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Famine Risk in the Contact-Era Basin of Mexico


Whitmore, Thomas M. & Williams, Barbara J. (1998). Famine Risk in the Contact-Era Basin of Mexico. Ancient Mesoamerica, 9(1), 83-98.


This study simulates vulnerability to famine and food poverty among peasant households in the Basin of Mexico two decades after the Conquest. Using demographic and cadastral data recorded in the Códice de Santa María Asunción (Tepetlaoztoc), vulnerability is assessed by comparing household and patio-group (household compound) food production to consumption needs at the same scales, Modeling of food production of the principal subsistence crops (maize, beans, and maguey) uses the soil types noted for each field in the Asuncion document and a production model that accounts for soil-productivity differences. Both typical and poor years are modeled. Household and patio-group food needs are based on the codex data for each individual in the community. The study reveals that 60% of the population was at risk of famine in a poor year and that up to 16% would have suffered food poverty in a typical year. Nevertheless, even in a poor year, 40% of the population would have had adequate-or-better nutrition. Thus, this analysis supports contrasting views of early Contact-period nutrition. Because of the unequal distribution of food-production resources in Nahua society, some commoner households were usually adequately fed, while others normally suffered chronic undernutrition. Patio groups represent a possible response to this situation, as analysis by patio group indicated reduced vulnerability to food poverty. Land per capita ratios appear to be the best explanation of the differences in food poverty and famine risk among the households or patio groups.


Reference Type

Journal Article

Year Published


Journal Title

Ancient Mesoamerica


Whitmore, Thomas M.
Williams, Barbara J.