Mayan and Aztec Medicinal Use and Benefits of Cacao

Since the discovery of the Theobrama cacao tree (the “food of the gods”), entire civilizations myths and legends, social habits, and religions have been influenced and based upon this fruit bearing tree (Presilla, 11). For the Mayans and the Aztecs, cacao was seen as a divine food, given to them by the gods (Coe and Coe, 18), and its use was widespread within their culture (Presilla, 12). While the Mayans and the Aztecs were perhaps unable to comprehend many of the correlations between the venerated cacao drink and its medicinal effects on a scientific level, the prevalence of cacao and its superiority over other foods in their cultures shows that they had at least a subliminal understanding of its many benefits.

Known medicinal and recreational usages of cacao

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Aztec woman pouring a cacao drink. Credit: In public domain.

Cacao contains both theobromine and caffein which both act as stimulants (Judelson et al., 499 & Coe and Coe, 30-31), as such, cacao was seen as refreshing and invigorating substance, and a rich delicacy in Mayan and Aztec cultures. Cacao was held in such high esteem that it was used as a currency (Coe and Coe, 99). However despite its high value, there is evidence that cacao usage was fairly widespread among all the classes (Presilla, 12).

 

One of the most common usages of cacao was a drink (served hot for the Mayans and cold for the Aztecs) prepared from the dried, fermented, roasted and ground cacao beans (cacao nib). It was a drink favored among the elite, and served at special feasts and ceremonies, both religious and cultural (Presilla, 12).

Along with the elite, warriors would also partake of the cacao drink before entering battle, and carry additional cacao with their armor so that they might regain their energy during a battle (Martin, 51).

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Depiction of a king in warrior garb, who might have drunk cacao before entering battle. Credit: Einsamer Schutze

One of the first European accounts of the invigorating benefits of cacao appeared in the 1500s when a Spanish monk by the name of Bernardino de Sahagun lived among the Aztecs, and recorded the various ways in which they utilized cacao recreationally and medicinally (Lippi, 1101).

Along with cacao’s primary use for its chemical based invigorate properties, it also held a variety of other medicinal uses in mesoamerican cultures, including helping to promote the production of breast milk, as a soothing agent, and even as a snakebite remedy (Wilson and Hurst, 36-37).

Benefits of cacao far beyond their beliefs

Despite their fairly advanced medical beliefs and understanding at the time, and their limited use of cacao medicinally, the widespread use of cacao throughout their culture provided many additional health benefits unbeknownst to their scientists, priests and doctors.

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A Mayan skull showing jade inlays performed by a Mayan dentist. Credit: David Dennis

One such area was oral hygiene, which was considered a method of expressing one’s beauty in Mayan and Aztec culture. Mayans and Aztecs ate little sugar, brushed their teeth regularly, and dentists would fill cavities, add inlays, and remove rotten teeth (Mayaincaaztec.com). However along with basic Mayan and Aztec dentistry, recent studies have revealed that the consumption of cacao could have had an effect on oral hygiene, as the cacao bean husk provides natural protection against cavities, similar in function and perhaps surpassing modern day fluoride (Babu, Vivek and Ambika).

Another example is the flavonoids contained in cacao. One such flavonoid, called quercetin, is known to contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties (Coe & Coe, 31), which have been shown to  prevent accelerated aging, promote cardiovascular health, and prevent cancer (Lee et al).

In conclusion, the Mayan and Aztecs understood only a very small portion of the beneficial effects their rampant consumption of cacao provided, whose diverse healing properties are only now being uncovered by modern science.

Cited Works:

  • Coe, Sophie D, and Michael D Coe. The True History Of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
  • Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste Of Chocolate. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2001. Print.
  • Judelson, Daniel A. et al. “Effects Of Theobromine And Caffeine On Mood And Vigilance”. Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology 33.4 (2013): 499-506. Web.
  • Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, And The Politics Of Food”. 2016. Lecture slides.
  • Lippi, Donatella. “Chocolate And Medicine: Dangerous Liaisons?”. Nutrition 25.11-12 (2009): 1100-1103. Web.
  • Wilson, Philip K, and W. Jeffrey Hurst. Chocolate As Medicine. Cambridge, UK: RSC Publishing, 2012. Print.
  • Babu, N. S. Venkatesh, D. K. Vivek, and G. Ambika. “Comparative Evaluation Of Chlorhexidine Mouthrinse Versus Cacao Bean Husk Extract Mouthrinse As Antimicrobial Agents In Children”. Eur Arch Paediatr Dent 12.5 (2011): 245-249. Web.
  • Mayaincaaztec.com,. “Maya Inca Aztec Dentistry”. N.p., 2016. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.
  • Lee, Ki Won et al. “Cocoa Has More Phenolic Phytochemicals And A Higher Antioxidant Capacity Than Teas And Red Wine”. J. Agric. Food Chem. 51.25 (2003): 7292-7295. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.
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