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The Iberian Pig in Spain and the Americas at the time of Columbus

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Chapter IV: The Indians and the Pigs


The New Livestock

It should come as no surprise that many Indian groups, like those in the Florida region explored by Hernando de Soto, took immediately to raising pigs. The natives there— either given pigs outright from Soto, stolen from his band, or hunted in the forests— quickly began raising the hogs for their own use. North American Indians in fact became even more inclined to handle pigs when the English arrived in the following century. While the English colonists attempted to “civilize” the natives by introducing them to cattle raising on enclosed plots of land, to their chagrin it was the pig that most Indian groups welcomed. Either feral or semi-domesticated, hogs simply fit in with native hunting practices better than cattle. They ate scraps, needed less care, and proliferated quickly. American colonials in the seventeenth century noted that some Indians even found novel ways of utilizing lard to replace bear fat in “pummy” as well as to oil their skins.[1]

In Mexico, most tribes seemed to take well to at least two imported livestock: chicken and pigs. In South America, the pig was also readily accepted by a number of tribes. Swine even gained new appellations from the Indians: chancho and cochi. The former derives from the Spanish sancho, and the latter from the interjection used to call a pig near.[2]

Nearly all the Indians began a relationship with swine— positive or negative— immediately upon the pig’s arrival in the New World. After all, they had little choice. Some groups valued the added source of sustenance, while a number of other tribes found the animals dirty and disgusting. In Mexico some would persist in buying dog meat even when the price of pig or beef was significantly lower.[3] Clearly, we should never assume that the Indians’ response to European imports and customs were uniform, and the fact of the matter is that some native groups liked the pig while others simply did not.

At first the Spanish prevented the Indians from raising their own cattle and horses.[4] Pigs, on the other hand, quickly found their way onto the tributary list of items that the Indians were obligated to provide for the conquerors. Thus, the Indians were permitted (and often forced) to be swineherds for the Spanish. Raising livestock was encouraged by conquistadors like Cortés and Soto, supported by the Spanish crown, and even recommended by the religious orders proselytizing in the Americas.

Franciscan friars encouraged the practice of raising hogs whenever they established missions. This is especially true in California and Texas. By 1843, a few years after the secularization of Spanish missions in Alta California, there were 321,000 pigs being raised on these Franciscan plots.[5] Father Sahagún taught the Indians to eat “that which the Castilian people eat, because it is good food, that with which they are raised, they are strong and pure and wise.... You will become the same way if you eat their food.”[6] In his Historia de las Indias, Casas includes in its entirety the instructions of the frailes jerónimos (Friars of Saint Jerome) sent to the New World in 1516 to help the Indians. The directives urge them to convince the Indians to move nearer the mines, and to raise livestock. Not surprisingly, the animals to be raised are predominately pigs:

Si ser pudiere, para cada pueblo de trescientos vecinos haya diez o doce yeguas y cincuenta vacas y quinientos puercos de carne y cien puercas para criar; éstos sean guardados a costa de todos, como bien visto fuere, y esto se procure de sostener de común hasta que ellos sean hechos hábiles y acostumbrados para tenerlos propios suyos.[7]

Especially suited to early colonial efforts, and already available in large supply, pigs outnumbered the other livestock on these reconstituted villages.

A similar practice occurred in Mexico following the conquest of the Aztecs. In 1524 Cortés’ “Ordenanzas Dadas por Hernando Cortés, Para el Buen Tratamiento y Régimen de los Indios,” the conquistador specifically lays out this function:

porque los Vezinos de las dichas Villas an de tener crianzas de puercos e otros ganados, e para la guarda e crianza dellos, an menester de los indios para ello licencia...para que puedan sacar de ellos los que fueren menester para guarda de los dichos ganados, e no para otra cosa....[8]

Such acculturation compelled the Indians to feed both the Spanish and themselves, and at the same time provide tribute to their conquerors and accustom themselves to the Spanish way of life.

