What was Mesoamerica and who were the Mesoamerican peoples? Academics give the designation Mesoamerican to the peoples that settled lands geographically from north of The Valley of Mexico across Guatemala and Honduras to Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Mesoamerica deals with all occurrences between the arrival of the first human colonist in the area more than 3000 years ago to the Olmec civilization from 1500 BC – 400 BC and the Spanish Conquest of the Mesoamerican Empire in 1521. During a lecture titled “Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods,”” Harvard Professor Carla Martin quotes archaeologist Richard D. Hansen, “…signs of the consumption of cacao…a kind of litmus test for when and where Mesoamerican civilization can be said to have begun” (Lecture 2, Slide 14). This essay examines the Maya and cacao, the Aztecs and cacao, and seasonings and drinks used by the Maya and Aztec-utilizing cacao.
First, what is cacao? According to Professor Martin, “Historically, the word cacao has been used to refer to the raw material from the cacao tree; its etymology stems from the indigenous languages of Central America as adopted by the Spanish” (Lecture 2, Slide 7). Cacao beans are found inside cacao pods. These pods grow on the tree trunk and branches of the cacao fruit tree. Chocolate is made from the beans. In the book, The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes, the author, Maricel E. Presilla informs that “More than two hundred years ago, Carolus Linnaeus, the great Swedish founder of modern botany, bestowed on the cacao tree the scientific name Theobroma cacao, or “food-of-the-gods cacao” (7).
Cacao was one of the most treasured and elite crops grown by the Classic Maya (250 AD – 9th century) and it was traded throughout Mesoamerica. Maya grew cacao in the Yucatán basin. In order to thrive, cacao needs humidity during all seasons of the year. “The true cacao…is perfectly adapted to the demands of the humid New World tropics, which lie roughly within the latitudes of 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator” (Presilla 9). Cacao was a main export from the Maya to Mexico. In The True History of Chocolate, by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, the best cacao was grown in plantations found mostly in Soconusco (the Pacific coastal region of Chiapas and Guatemala) (36).
Owners of cacao plantations esteemed the Cacao and Maya Merchant God, Ek Chuah, also referred to as God L by scholars Coe, and they made offerings to the god in the 16th century Yucatán (Coe 53, 57, 60). Ek Chuah is depicted on a mural at an archaeological site called Cacaxtla in the Mexican state of Tlaxcala. “At Cacaxtla we see…Ek Chuah…with his traveling staff in hand, he stands resting before a cacao tree, his huge backpack propped up behind him” (Coe 53). Here is a copy of the mural:
According to 16th century Spanish Bishop Landa, referring to Maya religious festivals at that time in Yucatán, the Mayan plantation owners found a dog with cacao-colored spots and sacrificed it in a cloud of incense, along with bird feathers and blue colored iguanas (Coe 60). At the end of the festival, the plantation owners were given a cacao pod.
Elite Mesoamerican peoples really savored the chocolate drink that the Aztecs (1420 – 1520) named cacahuatl. To make the drink, they would grind roasted cacao beans. Sometimes they might mix the beans with dried corn powder. Then they would add cold water and pour the liquid back and forth until it formed froth. The Aztecs might also add some other seasonings such as honey or vanilla. They especially esteemed vanilla, which they got from the pods of an orchid. According to accounts from the 16th century royal physician and naturalist to Philip II of Spain, Francisco Hernández, the orchid’s Nahuatl, Aztec name was tlilxochitl (“black flower”) (Coe 88). The Maya also used a flower as a seasoning for their chocolate drink. One prepared drink was called batido in which “ear flower,” identified as Cymbalopetalum penduliflorum, was added for seasoning (Coe 63).
Cacahuatl was a chocolate drink of the elite rulers. It has been proposed that Motecuhzoma II, the Aztec Emperor from 1502 – 1520, and his attendants drank copious amounts of chocolate each day. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a soldier in Hernán Cortés Spanish army during the Conquest, gives an account, paraphrased by Coe, which states that “more than 2,000 containers of chocolate beverage, with foam, were daily destined for the soldiers of Motecuhzoma’s guard alone” (82). Additionally, the Maya served the drink in tall cylindrical vases from which they poured from a smaller vase from an elevated height in order to create froth. This is depicted in the following image from the earliest depiction of froth-making process in a scene from the Princeton Vase, Late Classic Maya (750 AD):
In Classic Maya writings, as another case in point for the elites, chocolate drinking is celebrated as depicted in a carving in Piedras Negras. Coe states “Stephen Houston has identified the phrase ik-al kakaw, “chilli cacao,” on a royal lintel spanning a doorway in the great Maya city of Piedras Negras, on the banks of the Usumacinta River in northwestern Guatemala” (Coe 49). Chocolate was also drunk during elite marriage arrangements and it was served in Mesoamerican wedding ceremonies. The following is a copy of a picture from the Codex Nuttall, a Mixtec book from Oaxaca, Mexico, which depicts the great Mixtec King 8 Deer receiving a pot of frothy chocolate from his bride Princess 13 Serpent, in the year AD 1051:
In closing, in the tropical parts of the Yucatán basin where the humid climate enabled people to grow highly esteemed crops of cacao. The chocolate drink from cacao beans enhanced with varying seasonings would become an indulgence among the Mesoamerican elites.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London, 2013.
“Invitation Templates.” (Image). http://www.creatiline.com/tag/ek-chuah-mayan-god.html. Cited 2016.
Martin, Carla D, lecture “Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods,” Harvard Extension School, Cambridge, MA., 3 February 2016.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press. Berkeley, CA. 2001.
“The Maya and the Ka’kau’ (Cacao).” (Images). Updated 28 January 2011. http://www.authenticmay.com/cacao.html. Cited 2005.