A man prepares a maté for himself with his gourd, yerba, and bombilla.

Anthropology: History and Culture of Yerba Maté in South America

The Origin and Custom of Yerba Maté

Drinking maté goes far beyond sharing an herbal tea with friends and reaping the health benefits. In fact, ritual and ceremonial use of maté in South America dates back millennia. As well, the product has served as a staple export for countries like Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina following European colonization.

Particularly in places like Uruguay, where residents consume almost as much maté as they do water, the infusion energizes drinkers and alludes to a tradition passed down many generations. But it takes more than just having a filtered metal bombilla straw and ornate maté gourd to fully appreciate the beverage. Before you experience the honour of receiving maté, you should first inform yourself about where the drink specifically comes from and how exactly materos (maté lovers) consume it today.

Consumption through history

Maté originates from the Ilex paraguariensis tree that sprouts in the Amazon rainforest of Paraguay, northern Argentina, and southern Brazil. This species of holly specifically requires the most ideal soil, temperature, and humidity for successful growth. Repeated attempts to grow Ilex paraguariensis around greater South America and beyond have failed miserably.

Charrúas drinking maté along the Uruguay River.
Source: Matero

Dating the earliest human consumption of maté presents challenges. Nineteenth-century explorer Joseph Hooker said indigenous groups first used and consumed Ilex plants long before the Spanish and Portuguese arrived. In 1562, French explorers René Goulaine de Laudonnière and Gaspard de Coligne described maté’s role in rituals, along with its “magical” and “purifying” causation of hallucinations and nausea. El mate by author Javier Rica even details virtually every cultural use and purpose of the drink.

The drink that feeds

The Kaingang people of Paraguay, southern Brazil, and northern Argentina named maté cangoy, which means “the one that feeds.” Not only did they drink and infuse maté, they also incorporated it ritually and ceremonially. According to the Establecimiento Las Marías, which published the book Caá Porã: The Spirit of Yerba Mate, the Kaingang first encountered maté as far back as 3000 BC.

The Quechua, who valued the stages of death and afterlife, also had a history with Ilex. Their carefully-designed and meticulously-decorated tombs found in Ancón, Peru, contained maté leaves among the deceased’s prized personal belongings. At more than 1,000 years old, the tombs provide one of few dated proofs of pre-colonial maté consumption in South America.

The Xetá of southern Brazil and southeastern Paraguay both chewed and consumed maté leaves, using Ilex paraguariensis to make their alcoholic kukuai beverage. And the Muscogee, residing as far north as the Appalachian Mountains, utilized the Ilex cassine species growing in their region to produce a black, bitter beverage comparable to maté.

A stimulant and miracle cure

The Jivaroan of modern-day Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela achieved particularly stimulating results from fermenting the Ilex guayusa variation, using it to boost the strength and energy of their hunting dogs. As well, the Ch’unchu tribes of northeastern Peru prepared the species as an infusion. Spanish priest Juan de Velasco chronicled Ilex guayusa and its benefits in 1789, as it supposedly helped cure sexually transmitted diseases and even cast impregnating spells on sterile women.

Chronicles say the Tupi of southern Brazil chewed and infused maté leaves, mixing them in a gourd with hot water and waiting for the maté to release its properties. While drinking, they would separate the infusion from the leaves with either their teeth or a short hollowed-out twig or sugar cane. This substituted for the bombilla used today, and the Tupi crafted their first maté gourds from clay.

The semi-nomadic Guaraní of central Paraguay, northern Argentina, southern Brazil, and southeastern Bolivia remain major influencers of how people consume maté today. One can liken their perfected tools and methods for toasting, milling, and drying maté leaves to popular modern-day techniques.

They also implemented maté as a currency, household remedy, and component of mysterious religious practices. It existed for them as a gift from the gods worthy of their worship. In fact, they believed drinking the energy and nutrients of maté meant ingesting the natural powers of the Amazon rainforest.

