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History of Mate

The History of Mate

The Guaraní People 

People have been enjoying yerba mate (Yer-bah MAH-teh) for centuries. The beverage dates all the way back to the beginnings of the Guaraní, a group of people indigenous to Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. Yerba mate was a dietary staple among the Guaraní, who enjoyed their mate from hollow gourds and often chewed on the plant from which mate is made to sustain them on long journeys. However, yerba mate was much more than a source of nutrition for the Guaraní. Yerba mate also had a large social role in their culture; often, a single gourd of mate would be shared by a group, and the beverage was included in numerous Guaraní rituals. Yerba mate was so important to the Guaraní, that they even used it as currency when trading with other Pre-Columbian peoples. For the Guaraní, yerba mate was nature’s greatest gift to mankind, and here at Yerba Mate Australia, we are inclined to agree.

The Spanish Conquistadors and the Jesuits

The Guaraní shared their love of yerba mate and their knowledge of its virtues with the Conquistadors who sailed to the New World. As a result, the consumption of yerba mate increased dramatically as the Conquistadors expanded its trade. Later, the Jesuits (whose missions spread throughout Guaraní territories) began cultivating the plant on some of their settlements. The Jesuits preferred to drink mate as they would tea (instead of from a gourd with a reed straw like the Guaraní), and it is because of them that yerba mate became known by many Westerners as “Jesuit’s tea.” Over time, the Jesuits even discovered the secret to growing yerba mate: the seeds only germinate after being eaten by a toucan! This discovery allowed the Jesuits to grow large amounts of yerba mate, but when they were expelled from South America in 1769, their discovery was lost and their yerba mate plantations were abandoned.

Yerba Mate in the 20th Century

In 1903, the secret to growing yerba mate was rediscovered in Santa Ana, allowing for the establishment of the first modern yerba mate plantation. Until then, and for many years afterwards, yerba mate came only from wild trees in the forest, and overexploitation of the trees caused them to grow scarce. Thanks to the development of controlled plantations, however the yerba mate supply was restored so that mate could be enjoyed by many for years to come.

The major Argentine yerba mate processing centers were established in the early twentieth century. At that time, wild yerba mate continued to be harvested in Brazil and Paraguay and was transported for processing on the Paraná River. In the 1920s, the Argentine government began encouraging European colonists to grow yerba mate. However, the major processing centers in Rosario and Buenos Aires refused to buy cultivated yerba mate since they could still obtain it in the wild. This situation led the Argentine government to later ban the expansion of existing yerba mate plantations. This policy was eventually discontinued, causing yerba mate to be overproduced.

Yerba Mate Today

Despite innumerable attempts to grow yerba mate elsewhere, the plant simply cannot thrive outside of those lands originally inhabited by the Guaraní. Yerba mate can only be cultivated to the northeast of Corrientes, in Misiones, in Paraguay, and in southern Brazil, and it is a treasured resource in those regions.

Yerba mate is deeply rooted in the customs and culture of South America and, in Argentina, the only beverage consumed more often than yerba mate is water. Just how the Guaraní discovered yerba mate and its many health benefits is unknown. Still, from the way it is processed to the way it is consumed, yerba mate and the practice of drinking it have remained relatively unchanged for over 500 years. In a way, to taste yerba mate, is to taste history.

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