Excursions with Ek Chua – Mesoamerica’s intrepid traders and beyond.


In exploring the long history of chocolate in Mesoamerican life, it is easy to see the importance of trade, and see that as with any journey, there are benefits and pitfalls. Thus it is seemly that such a land would host a god of the traveler, Ek Chua, portrayed with his pack and staff, seeking out the cacao tree. A town council report written in 1553 Tlaxcala provides us with an effective moment from which to view the effects of the journey – the cacao trade -on pre and post conquest Mesoamerica, affecting commerce, consciousness and community.

Image from the Codex Mendoza, Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University
Image from the Codex Mendoza, Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University

The Tlaxcalans, the council complains, seem to only know themselves through their cacao; how much they have; how much they can get:

“ …he is seen to have gold and cacao. That makes them proud and swells them up.”[i]

Cacao was not grown in Tlaxcala, rather arrived via long distance trade. Its significance is clear as cacao was mentioned eleven times in the short report and always as a sign of degradation. A code word for wealth, cacao exemplified the new disregard for proper living and a profound lack of foresight infecting the populace. The councilman concludes by warning,

“It is greatly urged that everyone cultivate and plant… if there were in people’s possession much money, cacao and cloth, will those things be eaten? …It cannot be. Money, cacao and cloth do not fill one up.[ii]

This crisis of cocoa morality was caused by excessive cultivation of cochineal, a cactus mite whose flesh produces a highly profitable red dye. Zeal for cochineal caused apathy toward food production, and Tlaxcala was at risk of a famine as the local barter system was replaced by the exchange of currency for cochineal. Among the most desirous of currenacy was cacao. [iii]

teo cylinder vase

Extremes in altitude in Mesoamerica lead to the complex market where cacao was money. The far-flung trade routes promoted the mingling of cultures in areas of coveted resource. Early evidence in Veracruz and Teotihuacan (AD 1 -750) is suggestive of a thriving exchange of Teotihuacan grey obsidian for Mayan cacao[iv] that cross-pollinated cultures along the trade routes. [v]

Later pochtecas, Mesoamericas outfitters linked Mesoamerican cities by mounting trading expeditions from the Aztec cities to as far afield as Xoconochco of the market savvy Putún Maya, who moved to the southern lowlands during the Terminal Classic period (AD 800 – 1200) to cultivate flourishing cacao orchards[vi] Xoconochco became the Aztec’s chief supplier of cacao, given as tribute and in trade for turquois by the Pre Conquest period (AD 1375-1521). Here the pochtecas acquired many luxuries for the Aztec royalty, including large quantities of cacao. In the Aztec kingdom, sumptuary laws restricted cacao use[vii].Map

However archeologist Fargher asserts that Tlaxcala adopted a form of council lead government rather than the kingships more common in the Aztec lands that surrounded them[viii]. This collective mindedness perhaps made the question of cacao use more a question of cash flow than breeding. By the time of our 1553 council meeting the Tlaxcalans, having allied themselves with Spain in the conquest of the Aztecs,[ix] were enjoying a measure of autonomy as payment for their cooperation; natives retained their property rights and lived apart from the colonists through the 16th century.[x] However they still found themselves under pressure by a tribute system craving cochineal and cocoa, all at the whim of the continent’s new European masters.

Considering that imperialism creates tension not only for the invaded peoples, but also for the invaders as they adapt to new foods, dress, social custom and language Chocolate historian Norton contests the notion that changes in the use of cocoa came immediately after its introduction to the Old World. Colonists and missionaries returning to Europe were initiated in the New World tastes, methods and culture of chocolate. These men, both parties that traded in cacao – Europe’s pochtecas – brought their New World experience of cacao to Europe, where only after considerable time did the chocolate culture take on a uniquely European flavor. Norton concludes, “The European taste for chocolate emerged as a contingent accident of empire [xi].”

Tlaxcala provides an example of the unforeseen pitfalls of alliances with people and with potions from far away places. Nevertheless, we are always in search of novelty. Ek Chua, with his staff and pack – perhaps loaded with cacao pods – continues his excursion around the world.

[i] (Kenneth Mills, 2002, p. 115)

[ii] (Kenneth Mills, 2002, p. 114)

[iii] (Kenneth Mills, 2002, p. 113)

[iv] (Pasztory, 1997, p. 40)

[v] (Clayton, 2005)

[vi] (Sophie D. Coe, 2013, p. 53)

[vii] (Sophie D. Coe, 2013, pp. 73-74)

[viii] (Lane F. Fargher, 2010)

[ix] (Alfredo López Austin, 2001, p. 191)

[x] (Kenneth Mills, 2002, p. 113)

[xi] (Norton, 2006)

Works Cited

Alfredo López Austin, L. L. (2001). Mexico’s Indigenous Past. (B. R. Montellano, Trans.) University of Oklahoma Press:Norman.

Clayton, S. C. (2005). Interregional Relationships in Mesoamerica: Interpreting Maya Ceramics at Teotihuacan. Latin American Antiquity , 16 (4), 427 – 448.

Kenneth Mills, W. B. (2002). The Evils of Cochineal, Tlaxcala, Mexico. In Colonial Latin America – A documentary history (pp. 113-116). Wilmington, Delaware, USA: Scholarly Resources, Inc.


Norton, M. (2006). Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics. American Historical Review , 111 (3), 660-691.

Pasztory, E. (1997). Teotihuacan – An Experiment in Living. University of Oklahoma Press:Norman.

Sophie D. Coe, M. D. (2013). The True History of Chocolate (3rd ed.). London: Thames & Hudson.





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