Monthly Archives: February 2015

Goes Together Like Chocolate and Corn?

Chocolate and peanut butter, chocolate and caramel, chocolate and mint – these are pairings that immediately come to mind when the modern day consumer thinks of chocolate. For the Maya and Aztec, cacao and corn was a common combination. This presents more than just a contrast in flavor; it is a marriage of a basic staple ingredient in ancient cuisine, corn, and an ingredient considered luxurious, chocolate (Presilla, 14).

Despite their eventual different statuses, both chocolate and corn were associated with cosmic life cycles (Presilla, 14). The Popul Vuh (“Book of Counsel”) was the sacred book of the Quiche Maya written by a Franciscan friar after the Spanish Conquest (c. 1550s). In one story, male twins born from parents who created the universe get beheaded in the Maya underworld. One of their heads is hung up in a calabash tree, and it impregnates the daughter of a ruler, who then gives birth to Hero Twins. These twins must complete a series of tasks and resurrect their father, who is known as the Maize God.

maize god

Mayan Maize God

Doing so allows them to become the sun and the moon (Coe and Coe, 39). On a Classic Mayan vase (Classic period: 250-950 CE), the head of the Maize God is shown in a cacao tree instead of a calabash tree as in the original story (Coe and Coe, 38-39).

cacao tree maize god

Classic Maya Vase: The head of the Maize God appears on a cacao tree

Another part of the Popol Vuh includes chocolate and corn together again. Both are listed as foods in the Mountain of Sustenance that the gods need to find in order to form human bodies in their final form (Coe and Coe, 39). Based on cacao’s portrayal in the Popol Vuh, it was still considered to be of the same status as common foods, like corn, around the time of the Spanish Conquest.  It seems that by the time the calabash tree appeared as a cacao tree on the Mayan vase, cacao’s place in society had significantly changed.

Cacao’s practical relation to corn, outside of ancient texts, was largely tied to its use in beverages. The Maya made sak-ha from ground mature maize that was not nixtamalized (i.e. not cooked in an alkaline solution), and cacao was one of the substances used to flavor this drink in addition to chili peppers and herbs. The invading Europeans also adopted this drink. It was used for people who were ill as well as a quick way to get the necessary calories for the day without a lot of extra labor (Coe and Coe, 50). A corn gruel known as tanch’ukwa in Maya (now called atole) was also flavored with chocolate (Presilla, 14). More luxurious drinks were also made with both corn and cacao. One savory drink, called pinole, consisted of ground maize and cacao. It was served foaming and was used to celebrate feasts (Coe and Coe, 59). The Aztecs drank gruel similar to that of the Maya, using their poorer quality chocolate to mix with maize (Coe and Coe, 85).


Cacao atole

Chocolate and corn are even depicted together on Mayan vases from the Late Classic period (600-800 CE). On one Mayan vase (c. 683), two nobles bring ear flowers, which were commonly used to flavor cacao, to a ruler. A bowl on the corner of the ruler’s platform is thought to contain atole (Presilla, 13-14). On another vase depicted in the image below, a royal figure sits beside a pot of a frothy cacao beverage. On the floor below him, there sits a container of tamales that are thought to be covered in a chocolate-chili sauce (Presilla, 13).

mayan vase choc corn

Late Classic Mayan vase: A royal figure and his cacao beverage, tamales beneath him

So what happened to the ubiquitous use of cacao paired with corn? A Google search using the terms “corn chocolate” and “maize chocolate” yields no direct matches. The most popular products and recipes that use both corn and chocolate include chocolate covered popcorn, a chocolate bar with popcorn pieces in it, chocolate cornbread, and chocolate corn flake clusters.


None of these products feature ground maize in its purest form, as the common Mayan and Aztec beverages did. Instead, they use more processed versions of corn and include extensive sweeteners, while the ancient drinks were considered savory. Part of this transition can be attributed to chocolate’s role in modern society. It is now a food regularly enjoyed by all classes of people, but it is predominately viewed as a dessert or a special treat, so consumers are less inclined to pair it with mild, unassuming ingredients like corn.  Instead, decadent fillings and potent flavors are what people crave to accompany their chocolate.  Additionally, consumers today rarely see or work with chocolate in an unfinished state. They buy it as bars wrapped up in colorful paper and as cocoa powder in boxes.

dark-chocolate-sea-salt--22200-598z hershey

As a result of this, there is no “inferior” chocolate product being sold that consumers would want to use to flavor bland, gruel-like cuisine. Instead, the chocolate or cocoa itself is the main attraction to which other flavors are often added, not the other way around.  Keeping these changes in mind, it seems unlikely that ground maize chocolate bars will become the next big trend in candy any time soon.

Works Cited:

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

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.


History Of Chocolate: Establishing Differences Between Mayans and Aztecs

Artifacts from Mesoamerica and journals of Spanish explorers depicting the usage of cacao and chocolate emphasize the differences between the cultures and values of the Mayans and Aztecs. These differences help to distinguish the unique beliefs and traditions which the Mayans and Aztecs had. The multimedia and scholarly examples in this post will help to illustrate them.

Both, Mayans and Aztecs, likely considered chocolate a sacred drink. In this first example, a Research Scholar from the New College of Florida, Dr. Gabrielle Vail gives a detailed description on the Mayans’ usage of Cacao. She explains how Mayans of all classes were able to have chocolate through ceremonies and rituals.

A conclusion can be drawn that the Mayan royals were able to share chocolate with their subjects despite the obvious sacred enigma assigned to the chocolate drink. The Mayans seemed to have believed in the unity of the Mayan commoners and royal people. The portrayal of the cacao tree and chocolate come up in Mayan artifacts and manuscripts which likely depict an important spiritual concept.

