Cacao and War in the Aztec Empire

Today, chocolate is associated with many things – love, comfort, sin – but not with war. In Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, however, and especially in the Aztec world, the two shared an important connection. Cacao was a commodity worth going to war over; the empire targeted major cacao-producing regions for conquest, and then demanded the seeds as tribute. Aztec armies carried cacao as part of their rations, and a class of warrior-merchants, the pochteca, made their livings transporting the valuable beans across often-dangerous terrain. At several levels, then, from production up to consumption, cacao’s place in Aztec culture was tied to battle.

For the Aztecs, cacao drinks were a privilege of the elite. Common people used the beans as currency, but in the “stratified, aristocratic society” of the empire, organized under hierarchical sumptuary laws, few outside of the nobles were allowed to drink cacao (Coe and Coe Ch.3, “Eve of Conquest”).

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The Xonconocho (later changed to Soconusco by the Spanish) region, source of the Aztec’s fine cacao, is shaded black in the map above

Those who did consume the beverage understood that different regions produced varying qualities of cacao, and valued the seeds accordingly. The cacao grown in Xonconocho (seen left), part of the modern-day Chiapas State, was especially desirable, and as such was “a spur to conquest” for the Aztecs (Presilla 17). Before the arrival of the conquistadors, a campaign was launched to conquer Xonconocho, and the region soon became one of the empire’s major cacao-producing areas. Surviving records like the 16th century Códice Mendoza (shown below) make special note of the 400 loads – with 24,000 beans per load – sent to Tenochtitlan every year as tribute (Presilla 16).

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In this tribute list from the Codice Mendoza, loads of cacao beans are listed among other exotic goods like jaguar skins and feathers, showing the prized place of cacao in Aztec society

The pochtecha, designated long-distance merchants, were the ones to carry these tributary loads of cacao, as well as loads traded for outside of the empire, to the capital. Beyond Xonconocho, these merchants were responsible for transporting “exotic goods,” including cacao, to Tenochtitlan from “distant ‘ports of trade’” like Xicallanco in the Tabasco region (Coe and Coe Ch.3, “Flavorings”). Their dangerous expeditions could span hundreds of miles, all while carrying cargo precious enough to need protection. Upon completion, merchants often threw lavish banquets with spreads including their prized wares of cacao and hueinacaztli, or “ear flower” (Coe and Coe Ch. 3, “Drink of the Elite”). The pochtecha were permitted to imbibe cacao, despite not being nobles, perhaps because their job was so perilous. As Coe and Coe point out, these traders “were often armed,” and they “travelled through very dangerous lands to reach their markets, and often fought pitched battles with hostile foreign groups” (Ch.3, “Drink of the Elite”). In a sense, then, they were warriors.

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Taken from the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, the above image depicts a pochteca merchant carrying a load of some exotic product, possibly cacao beans. He would have had to traverse dangerous territory with this valuable good

 

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The molecule theobromine has stimulant effects that would have been helpful on the battlefield

Aztec warriors were the final group allowed to drink cacao. On campaigns, armies were rationed ground cacao that could be added to water (Presilla 19). Warriors may have held a special place in a society so focused on expansion and military prowess, but they did not belong to the nobility. A brave fighter might earn some of the honors afforded to the upper class, but why give cacao to all members of the army? The practice suggests a knowledge of cacao’s stimulant properties. Cacao contains theobromine – withapproximately 25 grams per kilogram of cacao seeds – a compound similar in structure and effect to caffeine (“Theobromine”). The Aztecs would not have known this molecule, but over time they and the Maya before them observed the impact it had on consumers. The extra energy afforded by cacao likely sustained armies on the march and gave warriors a slight edge in battle. Furthermore, the Aztec priests’ other name for cacao, “heart and blood,” suggests an even deeper connection. Coe and Coe note that when a new Eagle or Jaguar Knight – honored as the bravest of warriors – was named, cacao was served at the ceremony, being a symbol for blood (Ch.3, “Cacao in Symbol and Ritual”). Warriors in the field might have been thought to gain from drinking this metaphorical “heart and blood.”

 

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Aztec warriors often carried a macuahuitl, shown above, into battle. The war club’s edges were lined with obsidian shards, making it a formidable weapon, especially when combined with cacao’s stimulant effects

Aztec culture weaved together the ideas of cacao and battle. The seeds were valuable enough to motivate conquests, and there existed a whole class of society dedicated to safely transporting cacao from one place to another. Perhaps the most salient example of this connection, however, lay with the warriors. In an empire where only the nobles were permitted cacao beverages, armies were given rations of cacao to take to war. This apparent exception to the traditional sumptuary laws demonstrates the depth of the ties between cacao and war for the Aztecs.

Sources:

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

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

“Theobromine.” Phytochemicals. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. <http://www.phytochemicals.info/phytochemicals/theobromine.php&gt;.

Multimedia Sources:

Macuahuitl Image: “Mexica Weaponry.” Mexicolore. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. <http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/home/mexica-weaponry&gt;.

Pochteca Image: “Mice: Aztec Spies!” Mexicolore. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. <http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/aztefacts/mice-aztec-spies&gt;.

Theobromine Image: “Learn About Theobromine, the Caffeine-Like Chemical in Chocolate.” About.com Education. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. <http://chemistry.about.com/od/factsstructures/a/theobromine-chemistry.htm&gt;.

Tribute List: “CHOCOLATE.” Food of the Gods. Web. 19 Feb. 2016. <http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/moneygrewontrees.php&gt;.

Xonconocho Map: “Agricultura De Exportación, Migración Y Remesas.” Eumed.net. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. <http://www.eumed.net/cursecon/ecolat/mx/2007/spp.htm&gt;.

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