Sacred Cenotes: Cacao in the Yucatán

There is no doubt that cacao was highly valued in Mayan culture, intertwined with economics, culture, religion, and ritual.  Cacao was abundant and valuable, and the numerous cacao-producing regions on the coast were hubs for trade.  The Yucatán, on the other hand, does not have an environment suitable for cacao trees.  Yet despite this, the Yucatec Maya revered cacao so much that they found a way to overcome their climate’s cacao-growing challenges and cultivate it in sinkholes called cenotes (Coe and Coe 46).   These sinkholes could sustain a small number of trees, but not nearly as many as the large plantations to the south, which suggests that profit was not a motivating factor.  The motivation for cultivation of cacao in cenotes in the Yucatán stems from prestige and status as well as the sacred importance of cacao.

There were a number of rich cacao growing region in the pre-Conquest era, including the Chontalpa, the Pacific coastal plain of Chiapas and Guatemala, and Boca Costa (Coe and Coe 45).  The regions had sufficient rainfall and nutrient rich soil, enabling them to sustain significant cacao plantations.  The Yucatán, on the other hand, has a dry climate and rocky soils, and as a limestone plain with virtually no rivers, it has typically not been deemed suitable for cacao cultivation (Gomez-Pompa 250).  However, scattered in this region are humid cenotes which the Maya put to their chocolate-growing benefit.  Cenotes are sinkholes filled with water and soil, which create a humid ecosystem where cacao can grow naturally.  Because they are saturated, the typical challenges of the lack of rainfall and the dry season can be overcome (Gomez-Pompa 250-251).  Though these cenotes had the right environment, they were not on the size scale to run plantations.  To put things in perspective, a Kuyul sinkhole where cacao was found has a depth of 40m and a diameter of 240m, which can be visualized in the image below (Gomez-Pompa 251-252).  According to Spanish sources, they were the private property of wealthy lineages (Coe and Coe 46).  Cultivation of these small groves of cacao only produced a little fruit, unlike large plantations, so monetary gain was likely not the motivating factor for this small-scale cultivation.

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The cultivation of cacao in cenotes was motivated by the its representation as a status symbol for the wealthy class.  Cacao had a long history of ties to economics and high social status, given its use as a currency, a noble drink, and a ritualistic offering.  Cacao has been discovered in the tombs of prominent rulers, accompanying other luxurious items in funerary tradition (Coe and Coe 35).  The cacao tree was also used to depict a Mayan ruler’s mother, Lady Zac-Kuk, at the ruler’s burial site, associating the royal lineage with the cacao tree (Lecture 2/1).  Given this history, it makes sense that cacao itself was an important indicator of wealth and power for the Maya.  For the families that owned the cenotes, the cultivation of cacao in their groves represented their upper socioeconomic status.  The prestige that is associated with cacao justifies its use in the cenotes of the Yucatán.

Lady Zac-Kuk depicted with a tree with cacao pods (Lecture 2/1)

Beyond being a status symbol, cultivation of cacao in cenotes also evidences the spiritual importance of cacao.  A painted capstone from the Temple of the Owls in Chichen Itza, which is shown below, depicts the spiritual significance of cacao and the cenote.  In this artifact, the Maya god Kauil, who is the lord of sustenance and of royal descent (Coe and Coe 46), stands on the mouth of a serpent while carrying a plate with offerings.  The presence of the god Kauil, given his connection to royal descent, points to the association between the cacao and cenote and the noble and powerful lineages (Gomez-Pompa 253), supporting the notion that the cenotes were a symbol of wealth and power.  In the capstone, as Simon Martin describes, Kauil emerges from the underworld, which is depicted as a cenote, in pursuit of the heavens above (174).  Cacao pods hang as if naturally growing from both the heavens and the underworld.  The god’s expression of “rescuing” the seeds from the cenote and their “gifting to heaven and earth” in this scene depict the significance of the spiritual value of cacao (Martin 175).  Beyond being a status symbol, cultivation of cacao in cenotes also indicates the spiritual importance of cacao, which is demonstrated by the capstone from the Temple of the Owls.

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The motivation for cultivation of cacao in cenotes in the Yucatán stems from prestige and status as well as the sacred importance of cacao.  Cacao is deeply intertwined with wealth and social status in Maya culture, and the use of cenotes is no exception.  Despite the dry and rocky conditions in the Yucatán, the Maya discovered and practiced a cultivation of cacao in cenotes to demonstrate their wealth and to uphold the sacred importance of cacao.  The effects of these practices are still with us today, as wild cacao trees continue to grow in cenotes, and chocolate beverages are consumed during contemporary celebrations.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., Michael D. Coe, and Ryan J. Huxtable. The true history of chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Gómez-Pompa, Arturo, José Salvador Flores, and Mario Aliphat Fernández. “The sacred cacao groves of the Maya.” Latin american antiquity (1990): 247-257.

Martin, Carla. “Lecture 2/1: Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. 1 February 2017. Lecture.

Martin, Simon. “Cacao in ancient Maya religion: first fruit from the maize tree and other tales from the underworld.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: a cultural history of cacao (2006): 154-183.


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