The relationship between humans and trees
in Mesoamerica is very ancient, with trees hav-
ing played a very important role in the history
of many cultures that have inhabited this area
(e.g., Mayas, Toltecs, and Aztecs; Sánchez-
Colín et al., 2001; Telliz, 2000). One example
is the Chontales, who lived near the forests of
Tabasco (Mexico). They believed that the gods
lived in the forests and that they must therefore
maintain and conserve them (Vázquez-Dávila,
Among the trees used by ancient Meso-
american cultures, the avocado (Persea ameri-
cana Mill., Lauraceae) has had an important
place not only in the diet but in the mythology
and culture of different groups that have lived in
the area. It is possible that, even before some
human groups transitioned from hunter-gatherer
life styles to agriculture, that they valued the
avocado fruit as nutritious, and managed and
cultivated the crop in its natural stands for a
long time (Gama-Campillo and Gómez-Pompa,
1992). Seed remains found in ancient human
settlements in the Tehuacan Valley suggest that
the avocado could have been used as early as
8000 to 7000 BC and possibly domesticated at
least since 5000 BC by Mesoamerican groups
(Smith, 1966, 1969). However,the relationship
between humans and the avocado has been
complex, so, in order to understand its actual
status it is necessary to document its history.
In this paper, the social and cultural impor-
tance of the avocado crop since prehistoric times
is presented along with a paleographical recon-
struction of avocado history in Mesoamerica.
Moreover, to document the relationship of the
THE AVOCADO (PERSEA AMERICANA, LAURACEAE) CROP
IN MESOAMERICA: 10,000 YEARS OF HISTORY
MARÍA ELENA GALINDO-TOVAR,1,5 AMAURY M.ARZATE-FERNÁNDEZ,2
NISAO OGATA-AGUILAR,3AND IVONNE LANDERO-TORRES4
Abstract. The most ancient evidence of the existence of the avocado tree (Persea americana, Lauraceae) in
Mesoamerica is about 10,000 years ago in Coaxcatlan, Puebla (Mexico). Since then, the history of the avocado
has been preserved and recorded in Mesoamerica, the domestication center for the species, and in northern South
America, where pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican cultures dispersed it. In colonial times, the Spanish valued the avo-
cado fruit highly and documented it in numerous texts. Since then, the avocado tree has been introduced into
places where the climate is appropriate for its cultivation. Avocado is now the fourth most important tropical
fruit in the world, and Mexico is the main producer, with more than one million metric tons produced in 2005.
Resumen. La evidencia más antigua de la presencia del aguacate (Persea americana, Lauraceae) en
Mesoamérica es de hace 10,000 años, en Coaxcatlán, Puebla (México). Desde entonces, la historia del aguacate
ha sido documentada en Mesoamérica, su centro de domesticación, y en el norte de Sudamérica, en donde fue
dispersado por las culturas que habitaron en Mesoamérica en la época pre-Hispánica. En el tiempo de la Colonia,
los españoles apreciaron esta fruta y la documentaron en numerosos textos. Desde entonces el aguacate ha sido
introducido en los lugares donde el clima es apropiado para su desarrollo. Actualmente el aguacate es la cuarta
fruta tropical más importante en el mundo y México es el principal productor con más de un millón de toneladas
métricas producidas en el año 2005.
Keywords: Persea americana,Lauraceae, avocado, Mesoamerican cultures, Pre-Hispanic, colonial.
We thank the Universidad Veracruzana, Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, and PROMEP for their support in
this investigation. We also thank the reviewers for their comments and suggestions.
1Facultad de Ciencias Biológicas y Agropecuarias-Córdoba, Universidad Veracruzana, Camino Peñuela-Amatlán,
Amatlán de los Reyes-Peñuela, Veracruz, México. E-mail: email@example.com; Phone: 01(271) 716 6410.
2Facultad de Ciencias Agrícolas. Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México. Carretera Toluca-Ixtlahuaca Km 15,
Toluca, Estado de México.
3Centro de Investigaciones Tropicales, Universidad Veracruzana, Calle 7 de enero No. 12, Xalapa, Veracruz, México.
4Facultad de Ciencias Biológicas y Agropecuarias-Córdoba, Universidad Veracruzana, Camino Peñuela-Amatlán,
Amatlán de los Reyes-Peñuela, Veracruz, México.
5Author for correspondence.
