TCS 2009 Grants

Human Geography and Ethnobotany of Cycads in Xi’iuy, Teenek, and Nahuatl Communities of Northeastern Mexico

Dr. Mark Bonta
Delta State University, Cleveland, MS


Mark Bonta and researchers from the Universidad Autónoma de San Luís Potosí led by Javier Fortanelli Martínez and Miguel Aguilar Robledo will visit indigenous communities in northeastern Mexico during summer 2009 to study relationships between maize and cycads as well as other ethnobotanical topics related to cycads.


The human dimensions of cycad botany and geography have infrequently been the subject of papers and lengthy field and archival investigations (e.g. Beck 1992, Bonta 2007, Bonta and Osborne 2007, Read 1986, Thieret 1958, Whiting 1963). People cultivate or harvest from the wild both Old World and New World cycads and cycad parts for purposes that include ornamentation, religious ceremony, medicine, and diet. By all indications, cycads have been used for millennia by traditional societies across the world as dietary staples, commonly as supplements to domesticates such as maize.

The consumption of cycad parts – leaves, cone parts, and stems – both raw and cooked is linked in certain cases, most famously with Cycas micronesica in Guam, to human neurological disorders. Cycads contain a range of deadly toxins, so their widespread and continuing use for food raises many questions, particularly since most anecdotal data show that properly prepared cycad foods do NOT result in obvious intoxication in humans (e.g. Bonta et al. 2006).

The consumption of cycads in traditional societies is commonly linked to their cultural significance, yet in few cases are the linkages well understood. Bonta et al.’s 2006 study of tiusinte (Dioon mejiae) in Honduras was the first to document the material uses of a New World cycad species in a local culture and relate this directly to religious significance as well as to conservation. Since the completion of fieldwork in Honduras, Bonta has collaborated with Mexican researchers in Oaxaca and Hidalgo states to continue in-depth investigation of the relationships between people and Zamiaceae cycads. Little has been published on this topic in Mexico, despite the richness of the cycad flora as well as its overlaps with indigenous societies. A study of the uses of Dioon merolae in Chiapas among the Chiapaneco (Pérez-Farrera & Vovides 2006) is the only major contribution to the literature thus far. The following summary of main points relevant to the proposed research in northeastern Mexico is based on archival research undertaken by Bonta in Oaxaca, at the University of Texas-Austin, and elsewhere, as well as the following published sources (Alcorn 1984, Alcorn et al. 2006, Berlanderi and Chovel 1849, Byers 1967, Chemin Bassler 1984 and 2000, Hernandez 1946, Kempton and Popenoe 1937, López de la Cámara Alta 2006, Macneish 1958, Stresser-Péan 2000, Stross 2006, Vázquez Torres 1990, Wauchope and Kislak 1964) 2008 field research in Hidalgo and Oaxaca, and personal communcation with several cycad experts both within and outside Mexico.

The primary goal of this project is to interview the oldest and most knowledgeable people specifically about cycad uses and beliefs, among the Xi’iuy, Nahuatl, and Teenek ethnic groups. All permits for research in indigenous communities will be procured by UASLP. Ethnographic interviews will be conducted in the informants’ maternal languages, and will be tape-recorded or (preferably) videotaped where allowable. Our goal is to interview a minimum of 10 people from each ethnic group, using unstructured, open-ended techniques that seek, in the course of conversation, to delve into the informants’ complete knowledge of cycads. Where possible, we will seek to supplement these interviews with demonstrations of food preparation, visits to local cycad populations, and discussions with community leaders and other members of the community.

This project also includes a planning phase for future, large-scale research on the human geography and ethnobotany of cycads in northeastern Mexico, which this researcher and the UASLP are keen on pursuing. To that end, preliminary mapping of cultural uses of cycads in the region, and identification of major archival sources (land grant titles, geographic relations, and so forth, relevant to the region), will be a priority. This project will thus serve as a type of feasibility study for what may become the first-ever multidisciplinary research effort in the human relationship with cycads that looks at the cultural landscape of a region over time; other major cycad studies have not had access to historical or archaeological data, or have only focused narrowly on one topic of interest (toxicology of C. micronesica in Guam, for example).

Click here for full proposal

Click here for final report (2.2 Mb)

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This page was updated on Saturday, 05 June 2010.