This is a Mayan vase from the Guatemala Highlands which depicts a moment from the rare Mayan codex titled Popol Vuh. A Maize God’s head remains suspended from a Cacao tree after the Lords of the dead had slain him. However, the Maize God remains alive throughout the codex (Coe and Coe, 39).

Here in this image is the Maize God’s head hanging from the tree. It looks like he was meant to be a part of it.

This scene and the depiction of the cacao tree can be interpreted as a transformation or a renewal. It seems that the Mayans had beliefs that imply spiritual change in deities. It is likely that the Mayans focused less on human sacrifice and more on the spiritual evolution and rebirth. The cacao plant can be interpreted as a symbol of spiritual growth as well. The cacao pods could symbolize a new life sprouting into the world. Unlike the Mayan royals sharing chocolate and extending their beliefs of rebirth to the commoners, the Aztecs had a different approach to cacao and chocolate.

Maricel Presilla, an expert on Cacao and chocolate, describes the Historia General written by Bernardino De Sagahun, a Franciscan Friar. She discusses and quotes Sagahun’s work which describes the Aztecs’ strict rules on who was allowed to drink chocolate. “Cacao’s importance can be glimpsed when Sagahun explains proverbially called ‘heart and blood’ – a treasured substance drunk by lords and distinguished persons ‘because it was worth much and there was very little of it. If one of the common people drank it, if they drank it without sanction, it would cost them their life. For this reason it was called Yollotli eztli: the price of blood and heart” (Presilla, 19). From this, it appears likely that the Aztecs had a strong hierarchy. It seems that Aztec Royals believed that this sacred drink should be exclusively in their possession. They would not allow access to chocolate for the common people, unless the latter were warriors (Coe & Coe, 98). Alike their punishments for commoners who dared to taste chocolate, the Aztecs’ beliefs on what chocolate symbolizes are more graphic.

This is the Codex Fejervary Mayer. It is an ancient pre-Columbian manuscript created by the Aztecs which portrays the cacao tree in one section of it. It is in “the direction of The Land of the Dead, associated with the color red, the color of blood” (Coe & Coe, 101).

The Cacao tree on this part of the codex can be seen on the right in between two Aztec Gods.

The Aztecs seem to have beliefs based on human sacrifices. The Aztecs’ depiction of their religious beliefs was more dismal and atrocious comparing to the Mayans’. The scene from this codex could be interpreted as a warning. Perhaps this scene represents people paying for their sins through sacrifice and confinement to the Underworld.

To conclude, the history of chocolate in Mesoamerica exposes the differences in culture and beliefs between Mayans and Aztecs.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Revised Edition. Berkley: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.

Coe, Sophie D. and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. London: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.

Westernizing Ancient Traditions

The early Europeans had comparably duplicated the early Mesoamerican use of cacao and chocolate documented in the Mayan book of the Popol Vuh (Book of Counsel) into five main categories:

  1. Trade
  2. Medicinal
  3. Cultural
  4. Social
  5. Religious

The first encounter of Europeans with the cacao product can be traced back to August 15th, 1502 when Christopher Columbus’s son, Ferinand Columbus, captured a Mayan trading canoe belonging to the Chontal-Mayal-speaking Putun. This encounter is significant in regards to how Europeans perceived and witnessed Mayan’s use cacao for trade. Ferinand noted that the group, held what he thought were “almonds” as he termed it but was in reality cacao, as a currency traded at great value.[1]

Pictured here are cacao beans covered with a gold rim to symbolize the value of the beans.                               cacaogold

On the other hand, Italian colonist Girolamo Benzoni wrote in his book History of the New World published in 1575 that the chocolate drink made from cacao that the Mesoamericans used for spiritual, social, medicinal, trade, and casual purposes was only meant for pigs but nevertheless, it was worthy to him due to its monetary value. (Coe & Coe 110) Therefore, the colonists were bound to use cacao as a currency in their stay in Mesoamerica.

The journey of cacao and chocolate should be described as it is relevant to how the products were used in Europe, not just by Europeans in Mesoamerica. Through hybridization of the Spanish and Mesoamerican culture, a new generation of “Spanish Creoles” were born in a region that was previously known as the Aztec Empire. It was in this context of hybridization that chocolate was taken to New Spain and then transported to the rest of Old Spain as well as Europe as they saw the product had values. (Coe & Coe 113) Spanish chronicler Lopez de Velazco had documented the first shipment of cacao products from La Guaira to Colombia which was a hub for trade with Spain, and then shipped directly to Spain which is important as various Latin American states came into contact with the product.[1] The product which would be a topic of controversy and pleasure of Europe had arrived in Europe.

Cacao and its byproducts had more serious uses as well. Chocolate was used for medicinal purposes by Europeans just as Mesoamericans. It was a Greek born physician who discovered a theory that for diseases which caused a “hot” fever, you needed a “cold” drug and vice-versa. Although the Spanish preferred their chocolate drinks “hot, Spanish Royal Physician Francisco Hernandez discovered that a “cool” chocolate drink would cure a fever and published in 1591; a treatise on New World foods by Juan de Cardenas found that certain chocolate such as “green” chocolate can have negative health effects harming the heart, causing fevers, etc but if toasted and mixed with atole gruel; digestion is strong. (Coe & Coe 121-123) Thus, the European use of chocolate for medical purposes was similar to the Mesoamerican use and more uses for the chocolate. We usually do not think of chocolate as a medicinal pharmaceutical or drug but this video might change your mind, courtesy of Ichan Medical School.


