Odocoileus virginianus yucatanensis
Common English names
• Venado derives from the Latin venor, “to hunt”. In Spanish, venado refers both to the animal and to its meat, or “venison.” Ciervo is from the Latin word cervus meaning “deer”, and rojo is the Spanish adjective “red”.
• Odocoileus derives from the Greek noun odous or odontis – “tooth”. Coileus derives from the Greek adjective koilos which means “hollow.” Therefore, Odocoileus means “hollow-toothed”.
• Cervus and elaphus are both Latin words for “deer”.
• White-tailed deer owes its name to the fact that when threatened, the deer flips its tail straight up, revealing the white fur underneath, to signal danger to others.
History and heritage
The distribution of the white-tailed deer extends from Canada southward into South America. However, Odocoileus virginianus yucatanensis is a subspecies unique to the Yucatán peninsula. Smaller than its North American relatives, it measures only three feet tall and weighs just 70-80 pounds at maturity. They generally occupy the densest part of the forest, which offers both protection and the greatest part of its diet. They are principally grazing animals, depending on the tips of trees and shrubs. They also eat mangoes, oranges and other fruits. When these foods are scarce, they often approach farmland where they will consume corn, squash, melon and other crops, resulting in considerable damage. The Yucatecan white-tailed deer is preyed upon by pumas and jaguars, but by far its most dangerous enemy is man. Venado (venison) has been such a perennial favorite in the Maya diet that it has been hunted to the point of near extinction. Government regulations have protected the species, and now in Yucatán, only those men from the poorest pueblos are allowed to hunt them, and then only for their own consumption: selling the meat to anyone results in fines and penalties. But the demand for venison on Yucatecan tables continues unabated, such that new solutions are being tested. Starting in 1994, the New Zealand red deer (Cervus elaphus) was introduced into Yucatán for the purposes of breeding for consumption. Deer are not native to New Zealand; instead, the first deer were shipped there from England and Scotland for sport in the mid-19th century. By the middle of the 20th century feral deer were regarded as a pest because of their impact on the environment and native forests. The export of venison from feral deer started in the 1960s, turning a pest into a gold mine. Industry pioneers saw an opportunity to build on this base and in the early ‘70s started capturing live deer from the wild and farming them. These were the first new animals to be domesticated by humans in over 5000 years. A new industry was born and spread rapidly throughout New Zealand. This same industry is gaining inroads in Yucatán, finding successful adaptation in the entire peninsula and south into Chiapas.
To the meat-eating Europeans, the Maya vegetarian diet seemed something akin to Lent – perpetual denial. Of course the Maya ate flesh, but it was consumed much less frequently than the staples of corn, beans and squash. When it came to elites, however, the story changes a little. Animal bones are found in Maya elite graves, and among them are quantities of deer bones, revealing that even in ancient times, deer was a favorite food. We also know that while deer were never domesticated by the Maya, they tended to live close to human settlements, suggesting some kind of symbiotic relationship. Fray Diego de Landa – the Franciscan monk who reported on Maya customs and history at the time of the conquest – recorded a recipe for a ritual offering stew made with venison and chacmole, which is a sauce of achiote, chile, allspice and tomato. Other sources report venison served in sauces thickened with maize dough, known as k’ool, or thickened with toasted ground squash seeds, known as óom sikil in Mayan or pipián in Spanish. Most of these ancient recipes have survived with only minimal modification into modern times. Tsi’ik de Venado, venado en pipián rojo and venado en sackool can still be found on local restaurant menus. And today, thanks to the introduction of the New Zealand red deer, the chances are greater that you will actually be eating venison instead of the typical substitute: beef.