Cacao: Food of the Gods and their People

During the last half-century, the consumption of cacao has increased to an extraordinary extent. What has also increased is the amount of research that has been placed on this subject—understanding the historical significance and different cultures and beliefs associated with cacao. The story of cacao starts with a relatively small tree in the tropical understory. In 1735, Carl Linnaeus named this tree as theobroma cacao meaning the “food of the Gods”. Historians have argued that cacao originated with the ancient Olmec. By analyzing different artifacts, they have proposed that Olmec vocabulary contained a word for cacao, originally “kakawa”. There is no strong evidence that Olmec and later Mayan and Aztecs used cacao to prepare chocolate. The way ancient civilizations consumed cacao was different to the solid sweet we know today. Their preferred use of cacao was a thick layered, bitter taste, and hot drink. Aztecs dominated the Mesoamerica from 14-16th centuries. They were the founder of a great empire, which later became Mexico City. They spoke the Nahuatl language, which some say gives the root for the word “chocolate” from cacaoatl meaning “cacao water”, or xoco meaning “sour water”.

Food of the Gods and Elites

Cacao, being the food of the Gods, was revered significantly in Mesoamerican civilizations. For Mayans, cacao was known as Chacau Haa “hot water” because they drank it hot. It was a drink of the bejeweled Mesoamerican elite.

Public Domain

There are many example we see of how chocolate was prepared, presented and consumed in the historical times. One common example that we see across historical documents and artifacts is the consumption of chocolate by the gods and the kings. Below, Opossum God is depicted carrying the Rain God during the New Year rites. The text mentions that cacao is to be offered.

Dresden Codex Maya Hieroglyphic Text of Almanac: 25 – 28 Frame: 1. Image courtesy  of The Maya Codices Database, Version 4.1

In Mayan culture, chocolate nurtured many sacred moments of agriculture. When the cacao flower first sprouted, people offered blood from their ears and arms to the earth deities to ensure good weather for the cacao crop (Rabbi). In Mayan civilization, chocolate was a highly prized drink that only elite could afford it. It was sometimes mixed with honey. To make the chocolate, Mayans fermented and dried the cacao beans and then roasted them over fire. After removing the shells, the beans were ground into a chocolate paste by crushing them with a roller shape stone. They added water, chili, honey, and poured the mixture back and forth from the cup to the pot to create a thick froth. Aztecs later added wine and cornmeal in the drink. Aztecs used cacao beans as a currency and paid a tribute, or tax, of cacao beans to their rulers.

According to an Aztec tradition, a white-skinned, bearded god named Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom and knowledge, came from his land of gold to present the people with the cacao beans. He showed them how to grow the cacao tree, harvest it, and to prepare chocolatl.


Rio Azul vase
A drinking vessel with cacao hieroglyphs. Rio Azul, Gautemala AD 500

Such artifacts were studied thoroughly by archaeologists and chemists to analyze any history related to these vessels. Researchers used two methods (mostly) to analyze such artifacts. The first method they used was to decode the ancient hieroglyphics written on these vessels. Researchers found out that most of them contain the word “Ka ka wa” which can be translated to “cacao”. The second method used by the researchers was finding any chemical residue. Researchers found cacao’s chemical residue in many artifacts and determined that they were once used to contain cacao.


  1. Morganelli, Adrianna. The Biography of Chocolate. New York, NY: Crabtree Pub., 2006. Print.
  2. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.



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