Primary Uses of Cocoa Within the Pre-Colombian Mayan Civilization

Introduction

Given the fact that cocoa has an extensive and, often times, perplexing history, it is often time the case that the many different uses for cocoa are analyzed in order to determine cocoa’s true significance and impact on some of the world’s earliest documented civilizations. In today’s modern world, it has become the norm to view chocolate as either a simple snack, or as nothing more than a gift that one might give his or her loved one as a means for celebration on a special day. However, once one begins to delve deep into the cocoa’s earliest roots, it can immediately be seen how it not only played a significant role in how different civilizations, such as the Maya, viewed cocoa, but also, how it was able to, in part, dictate a large part of how their civilizations were organized and governed. Despite how common chocolate is today, such is the case that some of the main methods by which cocoa was used in the Mayan civilization, to our knowledge, include using cocoa as a means to flash their wealth, marry other individuals, and as an exchange of currency throughout society.

Cocoa as a Portrayal of Wealth 

Despite the fact that a number of civilizations drank cocoa for a multitude of reasons, whether it was cleansing of the body or as a means for socializing, there is strong evidence that points to the notion that one of the most common uses of cocoa in both the the Mayan civilization was both as a tool for the elites to convey both power as well as a negotiation tool (Dorie Reents-Budet). In order to do this, it was not unusual to see wealthy elites flash their wealth in front of their peers by taking part in gift presentations that common individuals would not be able to afford. By doing this, elites were able to claim a stake in society and were often times able to make a point in regards to the amount of wealth that they had. Of course, in civilizations such as the Maya, more wealth, in this case, also meant more political power, thereby being granted the ability to enact change within society due to this certain wealth. As such, it is therefore argued in many historical contexts that cocoa was able to play a lead role in appealing to the wealthy, while it was more likely the case that the common, everyday individual did not have much access to cocoa throughout his or her lifetime.

Portrayal of a Mayan Polychrome Vase being utilized for the purpose of serving chocolate during a presumably elite occasion (McNeil, Collections of New Orleans Museum of Art. Photograph copyright Justin Kerr).

Cocoa as a Means for Marriage 

The notion of cocoa became incredibly central to the idea of a Mayan marriage with the introduction of a ritual referred to as the tac haa, which is to be translated as “to serve chocolate” or “to invite the father of a girl whom one’s son wants to marry to marry to discuss the marriage and serve him drink” (Martin “Mesoamerica”). The fact that tac haa was considered to be a key component in order for a man to be able to ask a father whether or not he would be able to marry the father’s daughter is a strong indicator of just how significant cocoa was throughout this time period. Equally as important to point out is the that “these feasts celebrated significant political events, such as royal marriage or military victory; in that context, serving cocoa was a way to display wealth, and therefore power” (Leissle 36). Within this context, it can be seen that cocoa’s role in Mayan civilization extended from being able to inquire about marrying a specific woman all the way to conveying to outsiders the amount of power that they had via the celebration of the marriage.

Portrayal of the ritual of tac haa taking place, in which a man would request to discuss a marriage with the father of the woman he wished to marry (Martin).

Cocoa as a Means for Currency 

Perhaps one of the most indicative aspects of the Mayan civilization that points to just how central cocoa was to society is the way in which they started to use cocoa as a means for currency. In terms of using cocoa as a means for currency, individuals would use cocoa beans as a method to be able to exchange or purchase goods, such as food or other amenities (Museum of the National Bank of Belgium). In addition to being used as a currency, individuals would often times take their cocoa beans and make a drink referred to as Xocoatl. The fact that cocoa was able to be used as currency within the civilization shows the heavy importance that individuals would place on cocoa. Not only that, but it is also able to show that they not only saw cocoa as a simple food that grew on trees, but rather, as nothing short of a lifestyle design.

Modern-day portrayal of how Xocoatl might have been made during the time of the Maya’s existence (Geographic).

Works Cited 

Dorie Reents-Budet, “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking among the Ancient Maya,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica .

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa, Polity Press, 2018.28:48.

Geographic, National. “Watch the Ancient Art of Chocolate-Making | National Geographic.” YouTube, YouTube, 13 Oct. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3l3TFieqIvk.

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

Mcneil, Cameron. “Chocolate in Mesoamerica.” 2009, doi:10.5744/florida/9780813029535.001.0001.

“Museum of the National Bank of Belgium.” A Tasty Currency: Cocoa – Museum of the National Bank of Belgium, www.nbbmuseum.be/en/2013/03/kakao.htm.

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