Teacher's Resources - Foods of the Americas

Andean Food

Corn, beans and squash are the three staple foods found throughout the Americas. They were (and still are) thought of as sacred plants that sustain human life. In some Mesoamerican origin stories the first humans were forged by a divine hand from corn.

Mesoamericans also enjoyed turkeys, ducks, avocadoes, tomatoes, peppers and prickly pear fruit. Cacao (chocolate) beans were a precious commodity, which the Maya may have used as currency. Only nobles drank the cacao beverage of the day, mixed with corn, vanilla, chilies and other ingredients. Andeans ate potatoes as one of their most important staples, in addition to corn, beans (right) and squash, and also consumed quantities of llama, guinea pig meat and fish.


It is very likely that the drinking vessel depicted above was ritually used for the consumption of cacao (chocolate) beverages, and interred during the funeral of the user. Cacao beverages, made from roasted and ground cacao beans often mixed with corn or fermented with the aid of honey, were drunk by nobility. The drinking of chocolate beverages occurred during special ceremonies that included feasts for dynastic tribute, political and religious festivities, various rites of passage, and activities that permitted entrance into the supernatural world.

Classroom Activities and Projects (recommended ages are in italics and are approximate)

1. 9 -14: Have a CLOTH & CLAY feast in your classroom. Each student can bring a food from home that uses ingredients available to Mesoamerican and Andean people. Sample menu: corn tortilla chips and salsa, cocoa, potato chips, mashed bean dip, baked sweet potatoes with honey and vanilla, salted peanuts, popcorn, avocadoes. Dairy products were not available so do not bring any sour cream, cheese, ice cream, or yogurt. Also not allowed: any food made with wheat, oats, or rice. If you have any meats in mind, remember that there was no chicken, pork, beef or lamb in the ancient Americas. In Mesoamerica, they did have turkeys, peccaries (a type of wild pig), tapirs, deer, wild fowl and other wild game, dog, fresh- and saltwater fish and crustaceans; in South America, they had deer, guinea pig, llama, wild fowl and other wild game, fresh- and saltwater fish and crustaceans.

2. 6 -12: Imagine your body is made of different basic foodstuffs. Pick any three, e.g. milk, squash, turkey (they may but don't need to be exclusively American). Make portraits of yourself as a creature created by the foodstuffs, either in combination or singly. The portraits can be in any media: modelling clay, drawing and painting media, papier maché, collaged photos. Tell the class why you selected these foods.

3. 9 - 14: Hold a CLOTH & CLAY market day: create paper representations of valuable material items such as cacao beans, corn and bean seeds, clayworking tools, llamas, alpaca yarn, cotton yarn, quetzal feathers, etc. Images of these can be duplicated by photocopier and cut into small “bills”. Assign values to these items according to your research on the site. Set up 4-6 stalls in the classroom and create an identity and locale for each group running a stall: farmer in ancient Guatemala, merchant in Chan Chan in coastal Peru, etc. Divide up the “bills” evenly and allow students to trade them according to a rationale, or story, created by the group, that has a clear goal attached. For instance, the farmer group needs enough seeds to plant a field, and they need tools to form ceramics to hold their food. Trade can go on in stages, with different groups bartering to acquire all the seeds in the market, etc.