HarvardPapers in Botany,Vol. 12, No. 2, 2007, pp. 325–334.
©President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2007.
avocado with the customs and habits of
Mesoamerican cultures from its beginnings
10,000 years ago up to the present, and follow-
ing the methodology of Messer (2003), we
examined ethnohistoric and linguistic data as
well as archaeobotanical remains (Smith, 2001)
that provide evidence for the antiquity of avo-
cado tree cultivation.
326 HARVARD PAPERS IN BOTANY Vol. 12, No. 2
The origin of the avocado, as with any other
species, cannot be explained without its histori-
cal-geological background (Graham, 1995).
Ancestors of the Lauraceae family originated in
Gondwana (Africa) and migrated to Laurasia
(Europe; Raven and Axelrod, 1974). According
to Chanderbali et al. (2001), the Lauraceae orig-
inated in Laurasia, from the Gondwanan ances-
tors. Subsequently, one part of the family
migrated to Asia, and another, including the
Perseae clade, migrated to North America
(Renner, 2004). Later, when Central America
was formed (Miocene-Pliocene) and mountain
building occurred, new habitats emerged and
speciation took place due to geographical isola-
tion (Scora and Bergh, 1992). Archaeological
evidence shows that when the climatic condi-
tions changed during the Paleocene glaciations,
avocado ancestors migrated from North
America to the south and became established in
the more hospitable habitats of Mesoamerica
(Schroeder, 1968; Storey et al., 1986; Scora and
Bergh, 1992; Bergh, 1995). Evidence suggests
that the complex geological history of Mexico
has been the main evolutive factor for the avo-
cado (Ramamoorthy et al., 1993).
THE PRE-HISPANIC PERIOD
The avocado has been consumed in Meso-
america by human groups since prehistoric
times (Mac Neish, 1964). Buckler et al. (1998)
documented that from 16,000 to 8,000 BC the
weather in this region was appropriate for avo-
cado development. It is therefore possible that
avocado cultivation began at this early time and
continued to be used by different cultures that
inhabited the Americas (Galindo et al., in press).
Examples of these cultures and their use of the
avocado are explained in more detail below.
In Peru, the Supe Valley was inhabited by the
Caral civilization, the oldest known culture in
the Americas (Solis et al., 2001). Ethnobotanical
remains found here suggest a system of agricul-
ture that depended on irrigation (Solis et al.,
2001). Furthermore, recent findings indicate that
the Supe Valley comprises a cultural complex
going back as far as 3100 BC; and domesti-
cated avocado botanical remains indicate that
avocado was grown there at least since 1200 BC
(Skidmore, 2005). Moreover, because there is no
evidence of maize or any other grain (Skidmore,
2005), it is possible that avocado was an impor-
tant staple for these people before other crops
were grown there. In addition to the Caral civ-
ilization, there is also archaeological evidence
that the avocado was a part of the diet of groups
inhabiting the Moche Valley in northern Peru in
2500–1800 BC (Pozorski, 1979), and on the
Peruvian coast in 1500 BC (Heiser, 1979).
In Mesoamerica, one of the first known cul-
tures is the Mokaya (1800 BC). The Mokaya
inhabited the Soconusco area during the
Formative period (1500 BC–300 AD), and
although the Mokaya name means maize, there
is evidence that this was not their primary food
source (Taube, 2004). As the Mokayas were a
sedentary group engaged in food acquisition,
with an incipient agriculture, it is possible that
they used common fruits in the area, especially
those as nutritive as the avocado, as a source of
food. In addition, as the Mokayas were the
forerunners of the Olmec and Maya cultures
(Taube, 2004), they may have passed on to
them their knowledge of the use and cultivation
of trees, including the avocado.
Like the Chontales, the Mayas also had a spe-
cial appreciation for trees. In the Popol Vuh, a
Mayan holy book written in Mayan hiero-
glyphic script around 1550, there is a part that
refers to the Creation Myth. In this part of the
book there is an interesting reference to a place
with many trees (“the delightful place”):
“There, the creators found the yellow and the
white maize as the appropriate food for men and
from them they made the flesh when man was
formed. In this beautiful place full of delights
there were many trees of pataxte (Theobroma
bicolor Bonpl.) and cacao (Theobroma cacao
L.), and innumerable zapotes (Pouteria sapota
(Jacq.) H.E. Moore & Stearn), anonas (Annona
muricata L.), jocotes (Spondias purpurea L.),
nantzes (Byrsonima crassifolia (L.) Kunth.),
and matasanos (Casimiroa edulis La Llave &
Lex.)” (Anonymous, 2002).
