Examining the Mesoamerican Metate and Mano

Analogous to the mortar and pestle, the monolithic hand stone and quern – stone slab for grinding seed or grain substances into powder – are ubiquitous throughout history in nearly every culture. Archaeologists and anthropologists believe the mano ( derived from the Spanish word for hand) and metate (quern in Spanish) were the primary tools for chocolate-based consumables in the Mesoamerican household since settlement around 2000 BC approximately through the 1800s. While metates are still used today to process maize and other substances to include cacao, many users use products from commercial production as women gravitate towards more non-traditional gender roles. According to codices (i.e., Dresden Codex and Florentine Codex) , Mesoamerican women have traditionally been the preparers using the metate; however, a 17th century sketching of a European man indicate the gender roles may not have been strictEuropean Man Grinding Cacao on Metately adopted for the European colonists.

Figure 1. Derived from de Blegny’s 1687 treatise, a European man is grinding cacao on a heated metate – a technique used by pre-Conquest Mesoamericans (Coe and Coe).

Physical Attributes. While the kinds of stone varied throughout the Late Middle Preclassic until the Terminal Classic, archeologists know the Mesoamerican metates primarily consisted of limestone, chert, or igneous rock such as basalt, granite and quartzite, typically due to local resourcing. At times, other materials, often imported, were used for ceremonial uses. Ceremonial uses were likely for death and marriage rituals, as cacao was involved in both, per archaeological finds. On rare occasion, archeologists have found highly ornate metates from different origins, highlighting trade as from Veracruz to possibly Costa Rica. Anthropologists have categorized Mesoamerican querns into three broad categories: slab, block, and basin (aka trough), and nine varieties.

Figure 2.  The Youtube video highlights how the using the metate is both an art and a skill to process cacao from raw beans to a liquor.

Function Analysis. Despite the different rock used and variety of shapes, little research exists to classify exact purposes for each size, shape, and material of the metate. For example, one could deduce trough metates were for grinding maize, as it is the most pervasive in our modern findings. Moreover, the beveled edge would be practical for keeping in the powder. A slab with a slight concave with a finer coarse, so as to limit grit in the chocolate, was likely used to make cacao, and allow for the chocolate liquor to move easily into a bowl.

In the Tikal area, Moholy-Nagy analyzed artifacts derived from the Tikal Citadel in Ancient Maya. He found special purpose metates, but the text lacked information on what those purposes may have been for. As cacao was reserved for the elite, it is possible the special purpose metates were used in banquets or rituals.


Figure 3.  The top two drawings illustrate special purpose metates with ornate carvings . The bottom three etches are examples of multipurpose metates.

Veracruz 200AD Annotated


Figure 4. Featured on the Barry Callebaut website’s history section, the Veracruz metate gives us more insight into the design, trade, and importance of the metate in every day life.

Continuities/Discontinuities in Mesoamerican Metate Design.  Gustavo Stromsvik, an anthropologist and Carnegie Institute of Washington Copan Project Director, examined milling stones from the Copan area, and stated that the metates were “simple and purely utilitarian,” and had very little variation over the years.This a stark contrast than those found in lower Central America, where metateros (Metate Craftsmen) crafted elaborate zoomorphic effigies into their metates during the same timeframe. Due to the elaborate designs, some judge that they were ceremonial; however they have an amount of usage that may indicate otherwise.


Figure 4. The map highlights the different geographical areas of Mesoamerica, as well indicating the Tikal Mayan Citadel – Copan Project site.


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  2. Dallasfoods (2011, February 11). A Culture of Chocolate: Commercial Cacao Processing in Oaxaca, Mexico [Video file]. Retrieved from URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2XDUyNS_cg
  3. Duffy, Lisa G (1988). Maize and Stone: A Functional Analysis of the Manos and Metates of Santa Rita Corozal, Belize (Master’s Thesis). Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.net.ucf.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ETD/id/4883.
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  6. Jones, Ursula (1992). Decorated Metates in PreHispanic Lower Central America: Volume One (Doctoral Thesis). Retrieved from Institute of Archaeology, University College London database at URL ucl.ac.uk/1355098/1/505867_vol1.pdf
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  8. McNeil, C. (2006). Chocolate in Mesoamerica : A cultural history of cacao (Maya studies). Gainesville: University Press of Florida. P.433
  9. Moholy-Nagy, H.(2011). The Artifacts of Tikal–Utilitarian Artifacts and Unworked Material: Tikal Report 27B. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Retrieved January 31, 2016, from Project MUSE database.
  10. Presilla, M. (2009).The new taste of chocolate : A cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes (1st rev. ed.). Berkeley [Calif.]: Ten Speed Press.
  11. Solomon, C. (2002).Tatiana Proskouriakoff : Interpreting the ancient Maya. Norman [Okla.]: University of Oklahoma Press.
  12. Traxler, Loa P, & Sharer, Robert J. (2006).The Ancient Maya / Robert J. Sharer with Loa P. Traxler (6th ed.). Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
  13. Tulley, S., & Chibnik, Michael. (2007).A Culture of Chocolate: Commercial Cacao Processing in Oaxaca, Mexico, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.


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