Social drinkers

The Charrúa, residing along the Uruguay River, used techniques and tools for maté consumption similar to those of the Guaraní. Gathered in a circle, the Charrúa would drink the fermented water from a gourd or horn, although eighteenth-century chronicles say they did this socially and not ritually.

The Guaraní would become the first major exploiters of maté and exchange it with the Inca, Charrúa, Mapuche, and other indigenous groups. Other peoples of the Argentine Pampas, like the Puelche, Taluhets, and Chechehets, consumed maté without it even growing in their regions. Spanish naturalist Félix Manuel de Azara concluded that it came from groups in northern Argentina through exchange with tribes from the more southern regions.

Uruguayan anthropologist Daniel Vidart said the Mapuche shared maté with one another around a fire while discussing their days, particularly in the southern Chilean community of Pulil. Although they always specifically tasked a woman with preparing and serving the drink, the broader tradition of putting a single cebador in charge of the maté continues to this day.

The Guaraní, however, possessed the deepest understanding of maté’s nutritional value and carried small leather pouches of crushed and toasted maté leaves on expeditions. The conquistadors, upon their arrival, noticed the leaves energized the Guaraní as they went about their way of life. This led to the spread of maté to the viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata and other regions under Spanish rule.

Lost in translation

While Guaraní culture mainly influenced maté, its modern terminology did not actually originate from there. Their name for the maté gourd itself, ca’iguá, loosely translates as “a place for (guá) yerba maté (ca’á) water (i).” Ca’á can also mean “plant” and “forest,” as the Guaraní considered maté trees sacred and essential.

The Quechua, however, named the gourd mati, the term the Spaniards supposedly favoured because they found it easier to say. But the Aztec word for the gourd, tecomate, also remains a possible point of origin, with the Nahuatl compound word tecomatl meaning “solid container.”

In any case, indigenous groups never intended for “maté” to refer to the drink itself. Rather, the conquistadors misunderstood it to signify the beverage specifically. Today, mate implies both the drink and gourd simultaneously, albeit somewhat confusingly.

Colonial influence

The Spaniards arrived in modern-day Argentina during the 1510s but had first learned about maté by the 1590s as it spread from southern Brazil to Paraguay. It would reach northern Argentina about 100 years later and become a major commodity in Paraguay. As the Spaniards observed, the Guaraní not only chewed and drank maté, but they also used it to satisfy medicinal, nutritional, and social needs in their daily lives.

Guarani Yerba mate
Source: GoYerbaMate.com

The Jesuit missionaries initially prohibited maté in the early seventeenth century, believing it had addictive and demonic properties. But they quickly rescinded the order and ultimately helped further its growth and consumption later on after learning about its health benefits. They also foresaw the riches brought by the commercialization of maté in the 1640s. For the next two centuries, it became a major trade item throughout the Spanish Empire of the Americas.

Due to the missionaries’ contribution to the diffusion of maté in numerous indigenous settlements, the drink became misleadingly known as “Jesuit tea.” The Jesuits did not even consume maté in the traditional manner of using a bombilla, instead preferring to drink it with teabags. Still, despite subjection to Mass and other Roman Catholic practices, the Guaraní continued to enjoy maté among themselves while hunting, performing, and celebrating their own culture.

The maté boom

As well, the missionaries discovered a revolutionary method for germinating maté seeds, allowing them to both sustain the indigenous communities they oversaw and market the product elsewhere. Half a century later, French botanist Aimé Bonpland confirmed the Jesuits’ theory. Maté thrived in this particular region thanks to toucans, among other birds, predigesting the seeds and softening their shells.

The exact details of this germination process unfortunately vanished upon Bonpland’s death in the 1800s but resurfaced for good in the twentieth century. By then, maté’s growing popularity in cities had already matched and likely surpassed its consumption in rural communities.

The Jesuits had already established their own maté plantations in Argentina’s Misiones province by the 1650s, but their expulsion from the region as of the 1760s resulted in the loss of their cultivation methods and plantations. The sudden removal of the missionaries also sparked a trade war between the Paraguayans and Argentines. The War of the Triple Alliance in the 1860s would later devastate Paraguay and leave it financially and agriculturally incapable of producing further large quantities of maté.

