By the time the Spanish Conquistadors landed on the shores of Mesoamerica, cacao had been cultivated and consumed for thousands of years. Cacao, the raw ingredient used to make chocolate, is a defining feature in the cultural history of the ancient Mesoamericans. It was prized for its role in spiritual and religious expression and devotion, local custom, medicinal and culinary uses, monetary value, and even as a symbol of social status.
Painted scenes on pottery and narratives carved into stone or preserved in rare hieroglyph texts, such as the Popol Vuh, confirm the exalted nature and importance of cacao, and its use and consumption is largely synonymous with the elites and upper classes (Coe & Coe, 15; 95). The record indicates that the Aztec rulers may have even outlawed the consumption of cacao by the lower classes, and in the case of the ancient Maya, cacao was primarily a luxury item reserved for wealthy families and members of the upper class.
While most scholars and archaeologists argue that cacao was strictly limited to elite circles, new evidence suggests that cacao may have been more accessible to the lower classes than what has been previously assumed. Increased knowledge of the widespread cultivation of cacao and the complex trade networks between pre-Columbian civilizations, as well as chemical evidence of cacao in vessels belonging to members of the agrarian classes, are beginning to shape a much more complex picture of cacao in medieval Mesoamerica.
It is still unclear to what extent lower classes and farmers consumed cacao. Speculations that cacao was only reserved for the elites comes in part from evidence present in the early textual records of the Conquistadors. In the case of the Aztecs, much of what we know about the consumption and social significance of cacao comes from the written observations of the Spanish invaders (Presilla, 18). One of these authors, Bernardino de Sahagun, described cacao as a food only consumed by the upper classes, and “if one of the common people drank it, if they drank it without sanction, it would cost their life” (Presilla, 19). These records strongly indicate that cacao was somewhat monopolized for use among governing elites only (Presilla, 13 and Coe & Coe, 38-39).
However, scholars point out that many of these same colonial narratives, while possibly pointing to a monopoly on the consumption of cacao, also suggest a more diversified use of cacao among the lower classes. Bernardino de Sahagun (Presilla, 19) and Bernal Diaz (Bergmann, 86) found cacao for sale in the general marketplaces, both in its bulk raw form and in ready-to-eat preparations, suggesting it was more of a daily commodity than rarified luxury.
While cacao was often enjoyed as a drink, archaeologists Coe and Coe write that cacao was prepared in a, “vast and complex array of drinks, gruels, porridges, powders, and probably powdered substances, to all of which could be added a wide variety of flavorings” (Coe & Coe, 48). Many of these recipes are preserved in the contemporary traditions and customs of the indigenous descendants of the ancient communities. This wide array of cacao recipes has influenced researchers to question earlier patterns of cacao consumption.
Addressing these questions, scholars have designed new studies in an attempt to explore the significant culinary presence of cacao in Mesoamerican societies. Researchers tested pottery shards near present day Oaxaca, Mexico, and found that vessels belonging to both the elite and commoners contained cacao’s chemical signature, theobromine and caffeine (Soleri, Daniela et al.).
More evidence has indicated that cacao consumption was geographically much more widespread than previously thought. A 2009 study found cacao was present in settlements far north as present day New Mexico. A second study confirmed the use of cacao at the Pueblo Bonito near present day Los Muertos in Arizona. Significantly, the study found that a large number of commoners pottery vessels also contained the chemical residues found in cacao, indicating that it was being consumed widely by non-elites as well. One of the study leaders, Dorothy Washburn, confirmed that the find, “meant that a lot of people had access to [chocolate].”
Futher, farmers and laborers who lived in agricultural settlements that were not forced to give up their cacao crops as tribute also probably enjoyed cacao on a regular basis. For example, in the province of Tobasco, the region of Chontalpa cultivated high quantities of cacao, but did not have to give it as tribute to an overlords, and they were therefore able to sell it and consume it themselves (Bergmann). There is evidence that the merchants and long distance traders, known as pochtecas, who carried the cacao beans on the lengthy trade routes and dealt with neighboring civilizations were also known to drink the revered beverage (Coe & Coe, 73-74). The levels of cacao production and extensive trade networks in these regions has led John F. Bergmann to conclude that cacao, “must always have been available, at least to some extent, to other classes” (Bergmann, 86).
While these studies do not confirm that cacao was being consumed by all members of society throughout all of the civilizations in Mesoamerica, the findings do raise more questions concerning the true extent of cacaos usage in pre-Columbian society.
Bergmann, John F. “The Distribution of Cacao Cultivation in Pre-Columbian America.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 59, No. 1 (Mar., 1969), pp. 85-96 Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of the Association of American Geographers. Web: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2569524.
Coe, Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. “The True History of Chocolate.” New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.
LiveScience, “Sweet Trading: Chocolate May have Linked Prehistoric Civilizations.” Wynne Parry. April, 2011.
National Geographic News, “Prehistoric Americans Traded Chocolate for Turquoise? Chemical traces of cacao found at New Mexico site.” Christine Dell’Amore, March 2011
Soleri, Daniela et al. “Archaeological Residues and Recipes: Exploratory Testing for Evidence of Maize and Cacao Beverages in Postclassical Vessels from the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico.” Latin American Antiquity 24.3 (2013): 345–362. Available Online: http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/pdf/23645680.pdf?acceptTC=true
Prescilla, Maricel E. “The New Taste of Chocolate.” New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009.