The Anthropology of Mate

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Anthropology is, above all, an integrating science that studies the human being within the framework of the society and culture to which he belongs, and at the same time, as a product of these. It can be defined as the science that studies the origin and development of the full range of human variability and modes of social behavior across time and space (1). An essential part of the study of anthropology is culture, defined by Edward Taylor (2) as «knowledge, beliefs, art, morality, law, customs, and any other capacities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”. In other words, culture is practically all the trait of man that he acquires in a social way, by living in a given space and time. This implies, among other things, beliefs, rites and symbols, but with the common characteristic that they start from shared social traits. Culture cannot be understood solely from a single individual and often individual acts, beliefs, rites or symbols cannot be understood without culture. The popular South American drink known as Mate is a clear example of this.

The Mate is a liquid infusion typical of the countries of the Southern Cone of America made with Yerba Mate herb, legacy of the Guaraní aborigines. It has huge roots in these countries at all levels of society, from the rural worker to the president, and is one of its main sources of identity. Over the years Mate has become much more than a drink. It is a cultural trait of national identification, a symbol that, at the same time, evokes a ritual (3). The tradition of Mate cannot be understood only from an individual point of view, but it is a social fact in the Durkheim style, which extends beyond the individual and which is difficult to understand without reference to the collectivity of which the individual is a part. The Mate is almost always shared, is a form of ritual interaction. It is usually drunk between family, but it is also drunk at work, on the street or wherever the occasion permits. The Mate is part of South American history and its culture, it is a symbol, a ritual and a social trait. Although the region has adopted much of the customs, values and lifestyles of European settlers, the Mate has succeeded in establishing itself as a local custom that survived through time (4), making it an object of analysis of great interest to anthropology.

The following work analyzes the Mate from an anthropological point of view, largely based on own field experiences from having lived many years in South America, but also drawing on specialized bibliography on the subject. The study of its composition and particular medicinal properties is left aside to concentrate on the social aspects that this drink evokes. The work begins by analyzing the origins of Mate, which give an account of its social essence from its beginnings. Some myths related to their origin are also briefly mentioned. Then I analyze the particularities of Mate as a symbol and as a social ritual. It is argued that, like other beverages around the world (such as beer), Mate consumption exceeds the individual, his psychology and the effects on his or her physique and includes a social phenomenon that deserves to be studied in depth by anthropologists, since it is an essential part of the cultural life of these societies. It also includes an annex on the diffusion of mate to Syria, where, although the form of consumption is different, the tradition of Mate as a social ritual is maintained.

The origins of the Mate

Also known as’ tea of the Jesuits’, Yerba Mate herb was originally consumed by the Guaraní peoples in the territory that today occupies Paraguay and the Argentine provinces of Misiones and Corrientes. The Guaraní buried the remains of their loved ones and planted yerba mate plants there. After the plant grew, they harvested it and took it in a circle with their families in the same way it is done today. The Guaraní natives performed these rites because they believed that in this way the spirit of their buried beings would grow with the yerba mate plant and pass through the mate to their bodies to remain with them (5). From then on, mate was a social ritual. By influence, they also consumed Mate, although not always under the same rituals, other groups that traded with the Guaraní, such as Querandíes, Pampas, and Tobas, among others, in an ancient example of cultural contact or diffusion (Herskovits, 1936).

When the Europeans arrived in these lands, they noticed that the natives practiced the ritual of getting together to drink an infusion called «caiguá» by the Guaraní. This expression derives from the words «káa» (yerba), «y» (water) and «gua» (origin), which can be translated into «water from Yerba» (6) (7). The expression «Mate» is born from the aboriginal Quechua word «matí», meaning pumpkin, which is where the mate was prepared (8).

The Spaniards observed that the Guaraníes aborigines were fortified by the Mate for working and that it also served as food if necessary. Due to the colonizers’ own lack of knowledge, mate was attributed with stimulating properties. And it certainly has, but not bigger than coffee or tea (7). By 1714, its use had spread to Bolivia and Chile (5). Nowadays, with an important presence in the whole South American region, the mate ritual is a clear case of cultural diffusion.