Chocolate soon spread to the British Isles via monks and eventually found its role in Royal Families — where the trend back in the day. (Coe & Coe 115) Chocolate beverages used in the French Royal Courts in the wedding between King Louis XIII to the Spanish Princess of Austria 1615.[3] As it was given the royal honors of being a product of the elite, the common people of Europe started to socially drink chocolate, including in countries such as the mentioned Spain and France but also, Greece, Italy, and Britain. In fact, chocolate became so custom in Britain that there were chocolate coffee shops opened in London during the mid-18th century![4] Chocolate is indeed sweet and as Sidney W. Mintz writes; “Indeed, all (or at least nearly all) mammals like sweetness.”[5] While there were initial doubts on cacao and chocolate as a fashionable product, this changed later as proven through the European customs of the product in cultural traditions such as weddings of Royal Families as well as casual usage in various forms.

Pictured here is a Chocolate Coffee Shop in London.


The question of the use of chocolate made its entrance into the ecclesiastical sphere related to the religious culture of Europe as well. There were debates among Spanish Catholic Churches if chocolate counted as a food and if it could be consumed during fasts. The end result of this internal debate amount the ecclesiastical community was that chocolate could indeed be consumed as decreed by His Holiness Pope Pious V who was a drinker of the product himself.[6] This decision had a great effect on the religious society of Europe as since it was justified by Catholic religious doctrine, more became comfortable with taking it including religious authorities.

Therefore, the early European use of cacao and chocolate very much resembles what the 5 customs Mesoamericans used it for.

[1] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. 108-09. Print.

[2] Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. 28. Print.

[3] “Chocolate and Polyphenols in the Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease.” YouTube, 18 Nov. 2014. Web. <;.

[4] “The History of Chocolate | Blog – ZChocolat.” ZChocolat. N.p., 20 Oct. 2012. Web. <;.

[5] Green, Matthew. “The Surprising History of London’s Lost Chocolate Houses.” The Telegraph, 13 Dec. 2013. Web. <;.

[6] Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. 16. Print.

[7] “History of Chocolate.” Spanish Food, n.d. Web. <;.

“Food of the Gods,” or Chocolate and the Sacred in Ancient Mayan Culture

In Aztecs: An Interpretation, Inga Clendinnen explains that “the beverage most coveted by the Mexica lords was…chocolatl: the ground beans of the cacao tree beaten to a sweet foamy froth with honey and maize gruel, then gently warmed” (195). While Clendinnen mistakenly attributes the fondness of the Maya for warm chocolate to the Aztecs, who most commonly took their chocolate cool (Coe and Coe 84), she is otherwise correct in her account of Mesoamerican chocolate. Cool or warm, this beverage played a major role in many spiritual observances for the ancient Maya.1 Based on the archaeological record available to us—incorporating both literary and material sources—the Mayas did indeed treat chocolate as a “food of the gods,”2 shown by a strong relationship between their deities and the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree.

Theobroma cacao (red pods - Haiti)
Pictured here are cacao pods growing directly from the tree trunk (Hobgood) as cacao is a member of the botanical category of cauliflory (C. Martin “Sugar”). In order to interpret Mayan depictions of cacao in relation to their gods, it is necessary to understand how the pods grow.
Although one should not make assumptions about ancient spiritual practices based on contemporary concepts of religion, it is equally important to respect the significance of this belief system for the ancient Maya. In order to understand what are [partially] historical belief systems,3 a reasonably broad definition of religion is needed; conveniently, Charles Long defines religion as “how one comes to terms with…one’s place in the world” (qtd by C. Martin “Mesoamerica”). Mayan religious ritual, which we know through codices and art, provided a sense of meaning for the people, particularly in context of a system ruled by kings who “acted with sacred authority” (Schele and Miller 42). Using this definition, the Mayan belief system certainly counts as a religion for the purposes of analyzing the religious significance of cacao.

This page from the Dresden Codex is a good example of the few extant Mayan texts available today (Wikimedia Commons), many of which depict cacao intertwined with deities.

An interpretation of one such extant text, the Popol Vuh, suggests that cacao was not special among the foods valued by the Maya in their religious stories. Although the gods did use cacao to build humans in this creation myth, it appears in the following extensive list: “yellow corn, white corn, and thick with pataxte…, arid cacao, countless zapotes, anonas, jacotes, nances, matasanos, sweets” (Coe and Coe 39-40). The authors suggest that because cacao is part of this “market basket,” it was “not the revered substance it was to become” (39). That being said, images of cacao appear in the Dresden Codex as the food of the gods and in the Madrid Codex as the food over which four gods spilled their blood (42-43). Furthermore, anthropologist LeCount proposes that Mayan elites likely seized means of cacao production due to its complicated production and corresponding value, supporting the idea of cacao as a signifier with political and religious value (948).4 Even though cacao does rest in the market basket, so to speak, its repeated appearance in the few available sacred texts suggest that it held quite an emphatic place in the Mayan faith.

Mayan - Lidded Vessel - Walters 20092039 - Side B
This Mayan lidded drinking vessel depicts the Maize God wearing a cacao tree headdress, one of many pictorial representations of the deeply rooted relationship between gods and chocolate (Wikimedia Commons).

