Cacao is a very demanding crop: among others, it needs a canopy of shade trees, an optimal climate, permeable soil, and protection from the wind. These exact requirements designate cacao to only certain growing regions and for centuries confined pre-Mayan, Mayan, Aztecs and colonial civilizations to characterize cacao as an “exotic import” (Coe & Coe, 38). But despite its difficulties, cacao thrived in South America and later, Central America, projecting itself as a symbol of wealth for many centuries. The wealthy, powerful and worthy noble thus associated themselves to cacao through civilizations. As such, cacao stayed a significant commercial crop that is still cultivated today.
The very first examples of Theobroma cacao literally meaning, “food of the Gods” can be seen with the Olmecs. Evidence that dates back to 1800-1400 BC portrays the use of very delicate pottery called “Barra” for holding and drinking chocolate. These innovative and exquisite vessels could only have been associated with the elites. Vessel shards found at San Lorenzo link cacao with human sacrifice and wealth destruction, placing it as a central element in the Olmec Empire. The picture below gives us a glimpse of Barra, the first non-written evidence of cacao’s association with wealth.
Building on Olmec’s traditions, the Mayans did not ignore the power held by cacao, and so they developed skills and knowledge to expand its prestige. This became evident with the appearance of cacao glyphs on vessels and “recipes” which were created for exclusive consumption by kings and nobles. To symbolize their wealth, the Mayan nobility assured cacao’s presence in special feasts and celebrations. Bishop Landa mentions “cacao as among the requirements of a noble feast, and states that hosts were obliged to present the guests with such gifts as cups or vases, “ as fine as the host can afford”” (Presilla, 12). Such opulent feasts with abundance of cacao gave the nobility a higher status in society.
The Mayan high nobles built burial chambers that further illuminates cacao’s power and its status in the Mayan society. Dozens of exquisite pottery made exclusively for holding drinks made of cacao were found in the tombs of the elites. Cacao was the supreme offering which accompanied only the lords to ease their passage to the underworld. The intricate designs and paintings with hieroglyphs of cacao on these vessels reveal to us the esteem and high regard to which cacao was held by the Mayans.
The preparation of the cacao drink itself was that of a prestigious matter. Repeatedly, we can see in many pieces of evidence where lords, nobility and government elites are consuming a “foamy” drink. Presilla says “foamy cacao [and] foamy toppings eventually came to be one of the glories of chocolate drinking among the Maya” (Presilla 12). This foam, which the Mayan women went through great pains to achieve, is what defined the quality of the served drink, increasing its value and the social status of the host. In a way, it showcased the high taste preferences of the elite and its continued symbolism of wealth.
This foamy drink appeared in celebrations particularly in marriage ceremonies between nobility. Within the upper classes and elites, the groom offered the chocolate drink to the prospective bride. This ensured the wealth and prosperity of the groom and provided an assurance to the bride’s parents. Merchants, in order to showcase their status and power, held large banquets where the elite chocolate drink was offered: “And often they spent on one banquet what they earned by trading and bargaining many days. (…) And to each guest they give a roasted fowl, bread, and drinks of cacao in abundance” (Coe & Coe, 60). This was customary in Mayan tradition and to showcase “lavish hospitality” (Coe &Coe, 59) in the society was a requirement to maintain relationships with nobility.
The wealthy’s association with Cacao to show off their status and their power helped shape its significance in Mayan culture. It is no wonder that the Aztecs and later the colonials not only were introduced to but revered this exotic drink. The introduction of this crop to the rest of the world eventually changed the way it was consumed, making it an everyday commonplace food. But for the longest time a sip of it was like “drinking real money” (Coe & Coe 100), and this early image of cacao helped segment its place in history to be used in special occasions much like we have Valentine’s day to our day.
Powis, TG, Cyphers, A, Gaikwad, NW, Grivetti, L, & Cheong, K 2011, ‘Cacao Use and the San Lorenzo Olmec’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 108, no. 21, pp. 8595-8600.
Xian, M 2012a, The “Dazzler Vase” from the royal ‘Margarita Tomb’ in Copán, Honduras, image, C-Spot, viewed 14 May 2012, http://www.c-spot.com/atlas/historical-timeline/
Moreiras, DK 2010, ‘Thinking and Drinking Chocolate: The Origins, Distribution, and
Significance of Cacao in Mesoamerica’, Honours thesis, University of British Columbia.
Vail, Gabrielle, and Christine Hernández 2013 The Maya Codices Database, Version 4.1. A website and database available at http://www.mayacodices.org/images/m52c1.jpg
Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food Lecture Slides 2016.” 2016
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000. Print.
Presilla, M. E. (2001). The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press. Print.