The history of chocolate is something that countless people tend to take for granted in today’s world. It is very rare to find someone eating a chocolate bar to stop and think, “what elements of this food have had significant historical influence? are the ingredients found in present day chocolate similar to those used millenniums ago? what types of techniques were involved in making chocolate hundreds, if not thousands of years ago?” A large percentage of people do not understand how influential chocolate, more specifically cacao, was during the earliest time periods is production. Furthermore, an awareness of the true history of the culture surrounding cacao.
Mayan and Aztec Production of Chocolate:
Some of the earliest civilizations to implement cacao as a main element of daily diet were the Maya and Aztec people. It is believed that the first civilization to use cacao was the Olmec people dating back to 1500 BCE. However, it was not until the Maya and Aztec civilizations that the production of cacao was recorded. They would “harvest the beans from cacao trees… ferment and dry them, roast them, remove their shells, and ground them into paste. They often combined this paste with water, cornmeal, chili peppers, and other spices, then poured the spicy, bitter mixture back and forth between two containers to create a frothy head” (Howstuffworks). The “frothy head” was considered the most desirable aspect of the drink to the Maya and Aztec people (Coe & Coe, 2013). The final product had a very bitter taste, but cacao was looked upon in such high regard that the Mayans called it the “food of the gods” (Godiva).
Cacao Uses in Mayan Culture:
Cacao was available to people of all classes, which resulted in the bean making a large presence in the Maya culture. Cacao was consumed, used in marriage rituals, sacrificed to gods, implemented as a currency, placed in graves, and given as medicine. The Maya consumed the cacao beverage warm. Royal elites of the Maya would consume the cacao beverage at the end of meals with different spices such as vanilla and flowers. While the middle and lower class would enjoy cacao with less expensive ingredients (Howstuffworks).
In marriage, “the bride would give the bridegroom a small stool painted in colors, and also gives him five grains of cacao” (Coe & Coe, 2013). Here we see that the exchange of cacao between bridge and groom was used to seal marriage ceremonies. It also important to note cacao was served while the father of the bride and the groom would sit to discuss the marriage (Martin, 2019).
Cacao was often called the “food of the gods”. Furthermore, the Maya worshiped the God, Ek Chuaj (seen below), who was the patron of cacao and had a festival each April. The sacrifices during the holiday included offerings of cacao (ricochetscience).
As a currency, cacao beans were used as a bargaining tool to exchange for everyday items like cloths and food. The True History of Chocolate gives insight into the varying prices for different goods. The example, “a rabbit was worth about ten of these “almonds,” eight chicosapote fruits were worth four “almonds,” a slave about a hundred of them, and the services of a prostitute, eight to ten “according to how they agree,” provides a clear value of cacao bean within the Mayan rule (Coe &Coe 2013).
The final use of cacao was medicine. Cacao was prescribed as a cure for digestive problems, anesthetic, and anti-inflammatory purposes (Martin, 2019).
Cacao Uses in Aztec Culture:
When comparing the Maya and Aztec uses of cacao, we see that there are many overlaps in cultural aspects. Similar to the Maya, Aztec peoples used cacao as a food, currency, divine sacrifice, and for medicinal purposes (Chocolate.org). The main differences between the two cultures is found with in the minor details of the categories mentioned above.
Unlike the Maya, the Aztec people would consume the cacao beverage cold. Additionally, the cacao drink was not widely spread throughout social classes of the Aztecs. The drink was more expensive to make, due to the importance cacao beans as a main form of currency, so only upper-class citizens would enjoy it frequently. The lower-class citizens would only enjoy cacao on very special occasions (Godiva).
The Aztec took cacao as currency to different levels compared to the Maya. As it was the main form of currency and more valuable than gold. The cacao beans were taxed and held a strict price level for trade (Chocolate.org). The cacao was used as a form of “ready cash” which was used to buy anything from small household items to farm animals (Coe & Coe, 2013).
Lastly, the Aztec would use cacao for a variety of medical treatments, like the Maya, which included fevers, skin eruptions, and seizures (Martin, 2019).
In the image above we see an Aztec glyphic of two individuals worshiping a cacao tree and its produce. The Maya and Aztec had similar ideologies on the cacao bean as something of divine nature.
The two Mesoamerican civilizations are the reason chocolate is so popular today. If it wasn’t for the European invasion, the chocolate we eat so much of today could have played an extremely different role in our everyday lives.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames &
Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.
Contributors, HowStuffWorks.com. “The History of Chocolate.” HowStuffWorks,
HowStuffWorks, 18 Nov. 2007, recipes.howstuffworks.com/food-facts/history-of-
The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and Aztecs, www.godivachocolates.co.uk/the-history-of-
“Cacao: The Mayan ‘Food of the Gods’ • Ricochet Science.” Ricochet Science, 14 Apr. 2016,
Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, And The Politics Of Food”. 2019. Lecture slides.
Khan, Gulnaz, director. Ancient Art of Chocolate Making . National Geographic, 11 Sept. 2017,
Picture 1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ek_Chuaj