Chocolate has endured a significant transformation throughout the ages. The consumption of cacao began in ancient Mesoamerica, the land of the Aztecs and Mayans, to today produced by chocolate corporations, such as Hershey and Mars, and distributed worldwide. Chocolate has truly made an everlasting impact on the world socially, economically, culturally and politically.
A majority of scientists agree that cacao first grew in South America. Two different genetic makeups of cacao have been discovered in the region: one, along the Amazon River, and two, in modern-day Venezuela, south of Lake Maicaibo and along the Andes mountains (Presilla 8). Although the growth of cacao is located in South America, its earliest known consumption is accredited to the people of Mesoamerica, the area between central Mexico and Western Honduras. According to a recent finding by archaeologists, cacao’s earliest known consumption stems all the way back to the discovery of a cacao beverage’s remains from 1900 BC at the site of Paso de la Amada in modern-day Mexico. This land was inhabited by the pre-Olmec farming and fishing community known as the Mokaya people (10). Scientists are able to detect for cacao in ancient pottery and vessels because cacao is the only plant in the region that contains caffeine and theobromine compounds (10).
Despite the findings in Paso de la Amada, the Olmec civilization (1500 BCE to 400 BCE) is typically credited with some of the earliest cultivation of cacao. They are believed to be the ancestors of the Mayan civilization. They are distinguished for their notable sculptures known as “colossal heads” located throughout Mesoamerica (Coe 34). The Olmec civilization strongly impacted the future cultural traditions of later civilizations, especially the Aztec and Maya, through their use of cacao. If it was not for this earlier civilization, the consumption of cacao may have never been utilized in Mayan and Aztec cultural practices and later taken up by the Europeans.
We, in the modern era, may have never discovered the ability to cultivate cacao if it was not for this ancient civilization.
Cacao was primarily consumed as a frothy beverage, with the foam being the most significant and sacred part of the drink. Mayans would often add other spices to the drink, such as maize or chili. Chocolate consumption was a social event. The term chokola’j means “drink chocolate together” and may be a potential origin for the word chocolate (Coe 61). The consumption of cacao was commonplace in Mayan civilization. Nevertheless, anthropologists dispute whether cacao consumption was solely reserved for the elites within society or also commonly consumed among the peasantry (Coe 43). This lack of knowledge is due to the inability to discover pottery and vessels that were less well made, artifacts owned by the lower classes, and have now disintegrated into the earth.
The Mayans flourished between 250-900 CE. The Mayan population cultivated cacao in their humid lowlands–an ideal place for the plant to grow. Although the region of the Aztecs was not as ideal to grow cacao, the Aztecs relied on forced Mayan labor to cultivate their products. Another way Aztecs received cacao was through merchant trade routes carried by pochteca (Coe 96).
The Mayans believed that cacao was the food of the gods. Myths of a rulers’ association to cacao trees indicated royal legitimacy amongst the Mayan civilization. For example, Pakal the Great’s mother is depicted at his burial site emerging from a cacao tree confirming his legitimate lineage. Countless Mayan hieroglyphs and artwork depict the divine power of cacao. For example, the image below is an illustration on a Mayan vase of a lord consuming a frothy drink believed to be cacao.
In the Dresden codex, “seated gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans” (Coe 42). Further evidence of cacao’s significance can be referred to in various other accounts illustrated in the Dresden, Madrid and Paris codices. If it were not for the Mesoamerican veneration towards cacao, such as using it as currency and in religious ceremonies, Europeans may have never acknowledged its possibilities and introduced it to Europe. Today, Mexico’s celebration of Dia de los Muertos still acknowledges their ties to their ancestry and consumes a similar frothy cacao beverage.
Amongst the Mesoamericans, cacao was believed to also contain many healing abilities. They believed cacao could serve as an anesthetic, anti-inflammatory and digestive aid. The Mayans used cacao during marriage, banquets, baptisms and burial rituals.
Here is an example of a Mayan ritual to the rain god. As you can see clearly, cacao pods play an important role in this worship ceremony.
Mayans believed cacao boosted energy. They particularly promoted its consumption during warfare. They believed it made the warrior invincible, stronger and energized. They even decorated their armor with cacao pods, although scholars disagree on whether it was worn for spiritual protection or decorative purposes. Nevertheless, many of cacao’s beneficial properties have been proven to be accurate by contemporary scientists. For example, cacao consumption amongst warriors provided the benefits of a strong caffeinated beverage–something many of us today rely on for energy and strength to get through the day.
In contrast to the Mayan preference to consume cacao as a warm beverage, the Aztecs preferred to consume the drink cool (84). Champurrado, a modern popular beverage in Mexico, is a cacao drink based on the traditional cacao beverage of the Aztecs. However, Europeans influence has hybridized the drink to also consist of sugar and milk.
“Aztec culture flourished in the highlands of central Mexico between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, AD” (Smith 1). They were known as the “people of the fifth sun” and “the triple alliance” because of their alliance between three city-states. In the Aztec civilization, sources “unanimously [declared] that the drinking of chocolate was confined to the Aztec elite” (Coe 95). The cacao pod was symbolic to represent the human heart ripped out of the human body during sacrifice to the gods (103). Some have argued this symbolism is due to the similarities in physical shape, while others explain that it is due to them containing blood and chocolate, both precious liquids (103).
The Aztecs believed cacao could cure anything from rashes to seizures–even illnesses attributed from the gods. It was also used as currency, an idea adopted from the Mayans (Presilla 17).
Here is a brief video clip explaining the health benefits that modern science has revealed about the health benefits of the cacao bean:
The Historia general provides some of the most authentic firsthand accounts of Aztec civilization prior to European conquest (Presilla 19). Cacao beans were as precious as feathers or jewels. The wealth of their leader, Montezuma II, was often on display drinking the frothy cacao beverage. Adding the perfect amount of corn and water to the beverage was considered an art, for the beverage required the precise amount of each and pourings from one container above shoulder height into another on the ground repeatedly (Presilla 20). The artwork to the left depicts the pouring process in which the cacao beverage is prepared.
Large feasts were common among the social elites within the Aztec empire. The most luxurious of all merchant banquets involved the consumption of human flesh after a sacrificial slave ceremony. These dinner parties required enormous amounts of cacao beans, and other food items including turkeys and dogs (22). “Human sacrifice was practiced extensively by the Aztecs, although the actual extent is difficult to gauge because early Spanish observers systematically exaggerated the number of sacrifices as part of their attempts to make the Aztecs seem more savage-like” (Smith 5).
The influence by the ancient Mesoamerican empires, especially the Olmecs, Aztecs and Mayans, contain much deeper roots in our daily lives than we recognize. It is imperative to understand how these civilizations utilized cacao in their cultural practices in order to recognize the parallels modern society has adopted and hybridized. If it were not for these civilizations placing such a high importance on cacao, Europeans, and ultimately, modern day civilization may have never learned of the cultivation of the cacao pod and the creation of chocolate.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013. The True History of Chocolate. 3nd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.
Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Smith, Michael E. “Aztec Culture: An Overview.” (2006): 1-7. Web. 3 Apr. 2017. <http://www.public.asu.edu/~mesmith9/1-CompleteSet/Smith-AztecCulture-WWW.pdf>.