The presence of cacao in ancient Mesoamerica dates back to the Pre-Classic civilization of the Olmec. Archeologists have been able to study the presence of cacao in ancient Mesoamerica by debunking hieroglyphs, discovering artifacts, and chemically testing for cacao residue. From their studies, they have been able to discern that cacao played an intimate role in ritualistic religious practices. Evidence shows cacao being incorporated in a myriad of ancient ceremonies like marriage, burial, sacrifice, and shaman initiation, dating from the Pre-Classic age through Post-Classic Mesoamerica. The focus of this piece is to explore, further, the connection between cacao and religious practices in ancient Mesoamerica by way of artifacts found by archeologists. Religion played a massive role in the everyday of people in Mesoamerica, as I have come to find out, cacao did too. The first step is understanding what cacao meant to religion is to better understand what exactly the people of the time believed in.
It is important to clarify that,“cacao” for the purpose of this paper is starkly dissimilar to chocolate. The processes ancient Mesoamericans used to consume their cacao were very simple, not many ingredients whatsoever, compared to the cacao to chocolate processes of today. We use it as a decadent treat, whereas they used it primarily as a stimulant (McNiel 82). There was a focused purpose when someone consumed cacao, purposes stated in the preceding section. The ancient Mesoamericans, in particular the Mayans, held cacao in such a high-regard that the importance of cacao of the time was akin to maize (Mahony). It is well understood that maize was more integral in the everyday diet of the Mayan people, however, maize was not integral in the ceremonial processes of the time. Cacao represented much more than sustenance, there was a sacred component to it which is why I became interested in discovering its relationship with cacao in Mesoamerica.
Religion throughout ancient Mesoamerica has remained fairly consistent beginning with the Olmecs, moving to the Mayans, and ending with the Aztecs. Professor Davíd Carrasco, who studies specifically Mesoamerican anthropology at Harvard, suggested this assertion to me through a book recommendation and I find the thesis of the book very compelling. Professor Carrasco turned me to Peter Berger’s Sacred Canopy which aims to tackle the question, “Why did people believe what they did?” When discussing ancient Mesoamerica his primary contention and explanation was “As above, so below” which basically means that ancient Mesoamericans thought that the happiness or discontent of the gods was directly reflected in their earthly ongoings (Berger). In other words, they believed that life was being played on two different levels simultaneously: one being their autonomous action and the other being the will of the gods in the other world. This is commonly referred to as “duality” in anthropology. They used religion to explain the ongoings of the natural world. As a result we have seen a repetition of ritualistic archetypes from all ancient civilizations in attempt to garner the favor of the gods. Even through the years it is noted that the Nahuas made a cacao sacrifice to an effigy of Jesus Christ that the spaniards brought in (Mahony). This offers even more evidence of their religious practices remaining consistent even through severe transition. All in all, Berger makes a compelling argument as to why ancient Mesoamerican belief has been rather consistent.
The repeated ritualistic archetypes to appease the needs of the gods is where we find chocolate in ancient Mesoamerica. Burial ceremonies were religious in nature (Prufer). Their understanding of death was that it was more of a beginning than an end. Death embarked one’s journey into the other world. In an ancient burial ground dating back to the 5th to 4th century there was a bowl uncovered that had chemical tracings of cacao, discovered in what would have been ancient Maya. The bowl was thought to have possessed the ritual sustenance for that person’s travel into the other world (Prufer). As the person died and moved on to the next life the cacao was the fuel that allowed them to successfully travel to the other worldly side. Consequently, the people that were still alive would continually make sacrifices in order to gain the favor of the past relatives, cacao deities, and other agricultural deities.
Copán is a famous archeological site located in current day western Honduras, in the 5th to 9th century it is understood that they were a part of the Mayan civilization. This site is one of the most famous locations connecting religion to chocolate by way of physical artifacts and hieroglyphs. In Copán we see diagrams and hieroglyphs of cacao trees and other agricultural deities. An interesting discovery in Copán was that the cacao tree was used to help depict their ancestry. Furthermore, there were artifacts that correlated people whom were still alive putting multiple sacrificial ornaments in their past relatives’ tombs. The connection with their ancestors which played a massive role in their religion (McNeil). They would pay respect to the dead and they looked upon their ancestors as having almost god-like impact in the other world, they Mayans would look to their ancestors alongside deities to help them protect and maintain their cacao storages. As a means of protecting their ability to successfully complete their ritualistic practices both religious and social.
I have been very interested in exploring the roots of Mesoamerica because they are my ancestors. Their belief system being so closely tied in with chocolate of all things is fascinating.The implications of rituals has had dramatic effects throughout all ancient Mesoamerican history, it was fruitful finding where cacao finds it place in these repeated archetypes.
Berger, Peter L., 1929-2017. The Sacred Canopy; Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Garden City, N.Y. :Doubleday, 1967. Print.
Rosenswig, R. M. (2008), Cacao in Mesoamerica: A Culture History of Cacao ‐ Edited by Cameron L. McNeil. Bulletin of Latin American Research, 27: 435-437.
Mahony, Mary Ann. “Cacao in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao (review).” Enterprise & Society, vol. 11 no. 1, 2010, pp. 175-177.
Prufer, Keith M. W. Hurst, Jeffery; Cacao in the Underworld Space of Death: Cacao Seeds from an Early Classic Mortuary Cave. Ethnohistory 1 April 2007; 54 (2): 273–301.