The archaeology of agave roasting

Villagers Jeanie Mintun and Luke Hippler sampling a piece of roasted agave.

Villagers Jeanie Mintun and Luke Hippler sampling a piece of roasted agave.

Recently, the V-Bar-V Heritage Site hosted its annual Archaeology Discovery Days event. As in prior years, among the various demonstrations were fire starting, atlatl throwing, flint-knapping, and ancient tool and jewelry technology.

A Hopi woman made their staple, piki bread and parched corn, and colorful dancers from the Yavapai-Apache Nation performed for hundreds of appreciative visitors.

However, the centerpiece of the program was the long-awaited return of the ancient tradition of agave roasting, last witnessed at this event eight years ago.

Four days prior, and in the traditional manner, a large quantity of wood was thrown into a rock-lined pit, set on fire and allowed to slowly burn down to make hot coals.

A dozen members of the Hopi tribe and a few from the Yavapai-Apache Nation prepared the ripe agave by stripping its leaves to expose the hearts, which were then placed into the pit and covered with dirt.

The agave remained in this earthen oven and was left to simmer for four days before the fire-blacken but tender hearts were dug up and the orange-colored portions presented to curious visitors to sample.

By all accounts, the warm agave tasted very sweet, and not unlike sweet potatoes or molasses.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was actually quite flavorful.

Hundreds of prehistoric Sinagua, Yavapai and Apache roasting pits can be found throughout the Verde Valley.

This often domesticated, high carbohydrate plant was an important energy food source for the indigenous peoples for thousands of years. It could also be dried and stored for leaner times.

Other practices included medicinal and ceremonial use. Due to the fibrous material found in the leaves, bags, cordage and clothing items such as sandals were frequently crafted as essential, common-use items.

While we may regard the “century plant” only as a dangerous obstacle to be avoided when hiking our trails, it can be argued Native American cultures in our general area may have evolved quite differently without it.

The V-Bar-V Heritage Site, owned and operated by the U.S. Forest Service, is located south of I-17 (Exit 298), and off FR 618 about 10 miles south of the VOC.

The attraction on this century-old ranch is the world-class rock art; over a thousand petroglyphs are visible on varnish-covered sandstone panels, put there by the prehistoric Sinaguan farming civilization and a few from a much older hunter-gatherer Archaic culture.

Hours of operation are 9:30 am to 3:30 pm Friday through Monday (gate closes at 3 pm).

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