Indeed, the ancient Maya created items decorated with elaborate scenes featuring gods wearing or entwined with cacao pods, often connected to the other fundamental Mayan crop and corresponding god—maize. Both cacao and maize were offerings made to the gods in the hopes of agricultural success (McNeil 14), but cacao held special value. Significantly, Simon Martin argues that cacao, not maize, holds the “privileged position” as the first foodstuff to spring from the Maize God’s body (163). In the Mayan drinking vessel pictured above, cacao pods decorating the Maize God’s headdress can be seen in the top right hand corner. This vessel is not the only Mayan artifact featuring the Maize God and cacao pods in close quarters—Coe and Coe, among others, document two additional images where the cacao plant is part of the god’s anatomy. In the first, the Maize God’s head grows from the trunk of the cacao tree just like its neighboring pods (Coe and Coe 39), and in the second, cacao pods sprout from the god’s body as if he is the tree trunk itself (43). The Maya also prominently displayed the chocolate beverage, often already frothed in an open container, in art featuring the society’s elites, reinforcing the significance of cacao to the Maya (Presilla 13; Coe and Coe 44). Such is the extent of cacao in religious images, that the absence of a cacao god beyond the rare “anthropomorphic cacao tree” and cacao iconography on the Maize God is surprising (Miller and Martin 63).

Despite the ambiguous evidence of the Popol Vuh on the unique status of cacao, its multiple appearances there and in other extant documents and artifacts, particularly the images of cacao interspersed with sacred beings or members of the ruling class, strongly suggest that cacao was an item of religious significance for the Maya. Indeed, the preponderance of cacao images in a spiritual context and the food’s elite status, both religious and social, implies that cacao was a uniquely sacred item.


  1. The Aztecs’ relationship with cacao and their gods is also fascinating; however, the intricacies of those dynamics would require another blog post altogether.
  2. This common saying became canon (or perhaps it was the other way around!) when Carolus Linnaeus classified the tree from whose fruits chocolate is derived, Theobroma cacao, Theobroma: “fruit of the gods,” followed by the “inferior” cacao, derived from the native language (Presilla 5; C. Martin “Sugar”).
  3. I say “[partially] historical belief systems” because the Maya survive to the present day (Schele and Miller 9), and speaking of indigenous peoples in the past tense is highly problematic, holding the potential to erase the realities and the concerns of contemporary Mayans from the public consciousness.
  4. This scenario suggests something of a chicken or egg question—did cacao become valued due to its religious significance, or perhaps, did it take on religious significance due to its high value in Mayan society?

Works Cited

Clendinnen, Inga. Aztecs: An Interpretation. Cambridge UP: Cambridge, UK, 1991. Print.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

Hobgood, Nick. “Theobroma cacao (red pods – Haiti).” Photograph. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 16 Feb. 2015. _Haiti).jpg.

LeCount, Lisa J. “Like Water for Chocolate: Feasting and Political Ritual among the Late Classic Maya at Xunantunich, Belize.” American Anthropologist 103.4 (2001): 935-953. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 4 Feb. 2015. Class Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 18 Feb. 2015. Class Lecture.

Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and other Tales from the Underworld.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. Ed. Cameron L. McNeil. Gainesville, UP of Florida, 2009. 154-183. Print.

McNeil, Cameron L. “Introduction: The Biology, Antiquity, and Modern Uses of the Chocolate Tree.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. Ed. Cameron L. McNeil. Gainesville, UP of Florida, 2009. 1-28. Print.

Miller, Mary, and Simon Martin. Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. Thames & Hudson: New York, 2004. Print.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 2009. Print.

Schele, Linda and Mary Ellen Miller. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. George Braziller, Inc.: New York, 1986. Print.

Unknown Artist. Dresden Codex p09. Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.

Unknown Artist. Lidded Vessel. Walters Art Museum. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.

Maya, Cacao, and the Creation Myth.

                                       Maya, Cacao, and the Creation Myth Popol Vuh.

One of the important themes of Unit 1 has been the influence of cacao on the Ancient Mayan civilization. Cacao was an important part of Mayan culture, and a desired delicacy. However, cacao was not just a tree or a food to eat, its significance extends to the metaphysical: the Mayan creation myth, Popol Vuh, makes several references to cacao. Thus, the reason cacao is held to such a pedestal in the Mayan culture is because it bares some credit for the existence of humanity.

The Story:

Popol Vuh was one of the important stories discussed during Unit 1. It is a Mayan creation myth, which goes as follows: In the very beginning, there was not much to the world—other than nothingness and water. There were also six Gods who existed during this time. They created the Earth and separated it from the Sky by planting a tree. Plants were created next, followed by animals. Animals, however, could not pay respect and worship to the Gods, so the Gods created humans. In their first attempt, they used mud. These humans were soulless and sinful so the Gods punished them by a great flood. The Gods next tried to create humans from wood; but they, too, could not pay respect to their makers, so were destroyed or became primates. During this time, the Sun and Moon did not exist. A bird, Seven Macaw, pretended to be the Sun and Moon, but it was killed by two heroic twins, Hunajpu and Xbalanque. These two twins came to existence when their deceased father’s head spat onto their mother’s hand from a cacao tree. The twins, after going through many difficulties, were able to resurrect their father into the form of the Maize God. The heroic twins would ultimately become the Sun and the Moon. The corn from their father would be the substance used to create the true humans of the world (Living Maya Time).

Along with the corn, one of the other ingredients that went into making true humans was cacao. Ancient Mayans, in turn, learned how to make chocolate by taking cacao pods, removing the beans, letting them germinate and ferment before roasting them, grounding them, and then adding water to get the liquid texture. (Black Edgar, The Power of Chocolate, pg. 23)

The Smithsonian has also created an amazing video with great art and a vivid rendering of this creation myth:

The Significance:

What is the significance of chocolate in this story? Cacao makes several appearances in the myth. For instance, the Lords of Death killed the heroic twins’ father—Hun Hunahpu. His severed head was left on a cacao tree, which grows the chocolate beans. In other accounts, the tree is the gourd tree, with fruits that resemble skulls and that were used by Mayans to drink chocolate. Regardless, it was the allure of the tree that attracted the heroic twins’ mother—who was the daughter of the lord of the underworld—to go and speak to the severed head, from which she was impregnated (Gorman Museum).