Brazil quickly rose to become the largest producer of maté, domesticating it in competition with Argentina until turning its focus toward coffee in the 1930s. This would allow Argentina to re-establish the Jesuits’ derelict plantations in its north and emerge once and for all as the world’s leading maté producer.

A drink at the ranch

The Argentine gauchos, who descended from and coexisted with the country’s indigenous groups, adopted maté into their life away from urban society. The drink nicely complemented their leather apparel, asado barbecuing, and horse riding, leading the gauchos to grow involved in harvesting maté directly from the Amazon rainforest.

They would prepare their maté first thing in the morning, carefully following ancestral steps and only adding the hot water once it began to “sing.” At noon, they would meet together under the shade of a tree near their cattle pastures, sharing another maté. After roasting a complementary churrasco barbecue, they then dispersed for the afternoon to harvest their rice fields.

These maté circles throughout the Pampas united those of every race, colour, belief, and social class and helped preserve the drink’s tradition. The healthy and respectful practice of sharing maté, known as chimarro in southern Brazil, forged marriages, strengthened multi-generational ties, and improved familial relationships through decades of tradition.

Modern-day maté consumption

Minor improvements to basic maté implements have led to a colourful array of consumption methods. Silver stainless steel bombillas, for example, once favoured by the elite, have now grown widely unpopular due to how easily they absorb heat. And when it comes to choosing the gourd, options for the material include wood, glass, and calabash and one can find a maté of virtually any shape and size.

Bombilla straws for sale
Source: South America Backpacker

The size of gourds typically remains smaller in Uruguay, Chile, and southern Argentina and tends to grow larger around Brazil and northern Argentina. Paraguayans, in contrast, customarily drink maté from a guampa gourd, which they carve from a bull’s horn. And while those from Uruguay, Chile, southern Argentina, and southern Brazil prefer traditional hot chimarro maté, Paraguayans and northern Argentines often like the chilled, fruity tereré variation.

During the 1960s, the insulated flask company Thermos first popularized the use of heatproof water bottles, thermos, in Uruguay. This allowed residents around the Río de la Plata to indulge in maté both publicly and on-the-go throughout the day.

Demographics

One now finds maté widely consumed in Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay, and the Brazilian states of Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, Paraná, and Mato Grosso do Sul, as well as in southern and central Chile. At about six to eight kilograms annually per person, Uruguayans noticeably drink the most maté. While they usually enjoy it on their own, the average Argentine prefers drinking maté in groups and consumes around five kilograms a year.

Moreover, Argentines consume more maté than they do any other drink besides water, regardless of their gender, age, and social class. As well, maté maintains a presence in about 90 per cent of Argentine homes. The country also became the first to export maté internationally and now controls more than half the product’s global market. Las Marías, with its main brand Taragüi, continues to lead domestic sales at about one fifth of Argentina’s market.

Beyond South America, however, high demand for maté has also emerged in the unlikeliest of places. Due to mass Middle Eastern immigration to Argentina over the last century, Syria has become the largest importer of the country’s maté elsewhere in the world. Now, Syrians who have returned to their homeland proudly continue the tradition of consuming maté as part of their own culture.

Nutritional value

Organic beverage company Guayakí, which produces popular yerba maté drinks, describes maté as having “the strength of coffee, the health benefits of tea, and the euphoria of chocolate.” The caffeinated leaves, harvested today from small farms and indigenous communities by yerbateros (cultivators), must initially undergo drying, grounding, and pounding.

Thanks to containing more than a dozen amino acids and two dozen vitamins, maté both nourishes and enriches as a high-energy drink. The Pasteur Institute in Paris even said it “contains practically all of the vitamins necessary to sustain life.”

Comprising various xanthine stimulants, maté also contains about 85 mg of caffeine per cup, likened to the amount in a can of Red Bull. Even better, the saponins and polyphenols of maté serve to reduce inflammation and oxidization in the body.

