Two of the most developed and complex human empires to ever populate the planet are the Maya (Classica Maya 250-900 AD) and the Aztecs (1420-1520). Prior to conquest by the Spanish conquistadors, these two massive societies inhabited the region now known as central Mexico. At the height of their power, both civilizations were enormous: the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan contained 200,000 people, and the roughly 40 cities of the Maya contained between 5,000 and 50,000 people each. These two empires are well known for their architecture, astronomy, food (specifically cacao, maize, and chili peppers), calendar, mathematics, writing, and religion. One commonality between the two societies was the presence of the cacao bean and its role in the lives of their citizens, specifically in the form of chocolate beverages. The pre-Conquest specialty cacao drink preparations of the Mayan and Aztec people provided a social, societal, and religious backbone for two of the most complex civilizations in modern human history.
“Pre-Conquest chocolate was not a single concoction to be drunk; it was a vast and complex array of drinks, gruels, porridges, powders, and probably solid subtances” (Coe). Traditional Maya recipes included the tzune (made with cacao, maize, sapote seeds), saca (made from cooked maize, water, cacao), and a “Lacandon Sacred Drink”. This special drink was made by fermenting dried beans that were toasted and ground with a suqir vine and stirred into water. The tougher part of the vine was the foaming agent that was whipped up before serving (Martin). Aztec cacao drinks were actually initially produced to replace octli, a native wine that was alcoholic. Drunkenness was not looked upon favorably in the Aztec society, so a focus was turned to cacao. Aztec beverages contained more flavoring than their Mayan counterparts, using plants like chili peppers to create mild to extremely hot concoctions (McNeil). In terms of preparation, Aztec beverages were very similar to their Mayan counterparts, but were most often served cold. Traditionally popular recipes included honey chocolate, flower chocolate, vanilla chocolate, bright-red chocolate, and black/white chocolate: “the ruler was served his chocolate… green, made up of tender cacao; honeyed chocolate made with ground up flowers- with green vanilla pods; bright red chocolate; orange-colored chocolate; black chocolate; white chocolate. (Sahagun). These drinks were made by grinding cacao seeds into a powder and mixed with water while changing basins to whip up foam. The drink is then flavored (often with hueinacaztli, an ear-shaped flower) and mixed with small spoonfuls of gold, silver, or wood before consumption
These various specialty beverages produced in pre-Conquest Mesoamerica served immense social purposes. In addition to being a “social lubricant” that was enjoyed over conversation, there were several social customs that were centered on drinking chocolate. The term “chokola’j” which provides the foundation for the modern word “chocolate” means to drink chocolate together with friends in the Mayan culture. “Tac haa” is the word for a marriage ritual in which the man invites the father of a potential wife to discuss the future and marriage over a chocolate drink (Martin). Cacao drinks also operated as tokens of inter-societal bonding: “In later Mesoamerican societies for which we have data on social alliances, cacao was a primary object of exchange between social groups, marking betrothal, marriage, and children’s life cycle rituals” (Coe). For chocolate consumption to be so intertwined with everyday culture in pre-Conquest Mesoamerican shows its importance to the social lives of people in these societies.
Cacao beverages also served a societal purpose in terms of establishing and recognizing hierarchy in government. Specifically in the Aztec empire, Bernardino Sahagun, a missionary from Spain provided rich descriptions of cacao in royal cities as an example of a rich food consumed primarily by lords and people of distinction. Chocolate drinks were served as part of elaborate feasting systems; the royalty in Aztec culture were served chocolate with a meal that consisted of the finest maize breads, soups, fish/meat casseroles, and tamales. These feasting systems had great political implications: “the feasting system not only created a forum for sociopolitical alliance formation but it was also and essential economic mechanism wielded by Mesoamerica’s ruling elites” (McNeil). In addition to being a social element for Mesoamericans, cacao also heavily influenced the political makeup of societies.
Finally, cacao is deeply rooted in the religion of Mesoamerican societies, so much to the point that it has such influence over culture and politics as mentioned above. Throughout the Dresden Codex, cacao is featured as a food for the gods of the Mayan people. Consuming cacao, especially the luxurious foam of the beverage, is also thought to ease the soul during its journey into the Underworld after death (Martin). The Popol Vuh, a colonial document from the records of a Franciscan friar, states that gods used cacao and sweets to form humans: “and so they were happy over the provisions of the good mountain, filled with sweet things, thick with yellow corn, white corn, and thick with pataxte, arid cacao, zapotes, anonas, jacotes, nances, matasanos, sweets” (Popul Vuh).
The cacao tree and the undifferentiated beans that it produces also has many other uses in Mesoamerican societies such as its role in medicine; cacao is used as a stimulant and was believed to be able to cure exhaustion, mental illness, fevers, etc. There is no doubt that the cacao tree has huge historical significance in pre-Conquest Mesoamerica, as it essentially provided structure to the Maya and Aztec empires. Traditional cacao beverages were intertwined with the social lives of citizens, held significance in its role as an elite food that mediated conflict and formed political alliances, and were “foods of the gods” that comprised creation stories for its people. To see that a beverage made from a regional plant can have so much influence on the lives of entire civilizations is truly amazing.
Coe, S. et Coe, M. 2013. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames and Hudson. Everbest Printing. Print.
Martin, C. 2007. Lecture Slides, AFRAMER 119X, Harvard University.
McNeil, C. 2009. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. University Press of Florida. Print.
Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings. Trans. Dennis Tedlock. New York: Simon and Schuster 1985
Sahagun, B. 1950-1982. Florentine Codex. General History of the Things of New Spain. Translated by A. Anderson and C. Dibble. School of American Research, Santa Fe, New Mexico, University of Utah Press.