There are paleoethnobotanical accounts sug-
gesting the Maya used the coyol tree
(Acrocomia aculeata (Jacq.) Lodd. ex. C. Mart.)
as a source of food, oil, and/or wine (Lentz,
1991). It is also known that other fruit trees, such
as ciruela (Spondias sp.), nance (Brysonimia
crassifolia (L.) Kunth),avocado (Persea amer-
icana), and possibly zapote (Pouteria sp.),
were common in the Copan Valley (Guatemala)
from 900 BC to 900 AD, indicating a reliance
on arboriculture as part of the subsistence strat-
egy for the Mayas (Lentz, 1991). With regard
to the avocado, Colunga-García and Zizumbo-
Villareal (2004) have suggested that domesti-
cated avocados from other cultural areas were
introduced to the Maya lowlands by at least
3400 BC. The Mayas, however, had used avo-
cado since ancient times (Fedick, 1995), and
they were among several of the Mesoamerican
cultures that domesticated this fruit (Gama-
Campillo and Gómez-Pompa, 1992).
Since many documents that could have shed
light on pre-Hispanic avocado history were
destroyed by the Spanish in their effort to
Christianize the cultures that inhabited
Mesoamerica (Ossenbach, 2005), the icono-
graphic data reveal important information
about the relationship between the avocado and
some Mesoamerican cultures. One example is
the Maya civil calendar (Haab calendar) devel-
oped between 800 and 300 BC. In this calendar
the name of each month is based on seasonal
and agricultural events, and the 14th month is
represented by a glyph representing the avo-
cado. The Mayas called this glyph Uniw or
Uniiw in their classic language and K’ank’in in
the yucatec of the 16th century (Landa, 
1978; Kettunen and Helmke, 2005). Another
example is in the Pacal tomb inscriptions in
Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico. This tomb was
built in 650 AD, and on the sides of the sar-
cophagus are 10 figures representing Pacal’s
ancestors, 9 of them men and 1 a woman
(Schele, 1974). Every figure emerges from the
earth, and behind each of them there is a tree
with fruits that include the cacao, avocado,
soursop (Annona muricata L.), and chicozapote
(Manilkara zapota (L.) P. Royen) (Schele,
1974). These figures represent a forest growing
around the king’s sarcophagus and also repre-
sent the main fruit trees the Mayas cultivated
around their homes, as it was thought that their
ancestors were reborn as the trees (Schele,
Other interesting iconographic data that sup-
port the importance of the avocado in
Mesoamerica is found in “El Codice Mendoza,”
amanuscript painted by an Aztec tlacuilo
(“artist”) at the time Don Antonio de Mendoza
was viceroy of New Spain (“Nueva España”;
Mendoza, 1989). In this manuscript there is a
glyph representing Ahuacatlan, whose name
means a place where avocado is abundant. This
town was identified by a tree with a tooth in the
trunk (ahuacacahuitl)and a calli, meaning
place or town (Telliz, 2000). Castillo (1978)
has placed this town in the state of Jalisco
(Mexico), because the other towns mentioned
in the same plate belong to this area. In addition
to the iconographic data, there is also an Aztec
legend that describes the way Yaotl was trans-
formed into an avocado grasshopper (ahua-
cachapulin)as punishment when he disobeyed
the gods (Robelo, 1951).