Furthermore, cacao was one of the ingredients that the Gods needed to successfully create humanity. It was not just simply corn, but a combination of things—cacao being one of them—that the deities needed in order to create stable humans. Mud and wood did not work. In other words, cacao is in the essence of humanity. Also, without it, the Hero twins would not exist, meaning that the Sun and the Moon would cease to exist as well. Thus, cacao embodies the spirit of nature. Not only does it bare some credit for humanity, but it also has some responsibility for the natural order of the world—keeping it in harmony and balance through the sun and the moon. To the Mayans, it is clear that cacao is more than just a tree or a food, it is a big part of the world.

Here is an illustration of Hunahpu’s head on the Gourd Tree and the Twins’ mother.

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 6.36.22 PM

Source: Cascarin

We also see depictions of the Maize God (the resurrected Hunahpu) as cacao pods on a Mayan Vase. The recurrent references to cacao show just how important they are to Mayan culture and mythology.

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 9.24.33 PM

Source: Authentic Maya

Works Cited:

“The Creation Story of the Maya.” Living Maya Time. Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Web. 13 Feb. 2015. <;.

“The Creation Story of the Maya.” SmithsonianNMAI, 14 June 2012. Web. 11 Feb. 2015. <;.

Edgar, Blake. “The Power of Chocolate.” Archaeology 63.6 (2010): 20-25. Archaeological Institute of America. Web. 15 Feb. 2015. <;.

“The Tree of Xibalba: Cacao and the Ancient Maya.” Gorman Museum. University of California, Davis, 4 Oct. 2007. Web. 13 Feb. 2015. <;.

“Popol Vuh VII.” Cascarin, 1 Jan. 2007. Web. 13 Feb. 2015. <;.

“Vaso Popol Vuh.” Authentic Maya. Web. 13 Feb. 2015. < popol vuh.jpg>.

The Biological and Medicinal History of Cacao

In today’s world, people everywhere consume chocolate and cacao products regularly. Aside from its regular consumption and constant production as a food product, cacao is also a unique biological specimen with a long history of medicinal and therapeutic uses.

In this image you can see that the cacao pods are growing off the trunk of the tree, as opposed to growing off of a shoot. This is the phenomenon known as cauliflory.
In this image you can see that the cacao pods are growing off the trunk of the tree, as opposed to growing off of a shoot. This is the phenomenon known as cauliflory.

Chocolate is produced from cacao, which grows on a tree called Theobroma cacao. This tree is highly distinctive, with finicky growing conditions that trace back to the Amazon River Basin in South America (Presilla 8). Cacao has a difficult time flowering outside of a twenty-degree radius from the equator, above an altitude where temperature can drop below sixty degrees Fahrenheit, or in conditions that are too dry (Coe & Coe, 2013). Besides these extremely specific growing conditions, cacao also grows in a manner that was considered unusual to European onlookers upon visiting the New World. Perhaps a response to the damp, shaded growing conditions, cacao trees flower from the trunk or from thick branches, a phenomenon known as “cauliflory” (Coe & Coe 20-21). Though the tree flowers all year round, it is actually “biologically inefficient”, in that “only 1 to 3 percent [of flowers] actually bear fruit,” (Coe & Coe 21).

The fruits of Theobroma cacao also have important medicinal and therapeutic uses, both in the past and in the present. Chemically, cacao contains two alkaloids that have significant stimulant effects on humans: caffeine and theobromine, a compound found in only nineteen other plants (Coe & Coe 29). On average, chocolate products contain only a small amount of caffeine (0.071 mg/g) but a fair amount of theobromine (0.695 mg/g) (Craig & Nguyen, 1984). Besides acting as a stimulant, cacao also has other popular therapeutic uses. For instance, chocolate is considered to be an aphrodisiac and an anti-depressant, as well as to contain antioxidants that prevent “bad” cholesterol from forming (Coe & Coe 31).

Bernardino de Sahagún was responsible for the Florentine Codex, which detailed many Aztec medical practices.
Bernardino de Sahagún was responsible for the Florentine Codex, which detailed many Aztec medical practices.

Though ancient peoples who consumed cacao were not explicitly aware of its chemical composition, their perpetual use of cacao for medicinal purposes is consistent with the fact that cacao contains these stimulants. The Mayans, for example, equipped warriors with cacao, and as a result were considered invincible and under spiritual protection. In reality, it is likely that the stimulating nature of the alkaloids in cacao were beneficial during battle.  The Aztecs also had therapeutic purposes for cacao, in that they believed serving cacao to people before sacrificing them would comfort them (Dillinger et al., 2000). In addition, The Florentine Codex, put together by Bernardino de Sahagún, described Aztec cultural and medical practices, with highly detailed information on the various medicinal uses for cacao: “Chocolate was drunk by the Mexica to treat stomach and intestinal complaints, and when the cacao was combined with liquid from the bark of the silk cotton tree (Castilla elastic), it was said to cure infections,” (Dillinger et al., 2000).

The medicinal use of cacao occurred in the Old World as well; before modern medicine, treating illness in Europe was based on Galen’s system of humors. This system divided diagnoses into hot, wet, cold, and dry, and treated by balancing opposites. Similarly, Aztec medicine also used a method of contrasting treatments, such as hot vs. cold, that was lost in history but picked up on by Europeans. This led to the use of chocolate in European medicine, which could treat sickness differently in its different product forms. For example, native chocolate flavorings were considered “hot” and could warm the stomach to aid in digestion (Coe & Coe, 2013).

This is an image depicting Galen's four humors, which shows how medicine at the time was based on balancing opposites.
This is an image depicting Galen’s four humors, which shows how medicine at the time was based on balancing opposites.

