Inspired by Indigenous Peoples’ Day last week, I thought I’d take the occasion to start the first installment of a three-part series on the history and development of chocolate from the New World to Modern Day. Maya populations still produce some of the world’s best cacao, and you can check out this video about how Maya Mountain Cacao is helping to revolutionize the indigenous cacao industry in Belize. Cacao was first cultivated, domesticated, and refined by Indigenous Peoples in Central America, by populations that continue to play a vital role—although we don’t necessarily see their contributions on this side of the supply chain. With this in mind, I’d like to talk about the ancient roots of chocolate in the Americas!
The first thing that comes to mind when most of us think of chocolate is a delicious, dark brown bar densely packed with a mood-altering je ne sais quoi, and sugar. Or maybe it’s a childhood memory of M&Ms, Hershey Bars, or something more recent. However, for more than 3,000 years, chocolate was consumed primarily as a drink. While our modern conception of chocolate differs from its earliest mode of culinary delivery deep in the jungles of Central America, the cultural significance has stayed relatively constant across the centuries; it is a currency of pleasure, luxury, and ritual.
The manipulation of theobroma cacao extends from prehistory to modernity with a fascinating lineage crossing oceans, cultures, languages and ages. While I could go on about the intricacies of development from Pre-Olmec to Henri Nestlé (there are many books on the subject such as The True History of Chocolate by Sophie and Michael Coe or The New Taste of Chocolate by Maricel Presilla) I’d like to do an overview of some of the major events in the history of chocolate: its pre-Columbian American roots, the European transformation of chocolate, and the industrialization of chocolate and the rise of American craft chocolate. But more on those later, let’s start at the beginning.
Cacao and its seeds, or cocoa beans, have historical significance with the Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec peoples—a significance that depends upon the context each culture provides. An Olmec archaeological site on the Gulf Coast of Veracruz has yielded at least one ceramic container that evidences the preparation of cacao as a beverage dating to roughly 1900 BC! Evidence such as this also typically indicates that usage likely preceded that date, but we lack the evidence (rising sea levels destroy archaeology sites), which suggests that at the least, humans have been manipulating and using cacao for 4,000 years! Other evidence in the archaeological record indicates that cacao pulp was fermented into an alcoholic beverage around 1,400 BC. The Olmec are the folks that left behind colossal stone heads throughout Southern Mexico, and were the first major civilization in Mesoamerica. Unfortunately, the Olmec did not use written language, so we know very little besides what their abandoned sites can tell us, but it is generally agreed that they were the first to domesticate the cacao tree, that the beverages they made from cacao were used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes, and that their cultural lineage extended through the Mayan and Aztec Empires.
The Maya, in contrast, left behind a rich record of data regarding their fondness for cacao drinks, which they associated with the gods. Incidentally, so did Linnaeus when he named the tree Theobroma Cacao in the 18th century; “Theobroma” from the Greek for “food of the gods,” and “cacao” being a European derivative of the indigenous Mayan “kakau.” The Maya also had a hieroglyph representing cacao in their art, and left behind depictions of rudimentary recipes for production.
The Maya Empire spanned across the Yucatan Peninsula in Southern Mexico, crossing modern Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador; the heartland of cacao cultivation. The Maya excelled in math, astronomy, and some huge public works projects from roughly 250-900 AD, and were organized in a city-state system in which cacao was a common form of tribute and currency. Archaeologists have even discovered counterfeit cacao beans! This tradition of using cacao as currency extended into colonial times under Spanish rule.
For the Maya, the cacao beverage was a treasured drink of the ruling class, and a treat to families who cultivated cacao in their home gardens. For the drink, the beans would be fermented, dried, and roasted, much like today, then ground on metates and mixed with a variety of spices: achiote, all-spice, peppers, cinnamon, vanilla, and honey. The paste made with these ingredients would be heated and poured from vessel to vessel to produce a frothy foam.
The Maya traditions of cacao reverence, cultivation, and consumption extended from the Pre-Classic Period (2,000 BC-250 AD), to the Classic Period (250 AD-900 AD) and into the Post-Classic Period, which ended with the Spanish Conquest in the 1400s. Spanish priests thoroughly documented many of the Pre-contact Maya traditions, including their treatment of cacao—a record that directly catalyzed cacao’s journey to Europe in the following centuries. One of the most important things to remember when thinking about chocolate, cacao, and the Maya, is that many of these traditions are still practiced in the places where Maya communities still exist.
There are competing theories on the etymology of the word “chocolate,” but most have at least some connection to the Aztec language of Nahuatl. Some attribute the word to the Nahuatl word “xocolātl,” meaning “bitter water.” My inquiries have lead me to another theory in which the word is a hybridization of a Mayan word “chokol,” which means “hot,” and the Nahuatl word “atl,” meaning water. It could also be a combination of “kacau” (cacao) and “atl,” simply “cacao water.” Either way, the word “chocolate” itself represents a combination of Maya and Aztec cultures, an appropriate blend considering the historical transmission of knowledge through the cacao trade.
The Aztec prepared cacao as beverage specifically for the elite, as to consume cacao was essentially to drink money. Their preparation of the beverage was quite similar to the Maya, the primary difference being that the Aztecs consumed it cold rather than hot. The cacao would be ground with the other spices, mixed with water, filtered, and agitated to froth it. This mixture would then be poured back and forth between two vessels to create more foam. The foam was considered the highest delicacy. An inferior drink would have diluted the cacao with ground corn. This drink was consumed habitually by the Aztec elite and was served to Hernán Cortés and his companions when he met with Moctezuma II, the Aztec Emperor in 1519.
The Aztec relationship with cacao is interesting because they did not and could not have grown cacao in their semi-desert climate of Southern Mexico. However, they valued cacao highly and the products that could be made from its beans. Allegedly, Moctezuma II consumed up to 50 servings of the spiced foamy cacao drink a day. He even had a cacao warehouse that at the time of contact contained roughly 960,000,000 beans! The beans were imported through trade or tribute into the Aztec empire from the Putún Maya, their coastal neighbors and trading partners. These people are also likely to have introduced the use of cacao beans as currency to the Aztecs. The Aztec Empire began with a unification of neighboring powers around 1428 and lasted until their defeat at the hands of the Spanish Conquistadors led by Hernán Cortés in 1521. The Aztecs had a very complex culture which we know about largely due to the ethnographic accounts of Franciscan Friars who learned Nahuatl and worked with Aztec priests and scholars to thoroughly document Aztec life before their contact with the Europeans. The Aztecs also used cacao ritually, both to be drunk during ceremonies and even symbolically in acts of human sacrifice. In this context, the cacao pod would symbolize the human heart.
Cacao eventually played a large role in the subsequent colonization of the Americas, thanks to the large part it played in America’s native cultures. Later, enthusiasm for chocolate spread across Europe, a legacy that continues today. These ancient and living histories are fascinating to contemplate when one considers chocolate as an everyday, commonplace food. The development of chocolate has been thousands of years in the making and is still changing today, an evolving story in which I’m grateful to take part. Coming up in the next installment of A Brief History of Chocolate, we will talk more about European contact with cacao in the New World, how it was introduced it to the palaces of Europe, and how the first chocolate bar was made!
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Coe, Michael D. The Maya. 5th ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2001.