In addition to the iconographic references,
linguistic data show the ways different human
groups used plant and animal names to record
their experiences and secure the survival of
their history.However,according to Navarijo
(1995), the presence of a plant or animal in
nature alone is not enough for it to be named. It
is necessary for the society or human group to
acknowledge the importance of the species
before naming it (Navarijo,1995). Understanding
the naming and significance of avocado is the
first step in understanding the cultural percep-
tions that various groups had of avocado; and
two or more names for a single species repre-
sented a greater cultural significance (Bye,
1993). For avocado, the fact that many cultures
recognized it with a name demonstrates that it
was an important tree. For example: some
Maya groups, such as the Pokomchi, Pokoman,
Cakchiquel, Quiche, and Uspanteca, named the
avocado oj (Gama-Campillo, 1992; Schieber and
Zentmyer,1992); the Chucutamanes, Tzental,
Tzontzil, and Chnabal, on (Gama-Campillo,
1992; Schieber and Zentmyer, 1992; Landa,
 1978); the Kekehi, oh (Popenoe et al.,
2007 GALINDO-TOVAR ET AL., 10,000 YEARS OF AVOCADO HISTORY 327
1997); the Chicomulcelteca, ou (Popenoe et al.,
1997); the Choi, um (Popenoe et al., 1997); the
Chorti and Chontal, un (Popenoe et al., 1997);
the Otomi, nttzani (Popenoe et al., 1997); the
Zapotec, yaus, yashu, ishu,or isu (Popenoe et
al., 1997); the Mixe, cuchpa (Popenoe et al.,
1997); the Chibcha, cura (Popenoe et al.,
1997); the Tarascos, cupanda (Popenoe, 1963);
the Quekchi, o(Gama-Campillo, 1992); and in
totonaco, cucata (Cortés,  1970). But the
name in contemporary Spanish—aguacate—
comes from the Aztec word ahuacaquahuitl,
which means “testicle.” In South America, the
Incas gave the name palta to the avocado,
because it was brought from a place named
Palta (Vega,  1995).
328 HARVARD PAPERS IN BOTANY Vol. 12, No. 2
EARLY DISPERSION AND COMMERCE
In Mesoamerica, many cultures shared reli-
gious beliefs, art, architecture, science, and
technology for thousands of years (Wolf, 1967).
In addition, since early times, a wide network
for commercial exchange existed, and the dif-
ferent cultures inhabiting the area shared many
traits (Ortíz and Rodríguez, 2000). Because of
this, it seems reasonable to think that the avo-
cado was an important exchange product. For
instance, by 1600 to 500 BC, the Olmec was a
complex society with a wide distribution in
Mesoamerica and an extensive network of com-
merce routes (Love, 2005). Based on evidence
that suggests that the Olmec had contact with
the Papayecas (Honduras) in 1200–1000 BC
(Healy, 1978), and because this time coincides
with the avocado remains found in this area
(Healy,1978), it is probable that the Olmecs
brought the avocado as a commerce product.
Wolters (1999) proposed that the avocado
and other crops were brought from Mexico to
Ecuador and to northern Peru in pre-Columbian
times by the Valdivia culture (western Ecuador)
and their successors. He proposed that in their
travels by boat from west Ecuador to Peru and
Middle America (since 2200 BC) and to south-
ern Mexico (since 1450 BC), the Valdivias dis-
persed several plants, among them the avocado.
In addition, in “Los Comentarios Reales de
los Incas,” Garcilazo de la Vega ( 1995)
writes about the way the avocado was brought
to the Inca valleys. He describes the origin,
kings, religion, laws, and government of the
Incas and relates that when the king Tupac Inca
Yupanqui conquered Palta (now Ecuador), he
brought the avocado to Cuzco and to the Incas’
warm valleys (Vega,  1995). It is known
that Yupanqui conquered Cuzco in 1450–1475
A.C. It is therefore not surprising that by the
time the Spanish arrived in the Americas, the
avocado was consumed from Mesoamerica to
Peru (Webber, 1936; McPherson, 1955;
Popenoe, 1963; Takashi, 1968), an area settled
by agricultural people by that time.
When the Spanish arrived in the Americas,
the New World flora and fauna attracted the
attention and curiosity of many chroniclers
who were interested in the description and
identification of new species, mainly with
medicinal rather than botanical purposes. These
chroniclers recorded many descriptions of the
cultivation and use of native plants, thus pro-
viding important ethnohistoric information on
the cultures inhabiting the Americas at that
time (Ossenbach, 2005).