In conclusion, chocolate is made from Theobroma cacao, a plant native to the Amazon River Basin with high specific growing conditions. Cacao contains the alkaloids caffeine and theobromine, which have popularized the use of chocolate in today’s world as a therapeutic with stimulant properties. However, before the chemical composition was understood, the Aztecs and the Mayans both consumed cacao for its medicinal and therapeutic purposes. Europeans, too, picked up on this fact and used cacao as a part of their Galenic humoral system.



Bernardino de Sahagún. Digital image. El Mundo. Numero 14 De La Aventura De La Historia, n.d. Web. <;.

Cauliflory. Digital image. Florida Hill Nursery. N.p., n.d. Web. <;.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Craig, Winston J., and Thuy T. Nguyen. “Caffeine and Theobromine Levels in Cocoa and Carob Products.” Journal of Food Science 49.1 (1984): 302-03.

Dillinger, Teresa L., et al. “Food of the gods: cure for humanity? A cultural history of the medicinal and ritual use of chocolate.” The Journal of nutrition130.8 (2000): 2057S-2072S.

Galen’s Humoral System. Digital image. WordPress. Or What You Will, n.d. Web. <;.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed, 2009.



Spanish Changes to Chocolate: Innovations or Adaptations?

Soon after arriving in the New World, the Spaniards realized the importance and value of chocolate to the Mesoamericans (Norton, 2004). Under Spanish rule, cacao production was increased, and soon it arrived in Spain, becoming a popular drink for the elite (Norton, 2004). Interestingly, there are many accounts that when the Spanish first tasted chocolate, they disliked the drink, finding it savage and not suited for Europeans (Norton, 2006). How, then, did chocolate become so popular in Spain? The Spaniards adapted the New World chocolate recipe to suit their tastes, adding innovative ingredients to make it more delicious (Norton, 2006). The Spanish were said to have hybridized the drink of chocolate, drinking it hot instead of cold as the Aztecs did, sweetening it with sugar, and putting Old World spices such as cinnamon and vanilla into the drink (Norton, 2006). The Spanish were thought to have appropriated the New World chocolate drink to make it suitable for European palates (Norton, 2006). However, I argue that many of these first accounts of Europeans disliking chocolate until it was more developed by the Spanish was created to mask the fact that a “sophisticated” culture enjoyed a drink made by “savages” (Norton, 2006).


A Mesoamerican woman creating a frothy chocolate drink by pouring it from one vessel into another from a substantial height (From Wikipedia)
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A Spanish painting depicting a molinillo, or chocolate frothing device, highlighting the presence of traditional Mesoamerican chocolate practices in Spain (From Norton, 2006)


There has been opposing evidence that the Spanish actually did enjoy the taste of the New World chocolate, and that adding sugar and other spices was the easiest way to recreate the New World chocolate flavor that they developed a taste for (Norton, 2006). In Mesoamerica, chocolate was consumed as a beverage, sometimes hot and sometimes cold, sometimes with maize, and often mixed with honey and other spices cultivated from the New World for flavor (Norton, 2006). It was also often poured from one container to the next to produce a froth (Norton, 2006). While the Spanish did change some of the ingredients of chocolate or ways it was consumed, it was all done to preserve the original flavor using ingredients more easily found in Europe (Norton, 2006). For example, Spaniards added sugar to the chocolate drink, which was just a modification from the Mesoamericans already adding honey as a sweetener to their drink (Norton, 2006). Sugar was not a revolutionary addition to chocolate, but simply a substitute for honey. Often many of the spices the Spaniards “innovatively” added to the drinks were trying to copy many of the flavors already added to chocolate in Mesoamerica; because New World flowers that were much harder to come by than spices already found in Spain, the recipe needed to be modified (Norton, 2006). Furthermore, Spaniards valued the customary foam of the Mesoamericans, and often used molinillos to froth their drinks to create a texture found in the traditional chocolate drinks of the New World (Norton, 2006). Finally, the Spanish seem to have even adapted the Mesoamerican social views of chocolate – in Spain, chocolate drinking was a social, and elite activity, just as it was in the New World (Norton, 2004).

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A Spanish painting of an aristocratic chocolate gathering, highlighting the presence of chocolate as a part of elite society (From Norton, 2006)


In conclusion, it can be argued that the desire for chocolate flowed “from the ‘barbarian’ to the ‘civilized,’ from the degenerate ‘creole’ to the metropolitan Spaniard, from gentry to royalty” (Norton, 2006). It is thought that the cultural bridge that allowed the taste for chocolate to infuse into the Spanish culture were the native women who served in the households of the Spanish men, some voluntary, some coerced, cultivating their taste in chocolate (Norton, 2006). Many chocolate encounters were also made in marketplaces in the New World, further introducing Europeans to the novelty and deliciousness of the chocolate drink (Norton, 2006). The common belief that the Spaniards improved the Mesoamerican drink of chocolate to make it fit to drink in Europe has evidence against it, as many of the Spanish adaptations were ways to recreate the New World flavor using common European ingredients. Perhaps this viewpoint was spread by the feelings of conquest over a lesser society, and that a drink had to be altered to be consumed by the more sophisticated culture. In reality, Europeans acquired a taste for Mesoamerican chocolate, and simply had to adapt it to the ingredients more commonly found in the Old World (Norton, 2006).



