A Brief History Of The Origin Of Avocado

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Origins Of Avocado

Though discovered by the Spanish only in the 15th century, avocado was used by the Mesoamericans since 5000 BC. This aphrodisiac fruit from south Central Mexico was used by the Incas in Peru and sold in Mexican markets. The Mayan civil calendar glyphs attest to its prehispanic origins. Then called "aguacate," it got its present name in Sloane's 1696 catalog of Jamaican plants.

When the 15th-century navigator Martin Fernandez De Encisco from Seville, Spain, set out on his quest of discovering the unknown in the “New World,” little did he know that he would be one of the first to report the sighting of a unique fruit in the region. Encisco writes in his seminal work Suma de Geografia (1519) about a fruit he chanced upon at the port town of Yaharo that “looks like an orange” but turns “yellowish when it is ready to be eaten.” He goes on to explain the “marvelous flavor” of the insides of the fruit, which tastes “like butter” and is “so good and pleasing to the palate” 1

The Different Pear

Though Encisco enjoyed the fruit to the hilt, he did not give it a name; nor did Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, who stumbled upon the fruit in northern South America. He wrote about it in his work that described the many wonders he saw in the New World, Sumario de la Natural Historia de las Indias, published in 1526. He identified the trees that carried the fruit as a variation of the pear trees in Spain. The “pears,” as he called them, weigh “a pound and even more… and the color and shape is that of true pears, and the rind somewhat thicker, but softer, and in the center of the fruit is a seed like a peeled chestnut… and between this and the rind is the part which is eaten, which is abundant, and is a paste very similar to butter and very good eating and of good taste.”

The First Names

It was Pedro de Cieza de Leon, the Spanish conquistador and chronicler of Peru, who gave the fruit its first known name. He referred to it as “aguacate” and “palta” in his writings between 1532 and 1550 and wrote that the fruit was widely used by the inhabitants of the land, the people from the Inca civilization. In what is considered a complete study of the avocado, botanist G.N.Collins’ book, The Avocado, A Salad Fruit from the Tropics, Collins points out that the fruit must have been of considerable importance because it is the one of the very few kinds of which a mention is made. “The fruit described is said to have the pulp about the thickness of a finger,” wrote Collins.2

Botanists around the world agree today, based on plant distribution and taxonomic evidence that the avocado did originate in south central Mexico or nearby. But it was the Spanish academic who seems to have been the first to trace the fruit to Mexico. Although he doesn’t describe it, he lists it among fruits that were sold in the market of Tenochtitlan (the old name for Mexico) in his book Mexico en 1554.3

Evidence Of Prehistoric Cultivation

Although it was only discovered in the 15th century, archaeologists date the origin of the avocado back to 5000 BC and believe that the fruit was probably cultivated and eaten by the Mesoamericans.4
Archaeologists believe that many documents that could link to the avocado’s pre-Hispanic origins were destroyed by the Spanish in an attempt to Christianize the Mesoamerican cultures.

However, two very interesting references of the fruit can be found in:

  • The Maya civil calendar, which dates back to 800 BC, in which the name of each month is based on seasonal and agricultural events. The 14th month in the calendar is represented by a glyph showing the avocado.
  • The Pacal tomb inscriptions in Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico, which was built in 650 AD, show 10 figures representing Pacal’s ancestors. Each figure emerges from the earth and behind each of them, there is a tree with fruits. Avocado was among the fruits depicted, like cacao, soursop, and chicozapote.

The Name Avocado

The name avocado appeared for the first time in naturalist Sir Hans Sloane’s catalog of Jamaican plants, which was published in 1696. He did not describe the fruit but the tree and called it “the avocado or alligator pear-tree, which grows in gardens and fields throughout Jamaica.”

Today, there are about 400 varieties of avocado available around the world. It is considered one of the most nutritious fruits—with high fiber content, more potassium than in bananas, and rich in folates and vitamin E. It is also one of the fruits with the highest protein content. The oil of the fruit is also good for the skin and has proven to possess anti-aging properties5

What’s more, this humble fruit that began its journey from the prehistoric times was, even then, believed to be a good aphrodisiac.

References   [ + ]

1. Popenoe, Wilson, and G. A. Zentmyer. “Early history of the avocado.” Calif Avocado Soc (1963): 19-24.
3.Storey, W. B., Bob Bergh, and G. A. Zentmyer. “The origin, indigenous range and dissemination of the avocado.” Calif Avocado Soc Yearb 70 (1986): 127-133.
4.Galindo-Tovar, María Elena, Amaury M. Arzate-Fernández, Nisao Ogata-Aguilar, and Ivonne Landero-Torres. “The avocado (Persea americana, Lauraceae) crop in Mesoamerica: 10,000 years of history.” Harvard Papers in Botany 12, no. 2 (2007): 325-334.
5.Fulgoni, Victor L., Mark Dreher, and Adrienne J. Davenport. “Avocado consumption is associated with better diet quality and nutrient intake, and lower metabolic syndrome risk in US adults: results from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2001–2008.” Nutrition journal 12, no. 1 (2013): 1.

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.

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