In the Viceroyalty of Peru also, the Indians were employed as swineherds. Vázquez de Espinosa describes the sixteenth-century village of Villa Viciosa in Popayán as having “countless hogs” as well as other livestock. “In its jurisdiction, together with that of Pasto, it has more than 24,000 Indians... These Indians work as agricultural laborers and on the hog ranches.”[9] South American Indians took to raising pigs quite naturally. The Urabá Indians of Columbia, for example, had already pre-Columbian experience with peccaries— the pig’s Suidae relative of the Americas. Though peccaries were never domesticated, they were captured, and it seems that many tribes familiar with the animal immediately took to the Spanish variety when introduced.[10]

Yet even others in South America with no such background accepted and saw the benefits of domesticated pigs. Perhaps this phenomenon can be attributed to their familiarity with domesticated animals like the llama and alpaca. It has already been discussed how lard was used in Peru to treat the camelid disease mange, and this fact could only have furthered the appeal of pigs in these tribes. Thus, pigs were especially in high demand in sixteenth-century Peru, where both pork and lard served the natives as well as the arriving Spanish population. Especially important was the growing mining industry in places like Potosí, which demanded a constant supply of nourishment for the mostly indigenous labor force. The terrible cold and harsh conditions there made raising livestock difficult, so the pigs were marched up the mountains on hoof to meet their eventual death in Potosí, probably not long before the indigenous workers that they fed.[11]

Pork and lard quickly became a common ingredient in tamales, perhaps one of the first examples of mestizo cuisine. One kind of tamale, which in pre-Columbian times was filled with human flesh, was replaced with another using pork. Indians of the Andes realized that food could be fried in lard in just half the time as boiling it in water, and with less expenditure of precious fuels. No matter how they sliced it, the pig had tangible benefits for the Indians.[12]

An Unwelcome Guest at the Table

For many natives, on the other hand, the question of eating pigs was not even under consideration. They maintained their traditions of raising crops of corn and beans, and did not see any benefits coming from these new competitors to their land. Even so, and pushed onto ever more marginal plots, these Indians were still affected by the European herds. Cattle reportedly grazed and destroyed Indian croplands, and the pigs followed up by rooting out the leftovers just below the surface, resulting in frequent disputes between natives and colonizers.

Some scholars have reasoned that livestock were a primary cause of the Indians’ rapid decline. Estimates of the Indian population before and after the arrival of Columbus vary, but all are catastrophic. Mexico’s population of roughly 20 million was reduced to 1.6 million by 1618. Crowd diseases like smallpox brought by Europeans originally derived from domesticated animals that lived in close proximity to their human masters in the Old World. Influenza, for example, is known to have come initially from pigs. Although there is no record of an epidemic of this disease in the Indies until 1518, it is possible that strains of the “swine flu” were brought as early as with Columbus’ eight pigs.[13]

The most distressing indications of pigs transmitting disease comes from Soto’s expedition to North America. In the century after Soto visited the Mississippi valley, no Europeans reportedly came, but when the French appeared in the seventeenth century most of the cities and communities Soto encountered had been wiped out— an estimated demographic collapse of 90–96 percent. Ann Ramenofsky and Patricia Galloway speculate that Soto’s hogs might be responsible for the demographic collapse of indigenous populations in the area. Swine can transmit brucellosis, leptospirosis, trichinosis, tuberculosis, and even anthrax, infecting the indigenous human population directly, as well as the deer and turkeys they fed upon. Only a few of Soto’s wandering pigs would have been enough to infect the entire region.[14]

Besides being a carrier of Old World ailments (much like their Spanish masters), livestock like cattle and pigs displaced the Indians on their own land. Former Indian agricultural plots made way for large Spanish pastures for livestock. Fray Antonio de Remesal noted in 1532 that in the Antilles the natives protested the pigs:

Fue acordado que porque los naturales se quejan que les destruyen los maizales los puercos de los vecinos de esta villa, que cualquier persona que tuviere puercos en cualesquier maizales los maten sin pena ninguna y se los lleven.[15]

In Quito, from at least 1577 through 1584 the Indians complained that “los ganados de los españoles se les comen las sementeras.”[16] Even the cropland that remained was often destroyed by escaping or free-roaming herds.[17] The frequency and similarity of these complaints show that the problem was undoubtedly repeated wherever and whenever the Spanish brought their livestock.

