Pre-Columbian Cacao, a Progression of Beliefs From the Olmec to the Aztec

Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans have a long and rich history with cacao starting with the consumption of the sweet, tart pulp that is found just below the husk and around the seeds; the seeds would later become this tree’s claim to fame.  More than just food stuff, this plant had a larger connection with religion, the economy, and society than almost any other edible in Mesoamerican society.

Cacao Bean
Fresh Cacao from Sao Tome & Principe



Michael and Sophie Coe have claimed in their book, The True History of Chocolate, that cacao, as a drink, was a creation of the Olmec.  As they studied ancient Mesoamerican cultures they discovered that cacao, known as “kakawa” by the Olmec, was used as early as 1000 BCE. The authors have suggested, based on this and other linguistic evidence that the Olmec were the first people to have domesticated the plant and to have consumed it as a beverage made from the beans of the tree that we now know as Theabroma cacao. While the Olmec may have been the first to use cacao in this way, they left us very little writing aside from a few scattered glyphs, a few stone monuments and some pottery. Most of our information comes from other sources, specifically The Maya, The Aztec and later the European invaders.1 (Coe and Coe 34)  Since there is really no written first hand account of cacao in the Olmec society one can only speculate as to the role cacao played in Olmec spirituality and in the rest of their society.

The culture to follow the Olmec and to have also incorporated cacao into its culture is, without any doubt,  the Maya.  “The Maya derived a lot of their high culture from the Olmec, even the word ‘cacao’ is not a native Maya word—it’s Olmec.”said Coe, in a interview with National Geographic (Bijal P. Trivedi, Nat Geo 2002) If this is the case would it not be reasonable to assume (with a great and careful deference) that the Maya could have received not just the cacao itself, but also the religious and social connection to it from the Olmec?2

Maya Cacao Pot

An Example of a vessel that might have been used to hold cacao by the Maya

When used in Mayan religious rituals, only the elite consumed cacao (St. Jean, Julie 1), which made cacao a status symbol as well as a religious one. The cacao beverage was a prohibited food for children and women in religious and ritualistic setting (Dillinger et al. 2000, 2057s). In addition to being a part of these religious ceremonies, cacao makes several appearances in the Maya creation stories within the narratives from The Book of Council also known as Popo Vuh, an epic that preserved sacred and secular Mayan history. (Coe and Coe 39). In it cacao was used to create human kind by the gods after several other attempts had failed. The Maya believed that cacao was literally a part of them.

As a culture following the Maya, the Aztec had similar creation story. In the Aztec myth, the god Quetzalcoatl ordered the ants to bring the domesticated edible plants down from a great mountain on which they were all hidden. (Coe and Coe 40) To the Aztec, cacao was literally a gift from the gods.

A common custom and preference that is shared by the Aztec and Classic Maya was to raise a substantial amount of foam on the chocolate drink. This was considered the most desirable part of the drink by both cultures. In order to do this they would take two separate cacao vessels and pour the drink from one vessel into another until the desired amount of foam had been created.

A woman Pours chocolate from one vessel into another . (The Princeton Vase, late classic Maya. AD 670- 750)

A woman Pours chocolate from one vessel into another in this image from The Princeton Vase. It is the earliest known depiction of this process.

In addition, the Maya and Aztec also both used cacao like we use some precious metals today, as a currency.  For these two cultures money literally grew on trees and the exchange rate went something like this3:

1 good turkey hen=100 cacao beans

1 turkey egg=3 cacao beans

1 fully ripe avocado=1 cacao bean

1 large tomato=1 cacao bean

(Man) In addition to buying goods and services cacao was also used to pay taxes and tribute to the royals. The Codex Mendoza shows the tribute that the Aztecs had to pay twice a year. There are two loads of cacao beans right next to the jaguar pelts. Each is accompanied by five flag-like symbols, each equals 20; therefore, 200 loads were given. While the Codex Mendoza was created after the Spanish invasion of Mesoamerica it is reasonable to assume that this taxation occurred long before the Spanish arrived.

Codex Mendoza


From functioning as a currency, a traditional drink to a religious rite, cacao was and is of varying importance to many different cultures in many different times.Although we do not know all of the secrets of the Olmec, Maya or the Aztec, we have a good base of knowledge to support the claim that cacao was extremely important to Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican society. One may go so far as to say it was an integral part of Mesoamerican culture that, if absent, would have quite possibly changed the course of the development of these and other societies, their religion, their economies and their diets.



1. While we do have varying amounts of information on each of these cultures, most of it being from European sources, it is very important to remember that these cultures, unless they where recorded by that culture, were recorded through the worldview of other cultures. Therefore, while studying it, there is a necessity to peel those superimposed cultural filters away.

2.While cultural development and progression often draws from other cultures it seems reasonable to think that the role chocolate played in the Mayan culture socially and spiritually was passed on from the Olmec.

3. This was an example of the exchange rate about 25 years after the Spanish arrived and like any other currency it was subject to fluctuation.

Works Cited


“Codex Mendoza.” The Public Domain Review, 2016. Photograph. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

Dillinger, T., Barriga, P., Escarcega, S., Jimenez, M., Salazar Lowe, D., Grivetti, L., (2000). Foods of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate. The Journal of Nutrition   2057s-2072s

Everjean. Fresh Cacao from São Tomé & Príncipe. Photograph. Flickr. 28 Jul. 2010. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.

Man, Albert R. “Chocolate, Food Of The Gods.” Cornell University 2007. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.

St. Jean, Julie. “Medicinal and Ritualistic Uses for Chocolate in Mesoamerica.” Heritage Daily.  6 Aug 2015.  Web. 19 Feb 2016.

The Princeton Vase. AD 670-750. Princeton University Art Museum/ Art of the Ancient Americas, Princeton. Princeton University Art Museum. Photograph. Web. 16 Feb 2016.

Travis. Anciano. Photograph. Flickr. 22 Jan. 2012. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.

Trivedi, Bijal P. “Chocolate Found in Ancient Mayan Teapot.”  National Geographic News 28 Oct. 2010.  Web. 15 Feb. 2016



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