Amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri) is an edible flowering weed that can be cultivated as a leaf vegetable and as a pseudocereal. Unlike true cereals, which are identified by botanists as a flowering grass, pseudocereals are typically a grain which can be ground up into wheat and utilized in the same ways as true cereals. In Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City), amaranth was part of the quintessential diet and held symbolic and political power in addition to its nutritional use. In recent times, amaranth had been widely disregarded as a viable food option until the 1970s, when nutritionists found that the seeds could be cultivated as a pseudocereal which was high in protein, fiber, and could be used as a gluten-free substitute in confections and flour.
Archaeologists have identified amaranth as the oldest cultivated crop in the Americas, with evidence of its cultivation dating back to around 4000 BCE in Tehuacán archaeological digs. Bernardino de Sahagun’s Florentine Codex offers one of the first European ethnographies of the Americas, and illustrates amaranth being harvested and threshed for its grains in Aztec society. In urban centers like Tenochtitlan, amaranth was abundantly harvested in garden patches called milpas that were constructed from woven baskets and placed in a freshwater lake The seeds of the harvested amaranth plant would then be sent in clay pottery for tribute payment to the religious and governmental centers of the city, along with tributes such as corn, cacao, and quetzal bird feathers.
Amaranth also served an important role in religious offerings and foods for spiritual celebrations. Amaranth was known as huauhtli in the Nahuatl-speaking areas of Mesoamerica, and would be crafted into confections called zoale or popped like popcorn over a fire and stuck together with bees honey or agave nectar. When made into a confection, the zoale would be made to resemble Chicomecóatl, the Aztec maize goddess of sustenance and fertility. During feast days, sacrificial bloodletting was an important step in creating this sacred food, primarily because blood would occasionally be used as an ingredient. Amaranth greens would also be harvested for use in tamales. Sahagun’s Florentine Codex illustrates a feast day where tamales of maize are wrapped in the greens of the amaranth plant.
Amaranth’s resurgence as a food was due not only to its nutritional value, but also to its accessibility. Experts on food availability and nutrition argue that amaranth can be used to help fight world hunger and combat malnutrition. It is currently harvested for its greens in areas of Africa and Asia, and the cereals have been cultivated more actively by farmers in areas of Mexico such as Oaxaca. The weed is also semi-drought resistant, and offers many of the daily needed vitamins and minerals. Amaranth's wide variety of uses throughout time and in different parts of the world makes a case for its usefulness as a modern superfood. Although used in a religious context by the Aztecs, it is now a globally growing commodity that has great nutritional value. Its use, either as a cereal grain or as a vegetable, can be utilized by areas wrought with food shortage as a sustainable crop that can also combat malnutrition. Its use has seen a revival, and its history as a crop has one of the longest-lasting legacies on earth.