Chocolate: an old mark of a hierarchical society

Though it is common to think that women consume more chocolate than men today, it does not seem to have held true for the Ancient Mayans and Aztecs. This is not because chocolate was less desirable during the third to twelfth centuries CE, in fact, the Ancient Mayans and Aztecs valued chocolate so highly that they considered it a sacred drink1(S. D. Coe and M. D. Coe 18). Chocolate had numerous uses – it was economically useful2, medically beneficial3, religiously and ritually important4, and nutritious5. In addition, it was socially cherished, as cacao was enjoyed in companionship. The exotic chocolate drink was expensive and difficult to make,6 so its enjoyment was confined to the elites (S. D. and M. D. Coe; M. E. Presilla). In artistic works of the Ancient Mayans and Aztecs during the Classic Period, females would often be without cacao. Therefore, the Ancient female Aztecs and Mayans’ lack of chocolate consumption suggests that regular females were generally of a lower social status than regular men and the elite.



The consumption and possession of cacao does not only highlight a binary gender imbalance in the Aztec and Mayan societies, but a more complex hierarchical society amongst different classes and occupations. Gods appear to be at the top of the hierarchical society as they are often seen in possession of cacao.


The Rain God is on The Opossum God’s back and cacao is said to be both of their food.


Meanwhile the Mayan moon goddess IxChel and the Rain God Chac exchange cacao.



As well as the gods, we can infer that royals were of high status because they too were in possession of cacao.

King Palace

The Maya King is in his palace.  Directly underneath the throne his is sitting on is a cylindrical vase for the chocolate drink. 


On the left is Lady Zac-Kuk: the mother of the seventh century Mayan king of Palenque, Pakal the Great. She is portrayed to emerge as a cacao tree.

Though Mayan and Aztec females are generally of lower status, Lady Zac-kuk’s honourable characterisation as a cacao tree, which are considered to be invaluable and sacred, marks her royalty and raises her social status. Therefore, the consumption of chocolate is not the only indication of an elite, but one’s general association with cacao signposts their place in society.



Pochteca Merchants and the Elites

Similarly, though Pochteca merchants7 are not seen consuming cacao, they are still considered among the elite (S. D.and M. D. Coe; M. E. Presilla).


The numerous footprints illustrate the lengthy distance that they travel. And the Pochteca merchants’ bent-over backs portray the difficulty and pain that they endured.

Though their work is labour-intensive, difficult, and painful, they were not considered as slaves. Since their jobs involved transporting scared and luxurious cacao beans, their travels from the Mayans to the Aztecs was highly valued. Therefore, Pochteca merchants were considered as elites because their possession and important affiliation with cacao beans marked them as noble.



While the gods, royalty, and other elites were high up in the hierarchical society because of their respective association with cacao, the Ancient Aztec and Mayan females could have been low down in the hierarchy as they are not seen consuming cacao in artistic works.

Final Mayan Chocolate vessel Illustration

Chocolate is consumed and present at a rite of marriage, as was typical.

In the image above, females are illustrated on the right and are separate from the males. The men are on the left making the decisions and drinking chocolate while the women are without chocolate. The contrast between the two gender’s interaction with chocolate indicate that women are below men in the Mayan and Aztec societies, as men were able to enjoy  the sacred and delightful chocolate drink while women were not.


The gender inequality builds, as not only are the women never seen drinking chocolate, but they are always seen as the makers of the drink. Therefore, they endure the difficult repetitive menial labour without being able to enjoy their labour and reap its rewards. This suggests the presence of a matriarchal society.The gender difference places females at the bottom of the social ladder.


A 750AD scene of a woman pouring chocolate from one vessel to another. This raised the foam which made the chocolate more delicious.



Ancient Aztecs and Mayans from different backgrounds had different interactions with cacao. These interactions could involve consuming, possessing, transporting, and producing cacao, or being characterised by a cacao tree. Each of the Aztecs’ and Mayans’ interactions with cacao give us a signal of the social class they may have fitted into, classes such as gods, royals, nobles, elites, or commoners and ordinary civilians. This suggests that chocolate can be used to highlight the social inequality, imbalance, and hierarchical society that existed in the Aztec and Mayan empire.



The Greek meaning of cacao is “food of the gods”, which is applicable because cacao was thought to be so sacred is was fed to the gods (S. D. Coe and M. D. Coe 18).

Cacao beans could have been considered as a currency, since cacao beans were traded for commodities. For example, according to the Nahualt document in 1545, 200 cacao beans was worth a turkey cock (S. D. and M. D. Coe 99).

3 The Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams describe cacao’s healthy powers, some of which include healing skin eruptions, fevers and seizures (Martin Lecture slide 68).

Chocolate was drunk at banquets, baptisms, weddings, and burials.

Along with cacao’s medicinal healing powers, drinking chocolate regularly had long term health benefits. Cacao was also considered nutritious because it energised its consumers. Warriors often consumed and wore cacao pods on their amour as they went into battle because cacao was so energising (Martin Lecture slide 51).

Not only are there many steps in the chocolate making process (fermentation, drying, roasting, deshelling/winnowing, and grinding), but the cacao tree itself has many maintenance requirements. The tree can only grow within 20 degrees north and south of the equator, in temperatures above 60°F, and if the whole year is moist  (S. D. and M. D. Coe 19).

Long distance travelling merchants


Picture Sources

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 2007[1996]. The True History of Chocolate. p44


Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. “The True History of Chocolate.” Thames & Hudson 2007 (1996). 18, 19, 99. Print

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.



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