The History and Origins of Yerba Mate
In this article, we'll learn about the early history of yerba mate.
Where is Mate From?
Mate is a beverage made with water and processed yerba mate leaves. Yerba mate is a species of Illex with the botanical name Ilex paraguariensis. It grows in the north of Argentina, Paraguay, and south of Brazil.
According to the 19th Century explorer Joseph Hooker, yerba mate was consumed in South America long before the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors arrived. And in fact, it has been determined that Ilex plants, including Ilex paraguariensis, were used by different groups of people around the continent.
On his book ‘El mate’, Javier Ricca explains in great detail every who used yerba and to what purpose. We will include a brief summary of said research to give an idea of the expansion of yerba mate use.
The Creek people lived close to the Appalachian Mountains (east of the US), where the Ilex dahoon grows. This plant was used to prepare a beverage known for its black color and its bitter taste.
In 1562, the explorers René de Laudonnière and Gaspard II de Coligny described how the drink had a crucial role in rituals. They would consume the beverage in the course of three days, which caused hallucinations and vomit. This experience was believed to be magical and help to purify the body.
The Jibaro people, as well as other small tribes that lived in what is currently Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela fermented the yerba. Specifically, the variety Ilex guayusa, making a drink that had narcotic properties. It was mainly used to enhance the physical performance of dogs used to hunt and fight in wars.
Quechua people is an umbrella-term that comprises many groups and civilizations, including Chanka, Huaca, and Incas among others.
At the time conquerors arrived in South America, the Quechua people lived in what it is currently Peru and Bolivia. It is known that like many other civilizations, the Quechua people considered death and afterlife as important steps in their life. They designing and decorating their tombs with special care.
At the site of Ancon (near Lima, Peru), archaeologist found yerba mate leaves among some of the dead's personal belongings. The tomb was over 1000 years old. This is one of the few dated proofs of yerba mate consumption in South America before the Spanish conquest.
The Ch'unchu tribe lived in what is now the northeast of Peru and they prepared Ilex guayusa as an infusion. On a chronicle in 1789, the Spanish priest Juan de Velasco described the plant and its benefits. It supposedly helped cure sexually transmitted diseases and had an almost magical effect on sterile women, who would easily get pregnant after drinking it.
Guaraní is an umbrella-term for groups of different tribes. They shared different aspects of their culture, such as language, history and myths, traditions, etc. At the time of Spanish conquest, they lived in the central region of South America. Present-day central Paraguay, northeast of Argentina, south and southwest of Brazil and southeast of Bolivia were part of their influence area.
Guaraní people have highly influenced the present-day consumption of yerba mate, as they used similar techniques and tools. Moreover, they used comparable techniques to toast, mill and dry the yerba mate. They also used yerba mate in medicine and religious practices that still remain a mystery.
Related to the Guaraní people, the Tupí lived on the Atlantic coast. They chewed yerba mate leaves but they also used them for infusions. Several chronicles tell us about their technique to drink yerba mate. They would put the whole leaves and hot water in a gourd and waited for the yerba mate to release its properties. Then, they would drink it using their own teeth to ‘filter’ the leaves, or using a small, hollow reed.
The Xetás lived in present-day south of Brazil and southeast Paraguay. They chewed and ate the green yerba mate leaves. The Ilex paraguariensis leaves were also used to make an alcoholic beverage called kukuai.
The Kaingang people lived in the south of Brazil, Paraguay, and northern Argentina. The tribe called the yerba cangoy, which translates to “the one that feeds”. As in other groups, the yerba was drunk as a tea or infusion and had a role in ceremonies and rituals.
The Charrúas lived around the Uruguay river. They related closely to the guaraní people, using similar techniques and tools to drink mate.
According to chronicles from the 18th Century, Charrúas drank mate not as part of rituals, but as a social event. In fact, they would gather in a circle to share it. They would use a gourd or a horn as a cup, where they would put whole leaves and hot water. Then, after a while, they would drink the water and chew the leaves.
Pampas is a term that encompasses many tribes that lived in the central part of Argentina, such as the puelches, taluhets, and chechehets, among others. It is captivating to know how these people consumed yerba mate even though no Illex grows in the area. Félix de Azara explains that these people got the yerba from other groups from northern Argentina. In addition to being consumed, yerba mate was considered a valuable asset and it was used to exchange other goods with tribes from the south of the continent.
