“What do you use the pilon for,” I asked the lady of the house.
“I grind my rice, corn and beans,” She said “and my husband grinds his coca leaves.” she added sheepishly.
Coca plants aside, the pilon is an important kitchen tool found in homes along the Amazon River in eastern Peru. Resembling a huge mortar and pestle, at least one pilon can be found in every small village. It’s traded from home to home for the grinding of grain or the dehusking of rice. With rice, the pilon is filled with grain, the operator works the grain until the hulls are loosened. Finally, the operator places the mix into a shallow basket called a cedaso. The rice is tossed into the air where a breeze carries away the husks.
The specifics may vary, but most pilons consists of a stump-like mortar, round, half-meter or so tall, with the inside hollowed out into a bowl arrangement in which the grain is placed. The other half of the pilon is the pestle part which is a large pole or club with which the operator will crush the material in the mortar. It’s important that both halves of the pilon be constructed from the hardest and heaviest of wood.
I’ve seen pilons made from palisangre, Brosimum rubescens, that beautiful blood wood prized for artwork in the neotropics. Aside from it’s beauty Brosimum is as hard as granite. Indeed, it contains large amounts of silica enough to dull a farmer’s fine machete into a butter knife or even devour a village’s prized chainsaw. Don’t expect to see a pilon finished to a polished piece of artwork. Pilons are serious tools, practical as the people who use them.
Here’s a pilon I found for a museum in the US. Estephen Mozombite stands next to it so we can get a feel the pilon’s size. That chunk of wood comprising the base was too heavy to travel by parcel post overseas, but resided in a crated consignment on an ocean freighter.
Can we use pilons in a rainforest display? I think so, but they best be integrated into displays representing a typical jungle home, perhaps with the tuspa hearth, a collection of wooden implements, and maybe some sun-baked pottery. As I travel the river and find tools for around the home, I’ll take photos and post them here.