Mayan Cacao Complexity

All of the chocolate consumed around the world today (excluding that white “chocolate” imposter) is based on the same key ingredient that it was centered on 3800 years ago: the cacao bean (Coe and Coe, 36).  However, as anyone who has tried a raw cacao bean can tell you, this bean is very different from the finished chocolate product that we eat. The fancy names of common chocolate brands and Eurocentric history commonly applied to chocolate consumption, often give the impression that Europe is responsible for transforming the bean from a basic, raw ingredient into a complex, rich food. Nevertheless, chocolate was first created and consumed in Mesoamerica and, as the Maya demonstrate, chocolate had many variations and methods of consumption before the Europeans “discovered” it.

Map of Mesoamerica and the Maya – (FAMSI)

The Maya civilization was at its height during the 3rd through 9th centuries (well before Columbus arrived) and occupied territory in present day southeastern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador (Coe and Coe, 37; see map above). This territory contained pockets of ideal cacao growing conditions in which some of the best-tasting cacao would have been found. The Maya recognized the value of these regions and built an elaborate system relying on intense cultivation and irrigation, as well as sophisticated trading routes (chocolate historical timeline). In fact, the Maya even selected their favorite tasting varieties of cacao to further develop and produce these strains on larger scales (chocolate historical timeline). But the Maya were not just selecting for, and harvesting beans of high quality. They transformed these beans into multiple different variations of chocolate and “brought chocolate making to a high art” (Presilla, 11).

A common, and well-studied method of consuming cacao during the Maya period was as a beverage. Although there is little information regarding the consumption habits of ordinary Mayans, the tombs of elites give us clues as to how the high strata of Mayan society drank chocolate (Coe and Coe, 43). Painted vases in the tombs of elite Mayans have glyphs that indicate that these were vases for drinking cacao (Coe and Coe, 45). There are even variations in the “recipes” for the contents of the vessels; glyphs such as witik and kox possibly refer to chocolate flavorings (Coe and Coe, 46). Certainly, it is important to “warn against the simplistic notion that there was one sole chocolate drink made by the Maya” (Coe and Coe, 48). Some paintings on drinking vessels appear to show achiote-flavored chocolate drinks with vanilla, maguey sap, and honey possibly being added as well (Presilla, 13-14). The translation of these recipes was confirmed by the work of the Hershey laboratory, as many of these vases contained both theobromine and caffeine; in Mesoamerica, these two compounds are found together only in cacao (Coe and Coe, 36,46). Additionally, the Hershey laboratory has found evidence of cacao in other food vessels.

Left: Cylindrical vessel, 6th–9th century | The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Anonymous Gift, 2005 | 2005.435. Right: Vessel with seated lord, 7th–8th century | The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1992 | 1992.4
Maya drinking vessels at the Met Museum of Art

Previously, it was thought that non-drinking vases did not need to be investigated for the presence of cacao. (Presilla, 15). However, the discovery of cacao along with fish and turkey bones indicates that cacao was not only drunk, but was used in cooking sauces for meats and possibly toppings for tamales (Presilla, 14-15). This means that chocolate could have played an even larger culinary role than what was formerly thought. Indeed, the recent detection of capsaicin (a compound found in spicy chiles) in containers also containing cacao and meat bones, suggests a precursor to the chocolate-based dish called “mole” that is eaten in Mexico today (Presilla, 15).

The chocolate that is consumed around the world today has its roots in Mesoamerica. Not just with the Mesoamerican climate, or the Mesoamerican soil, not even just the Mesoamerican cacao plant – but with the Mesoamerican people. A close look at the Maya shows that they selected and manipulated the cacao plant to harvest the best raw beans possible, transformed these beans into drinks, broths, and sauces, and added other ingredients to infuse layers of complexity and richness to the food or beverage. So, even as we bite into our Ghiradellis, Godivas, and Lindts, it is worth remembering and acknowledging that chocolate is not some brilliant invention of Europeans, but a pre-Columbian tradition that has evolved over the centuries.

 

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 2013.

Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Random House Digital, Inc., 2009.

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