What is the real value of cacao today? The Many Uses of Chocolate in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

Chocolate is, undeniably, a universal delicacy, yet its trek across the Atlantic Ocean diluted its value to a certain degree. If we go back in time, directly transporting ourselves to the early colonial period of tropical lands in the Americas, our palates would be challenged by the distinct differences of added flavors, either mysterious or highly noticeable ingredients, which were meant to enhance the robustness and bitterness of cacao. Our minds would also be blown by the sense of power attached to its non-edible uses.

In “The True History of Chocolate”,  the author(s) expressed:
“Here we should warn against the simplistic notion that there was one sole of chocolate drink made by the Maya or Aztecs. They were every bit as capable of applying individual taste and invention to the raw materials at hand as the most “creative” of modern chefs. 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 substances, to all of which could be added a wide variety of flavorings….” (48)

The first recollection of chocolate consumption was introduced in Mesoamerica where the “food of the goods” was preferably enjoyed as a hot or cold beverage containing various spices and natural sweeteners such as chiles (Capsicum annums ululte & cobareno chiles), annatto (natural red food coloring agent), maize, maguey sap, maguey sapote pits, herbs, vanilla, honey and flowers (Coe & Coe 49; Presilla 9). The early adopters, the Mayan and Aztec population, would intentionally consume chocolate in ceremonial settings or exchange as a currency for goods (Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods”).

The Mayans, whether rich or poor, supposedly indulged in hot chocolate on an everyday basis as well as aggrandized it on esteemed occasions (Presilla 18). During a royal wedding, the bride and groom had to drink a chocolate beverage in order to concretize the marriage (Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods”). Mayan warriors would drink it to boost energy and strength prior to combat, in conjunction with speculation that cacao pods were either worn as spiritual armor or perhaps a costume for traditional games (Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods”). Moreover, the rites of death entailed the concoction of cacao and annatto (symbolizing human sacrifice) which was placed into the burial of the deceased to ensure his/her soul had a smooth and refreshed transition into the afterlife (Presilla 13; Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods”). Maya codices such as Dresden Codex and Codex Nuttal, have illustrations of both instances displaying the chocolate beverage in a rather majestic drinking vessel designed exteriorly with Mayan hieroglyphics, and showcasing gods, royal members, animals, botanical imagery and even cacao pods (Coe & Coe 42-43; Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods”).


Dated back to 1041 BCE, the Codex Nuttall image showcases Lady Thirteen Serpent handing the cacao beverage to Lord Eight Deer assuming that he will drink it in order for them to confirm their royal marriage.  (Martin, Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods) (Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons)

dresden_codex2c_page_2 Based on the Princeton Vase (AD 750), the chocolate beverage was also described to have a frothed topping indicating that it was indeed a sacred offering in Mesoamerican history (Presilla 9; Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods). For instance, Lacandon Maya produced two forms of the same chocolate drink, the secular Lacandon drink for regular consumption and sacred Lancandon drink which was offered to their gods (Coe and Coe 62-63).

Furthermore, inscriptions from Classic Maya artifacts reveal a well-defined classification of edible cacao offerings including, tree-fresh cacao, bitter cacao, honey-eyed cacao, green cacao (mucilage inside the cacao pod) and previously mentioned, foamy cacao (Coe and Coe 87).  The True History of Chocolate noted that maize was another staple item used with cacao to make savory and sweet dishes such as tzune, saca, atole (also called Champurrado) and still an ambiguous claim, cooking sauces.

 According to National Geography,  Dresden Codex, is “one of four documents remaining out of thousands in the Pre-Columbian era”, which shows evidence of cacao being used as a religious offering  during that period. (Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons)

Further north of Mesoamerica, chocolate consumption was aristocratic; social hierarchy, military ethos and polytheism played major roles on Aztec lands (Coe and Coe 95-96). Dominating central Mexico, the Aztec empire consisted of three cities including Tenochitian (the governing city), Texcoco and Tlacopan called the Triple Alliance (Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods”). Raw cacao production was unsuccessful in central Mexico due to its unfavorable climate, thus, the Maya supplied Aztecs with the sought-out commodity in exchange for other goods via pochtecas, meaning “People from the Land of the Ceiba tree” who were Aztec merchants traveling to and from on foot (Coe and Coe 73).


According to the authors of The True History of Chocolate, the merchants of Aztecs would travel hundreds of miles on foot to exchange bird feathers, garments and slaves for cacao in addition to acting like spies during their quest. (Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons)

Unlike the Mayans, Aztecs rulers added another layer of value to cacao by making it taxable among its residents, enhancing its currency platform & bean depositories, and only offering it as a consumable product to the elite class such as the rulers & their families, warriors and long-distanced merchants (Coe & Coe 88 – 95). The preparation of cacao was quite similar to Mayan traditions in which it was commonly made in a drink form consisting of maize or other spices and natural sweeteners. According to the True History of Chocolate, other notable flavors in Aztec chocolate recipes were the following native flowers: hueinacaztli, tlilxochitl, mecaxochitl, Magnolia mexicana (yolloxochitl & eloxochitl) and izquixochitl. However, Aztecs preferred to consume the elite beverage in a cold state rather than hot (Presilla 9).

Based on their healing rites, the Aztecs also endorsed its indefinite healing attributes with other ingredients such as ceibas, mecaxochitl and Magnolia mexicana, for curing mental illness, allergic reactions, lung disorders, stomach related ailments, skin legions, fever and seizures (Coe & Coe 104).

During sugar-free Mesoamerican era, cacao was like a present-day cryptocurrency (but edible and non-electronic). It was also considered as a fancy treat, ceremonial gift, everyday cooking agent (even for savory dishes), natural remedy for humans & the environment and so forth. Today, the industrialized cocoa product is highly standardized, mainly consumed as a dessert, highly marketed on consumeristic Valentine’s Day and no longer acts as an over-the-counter medicine unfortunately. Influenced by Philippe Conticini’s flavor experiment, I challenge you to think “outside the box” and explore the flavor complexities of chocolate by experimenting with 5 of the 10 native  ingredients (listed below) in your next chocolate recipes  (Presilla 139). Nonetheless, this is only a small step in exploring the vast portfolio of origin cacao but give it a try anyways (chocolate is definitely worth it!).


Cacao Beverage Ingredients:
Chili powder
Maguey Sap (Maple Syrup)
Herbs (Lavender, Rosemary, mint)

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 2009.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods””. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, 24 Jan 2018, Harvard Extension School, Cambridge, MA. Class Lecture.

Martin, Carla D (2018, Jan). “Introduction.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, 24 Jan 2018, Harvard Extension School, Cambridge, MA. Class Lecture.


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