In Mexico City, the Indians complained to the Cabildo, and the Spaniards countered rather speciously that the Indians deliberately planted their crops exactly where these animals would roam.[18] In 1544, the Cabildo petitioned the king to stop the Indians from “disturbing” the livestock:

...questa cibdad esta informada que los yndios perturban los pastos de los ganados e abrazaderos e se meten en labrar tierras que nunca se labraron...asy mismo bea e probea lo suso dicho para que asy mismo cese el dicho daño e perjuyzio.[19]

The Spanish Crown actually prohibited the raising of pigs near Indian agricultural plots in 1549, but given the continuing complaints, there does not seem to be any evidence that such a ban was widely enforced.[20] Similarly, a royal decree was issued in 1549 for Cartagena “prohibiendo que los españoles crien puercos en los poblados indios de encomiendas,”[21] but its effect is not readily apparent.

It was not just these native groups put out of place by pigs that found them disagreeable. Interestingly, we find that also among the Indians who took up the practice of hog raising many developed a negative attitude towards pork. The Pausan and Julime Indians of Coahuila in northern Mexico, for example, reportedly raised pigs but did not eat its meat. Instead they sold or traded them to non-Indians. The Otomi Indians of Central Mexico, even through much of the twentieth century, raised hogs but sold the meat to mestizos; pork was reserved for ceremonial meals. Such examples suggest that not all Indian tribes were interested in adding pork to their diet even when it was available in large supply, and this fact remains true even for those who ate European chickens or lamb.[22]

On the furthest end of the spectrum we have examples of Indians who were disgusted outright by the idea of dealing with pigs. While a minority to be sure, there are clear indications that at least some natives loathed the pig to a startling degree. An early sixteenth-century account by an Indian in Michoacán lists lard in the same category, along with incarceration and beatings, as the worst inventions of the Spanish:

Como habemos de vivir según las cosas que han inventados los españoles contra nosotros, porque han traído consigo los señores, que ahora tenemos prisiones y cárcel y aporreamiento, y enlardar con manteca: con todo estamos esperando morir...”[23]

The Mayan Indians in general had an aversion to eating fat. Sophie Coe has suggested that perhaps there is a genetic difference in fat metabolism in these Indians, much as in other parts of the world certain groups have trouble digesting lactose or alcohol. Supporting her theory, it has also been documented that in the Antilles Indian workers assimilated more rapidly to eating pork than the leisure class, which frequently suffered from gout.[24] This may suggest that adding pork or other meats to the Indian diet might have been a shock to the body, one which was less problematic for highly-active Indians who metabolized more calories in the day.

Such reasoning contributes to an explanation for why some Indians disliked the pig, but it does not adequately explain it away completely. Just as in the Old World, certain communities— this time particular Indians tribes, rather than Jews or Muslims— were consciously and decidedly pig-abstainers. Consider this eighteenth-century account of the Indians in Sonora, written by the missionary Ignaz Pfefferkorn, peculiarly reminiscent of the Old World porcine divide:

Los puercos no se crían en Sonora aunque podría ser muy fácil la introducción de este animal. En otras partes de Nueva España se crían en tal abundancia que la manteca de puerco se usa diariamente como el único sustituto de la mantequilla. No puede esperarse que esta actividad se desarrolle en Sonora porque nadie quiere ser criador de puercos. Esperar que un español lo sea, sería inferirle una soberana ofensa y ningún indio puede ser inducido a hacerlo, no porque se interponga su orgullo, sino por su innato e implacable odio a los puercos. El indio aborrece tanto a este animal que prefiere sufrir hambres antes de comer un pedazo de carne de puerco doméstico.[25]

More confounding still, these same Indians apparently hunted and ate the peccary— an animal very similar to the pig— and it was the Spaniards who refused to eat it! When Pfefferkorn asked why, his Indian informant responded: “El seno [peccary], dicen, no es un cochi [pig], por eso lo comemos, pero los cochis mansos son españoles.” The refusal of the Sonoran Indians to include pigs in their diet appears an idiosyncratic objection, an affront to the Spanish perhaps. Though its causality is not necessarily direct, to this day beef consumption in Sonora far outstrips that of pork.[26]

