Geographic History of Cacao

Cacao pod found in the forests of Costa Rica. Photo by the author.

Foraging in a Costa Rican rainforest with a group of inner city American teenagers is definitely one of the highlights of my teaching career. For these students, who basically lived in a food desert, seeing the forest as a living grocery store was an unforgettable experience. Our forest feast included everything from manzanitas and coconuts to mangoes and guayabana. The best part, though, was when I cut open a cacao pod, and we all got to try the amazing fruit. It was an experience rooted in the forest and rooted in history, since few people ever get to eat the pulp of a cacao pod anymore. In many ways, the entire cacao pod is a time capsule, traveling thousands of miles – and years, from its hearth to become one of the world’s most popular foods.

Cacao grows best in the rainforest at low altitudes, like this rainforest in Costa Rica. Photo by author.


The cacao we feasted upon that day originated in another forest – thousands of miles away. It is difficult for scholars to pinpoint exactly where cacao originates, but most believe that Theobroma cacao began its life in the far northern reaches of the Amazon basin. (Coe) DNA studies indicate that there are two possible loci, one in Peru, and the other in Venezuela. (Presilla) The map below (created by the author using Google Earth) indicates the possible locations of cacao’s origins.  Even less is known about how the tree diffused from there. Linguistic data suggests that perhaps cacao traveled over water, departing from South America from the Guayas Basin and traveling to its ultimate location – Mesoamerica. (Coe)

Map depicting cacao originsUpon arriving in Mesoamerica, cacao began to reach the edges of its habitable zone. Unlike other staple crops, which are largely found in temperate zones, cacao is a decidedly tropical plant – generally living no further than 20o North or South of the Equator. (Drake) It is also perfectly suited to life as an understory tree. Preferring to live in the shadows of the canopy, cacao thrives in the moist, protected environment afforded it by its neighbors. It does not like wind, or drought, and it does not do well in areas with thin, depleted soil. (Drake) Cacao did manage to find pockets of ideal habitat within the regions of Soconusco – an area along the Pacific coast near the Guatemalan border. This area proved to be so well suited for cacao production, the chocolate from this region was considered some of the best in the world for several centuries.

Unfortunately, however, diseases affecting both the human and cacao populations of Soconusco and the rising demand for cacao created by Europe’s unquenchable thirst for chocolate meant that Soconusco’s days as the center of cacao production were numbered. At first, production shifted back to cacao’s roots in South America. Both Venezuela and the Guayas Basin became major producers and exporters of cacao during the 1500’s. (Coe) The Venezuelan cacao was the more highly desired criollo cacao, while the Ecuadoran cacao was the less desired, but more productive forastero variety.
By the 1600’s, demand for cacao in Europe was rising dramatically as new countries such as England and France were introduced to chocolate. The British planted cacao in their Jamaican colony, while the French spread cacao to the islands of Martinique, St. Lucia and the Dominican Republic. (Coe) Cacao was eventually introduced to the island of Trinidad, which caused one of the most significant changes to the plant since it left the Amazon. After the initial criollo variety died off due to disease, the forastero variety was introduced. The two plants cross-bred, creating a new hybrid called trinitario. This new hybrid had many of the flavor advantages of criollo, but was more disease resistant and productive like forastero.
It was the Portuguese who were ultimately responsible for cacao’s global diffusion. While their Brazilian colony was a major producer of cacao, the Portuguese decided to expand cultivation into their African colonies, as well. They planted cacao at first on their island colonies of Sao Tome and Fernando Po, but it was not long before cacao spread into Ghana and other parts of Africa. (Coe) In1905, cacao reached what would eventually become the world’s leading producer – the Ivory Coast.
Compared to major commercial crops like corn or wheat, cacao’s production is still markedly limited in its distribution. Nevertheless, while production remains limited to a narrow band along the Equator, the world’s taste for chocolate has continued to expand. While chocolate originally did not appeal much to Asian taste buds (Coe), other than the Spanish Philippines, today, it is finding hungry markets among these and other emerging economies. As a result, chocolate and cacao will continue to be in high demand, even as supplies are continually threatened by diseases.


Coe, Sophie D Coe and Michael D. The True History of Chocolate, 3rd Edition. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2013.
Drake, James A. “Theobroma cacao L.” 1983. NewCROP Center for New Crops & Plant Products Purdue University. 20 February 2015.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009.


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