History of Yerba Mate

The Guarani peoples of South America were a semi-nomadic people of the forest and were the earliest we know of to harvest and drink yerba mate. They considered the yerba tree a gift from the gods and eventually referred to yerba mate as a drink of the gods. It was a source of nutrition and energy for them, but also played a social role and was used as part of their cult ritual and as a currency of exchange with other cultures such as the Incas and the Charruas.

When the Spanish conquistadors came to Argentina early in the 16th century and found the indigenous people drinking yerba mate, they tried the tea, liked it, and learned how to brew the tea as well as its’ uses and beneficial qualities. This created a demand for the tea and by the 1600s the Jesuits were harvesting and cultivating it on yerba mate plantations. The Jesuits were the first to discover how to germinate the yerba seeds. It is thought that only the seeds that have gone through the digestive systems of certain birds would germinate. Whatever the case, when the Jesuits were expelled in 1767, any knowledge of the cultivation of yerba mate went with them and their plantations were no more.

Forest harvesting of yerba mate continued, but it was not cultivated on plantations. During the era of forest harvesting, the gauchos, nomadic cowboys of the pampas (South American prairie east of the Andes), who were descendants of the Spanish or mestizos (mixed Spanish and Native American), became avid drinkers of yerba mate and would drink it around the campfire after a hard day’s work.

In the 19th century, a French botanist rediscovered the secret of germination, but it was lost again when he disappeared. , The secret of yerba mate seed germination was once again discovered very early in the 20th century. Cultivation on plantations could begin again. Today it is being cultivated on plantations in parts of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Although attempts have been made to cultivate the herb in similar areas on other continents, they have all failed. The climate and soil conditions must all be prefect. The custom of yerba mate from processing to consumption has basically remained unchanged from early times.

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