The first written description of the avocado
was made by Martín Fernández de Enciso in
“La Suma de Geografía,”published in Sevilla,
Spain, in 1519. He found the avocado in Yaharo
(now Colombia) and described it as “an orange,
and when it is ready for eating it turns yellow-
ish; that which it contains is like butter and is of
marvelous flavor, so good and pleasing to the
palate that it is a marvelous thing.”In addition
to Fernández de Enciso, other chroniclers have
also written about the avocado: Fernández de
Oviedo, in “Sumario de la Natural Historia de
las Indias” ( 1996), described it as being
like a pear but better; Cervantes de Salazar, in
“Crónica de la Nueva España” ( 1985),
described it as being like a fig but bigger;
Landa, in “Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán”
( 1978), described it as a big and fresh
tree with fruits like a courgette; Vega, in “Los
Comentarios Reales de los Incas” (
1995), referred to the avocado as a tasty and
healthy fruit for sick people, which, when eaten
with sugar,is like a preserve; Ximénez, in
“Libros de la Naturaleza y Virtudes de las
Plantas y Aanimales, de Uso Medicinal en la
Nueva España” ( 2001), described the
ahuacaquahuitl tree as being like an oak
with orange leaves, small flowers, and fruits
At the end of the 16th century, the king of
Spain and the Indies, Felipe II, asked Francisco
Hernández for a description of the plants, ani-
mals, and minerals from New Spain, with a
particular focus on the virtues and uses of them.
In his book, “Historia de las Plantas de la
Nueva España,” he described the ahoa-
caquahuitl as a tree like an oak, with hanging
black fruits like figs and with anise-scented
leaves, and he added that this tree grows every-
where in New Spain (Hernández,  1942).
Likewise, during the same period, Antonio de
Ciudad Real ( 1993) wrote “Tratado
Curioso y Docto de las Grandezas de la Nueva
España.” In his books, he described the avo-
cado in Mexico as a fruit the size and color of
an early fig, with a big seed and little flesh but
tasty and healthy even though in other places
they were bigger; and he documented the pres-
ence of avocado in the town and monastery of
Cuauhcachulan (Tlaxcalla episcopate), in
Tehuacan (Puebla), in Iztapa and Comitan
(Chiapas) in Tuchpan (Jalisco), in Michoacan,
and in Yucatan. Also, in his trip to Guatemala
he described avocados in the town of Apenega
and in the margins of the Atitlan Lake (Ciudad
Real,  1993).
Moreover, there are at least three interesting
mentions of the avocado used as a tribute. Friar
Diego Durán ( 1967) wrote in the mid-
16th century about the tributes and riches that
the people governed by the Aztecs gave to
them. Among them were the fruits, especially
the ones from the warm lands, like the avocado
(Durán,  1967). In “El Códice Mendoza”
(Mendoza, 1989) there is a glyph for the avo-
cado tree (ahuacacahuitl in the Nahua lan-
guage) representing the merchandise the town
of Ahuacatlan gave as a tribute to the Aztecs. In
“Suma de la Visita de los Pueblos,” an inven-
tory of goods obtained between 1531 and 1544
from 907 towns in Central Mexico, Aculma is
reported as a town that gave in tribute, among
other merchandise, 10 avocados (Paso y
Troncoso, 1905). In addition, it has been docu-
mented that the avocado was sold, among other
fruits, in the Tlatelolco tianguis (open-air mar-
ket) in Tenochtitlan (Cervantes de Salazar,
 1985) and consumed by the Aztec nobil-
ity (Sahagún,  2002).
In South America, the avocado has been
described by several chroniclers. Among them,
Pedro de Cieza de León, in “La Crónica del
Perú,” described his experiences from 1532 to
1550, and according to him there were avoca-
dos all over the valleys of the plains in the
provinces from Tamboblanco to San Miguel
city on the Peruvian coast and in the Cali
region of Colombia. He also mentioned having
seen many avocados in Puerto Viejo province
(Costa Rica) and in the equinoctial line (Cieza
de León,  1962). Friar Gaspar de
Carvajal ( 1999), in his book “Relación
del Nuevo Descubrimiento del Famoso Río
Grande de las Amazonas,” referred to Omagua,
atown located in northeastern Peru in the
Amazon rain forests, as a place where avocados
and other fruits were abundant. Later Don
Jorge Juan and Don Antonio de Ulloa (
1970), in their book “Del Viaje a la América
Meridional,” described the avocado as a com-
mon fruit in the lands around Quito (Ecuador).
Avocado, besides being consumed by people,
was used to feed domestic animals. For exam-
ple, pigs would eat the ripe fruit falling from
the trees (Labat,  1964). In his book
“Nouveau Voyage Aux Isles de L’Amerique,”
Labat mentioned that the meat of these animals
had an excellent flavor when they were fed
with avocados. According to Benavente
( 2003), dogs and cats would also eat all
the avocado types; after a good meal of hen
they ate avocados, as a satiated man after eat-
ing meat has an olive.