As we can gather from these accounts, the Indians responded to the pig in a number of ways. Curiously there does not seem to be a similar question over cattle or sheep, which by the end of the sixteenth century eclipsed the importance of pigs in the New World. Franciscan friars reported that the large size of cattle at first frightened some Indians, but they quickly gained an appreciation for beef. Sheep were immediately valued for their meat as well as their wool, and surely in areas accustomed to the llama and alpaca this introduction was well received. We can further add the European chicken to this list of welcomed animals; ironically the Náhuatl word Caxtillan means “land of chickens,” and no doubt the Indians approved more of the chickens than of the Castilians.[27] Why the pig was not taken up unopposed, as these other foreign creatures were, is likely the combination of several factors: dietary preference, association with the invading Spanish armies, and its “dirty habits.” In short, Indian views on the pig present themselves to be just as difficult to explain as the Jewish (or even earlier, Egyptian) abstention on eating pork.

The Original Atkins diet

The pig was only one of many new foods introduced by the Spaniards, the combination of which changed the Indian diet irrevocably. Perhaps the most marked difference between the cultures was that many indigenous peoples were for the most part vegetarians until the arrival of the Spanish. Galeotto Cey relates this interesting story:

Hay aquí una nación de indios llamados guaipíes que no comen carne de ninguna clase, ni de animales, ni de pájaros, porque tienen por cierto que muriéndose uno, el alma suya entra en un ciervo o en otra bestia o pájaro, y se morirían de hambre antes de matarlos. Pero después de estar un tiempo entre nosotros comen más que los demás y se ríen de sus antiguas opiniones.[28]

The change to a meat-heavy diet was not uniformly beneficial, however. Some Aztec elders suggested that the overindulgence in the consumption of meat and drink was a root cause in the Indians’ catastrophic mortality rates.[29] The Spanish Crown also sought an answer to why the Indian population was fallings so precipitously. In the Relaciones Geográficas of sixteenth-century Mexico, reports sent back to Spain proposed a number of hypotheses: the deaths were because of the horrible treatment of the Indians, God’s will, or the result of diseases. But just as many responses, like this one from the city of Ocopetlayucan, agreed with the Aztec elders and held the new mestizo diet as at least partly responsible:

Y [dijeron] que antiguamente vivían muy sanos, y que la causa de ser ahora así, a lo que entienden, es por haber mudado costumbres en las comidas y vestidos; porque, en su gentilidad, comían poco y comidas silvestres, yerbas y demás sabandijas d[ic]has...y ahora...comen más.[30]

Others, like this reporter from Citlaltepec, while not as damning, concurred that such dietary assimilation was progressing rapidly:

...las comidas que comían eran más ligeras que las que ahora comen, que casi se ha convertido su complexión en la que nosotros tenemos, por haberse dado al comer carne de vaca y puerco y carnero, y beber vino...[31]

While not definitive, both of these statements clearly show how significantly the Spanish viewed the introduction of a meat-heavy diet. For better or for worse, the Indians were being affected by an increasingly protein- and fat-rich regimen.

At the same time, they were relegated to a second-class of meat eaters. It seems that whenever there was a shortage of meat available to the cities, the Indians were the first to be rationed. In 1556, 1560, and again in 1568, just such an occurrence prompted action in Mexico City:

Este dia platicaron los dichos señores justicia y rregidores sobre la carestia y falta que ay de carnes para el abasto de las rrepublicas de lo qual es la principal causa pesarse carne para los yndios y para que se rremedie lo suso se pese carne para yndios en parte ninguna de pueblos de yndios...[32]

By blaming the Indians for the lack of provisions, officials in Mexico City were able to preclude the natives from eating meat and increase the supplies for their own carnivorous bellies. Although this tactic seems to have succeeded in the short-run, it does not appear that the Cabildo ever intended such ordinances to be permanent. Opinions on the subject, even among Spaniards, were not immutable and when the meat supply replenished, another petition from the same Cabildo called such rationing “ynhumanidad y crueldad grande” toward the Indians.[33]

As much as the Spaniards wanted the Indians to adopt their ways, they did not intend for this process to happen at their own carnivorous expense. Eventually mestizo culture in places like Mexico and Peru would incorporate the pig as a staple ingredient in their national cuisines. Any cursory inspection of restaurant menus in Latin America today will attest to this fact. But the initial reaction to the pig, either of acceptance or rejection, especially along regional lines, is a curious and fascinating subject that recalls the pig’s divisive history in the Old World.

