The Kakaw Glyph-Window to the Past

The decryption of Mayan glyphs proved a difficult and laborious process, and while not without detractors, the resulting understanding of the Mayan lexicon illustrates the significance of recorded history to present day knowledge. Whereas the Maya had been largely thought a peaceful and unified people ruled by lords and religious astronomers, the deciphering of glyphs in Maya ruins revealed a history of warring and violent city-states throughout the Yucatan. Using the glyph for chocolate or cacao, “kakaw,” as a focus, we can glimpse the importance of recovering lost human knowledge. Rather than presenting a trivial pursuit, the methodological research of Maya hieroglyphic script not only brought together lexicographers, linguists, historians, and archaeologists, but also provided insight into Maya culture undistorted by the Europian colonial gaze.

The Kakaw Glyph; Source:

The discovery of the kakaw glyph tied in with the major breakthroughs in decoding Maya script: namely, that individual glyphs were phonetic, rather than representing an idea or object. Scholars had long believed glyphs were representative, but in the 1950’s a Russian scholar, Yuri Knorozov, proposed a syllabic system. This system was eventually realized to be correct, though it had been opposed for years, especially by renowned epigrapher J. Eric Thompson, of whom Mayan scholar Michael Coe wrote, “almost the entire Mayanist field was in willing thrall to one very dominant scholar, Eric Thompson.” While an interesting twist in the politics of Mayan studies, this example also illustrates the personal interests and biases that can hinder discovery.

The syllabic interpretation of Maya glyphs resulted in part from a repeated string of like glyphs called the “Primary Standard Sequence.” The Sequence was found mostly on clay vessels, as an inscription around the rim of a cup or bowl. In realizing that the Sequence denoted the type and intent of vessel, and its owner, scholars were able to piece together basic glyph meanings. Not surprisingly, many of these recovered vessels were used to hold cacao products, and thus the phonetic/syllabic glyph kakaw was uncovered. Specifically, the glyph comprises the image of a fish and fish fin, connoting the syllable ka twice, and the symbol for w or wa below.

Pot with Primary Standard Sequence; Source:

Beyond appreciating the beauty and enigma of Maya glyphs, we can also uncover knowledge previously hidden or obscured. The revelations astonish just in the context of the kakaw glyph. From examining artwork, artifacts, and the few written codices that survived the Spanish book-burnings of the 1500’s, we see chocolate’s prominent role in Mayan culture.

Mayan religion remains a complex topic, due to its regional and polytheist tradition. In the context of the kakaw glyph, however, we see chocolate play an important role. The Popol Vuh, a key text in Mayan theology, features the iconic fish glyph, mainly in its detailing of Maya creation myth. Though the kakaw glyph may appear in tandem the Maya primordial gods, scholars agree with more certainty on the position of cacao as one of the first foods given to humans by the gods, along with, for example, corn.


Through study of scripts and codices, such as the Codex Mendoza, cacao beans were understood to be integral to Maya trade and currency. Many commodities had values measured in quantity of cacao beans, which, due to their intrinsic utility and size proved to be good monetary units.

Objects with Values; Source:

Additionally, given the commercial value of cacao, Maya rulers created sumptuary laws such that commoners could not literally drink their money away, further reinforcing cacao as a luxury for the rich.

A Lord Having his Chocolate Poured; Source:

Knowing the importance of cacao in Maya culture, we see the quality and regulation of chocolate stressed in Maya artwork. Though less substantive than considering cacao in the context of religion or society, it is quite interesting to see the Maya interest in flavor and variation of chocolate.

Though much can be learned about a deceased civilization through archaeology and historical analysis, actually deciphering information as recorded by the Maya provides a direct link to millennia past. Bias and distortion are always present when considering history, and while perhaps intrinsic to human thought, more deliberate European bias against less developed civilizations propagated pervasively in historical study in previous centuries. In recent decades, scholars have taken care to recognize this bias, and the direct interpretation of the written record has proven integral in constructing an image of Mayan civilization.


Coe, Michael. The Maya Scribe and His World. New York: Grolier Club, 1973. Print.

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

McNeil, Cameron L. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006. Print.

Presilla, Marciel, E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.

Multimedia Sources

Authentic Maya. The Maya and the Ka’kau’. Digital Image.

Doyle, James. The Drinking Cup of a Classic Maya Noble. Digital Image.Maya. Guatemala or Mexico, Mesoamerica. Ceramic; H. 7 7/8 x Diam. 6 1/4 in. (18.1 x 15.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Anonymous Gift, 2005 (2005.435). Right: Vessel with seated lord, 7th–8th century. Maya. Mexico, Mesoamerica. Ceramic, stucco; H. 9 1/2 x Diam. 7 3/8 in. (24.1 x 18.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1992 (1992.4).

Berdan, Frances. The Essential Codex Mendoza. Digital Image (From Print, Berkeley,1997).

Chocomuseo. Pouring chocolate from one vessel to another (Maya vase, 750 AD). Digital Image.


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