Across Millennia, Agave-Baking Has Been A Sacred Touchstone in Desert Life

By Andrew Stuart

Agave, and the related succulents lechuguilla and sotol, are the ancient touchstones of human life in our region. The continent’s oldest known “earth oven” was found south of Alpine – proof that Indigenous people have been baking agave here – and rendering its otherwise toxic bulbs edible and sweet – since the Ice Age. Agave is sacred in Native traditions – in Chihuahua, the Tarahumara call it “the first plant God created.” And its sacred significance endures in our region – the Mescalero Apache hold annual “mescal roasts” as part of coming-of-age rituals for young women.

Archeologist Myles Miller, with a dedicated crew, recently completed an extensive study of “plant-baking facilities.” It may be the largest such study ever in the Southwest. And it underscores the importance of agave-baking in prehistoric life in the Chihuahuan Desert.

To roast agaves, bulbs were placed in pits, with heated rocks. The evidence endures in “ring middens” – circles of rock discarded after the baking. They’ve long been overlooked by archeologists focused on pueblos and painted pottery. But they number in the tens of thousands in the Chihuahuan Desert, and are found on the flanks of virtually every West Texas mountain range.

Miller’s research was on Fort Bliss, in the foothills of New Mexico’s Sacramento Mountains, 50 miles from Texas. His crew excavated 77 plant-baking sites.

“You get real small little circles,” Miller said, “and then you get discard rings sometimes that are 60 feet in diameter, 3 to 4 feet high of burned rock. We estimate there could be 2,000 tons of burned limestone or burned rock in those discard pits. So they were baking bulk quantities of agave.”

Some were more than 4,000 years old. The most recent dated to the 1800s.

A mescal roast is an undertaking. A contemporary agave roaster told Miller that baking two dozen hearts requires 250 hours of labor – and that’s with contemporary tools and trucks. To roast agave in bulk – 4,000 years ago – was an even greater effort.

“It’s a huge amount of labor,” Miller said, “to gather the rock, gather the wood, gather the hearts, process them, transport them, seal them. Then also you have to have a couple people sitting around the pit for two days while it bakes. It’s a really impressive, and, I think, misunderstood amount of labor that went in to this technology.”

Agave was food and fiber. But the scale suggests other motivations. Miller said there are clues in historic accounts.

In their first incursions here, the Spanish regularly noted the use of fermented agave drinks. People near La Junta, present-day Presidio-Ojinaga, traveled to distant locations to “make mescal,” the Spanish said. And among the Suma people, near present-day El Paso, the Spanish described scenes of “drunkenness.” 

Miller said that the Spanish accounts hint at something real, and universal.

“That has to be put in context,” he said. “It was probably a social gathering with fermented mescal. This is how people have been gathering through all the world. You can go anywhere on Earth, pretty much, and some form of fermented drink is used in ritual social gatherings. And this is just another example of that.”

Living traditions are also instructive. Tarahumara culture has strong links with cultures that once thrived in our region. Tesguino – beer brewed from corn or agave in large ceramic vessels – shapes social relations among the Tarahumara.

Definitive proof of prehistoric fermentation could come from residue on pottery. But Miller has already found something suggestive. Ceramics made by the Jornada Mogollon – of what’s now West Texas and southern New Mexico – are pitted in a way that could have been caused by acidic, fermented drink.

And the ceremonial dimension of agave baking is plain from Miller’s findings. Discarded rocks were often arranged in relation to the cardinal directions. Many ovens contain offerings – turquoise pendants, quartz nodules, large fossils.

As Chihuahuan Desert societies changed, agave was a constant. The Jornada Mogollon built agave pits in the plazas of their pueblos. Casas Grandes, a sprawling urban center in Chihuahua, had dedicated agave-roasting areas.

“It’s orders of scale and magnitude,” Miller said, “but we see the same practices of a few hunter-gatherer groups getting together and building those large baking pits, and then we see the same thing at a large urban pueblo a couple thousand years later at Paquime, at Casas Grandes.”

Agave bound people together for millennia. Miller found that agave roasting intensified around 1000 CE, and exhaustion of agave and other resources may be why the Jornada Mogollon abandoned their pueblos around 1450. But agave’s importance endures – embodying the connection between people, and this desert land.