Continued >> Chapter 5: Colonial Pigs


[1] Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Creatures of Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 108, 212–14.

[2] Luis Alberto Vargas and Leticia E. Castillas, “El encuentro de dos cocinas: México en el siglo XVI,” in Conquista, transculturación y mestizaje, ed. Lorenzo Ochoa (Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1995), p. 55; Gade, p. 39–40.

[3] Alves, p. 155.

[4] Vargas and Castillas, p. 56.

[5] Bennett and Hoffmann, p. 103, p. 21; Laguna Sanz, p. 96.

[6] Quoted in Pilcher, p. 35.

[7] Casas, book 3, chap. LXXXVIII, p. 315–318.

[8] Cortés, “Ordenanzas,” p. 159.

[9] Antonio Vazquez de Espinosa, Compendium and Description of the West Indies, trans. Charles Upson Clark (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1942), p. 357.

[10] Patiño, p. 313.

[11] Río Moreno, “Cerdo,” 30–1; Gade, p. 45.

[12] Enrique Krauze, Mexico: Biography of Power (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998), p. 57; Vega, Comentarios, book IX, chap. XIX, p. 605; Pilcher, p. 33; Coe, p. 36 & 148.

[13] Tejera Gaspar, p. 120.

[14] Charles C. Mann, “1491,” The Atlantic Monthly 289:3 (Mar. 2002): 44-48; Ann F. Ramenofsky and Patricia Galloway, “Disease and the Soto Entrada,” in The Hernando de Soto Expedition: History, Historiography, and "Discovery" in the Southeast, ed. P. Galloway (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997): p. 271-275.

[15] Remesal, book V, chap. XVII, vol. 1, p. 391.

[16] AGI, “Real Cédula,” Mexico, 1088, L.3, F. 39v (8 Apr 1538); AGI, “Queja de los caciques de Chimbo,” Quito, 211, L.2, F. 79r (3 Jul 1581).

[17] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997), p. 210–213 & 330; Crosby, “Metamorphosis,” p. 86.

[18] Coe, p. 230.

[19] Actas de cabildo del ayuntamiento constitucional de México (Mexico: Imprenta del Socialista, 1884), 15 September 1544, book V, p. 63.

[20] Patiño, p. 311.

[21] AGI, “Real Cédula,” Santa Fe, 987, L.2, F. 248-248v (1 May1549).

[22] José Refugio de la Torre Curiel, “Misiones de Tierra Adentro” (Ts. unpublished manuscript, Univ. of California at Berkeley, 2004), p. 21; Leonardo Manrique C., “The Otomi,” in Handbook of Middle American Indians, Vol. 8: Ethnology, ed. Evon Z. Vogt (Austin: Universidad of Texas Press, 1969), p. 691.

[23] Federico Gomez de Orozco, ed., Crónicas de Michoacán (Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma, 1940) p. 11.

[24] Coe, p. 234; Río Moreno, “Cerdo,” p. 20.

[25] Ignaz Pfefferkorn, Descripción de la Provincia de Sonora (Hermosillo: Gobierno del Estado de Sonora, 1984), p. 113–4.

[26] Pfefferkorn, p. 122.

[27] Pilcher, p. 36.

[28] Cey, p. 156.

[29] Coe, p. 81.

[30] Rene Acuña, ed., Relaciones geográficas del siglo XVI: México (Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1982), vol. 7, p. 87

[31] Acuña, vol. 7, p. 207.

[32] Actas de Cabildo, 28 May 1556, book 6, p. 227; Actas de Cabildo, 2 February 1560, book 6, p. 387; Actas de Cabildo, 19 July 1568, book 7, p. 404.

[33] Actas de Cabildo, 9 January 1562, book 7, p. 7.

© 2005 by b.z.