The History Of Yerba Mate

by | Jun 13, 2023 | History, Yerba Mate

History Of Yerba Mate

Yerba mate plant and leaves
Yerba Mate plant and leaves

The setting of this journey is found in one of nature’s gems, the second-largest biodiversity in the South American continent: the Paraná rainforest, which is an extension of the Amazon rainforest. It is located at the crossroads of three countries: Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. The Iguazú Falls, one of the 7 natural wonders of the world, are found there. This forest is the home of the mate tree, also botanically known as Ilex Paraguariensis. This tree can grow to over 16 meters tall in its natural state. It primarily grows in the understory and the middle layer of the mountains (from 400 meters above sea level).

Pre-Columbian Times

The Kaingangs (which means forest man) are the first consumers of yerba mate, and have been for millennia. They were hunters and gatherers who lived in communities. These tribes collected the leaves of wild yerba mate, threaded them onto a string then tie around their waist to chew on them throughout the day.

The indigenous Guaraní peoples arrived in this region around the 11th century. They were not familiar with yerba mate until then. The Kaingangs did not process the leaves but ate them fresh. However, the Guaraní invented the current method of consumption, namely, the infusion of the leaves in a gourd and the use of a hollowed-out cane as a filter, called a “bombilla”. They knew how to locate and harvest the most fertile trees.

Spanish Colonization

When the Spaniards colonized South America, they learned from the Guaraní about the use and benefits of mate, so it quickly gained great popularity among the colonizers. Soon, yerba began to be transported from its place of origin to all the territory that was under Spanish dominion.

It was primarily the Jesuit missionaries who were responsible for expanding the consumption of mate in an extraordinary way. They recognized the enormous economic potential its commercialization would have, and set out to investigate why the yerba mate plant only germinated in this region of the world, thus discovering that the pre-digested seeds by toucans were the secret to cultivation (A discovery that was confirmed half a century later by the French naturalist Aimé Bonpland).

The Spanish Jesuits pioneered the cultivation, transportation, and marketing of mate, although they preferred to take mate in bags and not with bombillas like the Guaraní. Hence, at some point, yerba mate became known as the “Jesuits’ tea”.

The Yerba Mate Boom of the 19th Century

When South American nations like Paraguay and Argentina gained their independence, the landscape of yerba mate production and consumption began to shift dramatically. Paraguayan leader José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, who served as dictator from 1814 to 1840, recognized the economic prowess of yerba mate. Under his rule, the yerba mate industry was nationalized, becoming a vital income source for the fledgling nation.

The late 19th century brought about substantial developments in the cultivation of yerba mate. Enterprising figures, such as Argentina’s Carlos María de Alvear, established vast yerba mate plantations in the northeast, modernizing production techniques and amplifying output.

This surge in yerba mate cultivation wasn’t confined to Argentina alone. Similar advancements took place in Paraguay and Brazil, turning the tables for yerba mate — transforming it from a largely wild-harvested product to a profitable agricultural commodity.

20th Century to Today

The early 20th century saw the yerba mate industry truly start to embrace industrialization. Advances in technology led to the mechanization of many processes in the cultivation and production of yerba mate. Mechanized harvesting, processing, and packaging led to higher efficiency, increased output, and made the mass export of yerba mate a reality.

In Argentina, the establishment of the National Yerba Mate Institute in 1936 played a significant role in promoting the industry. This body was tasked with the regulation, promotion, and stabilization of the yerba mate market. It helped foster modern cultivation methods, quality control, and drove increased consumption both domestically and internationally.

By the end of the 20th century and into the 21st, yerba mate had firmly established itself as a symbol of South American culture. In countries like Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and parts of Brazil, sharing a gourd of yerba mate remains a social ritual, a sign of hospitality, and a daily habit.

But the story didn’t end there. In recent decades, yerba mate has gained considerable recognition beyond the borders of South America. Its unique flavor profile and its well-documented health benefits have contributed to its global appeal. Today, you can find yerba mate in health food stores and supermarkets around the world, often marketed as a natural and healthy alternative to coffee and traditional teas.

The History Of Yerba Mate
Article Name
The History Of Yerba Mate
Explore how Yerba Mate evolved through colonization, industrialization, and cultural embrace, shaping its role as a cherished global beverage today.
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Do Sul
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