Of course we cannot ignore the medicinal
uses of avocado. When Garcilazo de la Vega
described the avocado, he wrote that the fruit is
delicious and very healthy for sick people
(Vega,  1995). Friar Francisco Ximénez
in 1615 described the avocado leaves as dry
and warm, and for this reason they were com-
monly used in lavatories (Ximénez, 
2001). The avocado seed rubbed on a swollen
instep healed it and eliminated bruises, and
because of certain astringent characteristics,
avocado healed the blood chamber and pre-
vented the splitting of the hair tips; and if you
made any mark on the seed with a pin or any
other object, the stain on a cloth would never
disappear (Ximénez,  2001).
The Spanish liked the avocado so much that
they distributed it to their other colonies in the
Americas, in the eastern hemisphere, and to
Europe (Knight, 2002). In Europe, the first
introduced avocado was the West Indian type
(Williams, 1977). Avocado was introduced to
Indonesia by 1750, to the Philippines in 1890,
and to Brazil in 1809 (Knight, 2002).
2007 GALINDO-TOVAR ET AL., 10,000 YEARS OF AVOCADO HISTORY 329
330 HARVARD PAPERS IN BOTANY Vol. 12, No. 2
In Mesoamerica, differentiation of many taxa,
including Persea,has occurred (Ramamoorthy
et al., 1993). When the first human groups
arrived in Mesoamerica, it is possible that,
among other species, they started to consume
and select avocado ancestral varieties (Mac
Neish, 1964; Smith, 1969), thus initiating
selection and domestication of the avocado. As
aresult, there are at least three varieties of avo-
cado with differences related to the ecological
preferences of the tree and fruit characteristics
(Ashworth and Clegg, 2003): (1) Persea ameri-
cana var. drymifolia (Schlecht. et al. Cham.
Blake) (Mexican) is characterized by a relatively
good cold tolerance and small fruits covered by
athin, purplish-black skin; (2) P. americana
var. guatemalensis L. Wms. (Guatemalan) is
somewhat cold tolerant, and the fruit has a
thick, tough skin, which remains green until
maturity; (3) P. americana var. americana
(West Indian) is adapted to humid tropical con-
ditions, and the fruit has a smooth, easy-to-peel
skin and a flesh with an almost sweet taste not
found in the other two varieties (Williams,
1976; Bergh and Ellstrand, 1986). In addition,
Ben-Ya’acov et al. (2003) proposed P.ameri-
cana var. costarisencis (Costa Rican) as another
horticultural variety, but Van der Werff (2002)
considers that much of the avocado variation
can be attributed to the cultivation process and
prefers to ignore the cultivated varieties.
In addition, the diversity of the avocado has
been known since pre-Hispanic times.Benavente,
in his “Historia de los Indios de la Nueva
España” ( 2003), made a distinction
among different avocado types: “the ones com-
mon in all this land and all the year, are like
early figs. Other avocados are as big as large
pears, and are so good like the best fruit in the
New Spain. There are others as big as a small
pumpkin; ones with a big seed and little flesh
and others with more flesh.” Sahagún (
2002) also described three different types of
avocado: the ahuacatl or ahuacacahuitl has
dark green leaves, and the fruit is black in the
outside and white and green in the inside; the
tlacazolahuacatl is like the former but bigger;
and the quilahuacatl is green in the outside and
very good to eat.
