Botanical and natural history of Cacao: Man and the Evolution of Cacao

“Studies of the evolutionary history of economically important groups are vital to develop agricultural industries, and demonstrate the importance of conserving biodiversity to contribute towards sustainable development.”

-Dr. James Richardson, tropical botanist at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, UK,

Cocoa’s point of origin is northern South America. It is believed to have evolved into the species identified today around 10 million years ago[1]. It became relevant to Humans within the past few millennia. We can say nothing about how Cacao may have been used by pre-Olmec individuals. However, Olmec’s are the earliest known people to verifiably consume cacao. This as evidenced by their artifacts, which display images of people consuming cacao. Some of these artifacts are dated to 1500 b.c.

The region’s later civilizations also consumed Cacao. We can verify that both the Aztec and the Maya not only consumed the cocoa, but also effected its evolution. They were the first to artificially grow cacao outside of its native region, therein forcing the micro-evolution that occurs via environmental adjustment. The use of cacao by these, and other regional peoples positioned it for a far larger evolutionary boost.

When Spanish conquistadors came to the regions controlled by the Aztec and the Maya, they eventually encountered the local products based on Cacao. These products secured an evolutionary advantage for Cacao by securing the love of the European elite, who were fast on their way to ruling the world. Being loved by the world’s rulers positioned cacao ‘s evolution to benefit from the world’s vast lands, and resources. The colonial powers established Cacao on new continents, and subjected it to domestication. The new continents provided micro-evolutionary and expansion opportunities, and the domestication provided protection. Humans would from then on attack competing plants, herbivores, and other pests, on Cacao’s behalf.

However, domestication also established limits. From then on, evolution of Cacao would never go in a direction that adversely affects the taste of chocolate, relative to human tastes.

Today, Cacao is grown in central, south and north America. It is also grown in Asia and Africa. Humans grows cacao wherever they can, because they love it. This interspecies relationship has and will continue to benefit Cacao greatly. People will consciously preserve Cacao through the effects of environmental change, and the changing circumstances of evolutionary competition. Studies on how to ensure Cacao’s not only survival, and increased abundance are already being conducted[2].

An example of Cacao’s evolutionary boost, defense and manipulation is ‘Seed Core,” A Philippines based Cacao producer whose selective growth and farming techniques enables him to produce large quantity of “high quality cacao.”[3] Upon having it’s Cacao deemed high quality, Seed Core’s growth accelerated. It’s Cacao plants will therefore be more abundantly reproduced, and given more land on which to do so. Being that this is relative to other Cacao plant, Cacao’s evolution is directly being affected, and “Seed Core’s” impact on Cacao, is not unique. Globally, “good” Cacao is reproduced at the expense of “bad” Cacao on other competitive plants. Man’s love of cacao, has secured its survival and will direct its evolution into the future.

MLA bibliography

  1. Richardson, James E., Barbra A. Whitlock, Alan A. Meero, and Santiago Madrinan. “The Age of Chocolate: A Diversification History of Theobroma and Malvaceae.” Frontiers. Web. 09 Feb. 2016.
  2. “Switzerland’s Dependence on West Africa’s Cocoa.” Earth Security Group. Web. 09 Feb. 2016.
  1. Lapid, Matt. “His Cacao Produces among the World’s Best Chocolates.” VilNews RSS. Web. 09 Feb. 2016.




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