Extension Undergraduate Model Essay: The Body Cacao: The Intrinsic Link Between Cacao and the Physical Human Body

Republished with the permission of the author as an Extension Undergraduate Model Essay.


Cacao and the physical aspect of humanity have been intrinsically connected throughout recorded history. This connection plays out as a recurring theme in the ancient texts, artifacts, and current evidence, to the point they are notable and essential, if not interdependent. Throughout history, cacao could not be taken without a very physically intimate, hands-on, and laboriously intensive relationship with humans. Rare archaeological documents and artifacts from the earliest times, as far back as the Mayan Codices, and the Popul Vuh (Martin), suggest that humans have divine origin within the cacao tree, and have had to work exhaustively for their nourishment and enjoyment of it. Many in tribal, colonial, and even modern eras, lived their entire lives working in cacao fields, never setting foot outside of cacao culture. Some died alongside cacao in great battle or as a human sacrifice in cacao laden rituals. Thus, the long relationship between physical man and cacao has been one of simultaneous love, respect, and turmoil, and it seems fitting to say, as Michael D. Coe offers in his book, The True History of Chocolate, “It was the best of drinks, it was the worst of drinks” ( 203).

images (3)
Late Classic period polychrome Maya vase, Popol Vuh Museum Guatemala

Cacao was for the elite, and at times it was also common, but it was always creating a sacred bond between gods and humans. “It was the beverage of everyday people and also the food of the rulers and gods,” says Jonathan Haas, curator of the “Chocolate” exhibition at the Field Museum in Chicago (Huffington Post). Although the ancient texts of the Mayans and Aztecs differ a bit in their creation story, it is clear that both ancient cultures believed cacao to be a natural element essential to the physical body of mankind. Of the Dresden Codex, which deals with sacred ritual activities,  Michael Coe writes, “seated gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans” (42). Coe writes further of the Madrid Codex, that the god’s blood pouring out over the cacao, ” links the godly blood with the cacao beans…” and is to then be consumed by humans (42), suggesting a Trinitarian bond between the physical element of humanity (body), cacao, and the divine.

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 6.36.22 PMAdditionally, the Mayans and Aztecs used cacao as daily nourishment for the body, as well as medicinal remedy for a multitude of ailments, which were passed on to the Spaniards, and infused with Galenic medical theory (Coe 121-123). Written by Juan de Cárdenas in 1951, a treatise on New World Foods, advised “cacao, if toasted and ground and mixed with a bit of atole gruel, is fattening and sustaining, aiding the digestion and making one happy and strong (Coe 123).” Of course, there were also warnings by Cárdenas that if taken “green” or too often, it could also lead to poor health and even addiction. This was later reinforced in 1648, by Thomas Gage, who wrote of an account of addiction by a group of white elite woman who swore they could not get through even a single Catholic Mass without taking a drink, and ultimately poisoned the Bishop who had tried to stop them (Coe 180-181).

Mayan sacrifice

Rendering further evidence for the historic linkage between cacao and the human body, this time through ritual, is offered by culinary author and historian, Maricel Presilla. She writes in her book, The New Taste of Chocolate, that ancient Mayan vase paintings depict scenes of chocolate drinking among the governing elites. Presilla advises that the cacao they are drinking is a frothy hot drink, which was reserved as the highest honor and dyed red with Achiote to resemble sacrificial, human blood (13). But, perhaps the greatest of testimony to the bond between cacao and the human body by way of ritual, was in the human sacrifice, of which Presilla writes,The most lavish of all the merchant’s banquets were those involving the sacrifice of slaves and the eating of their flesh (22).”


Cacao trees in cluster

Yet even now the harvesting and processing of cacao is a significant aspect in which the linkage between the physical body and cacao usage can be demonstrated. It is a notoriously labor intensive and physically challenging series of tasks, requiring many hours of human effort to produce cacao in small and large quantities. Chocolate expert, Mark Canizaro writes in his blog, xocoatl.org, how the cacao trees are grown in clusters and even today on corporate plantations, are grown in a way that makes it difficult for machinery to harvest. Therefore, the laborers must cut each pod individually, with a swift chop of a sharp blade and let the pod fall to the ground (Canizaro).

See video on today’s cacao harvest methods, compliments of ICF Group:

Although today much of the transport of cacao is done by vehicle, the harvesting remains manual and many corporate landowners have been  accused of kidnapping and enslaving people, including children, to meet the labor demand (Canizaro). In this, we find yet more evidence of the essential link between that of the physical human and cacao. Moreover, it suggests that the historic linkage between cacao and the human body continues; and begs the question whether despite modernity, we continue to value sacred cacao greater than our own sacred kind.

See video on slavery in the cacao trade, compliments of 7th Business:

Works Cited

Canizaro, Mark Chocolate. “The Production of Chocolate from Cacao.” Xocoatl.org. Xocoatl.org n.d. Web. 20 Feb 2015.

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

ICF Group. “How to Harvest Cocoa.” Youtube. Youbute, 3 Mar 2013. 18 Feb 2015.

Martin, Carla D. “Written Record.” Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods.”  Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 04 Feb. 2015. Class Lecture.

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

“What the Ancient Maya Can Teach Us  About Living Well.” Huff Post: The Third Metric. Huffington Post.com, 23 Jan 2014. Web. 19 Feb 2015.

7th Business. “Must See! Disgusting Slavery!” Youtube. Youtube, 2 Jan 2013. Web. 18 Feb 2015.


Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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