“History of Chocolate – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.” N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. Accessed at:

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review 111.3 (2006): 660–691. JSTOR. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. Accessed at:

Norton, Marcy. “Conquests of Chocolate.” OAH Magazine of History 18.3 (2004): 14–17. JSTOR. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. Accessed at:

Life, Blood, Cacao: Maya and Aztec Myths and Rituals

Cacao was an intrinsic part of ancient Mayan and Aztec life, not just as a beverage or food, but as a pillar of their economies and an integral part of their religions, appearing in numerous spiritual ceremonies—even death rites and sacrifices.

The spiritual link between cacao and the Maya is immediately apparent in their texts, although only a small handful remain of their bark codexes. The Popol Vuh or Book of Counsel, for example, includes many references to cacao. In one story, the severed head of a god is hung on a cacao tree. Another page depicts the maize god sprouting from a cacao pod:

Maize god as cacao pod
Figure 1: Maize god as cacao pod

Cacao even features in their creation mythology: at another point in the Popol Vuh, when the gods are creating humans out of foodstuffs, cacao is one of those foods found in the Mountain of Sustenance (Coe 38-40). In Mayan creation mythology, humans are partially composed of cacao! In the Madrid Codex, an additional ancient Mayan text, four young gods bleed onto cacao pods, mingling the cacao and their blood:

Gods cutting their ears and bleeding on cacao pods
Figure 2: Gods cutting their ears and bleeding onto cacao pods

If cacao was “a sacred offering to the gods combined with personal blood-letting through the piercing or cutting of their own flesh” to the Mayans, this page is an excellent reflection of that close bond (Seawright 7).

The link between blood (or heart) and cacao was not exclusive to the Mayans: in ancient Aztec society, cacao was given to sacrificial victims, often in ways that directly linked chocolate and blood. During the annual Aztec ritual in Tenochtitlan, a slave would be chosen to represent Quetzalcoatl. At the end of forty days, during which he had been dressed in finery and given all manner of good food and drink, he was informed of his impending death and then made to dance. If the temple priests saw that he was not dancing as enthusiastically or as well as they expected him to, he was given a drink of itzpacalatl, which was a mix of cacao and water used to wash obsidian blades. These were sacrificial blades, and therefore crusted in blood. The sacrifice would be rejuvenated and joyful after drinking this mixture of blood and chocolate, and dance to his death (Coe 103-104).

Cacao was also present in Aztec mythology. The Chimalpopoca Codex includes a myth similar to the creation tale in the Mayan Popol Vuh, in which the gods created man from maize, cacao, and other plants brought from the Mountains of Sustenance (Seawright 5). Additionally, the Codex Fejervary-Meyer, depicts a cacao tree as part of the universe:

From the Codex Fejervary-Mayer
Figure 3: The Tree of the South from the Codex Fejervary-Mayer

“It is the Tree of the South, the direction of the Land of the Dead, associated with the color red, the color of blood. At the top of the tree is a macaw bird, the symbol of the hot lands from which cacao came; while to one side of the tree stand Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of the Land of the Dead” (Coe 101). This is one of many examples showing how ancient Mesoamericans linked their understand of divinity and spirituality with cacao (Seawright 5). It is also yet another instance in which we see cacao as intrinsic to Aztec mythology and art, as well as connected to blood.

Works Cited

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

Seawright, Caroline. “ARC2AZT Essay: Life, Death and Chocolate in Mesoamerica: The Aztecs and the Maya; Where Did the Ritual Use of Cacao Originate?” N.p., 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

“Codex Fejérváry-Mayer.” FAMSI – Akademische Druck – U. Verlagsanstalt – Graz – Codex Fejérváry-Mayer. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
“Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion.” Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
“Maya Codices – The Madrid Codex.” FAMSI – Maya Codices – The Madrid Codex. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

Chocolate and Fish: An Unlikely Pairing?

For years chocolate has carried with it a great deal of metaphor and symbolism. In fact, the Mayans, perhaps the world’s first chocolatiers, were keen users of metaphor. As ambiguous as is the relationship of a kiss to a drop shaped chocolate wrapped in foil, one might ask why the Mayan glyph for cacao resembles a fish. In order to understand this, we first need to look at the legend of cacao as it relates to death and rebirth according to Mayan mythology.

In the Popol Vuh, or the Mayan story of creation, cacao was discovered by the gods on a mountain top. It is believed that a serpent gave the Mayans cacao after humans were created from maize by the grandmother of the Hero Twins, who embody the very correlation between cacao and fish. The Popol Vuh is wrought with symbolism and metaphor and describes maize as the material from which man is created, but it is possible that cacao was also needed to bring life.

In the underworld Xkik’ approaches the head of the Maize god Hun Hunahpu (‘reborn’ as a cacao tree) asking to taste the fruit. He then spits into her hand and tells her she would bear twins. Not only do we see an association with fertility, we can surmise that since Hun Hunahpu is represented as a cacao tree, the Hero Twins represent cacao seeds. After maturity, the twins anger the gods of the underworld, who eventually plot to kill the twins. They are invited to a celebration featuring a fermented drink, where they would be burned in a vat used to prepare this intoxicating beverage. The gods invite the twins to jump over the drink, with the intention of pushing them into the fire. Because the twins have magical powers, they willingly jump into the fire. Their bones are ground up and poured in a river, but the twins are soon resurrected as fish.

The stages of cacao production can be seen in the metaphorical transformation of the twins as processed cacao. Cacao beans are first fermented, then roasted and ground into a paste before being mixed with water. The twins (representative of cacao beans) were asked to attend a ceremony featuring a fermented drink before jumping into a fire, later having their bones ground up and poured into a river. In this context, not only do we see that cacao correlates to death and rebirth, the resurrection of the twins as fish is directly linked to the Mayan symbol for cacao.

