Cacao Transformed: How the Status and Influence of Chocolate Has Changed Over Time

Throughout its history, perceptions surrounding chocolate have constantly changed. Once considered the “drink of the Gods” by the Aztecs, chocolate in the 21st century is now extremely common and generally accessible. But how exactly did chocolate go from a drink reserved for the ruling class to something that can be purchased today for little more than a dollar? In this blog post, I will argue that chocolate underwent a series of transformations from 250 CE to 1800; because of geography, colonization, and hybridization, chocolates purpose and audience constantly changed.

Although they were not the first to drink and prepare cacao, the Maya made the first major advances in chocolate preparation beginning around 250 CE. Located in the Yucatan Peninsula north of modern-day Guatemala near Olmec lands, the Maya were uniquely situated to cultivate and grow cacao pods.[1] Because of the warm and wet climate along the coast, cacao was a commonly prepared beverage and became a part of the Mayan culture; in fact, archaeologists have unearthed dozens of pots and jars adorned with the Mayan glyph for cacao that seem to suggest that chocolate was made available to both the ruling and working class and prevalent in everyday life.[2] As the actual glyph below shows, cacao at this time was referred to as Kakau and was represented by an open mouthed fish. The existence of this glyph on objects depicting Mayan Gods insinuates that chocolate was considered a religious drink.

The Aztec and Mayan Empires
The Aztec and Mayan Empires
The Mayan Glyph for Cacao
The Mayan Glyph for Cacao

Following the collapse of the Maya around 900 CE, chocolate transformed from an assimilated beverage to a drink reserved solely for the elite. Anyone outside of the elite class found to have consumed chocolate was executed on the spot.[3] Perhaps the biggest reason why perceptions surrounding chocolate changed was because of a supply shift; the capital of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan, was located in an area that could not grow and cultivate chocolate.[4] As the map below shows, the capital of the Aztec Empire was not suitable for growing chocolate during the colonial period, but its northwestern coastal possession, land formerly occupied by the Olmecs, was well suited to the cause. To fill the royal demand, the Pochteca came into play. The image below depicts a traveling Pochteca merchant carrying his wares, which included chocolate, to the capital city of the Aztec Empire. These Pochteca merchants were responsible for transporting chocolate from lowland areas such as Xicallanco and Xoconochco to the Aztec highlands.[5]

Colonial Mesoamerican Chocolate Cultivation
Colonial Mesoamerican Chocolate Cultivation
Pochteca Merchants Traveling to Tenochtitlan
Pochteca Merchants Traveling to Tenochtitlan

Because of its rarity, chocolate became highly valued and was even accepted as a unit of payment in Aztec society. As the page out of the Codex Mendoza depicted below shows, chocolate was on par with exotic objects such as rare skins and pelts and was accepted as tribute by the Aztec rulers. And as an anecdote penned by Ferdinand Columbus describes, when Columbus encountered an Aztec trade vessel in 1502 and a sack of ‘almonds’ was accidentally spilled, the natives scrambled to pick them up, as if they were coin.[6] Columbus did not know it at the time, but the ‘almonds’ the natives scrambled for were actually cacao beans. Because of a supply shock in a different geographic location, chocolate could only be consumed by the elite who could afford it; money was essentially growing on trees. However chocolate was not just a unit of exchange but a measure of overall wealth. Historians Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe discuss the different ways that Aztec rulers measured wealth and highlight the Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma, whose coffers amounted to more than 960,000,000 beans, beans that a full troop of guards watched over at all hours of the day.[7] Thus chocolate was an important example of an Aztec status symbol.

Aztec Tribute
Aztec Tribute

After the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in the early 16th century, chocolate underwent a major status check; unhappy with the taste and quality, the Spanish conquistadores considered chocolate the drink of the hogs. But through hybridization and Hispanicization, chocolate gradually grew on both the conquerors and the Spanish royal family. Hot preparation, tools such as the metate and the molinillo, and flavorings such as vanilla, anise flower, and milk made chocolate more palatable and flavorful.[8] As the pictures below show, the metate and molinillo allowed for a much finer grind and a more aerated final product, helping to align the tastes of the new world with the tastes of the old.


This new Hispanicized chocolate began to circulate royal courts in Spain, Italy, and France in the 17th century. However the royal courts took the new flavor of chocolate and created a new way to serve it. Rather than use classical clay cups, silver and brass chalices became the standard way to drink chocolate. But it was not until chocolate reached the shores of England that chocolate became popularized. Through expanded sugar production and a baroque mentality that saw people meeting and sharing ideas in coffee houses, chocolate permeated the middle class and became a popular beverage for anyone that could afford it.[9] Chocolate lost its status but gained a mass following.

Over the course of more than one thousand years, chocolate went through a series of highs and lows; from locally grown cacao in the Mayan Empire, to the Aztec ‘Drink of the Gods’ and the French chalice court, chocolate was served a variety of different ways to a variety of people because of geography, colonization, and hybridization.

[1] See Map 1

[2] Maricel E. Presilla, The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes Crown Publishing Group (New York, 2009) 12.

[3] Carla D. Martin, “Lecture 4: Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods’” February 4, 2015.

[4] See Map 2

[5] Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate Thames and Hudson (London, 2013) 74.

[6] Ibid., 109.

[7] Ibid., 82.

[8] Presilla, The New Taste of Chocolate, 26.

[9] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 166.

Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Crown Publishing Group, 2009.


The Aztec and Mayan Empires:

The Mayan Glyph for Cacao:

Colonial Mesoamerican Chocolate Cultivation:

Pochteca Merchants Traveling to Tenochtitlan:

Aztec Tribute:




Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s