The Aztecs’ Precious Cacao
Chocolate today is commonplace and eaten by almost everyone. In the 14th-16th centuries, the Aztec Empire cherished cacao. Cacao was only drunk by the elite and for special ceremonies. “If one of the common people drank it, if they drank it without sanction, it would cost their life” (Presilla, 19). In the Aztec society cacao was not drank among commoners, it was drank by the elite. The Spanish immediately felt the importance and value of the precious cacao. When the Spanish conquerers arrived in the New World, “they observed the Emperor Montezuma II drinking frothed chocolate with a degree of ceremony clearly marked as an exalted food” (18). Cacao was ranked with “gold and gems in records of solemn offerings to the dead” (18). The Aztecs had created a culture of veneration around cacao and over time this culture changed to be something common place and ubiquitous. The changing culture resulting from the shift in cultural ideals of those in charge.
This is a photo from the Toxcatl ritual, where a young man is selected for his beauty. Again, it is clear that this is a drink to be talent, to impersonate Texcatlipoca in a show of veneration. He receives many honors and at the end of his term he receives cups of chocolate mixed with achiote, symbolizing heart and blood, and then is sacrificed at the edge of an obsidian blade. Once his beating heart is pulled out the rest of his body is an annual Spring ritual important for worshiping the deity the rest of his body is consumed. (A Concise History of Cacao) This gives us insight into the significance that cacao holds over the Aztecs. They cherished cacao and used it only for the most important events and only for those who are the most highly regarded. http://www.c-spot.com/atlas/historical-timeline/
Cortes comes to the New World
The revere and admiration the Aztec Empire expressed for cacao led Cortes to understand the riches and wealth cacao could bring. “Cortes was quick to see that in Aztec society cacao was a road to riches”(23). In 1521 the Aztec Empire fell to Cortes and Moctezuma’s treasures of cacao were taken into his possession (23). Starting with Cortes, the culture around chocolate began to change. With Cortes in control of a large sum of cacao, it was not long before the cacao beans made their way to Spain. From Spain, “the cacao was spread to other countries in Europe such as Italy, France, England and most parts of Europe”(24). It is unknown if Cortes is directly responsible for the transportation of cacao to Spain, but during his time cacao made it to Spain. Not only was cacao creating a culture in Europe, but cacao created a new culture among New Spain.
Photo: This is a picture of Montezuma and Cortes meeting. Montezuma was the Emperor of the Aztecs and Cortes was a conquistador from Spain. Eventually Moctezuma’s falls as Emperor and his cacao treasures are passed on to Cortes. http://www.sun-nation.org/sun-maya-hunab-ku.html
New Spain, New Cacao Culture
The adoration the Aztec Empire had for cacao was clear. Once Montezuma was dead, the Empire fell to Cortes, and this is where we start to see the changing culture around cacao. With the death of Moctezuma, there was also the death of the cacao traditions and rituals. The Spanish brought new foods and started adopting the foods of the natives. The 16th century was characterized by “the Spanish quickly [taking] over the role filled by pre-Hispanic lords and administrators who had supervised the Mesoamerican cacao trade”(28). The previous economy of the Aztec’s consisted of bartering and trading. “With the Spanish in control the colony of New Spain underwent a transition from a bater-based to a money economy that placed high emphasis on cash crops, especially cacao”(28). Instead of relying on a subsistence farming economy, “the commoners adopted the Spanish attitudes toward profit as well as purchasable luxuries”(28). They would choose to buy fine foods over crops to plant and the luxury of cacao began to spread through all classes of society. By the 17th century cacao was being grown commercially and had spread to new colonies in South America, such as Venezuela. In the 18th century chocolate had been established popularly as a main staple in colonial cities. “Even black slaves drank it daily after breakfast.”(30) With the progression of time and the wiping out of the Aztec Empire, the conquerers commodified cacao and made it a central crop to the lives of their new colonies. The commodification of cacao allowed for changes in the way we drink, eat and use cacao.