The History of Chia Seeds (Salvia Hispanica)

History of Chia SeedsAlthough chia seeds haven’t received nearly the amount of media attention as other potent “super foods” being promoted today, that doesn’t mean they’re new to the scene.  In fact, these powerful seeds have been a vital food source for thousands of years, due to the widespread recognition of the nutrition and energy benefits they provide.

Mayan Adoption of Chia Seeds

Though there is some evidence to suggest that chia seeds were cultivated and harvested as early as 3,500 BC, one of the first cultures to record its use of these plants was the Mayans, whose civilization began to grow around 300 AD.  This culture, which was based around the areas now known as Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador, represented an ideal climate for the production of chia seeds, though it’s unclear whether the plant was native to the area or introduced from another culture.

Because of the known invigorating properties of the chia seed, the Mayan word for the plant can actually be translated as “strength”.  That the current Mexican state of Chiapas (literally meaning, “River of Chia”) is named after this plant further cements the understanding that the Mayan culture made extensive use of the chia plant and its seeds for its nutritional and medicinal purposes.

Use in Aztec Cultures

The next culture to record its use of chia seeds was the Aztecs.  Specific references to the plant can be found in the Mendoza and Florentine codices, both of which attempt to capture the history and daily lifestyles of these indigenous peoples, and include details on ruling clans, war victories and standard diets for seemingly educational purposes.

These codices were produced between 1540 and 1585, with the Mendoza Codex in particular making reference to the widespread cultivation and use of chia seeds in 21 of the 38 Aztec states at this time.  The particular climate and ecosystem of the former Aztec lands (now areas of Mexico) were well-suited to grow chia plants on a large scale.  Because the city contained large bodies of water, mats made of tree bark would be floated on the lakes and covered in soil, allowing the chia plants to sip from the water below.

Because of this ingenious method of cultivation, some historians suggest that chia seeds could have been as widely used throughout the Aztec cultures as maize, the historic predecessor to modern day corn.  In this culture, chia seeds were used “as-is”, in beverages or ground into powder, which could then be used in food production, in body paints or in medicines.  Based on information found in the codices referenced earlier, it’s known that the Aztecs used chia seeds to treat wounds, constipation and colds – all of which could have startling implications for medicine today.

But beyond simply being a food source, chia seeds may have also played a role in currency systems, religious ceremonies and athletic training.  For example, it’s known that the Aztecs – a warring, colonizing culture – used chia seeds to both sustain warriors on long conquests and as a form of “tribute” required of the tribes they conquered.  All of this represents quite a legacy for something that’s only recently been reintroduced to our culture!

Chia Seed Usage Today

But despite widespread use of the chia plant and chia seeds throughout these two long-lasting civilizations, their usage was largely suppressed following the conquering of Mexico by the Spanish – at which time, many cultural elements of the Aztecs (including artistic endeavors, dietary systems and other lifestyle aspects) were stamped out in order to impose a Spanish way of life.

Because of this, the use of chia seeds in Aztec food systems was largely replaced by European grains and vegetables – a state that persisted for many years, until the Northwestern Argentina Regional Project reintroduced the formerly popular chia seed.  To this day, chia seeds are still not well known throughout Europe, while these powerful little kernels are only starting to gain acknowledgement and acceptance throughout North America.

However, the popularity of the chia seed is growing.  Despite being nearly wiped out in the past by Spanish colonists, chia plants have regained their former status as a major commercial crop in Mexico, Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador and Guatemala (surprisingly, though, the world’s largest chia producer, as of 2008, was actually Australia).

In addition, as of 2009, chia seeds were approved as a “novel food” by the European Union.  As a result of this ruling, chia seeds can now be used in commercial bread products, as long as they don’t represent more than 5% of a finished product’s total matter.

Though there’s no telling how widespread this powerful crop will ultimately be, there’s no doubt that the chia plant and its nutritionally beneficial seeds have the potential to dramatically improve the health and well-being of any country that’s willing to invest in its production in the future.