In today’s society, chocolate is a well known commodity that many people associate with sweetness and romance. A key ingredient in the making of chocolate is cacao. When people think about chocolate, they think of a sweet treat with European origins from places such as Switzerland. However, many people are often unaware that cacao was believed to be discovered in early Mesoamerican civilizations. These civilizations also had quite a different view of cacao and chocolate than the modern view. They viewed these items as luxury goods given to them by the gods and used them for more than simply eating. Cacao and chocolate were used in religious rituals, marriage rituals, and even used to cure illness. The Mayans viewed chocolate so fondly that they would have a yearly festival to honor the cacao god, Ek Chuah.
Cacao can be traced all the way back to the Mesoamerican civilizations. According to Magnus Pharao Hansen, cacao was seen as luxury crop during this time period and it provided theobromine for the nervous system after a labor process of cultivation and processing. This evidence allows us to understand that Mesoamerica was becoming a civilization, moving past the stages of just necessities and creating class division and hierarchy. The image to the right shows vessels with residue of theobromine, which is an ingredient in cacao. This shows us that chocolate was becoming a big attraction in civilizations such as the Olmecs. Other civilizations such as Mayans and Aztecs have records that show a strong presence of cacao and chocolate.Documents such as the Dresden Codex, Madrid Codex, and ParisCodex (shown on the right) were in hieroglyphics and have cacao featured throughout, often being consumed by gods in ritual activities. Evidently, cacao was viewed by the Mesoamerican people as more than just a food item, but rather a sacred item given to them by the gods. According to historian Marcy Norton, cacao was viewed in a religious setting as essential to one’s physical, social, and spiritual well- being. During this time as well, many marriage customs involved the presence of cacao. The Mayan marriage rituals had the husband serve chocolate to the father of the girl he wanted to marry and discuss the marriage. Cacao was also used in customs involved death. The rites of death referred to cacao that was dyed red and helped ease the soul’s journey to the underworld. Cacao was used in beverages, as well, during the time of the Mayans. Chocolate beverages were viewed as sacred drinks with the foam being the most important part of the beverage. The beverages were able to boost energy for people due to the caffeine in the chocolate. Usually, it was men of royalty and elite status who consumed chocolate through beverages, while women and children were not allowed to drink the cacao. This is because they viewed it as an intoxicating food. Eventually, cacao and chocolate were being used for medicinal purposes. In the Mayan civilization, cacao was used for digestion and as an anti- inflammatory. In the Aztec civilization, cacao was used to cure infections and illnesses. As Teresa L. Dillinger states, “Childhood diarrhea was treated with a prescription that used five cacao beans. These were ground and blended with the root of tlayapoloni xiuitl (unknown plant) and then drunk. To relieve fever and faintness the prescription called for 8–10 cacao beans to be ground with dried maize kernels and blended with tlacoxochitl.” (Dillinger et al, 2060S) While the uses for chocolate expanded far beyond social use and pleasure, cacao still had an effect on the social landscape of the Mesoamerican civilizations. The Mayans had words such as “chokola’j”, which is translated to “to drink chocolate together”. Cacao had quite a special effect on people and played an important role in society and still does to this day.
Clearly, there were many customs and beliefs that the Pre Columbian civilizations had involving chocolate and cacao. The influence chocolate was able to have on these civilizations was immense and impacted their everyday lives. Many aspects of life were changed socially, religiously, and physically. Cacao and chocolate were able to change social interactions and physical treatments of people. People in the Mesoamerican civilizations used chocolate during many marriage, death, and religious rituals. As shown in lecture, foods and beverages such as the one shown on the right, still use the influence of early civilizations in order to sell products. The description of this beverage states, “Recommended served warm (106°), this delicious and relaxing beverage was blended to revive the delicacies and keen insights of the ancient Aztec tribes of Central America. Passed from generation to generation, our take on this blessed drink brings you the sensational benefits of anti-oxidant rich cacao and the powerful digestion aid blend of spices to create a tasty healthful experience.” With this description, we can clearly see how the Mayans and Aztecs views on chocolate still influence the modern global chocolate market. Due to the significance of cacao in the Mesoamerican society, chocolate has played a major role in the lives of many people and continues to have a major influence all over the world.
Hansen, Magnus Pharao. “Cacao: How a Single Word Holds the Key to Understanding the Mesoamerican Past.” Nawatl Scholar, 1 Jan. 1970, nahuatlstudies.blogspot.com/2015/01/cacao-how-contested-history-of-single.html?spref=tw.
Dillinger, Teresa L., et al. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 130, no. 8, 2000, doi:10.1093/jn/130.8.2057s.
St Jean, Julie. “Medicinal and Ritualistic Uses for Chocolate in Mesoamerica.” Medicinal and Ritualistic Uses For Chocolate in Mesoamercia, 9 Feb. 2018, http://www.heritagedaily.com/2018/02/medicinal-and-ritualistic-uses-for-chocolate-in-mesoamerica-2/98809.
Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods,’”
Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion.”