The mate was described, alternatively, as an infusion full of quasi-magical virtues or abominable and dirty vice, causing all kinds of social ills. The conquistadors who saw the natives take it, had the belief that mate was a herb of the devil for not knowing its practice. They also maintained that it was a drink of loafers, since the natives devoted several hours a day to this rite. The Mate was blamed for the low individual and collective productivity and a long series of other sinful acts (8). As history reveals, as in many other cases related to the European colonization of the Americas, the unknown was characterized as dangerous, as simple or as primitive. This assumption is similar to that of early anthropological approaches to non-Western societies (e. g. Morgan, Taylor or Frazer).

It was the divine origin (discussed below) and supernatural powers that some Guaraní attributed to mate that eventually convinced the Spaniards and, in particular, Jesuit priests to ban its consumption. Thus, in 1610 the Inquisition of Lima prohibited its ingestion, and sentences were imposed of 100 lashes for indigenous people and 100 pesos fine for Spaniards who consumed or trafficked the weed with which it is made of. Only 20 years later, the yerba mate would not only be legal again, but would be used by the Jesuits as the economic basis of their territorial expansion, developing a quasi monopoly on the commercialization of yerba mate (7). To continue with the prohibition of mate would have been highly counterproductive, since the measure already inspired high animosity against the missionaries. In addition, despite the ban and threats, the ritual of drinking Mate has never been extinguished, and there was at times a prolific black market (6). That is why they opted for the solution of Christianizing the use of mate. Then that drink, considered pagan and even diabolical, was given as a gift to the Indians not by Tupá (god of the local aborigines) but by God, the God of Christians (5).

Once the Jesuits were allowed to cultivate yerba mate, they had a monopoly, and yerba mate became the main source of income for the missions until they were expelled in 1767. The Jesuits were the great diffusers of mate in colonial America (9). The habit of drinking Mate became deeply rooted, and in South America the habit became one of the main emblems of the national culture. In this sense, the Mate is in South America a legacy of ancient civilizations, an aboriginal custom that managed to overcome the colonizing period, an ancestral custom with deep roots that has been able to adapt to modern times.

The Mate and the myth

Like all societies, South Americans also have myths, although they are no longer as popular as in ancient times, except among local Aboriginal people. The origin of the Yerba Mate herb is attributed legendarily to divinities. A famous short Paraguayan poem attributes this gift to Saint Thomas to the Indians (10). Also there are several local legends that also relate it to the gods:

  • The first legend found says that Tupu, aboriginal genius of goodness, was on a pilgrimage through the land when he arrived at the house of a very poor old man who, despite his misery, gave him food and drink and sheltered him in his house. In gratitude, Tupu left him the herb (11).
  • Another legend says that Yasi and Araí (the moon and the cloud) were in the forest when they were attacked by a jaguar. A hunter came to his aid and they, as a reward, gave him the beneficial and protective plant (11).
  • The third legend is similar to that of Tupu. In this, St. John and St. Peter were sheltered by a very poor old man, and God, in reward, transformed the old man’s daughter into a plant of yerba mate, so that she might be immortal (9).

Although brief, these myths are loaded with important symbolism. As can be observed, in all these legends the most characteristic common feature is that Mate is offered by the gods, aboriginal or Christian, as a sign of gratitude for an action of well done. The Mate is thus a gift of thanksgiving, it implies giving and receiving, a shared social act, not isolated, as dictated by the social custom around this drink (12) (13) (5).

As it can be seen, both in its historical origins and in myths, the Mate is related to a collective phenomenon, not an individual one. Thus, deep down, despite the «absurdity» of these myths, they are ultimately a way of representing the experience lived around the Mate and everything it evokes, myths are a way of expressing the experience of reality (Malinowski). At the same time, these myths contain the basic principles of social organization and community life (Durkheim; Dumézil), because they give mate a nature that demands to offer, share and show solidarity. In this anthropological way, the myths related to the Mate are not only stories or cosmologies, but also resources that invite social action, are related to social practices characteristic of what they intend to explain.

