widely marketed as a vegetable crop in Dahomey or raised in family gardens.A third American amaranth, A. hypochondriacus, was introduced into East Africa in the 1940s as a grain for the Indian population there (Sauer 1976).
That the history of amaranth in Africa remains comparatively unknown may be because of its widespread use in private vegetable gardens. The food preference of many Africans and African-Americans for greens may also mean that amaranth leaves are more important in the diet of Africans than seeds.The problem for the historical record, however, is that the cultivation and consumption of greens usually escapes documentation.
At this stage of research, the historical evolution and diffusion of amaranth remains a research problem for the future. How did amaranth come to be cultivated around the world? Under what conditions and when? As Sauer (1950) notes, amaranth species, cultivation methods, and consumption patterns are remarkably similar in Old and New Worlds. In both areas amaranth tends to be cultivated in the highlands, although the weed species grow well at other altitudes.
Farmers usually cultivate amaranth in conjunction with maize and other crops and consume it themselves in the form of balls of popped seeds, meal, and little cakes, and they use the seeds to make a beverage. It was and is a food crop principally of interest to small farmers and gardeners but one that promises to resolve some problems of world hunger in the twenty-first century. The great advantage of the grain amaranths is that they can be grown on marginal soils where reliable water supplies are problematic and can nourish populations that lack access to animal protein.
Once widely cultivated as a staple crop of the Aztec empire, amaranth has already proven its ability to sustain millions of people in a region lacking in significant sources of animal protein long before the arrival of the Europeans. If population growth forces small farmers to move to more marginal lands in the next century, amaranth may make an important difference in nutrition levels for people who lack access to good corn or rice lands and cannot afford meat. In short, amaranth may well become an important supplementary food crop in many developing countries in the future.