Other chroniclers not only described the dif-
ferent avocado types but situated them geo-
graphically.Friar José Acosta, in 1590, in his
“Historia Natural y Moral de las Indias” differ-
entiated between the Mexican avocado and the
one from Peru. He described the avocados from
Peru as big fruits with a hard shell that peels
easily, and the ones from Mexico as mostly
small with a thin shell that peels like an apple
(Acosta,  1985). These descriptions
coincide, respectively, with the West Indian and
Mexican avocados described by Bergh and
It is also interesting the way Friar Bernabé de
Cobo, in his book “Historia del Nuevo Mundo”
( 1956), described three different avo-
cado types: “The Palta in Yucatan is a tree of
very attractive appearance, of the size of a large
fig tree; its leaf is similar to that of the mulberry
and its fruit is one of the finest in the Indies; in
some regions it becomes as big as a small
squash or large citron. The Palta has a thin skin,
more tender and flexible than that of a Ceuta
lemon, green externally, and when the fruit is
quite ripe, peeling readily. It has the largest seed
that I have ever seen in any fruit, either in the
Indies or Europe; it is as large as a hen’s egg,
and spindle shaped; it is of a reddish white sub-
stance, tender like the meat of a chestnut, and
covered with a grayish parchment. It has the fla-
vor of bitter almonds, and when pressed it
yields an oil like that of the almond. Between
the seed and the outer skin is the meat, slightly
thicker than one’s finger except at the neck
where it is very thick. It is of whitish green
color, tender, buttery, and very soft. Some peo-
ple eat it with sugar or salt, others just as it
comes from the tree, it being of such good fla-
vor that it requires no seasoning. But, although
it is very pleasant to the taste, it should be eaten
in moderation because it is considered to be
heavy and indigestible. The best Paltas come
from hot, dry regions; in Peru they grow in the
Valley of Lea. A second kind of Paltas is a large,
round one which is produced in the province of
Guatemala, and which does not have as smooth
skin as the first. The third is a small Palta found
in Mexico, which in size, color, and form
resembles a breva fig; some are round and oth-
ers elongated, and the skin is as thin and smooth
as that of a plum. In some regions they cut the
immature Palta in small bits and put it in brine,
to take the place of olives. The tree wood is use-
ful in building, and for fuel.” These avocado
descriptions also resemble the ones made by
Bergh and Ellstrand in 1986: the palta in
Yucatan would be the West Indian avocado; the
second kind of palta the Guatemalan type; and
the third the Mexican type.
2007 GALINDO-TOVAR ET AL., 10,000 YEARS OF AVOCADO HISTORY 331
THE AVOCADO IN MODERN TIMES
Today the avocado is cultivated all over the
world. In 1856 avocados were brought to
California by Nicaraguan settlers. In Israel, the
first avocado was introduced in 1908. From
1933 to 1998 avocado selections were intro-
duced in Central America, the Caribbean,
North and South America, Africa, Asia,
Oceania, and Europe (Knight, 2002). In recent
years, the avocado has become the fourth most
important tropical fruit in the world, and it con-
tinues to increase in importance in many places
(Bergh, 1992). China, for example, produced
45,000 tons in 1996, whereas in 1991 there was
no avocado production reported (Knight,
2002). At present, Mexico is the main producer
(Foreign Agricultural Service, USDA, 2006)
with 1,021,515 tons in 2005 (SIAP, 2007).
However,in Mesoamerica avocado trees are
still cultivated in traditional orchards, backyard
gardens, and as living fences and they are con-
sumed and sold on a regional scale. Traditional
orchards have not been intensively managed
and they therefore preserve populations that
still resemble their wild relatives thus provid-
ing opportunities for a better understanding of
avocado domestication (Miller and Schaal,
Current varieties and rootstocks for avocado
cultivation in the world are the products of var-
ious breeding programs based on exploration,
collections, conservation, and evaluation trials
throughout their regions of origin and disper-
sion (Mijares and López, 1998). Indeed, many
modern commercial plantings are new varieties
and cultivars, obtained by hybridization of var-
ious materials collected in Mexico and Central
America (Lemus et al., 2005), or they have
arisen as chance seedlings (Bergh, 1992), prob-
ably due to the still existing genetic variability
of the avocado.
At present there is a great need for the intro-
duction of cultivars to improve quantity, qual-
ity, uniformity, and seasonal distribution; and
biotechnology techniques promise new tools
for expediting these breeding programs and
making avocado breeding much more efficient
(Bergh, 1992; Clegg et al., 1999). In fact,
research in this area has already resulted in cul-
tivars with improved disease tolerance and
resistance (Nakasone, 1976).
Since ancient times, the avocado has played
an important role in the diet of the native cul-
tures of Mesoamerica. Archaeological and
paleographical data provide an interesting look
at the history of the avocado and its introduc-
tion to northern South America before the
arrival of the Spanish. Archaeological data pro-
vide evidence of the origin and early relation-
ship of the avocado with pre-historic human
groups. The existence of local names for the
avocado used by native groups also serves as
evidence of the importance and use of the plant.
Reports by Spanish chroniclers provide a fasci-
nating look at the use of the avocado in the
Americas at the time they arrived. Moreover,
the ethnohistoric data have been important in
documenting the management, uses, diversity,
and geographic distribution of avocado in colo-
nial times. Comparison of ancient, colonial,
and modern references has provided useful data
for clarifying the origin, dispersion, and
domestication of the species.
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