Mate as a social and cultural trait, as a symbol and rite

Technically, mate is an infusion made with leaves of yerba mate, a plant native to the basins of the Paraná, Paraguay and the upper reaches of Uruguay. These previously dried, cut and ground plants form the yerba mate, which has a bitter taste, are put in a container. The mixture is fattened – or served – with water, and traditionally it is drunk hot by means of a sorbet called “Bombilla”.

There are many discussions that are usually generated around the infusion when Argentineans, Paraguayans and Uruguayans come together about the proper way to drink Mate. In Uruguay, Rio Grande do Sul (southern Brazil), Argentina and southern Chile, mate is drunk hot, while it is drunk cold (‘ tereré’) in Paraguay and in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul (central-west) (14). Likewise, it can drink bitter or sweet, but there is a popular legend, with the sole purpose of giving prestige to the bitter version, that men who drink sweet Mate are beaten by their wives. There are also alternative versions, such as those that drink the yerba mate with juice, coffee or liquor, or adding fruit peels to the infusion. However, in most parts of the region, these variants are not popular (15) (12). Tradition is usually appreciated in the habit of Mate, which has allowed it to survive practically unchanged since its origins (11). This makes Mate an interesting case of analysis for anthropology, being a drink and a ritual of ancient cultures that came to survive for centuries and which has been incorporated into the daily life of modern societies in South America.

Due to its generally bitter taste and the characteristics of the ritual that accompanies it, mate is something unpleasant for the new comers. “In essence, it is usually a container with years of wear and tear, filled with a sort of green grass and a metal straw embedded in it, which several people suck on without even cleaning” (13). However, in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay mate is the daily companion of solitaire people and also a collective habit. It has thus become a key symbol and part of the South American cultural program (Orner, 1973). According to anthropologist Daniel Vidart (9), mate is more than just a drink. It is a tradition that overcomes the isolationist customs and matches the social classes. And not only that, it is also a symbol for everyone who moves away from his native country and finds in it memories and a link to his land.

In these countries the Mate is part of the daily activity in many homes and, in some cases, in offices, where it is very common to see professionals working in front of their computers with a “Termo” (recipient to hold the hot water) and a Mate accompanying their activity. It is also because of its beneficial characteristics and its low cost, that Mate is the preferred drink of university students in these countries. In a walk, on the way to work, or in study centers, it is common to see South Americans with the traditional ‘materas’, leather handbags whose sole purpose is to carry the termos, the Mate and the sugar. Mate is also an obligatory tool for work in public offices, in hospital emergencies rooms, in police stations, and obviously in houses, but also in the street and in squares and parks. In short, Mate, which invites both dialogue and deep reflection, is everywhere (13) (12).

It has the particularity that it can be consumed alone or in shared form. Drinking mate has become a social habit that is often performed together. That is to say that several people share the same Mate, filling it completely for each drinker, where one of them acts as a “fattener”. He or she is responsible for filling the Mate and, as a round, passing it on to the next drinker. This practice often leads to prolonged conversations among drinkers. Thus, Mate represents an ideal model for successful social conduct, because it includes cooperation, solidarity, participation, equality and reciprocity. The saying says that a Mate is not denied to anyone (13) (3). By forging links, it helps to foster cooperation and reduce conflicts (Evans-Pritchard). In many occasions it is the Mate that invites the meeting and not the meeting that invites the Mate. From an anthropological point of view, we can even speak of Mate as an informal institution of social cohesion that helps to promote order (Balandier) and the most accepted social values as well as strengthening relationships and social ties (Radcliffe-Brown).

The Mate also has the particularity of generating shared anecdotes because sharing the bombilla stick makes it more intimate. Some have come to compare Mate with the peace pipe of the North American Indians and say that this infusion should be placed at every negotiating table nationally and internationally (12). The Mate works as a symbol and transmitter of things that are expressed through it. It is thus an essential part of South American culture, insofar as it assumes a particular form, with a specific social function and associated with its own meaning (Linton/Kardiner, 1945).

