Ka-Ka-Wa In Pre-Hispanic Art. Mesoamerican Cacao Artifacts

It is believed that cacao was first made into chocolate by the Olmec culture of where is today modern day Gulf Coast Mexico. According to Michael Coe, linguists have determined that the word “kakawa” was in use as far back as 1000 b.c in the ancient Olmec site of San Lorenzo. This leads Coe “to reasonably conclude that it was the Olmecs who first domesticated this plant or at least discovered the chocolate process.” (Ch.2)


How can we be sure that prehispanic vessels were actually used for consumption of Cacao? Is it enough to believe inscriptions or a set of  glyphs that spell out “ka-ka-wa” ?

Cacao contains the alkaloids theobromine and caffeine. “Cacao is the only plant in Mesoamerica that contains both theobreomine and caffeine “(Coe,Ch.2) chemicalChocolate-Cocoa-'Cacao'-Plant-2-450w

Therefore when an ancient vessel is suspected of having been a container for cacao, chemical analysis can determine if the two alkaloids are indeed present in residual manner.   What was the most common form of ingestion?

According to Hillary Christopher “The most common use..consisted of cacao powder..water..often …mixed with…chili powder..vanilla…sometimes ground maize.” Christoher goes on to add ” The most desired aspect.. was the froth resulting from either blowing into a special spout or pouring the liquid back and forth between two vessels



Aztec woman pouring


The froth enhances the taste and aroma of the cacao beverage.

The cacao vessels held such importance among elites that they were also included in their burial offerings, perhaps so that the person could continue to enjoy cacao in the afterlife.  Elites had most access to cacao but it is not known  if the cacao beverages and beans were offered in burials  the “gods” or to the deceased in their journey through afterlife.

The Maya also depicted people of importance as well as gods wearing cacao pods. This shows us the importance of this relished plant and its delicious capabilities.


“Later Classic period examples of chocolate pots contain the glyph for cacao
(kakaw in Mayan) and are painted with specific iconography that provides clues to their
role in elite courtly life.” (Christopher)


By reading glyphic depictions and further analyzing the chemical components still remaining in residue within the vessels we can be sure that these were not only indeed cacao vessels but that they and cacao held an important place in Mesoamerican society.

According to Hillary Christopher “Ceramic evidence for cacao use ..available in..chemical traces of theobromine…specific shape of the vessels…. useful for determining when cacao use began and how it influenced social interactions.” (Christopher;52)

Chrsitopher in “Cacao’s Relationship with Mesoamerican Society  goes on to add that “Among the Maya,… cacao was being used in distinctive bottles and spouted “chocolate pots” as early as the early Preclassic period (1400-1100 BC) ”  Therefore not only through glyphic interpretation and chemical analysis but also by vessel shape do we know that cacao was the intended use of the Mesoamerican cacao vessels.

Did the vessels have particular uses or were they simply containers for beverage? apparently the shape of the pouring vessel was important in the frothing of the cacao.

Vessels with a spout and a second wider opening  forced air into the beverage, therefore enhancing the froth. The Classic period employed a cylindrical open top vessel which would produce froth by being poured into another vessel.

According to Christopher “spouted vessels … the Maya..had a distinguishing trait of how they processed and utilized cacao. The spouted forms allowed air to be pushed through the larger body to form the desired froth. Thus we can assume that the spout had both preparation and serving functions ” (53)


The open top vessels had to pour the beverage back and forth between containers to achieve the aerated frothiness so desired by the Mesoamericans.


In conclusion we see that the cacao vessels were not simple containers. The Early Classic spouted top created froth upon pouring while the Classic era open top vessels had to be poured back and forth. The classic period also had more decorated vessels which would tend to show scenes of people drinking or making cacao beverages.  Perhaps there was also social differentiation depending on the type of cacao beverage that was made and if the vessel was spouted or open top. Perhaps it was considered to be of a higher class to have one vessel or another.

There may also be evidence that some vessels were made more for shows of social power and satus then the actual consumption or production of the cacao itself. Perhaps akin to the fancy cups on a persons “China”shelf that are never to be used and only to be admired.

According to Christopher ” The vessels became an additional gift along with the cacao itself. ….the highly decorated..open.. vessels of the Classic.. were used as “sociopolitical propaganda…proclaimers of elite power…precious codices”(57)


Works cited

The True History Of Chocolate-Sophie Coe-Michael Coe – Thames and Hudson – Kindle 

Hillary ChristopherOctober, 2013. : PDF icon 5_SPECTRUM_Christopher.pdf. Department of Anthropology |cola.unh.edu




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