The first evidence of chia seeds being used as food dates back to 3500 BC and the Aztec empire used chia as a cash crop as early as 1500 BC in central Mexico. The Aztecs came to the Central Valley of Mexico from the north, near the current-day cities of Jalisco and Guanajuato. The climate of the Mexican Central Valley is semi-arid, and this is where the Aztecs first began to sow crops such as chia, amaranth, corn, and beans. As the Aztec empire grew through conquering nearby nations, these staple crops became a form of currency. The conquered nations would pay tribute to the Aztecs in chia, amaranth, corn, and beans.
Pre-Colombian civilizations like the Aztecs and the Mayans used chia in not only food, but medicines, nutritional compounds, and even paints. As a food it could be in drinks, pressed for oil, or ground into flour, similar to how it is used today. Because of its high antioxidant profile, chia is more stable than seeds like flax that will oxidize in months. Chia seeds and their ground derivatives can last for years and thus proved essential for the Aztecs as an inventory of highly nutritious, stable food.
The 16th century brought Spanish conquistadors that overwhelmed the Aztecs and other local civilizations with the technological advances of the time. In order to control the locals they had conquered, the Spanish banned foods too closely associated with religion. Of the four staple Aztec crops, chia and amaranth were banned and replaced with wheat, barley, and rice. For many years these crops existed only on the fringes of society and almost disappeared from society altogether. From the Central Mexican Valley down to Northern Argentina, chia seeds were grown only by small farmers high in the mountains.
It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that Latin American governments began to re-establish chia seeds as a national agricultural product. In the 1990’s the Northwestern Argentina Regional Project began working to diversify agricultural production in the area, and the production of chia began to increase. Today chia is cultivated in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, and many other Latin and South American countries.
As stated earlier, chia remained on the fringes of society for about 400 years after the Spanish conquered much of Latin America. An avid runner, Christopher McDougall, sparked a cultural renaissance around chia with his book “Born to Run” published in 2009. After experiencing pain while running and getting few answers from professionals, McDougall decided to do his own research. On his quest to study the world’s most elite runners, McDougall found himself studying the Tarahumara Indians located in Copper Canyon in central Mexico. Known for being able to run hundreds of miles without fatigue, the Tarahumara must have had some secret for avoiding injury and exhaustion. After visiting the Copper Canyon, McDougall discovered their secret – chia seeds. Chia produces a unique time-released energy that allows for an overall increase in energy. In the book “Born To Run” McDougall describes his success using chia after his visit to Copper Canyon, and as the book gained popularity (a national bestseller) the cultural renaissance of chia was born. Today chia can be found in almost all specialty food stores and is becoming more common in standard grocery stores each year. Food scientists are finding unique ways to incorporate this nutritionally dense food into everyday courses. One day, chia may well be a staple of Western Civilization again.