Asymmetrical Narratives of History: Old Victors and the New Science of Cacao

“All our ancient history, as one of our wits remarked, is no more than accepted fiction.”

– Voltaire, Jeannot et Colin

In kicking off their narrative of The True History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael Coe were quick to set the stage in citing the inspiration for their historical guide’s name:

The title for this book about chocolate is adapted from The True History of the Conquest of Mexico…by the conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo…Old, poor, and nearly blind, this doughty warrior merely wished to get the facts about the fall of the Aztecs straight for once…[he] had no special axe to grind. His only goal was to tell as true a story as possible. He proved to the world that a “true history” could be far more engrossing and enlightening than “accepted fiction.” (Coe & Coe, 2013, pp. 11-12)

Cacao Illustration” by Biodiversity Heritage Library is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Coes’ reference to this notion of historical narrative as “accepted fiction” directly stemmed from their – and thus, my – epigraph. Whether intentionally ironic or otherwise, the Coes’ reference to Castillo’s ‘earnestly pure and honest’ Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (The True History of the Conquest of New Spain) as a foundation onto which they began to graft their own ‘earnestly accurate’ historical narrative of chocolate was both slightly unsettling, as well as a strangely appropriate reminder of historical narrative hazards. With relatively little known from pre-Conquest sources about the true origins, migration, and evolution of cacao within and then beyond Mesoamerica, what scholars are able to mine from post-Conquest records such as Díaz del Castillo’s True History and the Mayan Popol Vuh may in fact be colored by the asymmetrical narrative lens of the Spanish. Interestingly, there is a growing scholarly interest in and consensus toward the idea that the truest narrative of cacao’s history may be that offered by modern scientific tests (on ancient Mesoamerican vessels as well as contemporary cacao specimens) such as genome mapping and DNA analysis. With colonial victors often dictating the terms and shades of historical narratives, I believe it is the evolution and creative application of modern scientific techniques that may shed the most light on cacao’s past, and its to-be-seen future.

Defined by Mary Louise Pratt as dynamic “social environments where cultures meet, clash, and grapple” (Carlsen, 2006), a contact zone is both a platform upon which varying cultures collide as well as one in which the resulting historical narrative of that collision is often biased by “highly asymmetrical relations of power” (Carlsen, 2006), i.e., the perceived ‘winner’ of the collision controls the subsequent discourse. Two of the more famous sources cited in cacao’s historical record which I believe veer dangerously close to this intrinsic asymmetry of the contact zone are Díaz del Castillo’s The True History and the Mayan Popol Vuh. Narrating a categorical triumph of the Spanish conquistadors over the ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’ Aztecs, Díaz del Castillo’s description of the Great Encounter within New Spain effectively reduced the indigenous population to “a class of oppressed peasants,” (Carlsen, 2006) presumed passive, complicit, or even cooperative in their own exploitation. Additionally, while Díaz del Castillo’s account of the contact zone in Mesoamerica was heavily colored by his position in history as a ‘victorious’ Spaniard, one must also take into account another motive – that of land appropriation. Commonly crafted as heralding – yet humble – accounts of personal courage in service of Spain, published narratives such as Díaz del Castillo’s True History were often submitted as legal documents within Spanish courts following the Great Encounter with the ultimate goal of land appropriation by the King.

Popol Vuh” by Il Dottore is licensed under CC0

Similarly, this social asymmetry as a context for historical narrative can be seen within the seventeenth-century, colonial Popol Vuh of the Maya, “believed to be the oldest Maya myth documented in its entirety” (Martin, 2016). While rich in detail and telling in its depictions of cacao’s place within the Mayan religiosity, less discussed is the social and political context under which the Popol Vuh was written – that is, under colonial order by a community that predominately considered themselves Christian after having been forcefully resettled into a new town (Fash, 2014). As it is estimated that 60-90% of the Mayan community in the seventeenth-century was deceased due to disease, it is thought that the Popol Vuh’s aim was to show similarities between the Bible and the sacred Mayan creation myths, thereby forming a single, coherent, and ordered picture of the universe for preservation (Fash, 2014). While additional Maya historical records no doubt existed, as “people of the book…they wrote on perishable bark paper, [and] only four books have survived to this day…[Others likely] disappeared with the Classic Maya Collapse of the 9th century, or in the bonfires of the Spanish Inquisition” (Coe & Coe, 2013, p. 41).

DNA Lab” by University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Thus with a decidedly uphill battle of sorting through historical narrations’ half lies, lost indigenous whole truths, and reconciling all that falls in-between, it is the evolution of modern science that may shed the most light on cacao’s history. Thought to be “on the threshold of a revolutionary breakthrough in the knowledge of cacao” (Presilla, 2009, p. 51), scientists are harnessing the power of genome mapping and DNA analysis to shed light on the shrouded world of cacao:

For the first time, we have the realistic prospect of being able to identify the genes responsible for precise traits in cacao (and the chocolate made from it), and also to trace just where and how different strains split off from some ancestral Theobroma. (Presilla, 2009, p. 51)

(Inside Science, 2014)

While researchers spearheading these efforts are presently more focused on understanding the interrelationships/biodiversity amongst cacao in order to develop practical disease resistance methods rather than broader sociological themes, this modern scientific chapter of the cacao narrative may prove to indeed be ‘revolutionary’ from an anthropological standpoint. As we predictably turn more and more toward science as history’s least biased narrator to fill-in-the-gaps, where farmers, chocolatiers, and scholars take the results of that testing and grafting of cacao’s story is to-be seen. The narrative of cacao may still prove to be more of an art than a science.


Biodiversity Heritage Library. (2012). Cacao Illustration [Online image]. Retrieved from

Carlsen, R. S. (2006). Transculturation. In D. Carrasco (Ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2013). The true history of chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Dottore, I. (2012). Popol Vuh [Online image]. Retrieved from

Fash, W. (2014, November). The caste war and the talking crossing. ANTH E-1050: Moctezuma’s Mexico: Then and now. Lecture conducted from Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Inside Science. (2014, February 14). Looking for the best chocolate? Chocolate DNA testing [Video file]. Retrieved from

Martin, C. D. (2016, February). Lecture 2: Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods.” E-119: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Lecture conducted from Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Presilla, M. E. (2009). The new taste of chocolate: A cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. New York, NY: Ten Speed Press.

Tedlock, D. (1996). The popol vuh: The Mayan book of the dawn of life. New York, NY: Touchstone.

University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment. (2012). DNA Lab [Online image]. Retrieved from


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