The Importance of Cacao in Mesoamerican Ritual and Culture

The word chocolate often brings to mind Hershey candies, cocoa, chocolate bars and various other sweet treats. Beyond this modern imagery, it may be hard to imagine the long history of chocolate and its importance in ancient Mesoamerican culture. Mayan and Aztec culture often tell the story of cacao being discovered by the gods in a mountain and given to the people. The importance of cacao, led to its wide use in festivals, the medical field, and even as a form of currency.


The word cacao originated from the Olmecs, located in the lowland region of Mexico on the eastern gulf coast (Coe & Coe, 1996). Various archaeological evidence have been found for the use of cacao by the Aztecs and Mayans. Vessels found in burial sites indicate them as offerings of chocolate to the deceased (Dillinger 2000, Hall et al. 1990). From the residue left behind, archaeologists were able to determine that cacao was once stored in the vessels.

Rio Azul vase
A drinking vessel with cacao hieroglyphs

The cultivation of a cacao tree was a time-consuming process. The trees usually grow to a height of over 60 feet and take 4-5 years to flower. Each flower produces a pod which contains a cacao seed covered in white pulp. The pods are open using external sources, such as human or animal force. According to Coe and Coe (1996) the four steps needed to produce the cacao nibs are: fermentation, drying, roasting and winnowing. These four steps are still used in the modern chocolate making process.

Cacao Pod and Pulp

Ritual and Culture:

Cacao had many ritualistic and spiritual meaning to the Aztecs and Mayans. These two cultures believed that the cacao bean were divine and used the for many rituals, such as birth, marriage and death (Smithsonian, 2008). Cacao seeds were so valued by mesoamerican society that was even used as a currency. The beverage form of the cacao was used by the Aztec elites.

Each cacao drink was prepared differently based on the occasion and ceremony. Depending on the person for whom the drink was prepared, different ingredients were added. The drink could be mild to hot  as chillies were also found in the region. The grinding of other additives, could make the drink thick, lumpy, or watery. Many chocolate drinks have made their way around the world for all occasions, shaped by various culture throughout history. Even the native informants of Bernardino de Sahagun gave him a menu of chocolate drinks, suitable to be served to rulers (Coe and Coe, 1996)

Priests would often prepare chocolate as a drink for religious ceremonies or offer cacao seeds to the gods. Yearly festivals were held by the Mayans to honor the cacao god Ek Chuah. Offerings were made to him in the form of cacao beverages, dancing, gifts, cacao seeds etc. Aztec soldiers marching off to battle were often given chocolate beverages to sustain them during battle.

Ek Chuah standing next to a cacao tree

Cacao was also used for medicinal purposes. Sources such as  the Badianus Manuscript, the Princeton Codex and the Florentine Codex show that cacao was used a medial tool. The Spanish priest Bernardino de Sahagun collected extensive medicinal information regarding the use of chocolate for the body (Dillinger et al. 2000).


Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996

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

Fiegl, Amanda. “A Brief History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian. SMITHSONIAN.COM, 2008

Hall, G., Tarka, Jr., Hurst, W.J., Stuart, D., Adams, R. Cacao Residues in Ancient Maya Vessels from Rio Azul, Guatemala. American Antiquity, Vol. 55, No. 1, 1990



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