Mayan heiroglyph for cacao from the Rio Azul pot
Mayan hieroglyph for cacao from the Rio Azul pot

The word kakaw in classical Mayan hieroglyphs can be broken down phonetically, using the glyph of a fish, or fish fin, ka, followed by wa. The root of the number two is also phonetically similar to ka, perhaps to reinforce the symbolism of two fish in the Popol Vuh (Grofe 16-17). In most ancient civilizations, fish and water are often celebrated together as elements to life itself. This could be a link to cacao representing rebirth.

Rio Azul vessel
Rio Azul pot

Ceramics have been found in royal burial contexts from the classical Mayan period where food and drink were provided after death (Coe and Coe 46-47). The Rio Azul pot is among those which were found inscribed with hieroglyphs relating to cacao, and many containing traces of theobromine. Interestingly, a NY Times article mentions cacao and fish bones were found together in a bowl from an early Copán burial (Chang). This could possibly symbolize the pairing of cacao and fish, implying a symbiotic relationship between death and rebirth.

With very little written down during this period, it is difficult to say if there is a concrete correlation between cacao and fish to death and rebirth. However, the representation of fish with the use of the cacao can be seen in Mayan mythology and represented in classical Mayan art and ritual objects. We may not be able to prove that cacao, like maize, was considered an important element for rebirth, but we can show with relative certainty its importance to life itself, by its close association with and representation of fish.

Works cited:

Chang, Kenneth. Before Kisses and Snickers, It Was the Treat of Royalty. The New York Times, 10 June, 2003. Web. 18 February 2015.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson. 2013. Print.

Grofe, Michael J. The Recipe for Rebirth: Cacao as Fish in the Mythology and Symbolism of the Ancient Maya. Diss. University of California at Davis, 2007. Print.

Popol Vuh: Literal Translation. Trans. Allen J. Christenson. Mesoweb, 2007. Web.

VVVladimir. “Kakaw (Mayan word).” Image. Wikimedia. 18 August 2009. Web. 17 February 2015.

Chocolate in North America

In our month of chocolate studies, I found myself interested in the trade of cacao from the Aztec and Mayan perspectives. I grew interested in how extensive trade routes were between such ancient civilizations and the distances they reached. Not only distance, but also the impact of the cultural importance of cacao to far away civilizations, such as North America. In North America, the earliest traces of cacao were found in New Mexico and only a few years later in Utah.

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Pictured above is some of the first ceramic jars, pitchers, and mugs that contained cacao found in New Mexico. This pottery dates back to the 8th century and was located in the Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.


The distribution of cacao cultivation in Central America and Mexico in 1520 BCE, relative to Chaco Canyon. [2]

So how did cacao reach northern New Mexico? We have few clues as to how it reached North America, and one is looking at the history of the Mayan’s and Aztec’s. Around the 8th century, the great city of Teotihuacan fell, which was one of the largest cities in the Mayan civilization. The destruction of this city caused many of its inhabitants to move and they moved to new regions. This was also around the time that the Aztecs were gaining power and rule over Mesoamerica. Through the move and invasion of a new civilization trade routes grew extensively.

Many archeologists and anthropologists have studied the design and shape of the jars they found to try to accurately date the pieces. The jars found in New Mexico are tall, has thin walls, the base of it is white, and had black lines painted on it. If we compare these pieces used in the Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec civilizations we will see that it is not as easy as we may think.

Olmec Drinking Vessel
Olmec Drinking Vessel

The first comparison will be with the Olmec people.The Olmecs generally drank from neckless jars.The base of these jars were generally white with brown patterns decorating the jar.

Mayan Drinking Vessel
Mayan Drinking Vessel

Second, the Mayans drank from cylindrical jars. They almost always contained hieroglyphics on them indicating that cacao was consumed in this jar.

Aztec Drinking Vessel
Aztec Drinking Vessel

Lastly, the Aztecs jars generally drank from wide, round mugs. Many of the mugs were designed with handles.

When comparing the three drinking vessels with the three large civilizations, with ones found in New Mexico, they resemble the Mayan cups the most.However, their unusual design and style indicate that the Chacoan people hybridized their cacao consumption to their customs.

The way the Chacoan cacao drinking vessels were found indicates the purpose of cacao in their society. The vessels were found all buried in the same place, in several rooms, of a once building. This would indicate that not everyone had access to cacao and was mainly used for ceremonies. This would indicate that cacao was consumed communally and not in the individuals own home, on a daily basis. Also, since no vessels were found buried individually, that contained traces of cacao, in graves, this indicates that it was not a drink for everyone.

Returning to the discussion of trade of cacao in North America, archeologist have never found cacao shells in the Chacoan Canyon. This would lead us to believe that cacao was traded in their disk form, for long lasting and easy transport. If we look once again at the map of Mesoamerica, the closest possible cacao growing region would be the Pacific Gulf Coast of Mexico. It would make sense that trade of fresh cacao would have never made the journey to northern New Mexico. However, it is most likely that the cacao was not grown in this area, and was actually coming from southern Mexico or Ecuador.

There are still a lot of questions to be answered about cacao in North America. However, we are certain that the trade routes of the Mayans and Aztecs were very extensive and would have brought cacao to North America.

Works Cited:

[1], [2] Crown, P. L., Hurst, J. (2008). Evidence of Cacao Use in the Prehispanic American Southwest. Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences in United States of America, 106(7). Retrieved from

[3] Authentic Maya online gallery. Retrieved from

[4] Professor Carla Martin’s slides. Lecture 2, slide 23.

[5] University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. Retrieved from

Crown, P. L. (2008). Chocolate; Consumption & Cuisine from Chaco to Colonial New Mexico. El Palacio. Retrieved from

Watson, T. (2013). Earliest Evidence of Chocolate in North America. Science Magazine. Retrieved from