The Mate has a whole ritual. And like all rituals, drinking mate has its own rules, for example: whenever a Mate is passed to you, you simply have to accept it; if when you receive it you say «thank you» -as would be customary anywhere else in the world-, for the next round you won’t have a turn, meaning that you don’t want more Mate. It is said that the Mate must be circulated to the right and that the fattener will be the same for the whole round (12). For those who work as fattener in a round, serving mate is not enough. That’s why the term fattening and not serving is used, since fattening means feeding, promoting, maintaining something in operation and sustaining it, ready to use. The way to wet the yerba mate is fundamental for the taste to be good, and that’s what sets a good fattener apart from a bad one (15). To do not overfill the container with water or leave a lot of time between one round and the other are essential characteristics of a good fattener. It is a serious offense to someone in a Mate round, such a person is considered as totally despised. In addition, it is considered offensive to fatten other people’s mates without permission (13). In all these senses, we can see that the person who serves the Mate fulfills a particular social role for a brief period of time (Fortes, Evans-Pritchard, Mauss), a collectively assigned and accepted function that grants it certain faculties, but also certain responsibilities for those with whom it is reunited (Radcliffe-Brown).

These rites show that Mate represents the historical and cultural continuity of the countries of South America. The Mate identifies them as a people, as a collective, as a national conglomerate. Mate is a ritual, a symbol and an institution (11). It is a case of cultural diffusion and survival of a rite of ancient cultures that has adapted to modern times, becoming a cultural icon embraced by the whole society (3). The Mate defines the identity and idiosyncrasy of three of these countries in such a way that each one of them has its national Mate day Celebration. In brief, Mate consumption exceeds the individual, his psychology and the effects on his or her physique and includes a social phenomenon that deserves to be studied in depth by anthropologists.



  1. Haviland, William A., Prins, Harald E. L. Cutural anthropology : The Human Challenge. s.l. : Wadsworth Publishing, 2013 (14th edition).
  2. Tylor, Edward Burnett. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art and Custom. 1871.
  3. Pohjola, Johanna. Mate – Etelä-Amerikan Voimajuoma (Mate, energetical southamerican beberage). Finland : s.n., 2013.
  4. Assunção, Fernando. El mate. Montevideo, Uruguay : Campeluz, 1967.
  5. Lagier, Gerónimo. La aventura del yerba mate. Buenos Aires, Argentina : Instituto Nacional de Yerba Mate, 2008.
  6. Joyce, T. The Use and Origin of Yerba Mate. Man, pp. 161 – 163. 1934
  7. Grondona, E. M. Historia del Yerba Mate. 1, s.l. : Revista argentina de agronomía, Vol. 21. 1954.
  8. Barretto, Margarita. El mate, su historia y cultura. Buenos Aires : Editorial del Sol, 1989.
  9. Vidart, Daniel. La trama de la identidad nacional. Salto : Ediciones de la Banda oriental, 1997.
  10. Rapella, Enrique. Conozcamos lo nuestro. Buenos Aires : Cielosur, 1977.
  11. Stimulating Consumption: Yerba Mate Myths, Markets, and Meanings from Conquest to Present. Folch, C. 1, s.l. : Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 52, pp. 6 – 36. 2010
  12. Scutellá, F. El mate, bebida nacional argentina. Buenos Aires : Plus Ultra, 1989.
  13. Carretero, Andrés. Vida cotidiana en Buenos Aires, desde la Revolución de Mayo hasta la organización nacional. Buenos Aires : Planeta, 2000.
  14. Assunção, Fernando. El mate. Arca : Bolsilibros, 1967.
  15. Coluccio, Felix. El mate : el arte de cebar y su lenguaje. Buenos Aires : Edicol, 2008.
Lautaro Nahuel Rubbi


Lautaro Nahuel Rubbi

Lic. en Gobierno y Relaciones Internacionales (UADE) - Lic. en Política y Administración Pública (UADE) - Posgrado en Seguridad Internacional, Desarme y No Proliferación (NPSGlobal) - Mg. en Estudios Internacionales (UTDT) - Candidato a Dr. en Estudios Internacionales (UTDT) - Becario doctoral del CONICET

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