Cacao’s Natural and Cultural History: Inseperable

In the harsh, fluorescent light of CVS where the bar code scanner bleeps intermittently, the Hershey’s chocolate bars below the counter sit in a spot between other candies wrapped in loud, metallic casings. Chocolate’s origins, however, are botanical and tropical, and a complete contrast to the supermarket aisles and humming vending machines we find it in day to day. Chocolate’s natural historical background, while not considered often by consumers of Cadbury, Nestle, and Mars chocolates, were essential to its earliest cultivators, to its worldwide distribution and exponential growth in popularity, and its importance as a cultural and culinary staple.

While the uses of the cacao tree’s products are diverse and extremely historic, all of these can be attributed to the botanical properties and biological traits that make Theobroma cacao so unique. Chocolate’s botanical genesis is set within 20 degrees north and south of the equator in the warm equatorial regions of Central and South America and Africa. It is here that Mesoamerica’s ancient civilizations began to use cacao as foodstuff, which took off in tandem with a start to understanding cacao as a plant and natural resource.

 While chocolate does not grow on trees, its essential ingredient, cacao beans, are contained by colorful pods that grow from the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao). The cacao beans which are ground into chocolate liquor and used in diverse ways are contained in colorful fruits that grow from the trunk of the tree, a trait known as cauliflory. The pods contain a cream colored pulp that surrounds the beans, and is likely what the earliest users of the cacao tree were drawn to, eating the sweet inside flesh as a fruit. Even entomological and botanical artist Maria Sybilla Merian has artwork depicting the cacao plant. The detailed work emphasizing the details of the plant shows an in-depth understanding of its anatomy at the turn of the 18th century. The consumption of the bitter cacao pod’s pulp and accounts by Europeans describing cacao’s physical features show an awareness of the structural traits of cacao pods, beans, and trees that evolved alongside cacao’s increased and diversified use as food, money, and a health product.  


Maria Sybilla Merian’s 1705 botanical illustration of the cacao plant. 

Our scientific understanding of cacao, beginning long before the advent of molecular biology is well-documented. For centuries, botanists and biologists have taken interest in plants that have profound importance. Cacao, in its transformation from luxury food item to culinary staple, has been long studied and understood. Carolus Linnaeus, for example, the Swedish botanist and father of Linnaean taxonomy, designated cacao’s scientific name in the 18th century. It is Latin for “food of the gods, cacao.” Linnaeus classified organisms based on their similar morphologies, and his naming the cacao species demonstrates the observation and consideration of the plant’s reproduction and other biological features. Even today, scientists study cacao in greenhouse and natural settings to understand how pests and other threats can be combatted. Over time, the cacao has been extremely influential and a major resource, and has driven botanists and farmers to work to understand its biology by outward appearance, chemical composition, and, in the case of modern biologists, genetic makeup.

Spanish colonists in Mesoamerica’s Aztec empire used different words to describe the tastes of the cacao varieties: cacao dulce for sweet cacao and cacao blanco for white cacao. They experimented with the different varieties and flavors and learned the distinctions between the different cacaos that generated different flavors. Today, we known from a genomic level that there are several varieties of cacao which, according to DNA-sequencing molecular biology technology, are genetically distinct. Scientists can use this genetic data in a number of applications related to cacao, but one job of this research is to understand the different varieties and relatedness of cacao, and to comprehend its evolution. Over time, in addition to studying the outward appearance of the beans and plant, people’s comprehension of cacao has been influenced by a sense of taste. Whether colonists describing its taste knew it or not, they, like cacao geneticists, studied diversity in cacao and had some botanical sense of which cacao caused which flavors.

This video, from an Australian publication, gives a whimsical, but informative explanation to cacao genomic studies. 

As biological advancements have exploded in this century and last, our understanding of cacao will only increase. Scientific curiosity regarding the tree and the properties of its fruits and beans reflect the same value that the cultural history between cacao and people represents. While its use in drinks and as money has morphed and expanded, its cultural importance remains. In the face of harmful insects, rapid population growth, and inequities in the chocolate production industry, our research and botanical understanding of cacao will be motivated for the future, as long as its significance to chocolate consumers worldwide persists.


Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Linnaeus, Carolus. Systema Naturae, 1st edition (1735). Translated in Dutch Classics on the   History of Science (Netherlands, 1964), pp. 17-30.

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food Lecture Slides 2016.” 2016. Slide 68. Retrieved from:

Presilla, Maricel E. “The New Taste of Chocolate.” Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009. 1-59. Print.

Stearn, William T. “Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) as a Botanical Artist.International Association for Plant Taxonomy. August 1982: Volume 31: pp. 529-531.

Media Sources 

Horstman, Mark. “GM Chocolate Trees.” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 21 April 2011. Web. 18 February 2016.

Merian, Maria Sibylla. Veranderingen der Surinaamsche Insecten. 1705. Engraved by Pieter Sluyter.





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