Throughout Mesoamerican history, cacao played a central role in the cultural identities of the Mayan and Aztec populations. Consumed by most in the form of a drink, these delicious and nutritious concoctions became a popular and highly desirable items, developed upon and transformed to serve the needs and wants of various social classes, cultural rituals and or ceremonies. Thus, what resulted was not a single preparation of the cacao drink, but a plethora of recipes created for special purposes in some cases or to simply enhance the wonderful cacao flavor so many Mesoamericans treasured. To truly understand what these cacao drinks were like, we can go back in time to examine the preparation methods of such drinks and take a look at some of the things that were added to them throughout Mesoamerican history.
The earliest traces of cacao drinks date back to 38 centuries ago, predating the San Lorenzo Olmec (Coe & Coe 101) who were said to have originally domesticated the cacao tree (Presilla 9). However, Maya accounts as well as traditions from such time carried out today have given us insight on the process of making the cacao drink. Although there are various types of cacao drinks, – whether they differed in what was added or what occasions they were for- these drinks were all made in relatively the same manner. It began with the fermentation and drying of the cacao beans. The beans would then be roasted and ground on a “metate”, a convave stone slab (Martin), that water would be added to, to create a cacao paste as exhibited to the left.
If other flavors or foodstuffs were desired in the drink, this would be the point in which such ingredients would be added. Then, some of this paste would be taken, placed in a large pot with water and mixed. Finally, the mixture would go through some type of aeration process whether that was through mixing or transfer between two pots to create froth in the drink that was highly desirable by all who consumed it. This can be seen to the right in the Mayan drawing of a woman pouring the drink from one pot to another to create this foam.
Key insight on the cacao drink of the Mayans has been provided by historians who have discovered that the word “chacau haa” found on some pots used to serve the cacao drinks translates to hot water or chocolate (Coe & Coe 180), indicating to us that the Maya typically drank their cacao drinks hot. Chacau haa was also the word use to refer ordinary chocolate (Coe & Coe 180), differentiating it from other versions of such drink. Another type of cacao drink was called “tzune”, and was made from cacao, maize and sapote seeds. This drink was said to perhaps be drunk on special occasions- potentially marriage arrangements, fertility rituals or at funerals (Coe & Coe 181). The lowest grade of the cacao drink was called “saca” which was prepared with maize, water and cacao, resulting in a sort of gruel. When grains or flour were added to the mixture, the drink would decrease in its “cacao drink status”, becoming a drink for the common person or occasion (Coe & Coe 181). Regardless of the drinks varying preparations, everyone in Maya society found a way to enjoy cacao, despite one’s socioeconomic class.
As cacao travelled north brought by the Aztecs, they found ways to adopt and make the drink their own. The most common cacao drink of the Aztecs was known as “cacahuatl” or cacao water (Coe & Coe 341). The basic preparation of this cacao drink was relatively synonymous with that of the Maya; this is most likely because of the fact that the Maya predated the Aztecs and the Aztecs acquired much of their cacao and cacao traditions from the Maya after conquering them (Presilla 17). Just like the Maya, the Aztecs also desired froth in their drinks, using similar aeration techniques to achieve such.
A depiction of an Aztec woman creating froth in the cacao drink the same way that Mayan women did as pictured earlier.
They also fermented, dried, roasted, ground and mixed water in to create the cacao concoction that very much mirrors that of the Maya. However, one notable difference between the drink preparations of the Maya and the Aztecs was that the Aztec version was served cool rather than hot, explicated by an anonymous conqueror of Hernán Cortés’ who wrote the drink was “better in hot weather than in cool, being cold in its nature” unlike the “chaucau haa” drunk by the Mayas (Coe & Coe 248). The Aztecs, according the Sahagún, also separated their chocolate into two classes based on its perceived quality. One preparation of the cacao drink labeled “tlaquetzalli” was known as fine chocolate, directly translating to precious thing (Coe & Coe 249). An inferior preparation of the chocolate drink was basically a “chocolate-with-maize gruel”; a combination of cacao, nixtamalli and water (Coe & Coe 249). The Aztecs also strongly believed in the healing qualities of cacao and created drinks that incorporated other botanicals that were believed to have curing powers, which were often various spices and herbs. Just to name a few, honey, pepper, tobacco juice, and flowers, were added to the concoctions to be used a natural remedies for various ailments from fatigue to mental illnesses (Martin).
As cacao moved from the Maya population to the Aztec population, the language, usage and preparation of cacao changed, becoming reflective of each population’s practices and beliefs. The cacao drinks of historical Mesoamerica are more than just sweet treats enjoyed for reasons of pleasure. Rather, we see that the varying preparations and additions to the drinks that make them unique to their particular culture and provide us with insight on the lifestyles and environments of said populations. We must establish these differences and explore them more deeply, to further delve into the complex world of the role of cacao in historical Mesoamerica.