According to Daniel Vidart, Mapuche people also drank mate as part of a social gathering. This was particularly relevant in the community of Pulil, in the south of Chile. There, families would get together around a fire to drink mate and talk about their day. The woman would be the one serving the mate for the rest of the group. This tradition of one person in charge of the mate for the whole group still continues today. That person is known as the ‘cebador’ and we have written another article about present-day traditions.
Yerba mate (and similar types of Ille) have been drunk by many different cultures from the US to southern Chile and Argentina. Being as part of ceremonies or magical rituals, or as a social event, there is no denying on the significance of the drink for South Americans.
Why It's Called Mate
The tradition of mate drinking as we know it is mainly inherited from the Guaraní culture. As we have mentioned before, they drank it with similar tools and techniques as we do today. However, the word mate is not from the Guaraní origin.
The Guaraní people called the mate gourd ca’iguá. Ca’á means ‘yerba mate’, i means ‘water’, and guá means ‘of’ or ‘for’. So ca’iguá was a very specific term that referred to the object where they put the water for the yerba mate. The Quechua people used the term mati, which means cup. According to one theory, Spanish conquerors heard both terms and chose the latter because it was easier to say and remember.
The word ‘mate’ could also come from the Aztec tecomate, which also refers to the gourd. This term comes from the náhuatl, tecomatl, a compound word that means “solid container” - te means ‘solid’ and comatl, ‘container’.
There are several different hypotheses around its origin. However, they all have in common that in fact, mate never referred to the drink. Apparently, Spanish conquerors misunderstood the term for the cup and the drink, using the first as the latter. Interestingly enough, in Spanish ‘mate’ still means both the drink and the gourd where it is drunk from.
It is clear that mate is a term that comes one of the indigenous languages of South America. However, it is not very obvious from which one. The similarities between these theories speak to the rich and complex cultural exchange among the different cultures that lived on the continent.
Past and Present: Who Drinks Mate?
History of yerba mate has been drunk in South America for centuries, before the Spanish colonization. It was originally consumed by the Guaraní people, who lived in what today is Paraguay, north of Argentina, South of Brazil and parts of Uruguay and Bolivia. It was consumed first chewing the green leaves of I. paraguariensis and then they would use the mate gourd and a small straw made out of cane.
Since the 17th Century and with the arrival of Jesuits to the area, the consumption was first forbidden and later promoted, as they realized it was beneficial for their health. Drunk mostly in rural areas, its consumption in cities increased in the late 19th Century and all throughout the 20th Century.
The way of drinking mate has varied slightly by changing the material of its basic elements, and there is a wide variety of options for all tastes. The main change was the introduction of the ‘termo’, an insulated flask(that took the name of Thermus, one of the biggest companies). The ‘termo’, firstly introduced in Uruguay in the 60s allowed ‘materos’ to have a mate on the go, keeping the water hot all day and being able to enjoy it in public spaces.
Today, mate is widely consumed in Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay and in some areas of Brazil (mainly the states of Rio Grande du Sul, Santa Catarina, Parana y Mato Grosso do Sul). It is also consumed in the South of Chile and in the rural areas of the central region. Uruguayans drink the most – 6 to 8 kg of yerba per person per year. Argentinians drink on average 5 kg of yerba per person per year and they are also the first exporter of yerba mate in the world.
Each region has its own preference in terms of the type of yerba, temperature of water and different ways of preparing and drinking mate. Generalizing, in Brazil and North of Argentina people usually use a big mate gourd, whereas in Uruguay, South of Argentina and Chile it is more common to drink from a small mate. Paraguayans usually drink from guampa. Cimarron is the preference in Uruguay, South of Argentina, Chile and south of Brazil, whilst Paraguayans and North Argentinians prefer tereré.
Outside South America, Syria is the country that imports the most Argentinian yerba. This is attributed to the migration wave of Syrians – and Lebanese – to Argentina that returned home and continued the tradition.
With the migration of South Americans to North America and Europe, the consumption of mate has been increasing, especially after the many recent research studies that have confirmed its beneficial properties.
Coming next in the series, we will analyze how yerba was seen by the Spanish, how the ritual aspect of the drink and the Catholic religion clashed, how it was forbidden, drunk and later promoted, and how the traditions moved from the countryside to the cities.