The Legend of Yerba Maté
During one of my early excursions into Paraguay, I was told the very ancient legend of the origin of the Guarani people and Yerba Maté. According to the legend, the ancestors of the Guarani crossed a vast ocean long, long ago and came to the Americas from a distant land. They were led by two brothers who constantly vied for leadership and feuded amongst themselves. They eventually divided their people into two nations known as the Tupi, named after the older brother, and Guarani, named after the younger brother. Over time, the Tupi tribes became fierce, warring nomads, rejecting the agricultural traditions of their fathers. In contrast, the Guarani became a stable, God-fearing people who worked the land and became excellent craftsmen, eventually migrating into the distant land now called Paraguay.
In accordance with their ancient beliefs, the Guarani looked forward to the coming of a God who had promised their ancestors He would someday visit them. After a long time, the tall, fair-skinned, blue-eyed, bearded God (Pa’i Shumé) finally descended from the heavens and taught the Guarani people. He instructed them in the principles of religion and agriculture, including the healing benefits of certain plants that grew in their land. According to the legend, one of the most important things He taught them was how to harvest and prepare the leaves of a tree that eventually came to be known as the Yerba Maté tree. The yerba (leaves) were to be dried, ground and cured for a long period of time and then placed into a gourd (maté), after which hot water was added. The frothy brew was to be sipped through a bombilla (bamboo straw-like device). The rich, highly nutritious beverage was meant to ensure health, vitality and longevity, but it was bitter to the taste. The Guarani learned, however, that when stevia leaves were added to the brew, it became sweet, delicious and highly desirable. Stevia and Yerba Maté became the sacred herbs of the Guarani. Dried and cured Yerba Maté leaves became the most common ingredient in the household cures of the Guarani people.
While remembrance of, and perhaps belief in, the ancient legend has diminished over the years, belief in the uses of maté for health restoring purposes has persisted. Today, the Guarani still use the dried, cured leaves of Yerba Maté, claiming that they will boost immunity, cleanse and detoxify the blood, tune the nervous system, restore youthful hair color, reduce aging, combat fatigue, stimulate the mind, control appetite, cause fat loss, inhibit the effects of debilitating diseases, reduce stress, and eliminate insomnia, all in accordance with the ancient legend that has continued among the people for more than 2,000 years.* The Guarani believe that the plant was a gift from God to be used for both food and medicine, because He loved them. Are they right? Or are they misguided in this ancient teaching? Only time and one’s own personal experience can answer that intriguing question. I am an ardent believer.
Modern scientists have discovered numerous health benefits of maté, such as drinking Yerba Maté causes a significant decrease in respiratory quotient (RQ), which indicates a favorable effect for decreasing body fat. Thus, maté is used extensively in South America to assist in weight loss. This RQ fact makes maté an ideal beverage to consume prior to physical exercise.
I wondered about the Guarani claim to longevity until, in the mid 1980’s, I met an elderly missionary couple in Asunción. They told me that they had just returned from a very rural area at the edge of the rainforest where the native’s primary diet was a little meat, vegetables and lots of Yerba Maté sipped through a bombilla. Before their departure, they went out into the field to say goodbye to an elderly Guarani woman who was still working all day every day in the fields, digging, planting, cultivating and harvesting vegetables. She was 110 years old. They asked me if I knew anything about Yerba Maté. They thought it was a drug because it gave the people such energy and vitality. I explained what it is and its health benefits, and assured them it is not a drug nor addictive. They said that, having seen what it did for the local people, they were going to start drinking it daily.
Modern research has established that Yerba Maté leaves contain more than 250 nutrients and that stevia leaves contain 100 nutrients. Perhaps that is the reason it appears to be so very beneficial to human health, vitality and wellbeing. Still I wonder, will it really increase longevity? I suppose time will tell.