Man pouring mate in park

Source: South America Backpacker

Health benefits aside, avid consumers deem maté a symbol of friendship, as per the Guaraní moon (and maté) goddess Yari. For millions, maté remains the drink of choice for the energy, well-being, and good health it brings. In some cases, enthusiasts have turned it into bottled energy drinks, like those of Guayakí, as well as into diet pills.

Some claim that maté, high in caffeine and low in sugar, can also reduce appetite, boost metabolism, extend life, and improve focus. Maté also historically played a role in treating diarrhea, constipation, and indigestion.

Unfortunately, misconceptions have gone so far as to say maté has major implications for weight loss and both the treatment and causation of cancer. Perhaps the most important thing to understand is that maté by no means qualifies as a “rare” South American herb, having remained naturally abundant throughout history.

How to prepare maté

Cebadores and cebadoras prepare maté in a variety of ways. Factors to consider include the precise heat of the water and when exactly the cebador should pour it over the maté herbs. A good cebador never uses boiled water for maté, as the ideal temperature for the drink lies between 70 and 80 degrees C.

Generally, the herbs should fill just more than 50 per cent of the gourd. One can thoroughly mix them by shaking the gourd upside down with a hand covering the rim. This helps bring the finest, most powdery herbs farthest away from the vulnerable bombilla filter at the bottom, ensuring a less bitter taste.

The cebador then tilts the herbs to one side of the gourd, angling it at about 45 degrees, and adds cold water to help develop the flavour. They slant the bombilla firmly into the herbs, ensuring not to tinker with it while finally filling the gourd with hot water.

Proper etiquette

One should never freely help oneself to maté, as it will always reach every member of the group in a clockwise direction. In family maté circles specifically, the designated cebador has often accumulated years if not decades of experience preparing and serving the drink. If you prefer a stronger maté, however, ensure that you place yourself left of the cebador. Participants always expect to share the same maté and should politely refuse to partake beforehand if they feel sick.

Since the maté initially has a stronger, more bitter flavour, the cebador will consume the first one they pour before passing the gourd to anyone else. This also allows them to adjust the maté’s taste and sweetness to their liking and prove they mean no harm to those around them. One considers it disrespectful to pass the maté with the left hand, and moving the bombilla can spoil the drink and suggest you think the cebador has prepared it poorly. Participants should consume the entire gourd of maté and may even slurp upon finishing.

They must also avoid hogging the drink and should hand it back directly to the cebador after two or three minutes at most. Never raise the issue of hygiene, as sharing a maté denotes a gesture of immense respect. Most importantly, only thank the cebador (“gracias”) if you do not wish to receive any more maté. As counterintuitive as this custom may seem, it serves as a minimally intrusive way of refusing maté. Otherwise, politely remain silent to continue enjoying the drink with those around you.

The importance of maté today

Whether you drink it for a caffeine boost, longer life, or better metabolism, maté truly has something to offer everyone. The preservation of the rituals and implements first paired with the drink centuries ago serves as a testament to maté’s social and cultural charm.

Historia de la yerba mate taragui
Source: Taragüi

Furthermore, how widely and frequently consumed it has become around South America, as well as in countries as far away as Syria, demonstrates the drink’s universality. Despite common misconceptions about maté and the implications colonization had in its tradition, it remains a key export for some and a multi-generational way of life for others.

So, consider getting your own gourd, bombilla, and bag of maté herbs some day, whether you intend to share it with others or simply savour it alone. Just remember three rules of thumb: always refrain from stirring the bombilla; do not call maté “Jesuit tea”; and never say “thank you” – unless, that is, you really have had enough.

Referenced Materials

https://yerbamatero.com

https://guayaki.com

https://yerbamateargentina.org.ar

https://www.taragui.com

https://matefactor.com

https://www.goyerbamate.com/History-of-Yerba-Mate_c_43.html

https://www.goyerbamate.com/Introduction-to-Yerba-Mate_c_41.html

https://southamericabackpacker.com

https://circleofdrink.com

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