Zapotec Science

Zapotec Science

Roberto J. González
Copyright Date: 2001
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  • Book Info
    Zapotec Science
    Book Description:

    Zapotec farmers in the northern sierra of Oaxaca, Mexico, are highly successful in providing their families with abundant, nutritious food in an ecologically sustainable fashion, although the premises that guide their agricultural practices would be considered erroneous by the standards of most agronomists and botanists in the United States and Europe. In this book, Roberto González convincingly argues that in fact Zapotec agricultural and dietary theories and practices constitute a valid local science, which has had a reciprocally beneficial relationship with European and United States farming and food systems since the sixteenth century.

    González bases his analysis upon direct participant observation in the farms and fields of a Zapotec village. By using the ethnographic fieldwork approach, he is able to describe and analyze the rich meanings that campesino families attach to their crops, lands, and animals. González also reviews the history of maize, sugarcane, and coffee cultivation in the Zapotec region to show how campesino farmers have intelligently and scientifically adapted their farming practices to local conditions over the course of centuries. By setting his ethnographic study of the Talea de Castro community within a historical world systems perspective, he also skillfully weighs the local impact of national and global currents ranging from Spanish colonialism to the 1910 Mexican Revolution to NAFTA. At the same time, he shows how, at the turn of the twenty-first century, the sustainable practices of "traditional" subsistence agriculture are beginning to replace the failed, unsustainable techniques of modern industrial farming in some parts of the United States and Europe.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-79644-7
    Subjects: Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vi-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. 1-31)

    The Zapotec people of Oaxaca have continuously cultivated maize, beans, squash, and other crops for more than 5,000 years. Evidence strongly indicates that their ancient Mesoamerican ancestors domesticated maize from a wild grass and that its propagation and improvement required a level of human intervention so sophisticated that it has been described as “the most remarkable plant breeding accomplishment of all time” (Galinat 1992:47). Over this period, techniques for producing, processing, preserving, and preparing maize and other crops evolved to the point that agricultural surpluses supported a series of civilizations, including those of the Olmec, Maya, Toltec, Aztec, Zapotec, and...

  5. CHAPTER 2 LOCATING TALEA: Geography, History, and Cultural Contexts
    (pp. 32-69)

    Contextualizing Talea poses a formidable task because the village, though relatively remote in some respects (it is a five-hour trip from Oaxaca City by bus), sits squarely in the world of international migration, mass communication, and global trade. The economic reliance of most Talean households on maize and beans has not impeded their participation in “modernity.” Investigating how Talea fits into bigger pictures—geographic, economic, cultural, ecological, and political—is a vital part of understanding its place in the world. These contexts link the local, the regional, the national, and the “transnational.” The criteria used to describe Talea and its...

  6. CHAPTER 3 THE CRAFT OF THE CAMPESINO: Measures, Implements, and Artifacts
    (pp. 70-101)

    Talean campesinos make use of many implements, methods, and measures, some dating to the prehispanic period, others (with Old World roots) to the colonial and postcolonial eras. Here I examine some of the most important in order to set the stage for an analysis of maize, sugarcane, and coffee cultivation. Specifically, I attempt to explode the myth of the campesino as unskilled laborer by demonstrating that the calculation and mental operations necessary to conduct even the simplest farming tasks require a great store of knowledge. In many cases, the campesinos themselves become precision instruments with senses and skills sharpened over...

  7. CHAPTER 4 “MAIZE HAS A SOUL”: Rincón Zapotec Notions of Living Matter
    (pp. 102-129)

    In the mid-twentieth century North American development agents, in partnership with their “ThirdWorld” counterparts, exported a particular version of factory farming—based on the use of mechanized equipment, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and hybrid seeds—to parts of the world deemed to be in need of “development.” There was a dual irony to this technological civilizing mission. For one thing, the technologies were deployed to the so-called Third World before the dark clouds of the Dust Bowl—a human and ecological tragedy that has been attributed in large part to factory farming practices—had even settled. But perhaps more...

  8. CHAPTER 5 FROM MILPA TO TORTILLA: Growing, Eating, and Exchanging Maize
    (pp. 130-174)

    In this chapter the focus shifts from Zapotec conceptions of “nature” to the knowledges and techniques deployed by Talean campesinos—that is, to their science and technology. I begin with a brief discussion of land tenure, labor arrangements, and classificatory systems employed by the Zapotec, followed by a description of farming methods. I then look at the conversion of maize into food by women. The concluding sections focus on the relationship between Talean agriculture and factory farming, including several cases in which Talean methods have been subjected to inquiry on the part of cosmopolitan scientists trying to understand how U.S....

    (pp. 175-194)

    The history of sugarcane in Talea is remarkable because over the course of nearly 500 years the crop has been integrated almost seamlessly into the diets and farming routines of villagers. It is a staple food taken with literally every meal, since it is used to sweeten coffee.

    Most farmers agree that sugarcane work is significantly more difficult and dangerous than that associated with maize, beans, or coffee. The cane leaves’ serrated edges have reportedly cut the faces and even eyeballs of careless farmers; poisonous snakes easily hide in the fine, long grass which grows between the plants; and, on...

  10. CHAPTER 7 THE INVENTION OF “TRADITIONAL” AGRICULTURE: The History and Meanings of Coffee
    (pp. 195-233)

    This chapter is about the adoption and appropriation of coffee by Zapotec campesinos over the last century. History is part of the story. Nearly 1,000 years ago the crop began traveling across the globe, preceding the “Columbian exchange” (Crosby 1972) of New and Old World organisms by centuries. At each site where coffee was adopted (or coercively imposed), it combined with distinct land tenure systems, labor arrangements, and agricultural practices; consequently, knowledge about the crop was transformed as it crossed geographical boundaries. Coffee was introduced in Latin America against the background of older systems of farming, and agricultural techniques were...

  11. CHAPTER 8 AGRICULTURE UNBOUND: Cultivating the Ground between Science Traditions
    (pp. 234-262)

    The Rincón Zapotec have incorporated new crops and techniques into their farming and dietary repertoires to improve upon a strong base of agricultural knowledge and practice. Through this process they have created a system which is neither static nor “underdeveloped,” but rather modern, flexible, and dynamic. Indeed, the current arrangement of maize, bean, sugarcane, and coffee production in Talea might even be described as “postindustrial” to the extent that it emerged in its present form after the abandonment of silver mines early in the twentieth century. The ancestors of many of today’s Taleans mined for nearly 200 years and probably...

    (pp. 263-264)
    (pp. 265-271)
    (pp. 272-273)
    (pp. 274-275)
    (pp. 276-278)
  17. NOTES
    (pp. 279-294)
    (pp. 295-318)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 319-328)