Mayan and Aztec cacao use: stratified by gender, yet socially significant for all.

Cacao originated in Mesoamerica and became an incredibly important crop for most indigenous groups of the region as early as 2000 BCE (Coe & Coe, 33-105). Cacao’s stimulating properties, due to the compound theobromine, likely led to its high value in these societies, in which it often became a religious symbol, playing a role in origin myths and depictions of religious figures (Coe & Coe, 38-42). The cultural importance of cacao in Mesoamerican civilizations, however, was not simply its nutritional value or use in religion.

Rather, the most important cultural impact of cacao was what followed this assignment of high value: it came to be used as social currency to solidify bonds across family groups and within families, and to reaffirm hierarchies in these societies with the various roles groups could play in its production and consumption. In examining the Aztec and Mayan civilizations, two of the most expansive and well-documented of these Mesoamerican civilizations, we are able to see that the consumption of cacao solidified a gender divide in which males were afforded higher status, and were more able to enjoy the social benefits of meal sharing, or in this case, cacao sharing. Still, however, it is also likely that the social quality of the preparation of such drinks afforded women in these societies some social benefits as well.

In this image from a mayan vase, we can see the god of maize depicted as a pod from the cacao tree. This god in particular is often depicted in this way, but many other gods are often also depicted as wearing or carrying cacao, which became an important part of religion in Mesoamerica.

Cacao based drinks, which varied somewhat from civilization to civilization, were ritualistically shared to bring together family groups at ceremonies such as weddings, funerals, and marriage arrangements, and we are able to see how social bonds can form around its consumption in a way that Mintz describes of shared consumption in general (Mintz 3-7). Yet in most depictions or descriptions of such ceremonies, only the men of the participating families are involved in the consumption of cacao, and women are more likely seen preparing or frothing the cacao drinks that are to be shared. In this way, we can see a clear stratification of the Mayan society along gender lines.

In this image from the Princeton Vase, like many others depictions of such ceremonies, we see a woman at the ceremony frothing the cacao beverage but not participating in its consumption.

This stratification extends to class as well—the elites or royals are most often depicted as having cacao, and royals even depicted themselves as descendants of cacao trees, putting themselves close to gods and establishing a justification of their high status. From these two types of representations we are able to follow the hierarchical logic pretty clearly: royals and elites are close to cacao and therefore close to god, and men are the second order of this stratification because they can participate in the consumption of cacao (elite men are highest, then likely elite women, then lay men, then lay women), placing women the lowest on this scale. Considering Mintz’s analysis of shared consumption as one of the ultimate methods of social bonding, are the women of these societies then left out of the social sphere by their not participating in the ritual cacao drinking?

Here we can see that Mintz left out a key predecessor to social consuming: social preparation. In reality, the women of these societies were likely often a vital part of these ceremonies in their preparation of the cacao beverages, and likely realized social benefits of this beverage preparation outside of the ceremonies as well. In Richard Wrangham’s book, Catching Fire: How cooking made us human, he discusses in depth the way in which cooking together contributes to a shared community in a similar way that Mintz describes of eating together (Wrangham, several). We can sometimes see depictions in art from these Mesoamerican societies of groups of women preparing this cacao beverage together, and it is likely that the women within a family group would work on this task together, solidifying family bonds. Although it is hard to know, it seems possible that, at gatherings of multiple families, the women might prepare the beverages together, further helping socialize across the families, and contributing to a community within their own social sphere. Finally, in most depictions of these ceremonial gatherings, the women are shown frothing the beverages in front of the guests. Such an activity does not need to be public, but its depiction as such suggests that, though they were given a lower status and an accompanying lower status role in these rituals, they were still likely a vital part of the socialization of their families and their communities.

In this image from the Florentine Codex, we see a cacao beverage being prepared by several members of different generations in a family group. This shows the way in which preparation of cacao could be a highly social event.


Works Cited

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

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Print.

Sotelo, Angela, et al. “Chemical and nutritional composition of tejate, a traditional maize and cacao beverage from the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico.” Plant foods for human nutrition 67.2 (2012): 148-155.

Wrangham, Richard W. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York: Basic, 2009. Print.

“Maya Agriculture.” Maya Agriculture. Authentic Maya, n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.

“Los Medios De Intercambio.” Los Medios De Intercambio. Editorial Raices, n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2016.

“A Brief History of Chocolate: Part 1.” Dandelion Chocolate. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.

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