Sunday, January 15, 2012

Chicle: Chewing Gum of the Maya

Author's note: this post was slightly modified on 11/26/17.

Chicle is the often white-colored resin that comes from the sapodilla, a species of tree native to the Caribbean and to Mesoamerica. Ancient Mesoamericans such as the ancient Maya (as well as the Cocle and the Aztecs) made use of this resin in various ways.

The ancient Mayans -- who also made use of the sapodilla's wood and fruit -- chewed chicle as a gum. They believed that chewing chicle kept your breath fresh and also helped to keep you from feeling hungry or thirsty.

Archaeologists have also found pieces of copal -- a resin used for incense -- that are wrapped in chicle (samples from the Cenote of Sacrifice also had a layer of rubber). Why the copal was wrapped in chicle isn’t known for sure. Some think it is possible the ancient Mayans did this to make the copal catch on fire faster.

It is also possible that ancient Mayans burned chicle as incense in its own right. This possibility exists because the infamous bishop Diego de Landa said it is so.

In terms of the deeper meaning of chicle to the ancient Mayans, an idea exists that they thought it was sacred, though they would also use it in a non-sacred way. They may have also thought the same way about rubber and copal.

Beginning of an Industry
Chicle later became part of a major chewing gum industry. It started when a man named Thomas Adams Sr. received some chicle from General Santa Anna (yes, the Santa Anna.) Santa Anna wanted Adams to find a way to make rubber with the chicle, but it didn't work. Instead, Adams marketed chicle as candy, the first modern chewing gum. Eventually chicle based gum became very popular and other companies got in on making it, including Wrigley Jr.

Chicle in Modern Times
Chicle-based chewing gum reached its height in the 1940s. However, over-production of chicle was destroying the sapodilla trees, which need 3 to 8 years of rest after being harvested. In response to this, a petroleum product "gum base" was created -- and it is this kind of gum that people are mostly chewing today. Due to the creation of the gum base, around the time of the 1950s, the chicle enterprise began to die.

Today, chicle is still a commodity in Mesoamerica. It is extracted via groups of "chicleros". In order to harvest chicle, they must camp out –during the rainy season -- in search of wild sapodilla trees, as there are no plantations of sapodilla today. When a chiclero finds a tree, he climbs it using rope and metal spurs, cuts slashes into it and uses bags lined with rubber to collect the resin that runs out of the cuts. Once the chicleros collect the resin, they take their filled bags back to their current campsite, and boil it down. After this, they then cut it into pieces.

Chicle gum can still be found today outside of Mesoamerica, though like tofu it has obtained "upscale" associations. One example is Chicza, which is made with sustainably produced chicle, and is sold as a fair trade item.


University of Arizona: Chicle; The Chewing Gum of the Americas, From the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley; Jennifer P. Mathews; 2009

McMaster School for Advancing Humanity: Chicle, Chicleros and Community

Chicza: Deep Roots, How Chicza is Made

University of California at Santa Barbara: Mesoamerican Research Center: Chicle

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