The Relationship Between Cacao Beverages and Ritual in Ancient Mesoamerica

It is no secret that cacao beverages were utilized extensively throughout Ancient Mesoamerica. The Maya were most famously known for using cacao and cacao beverages for a variety of different societal and cultural uses, as well as economic and trade uses. However, this essay will explore the exact known origins of cacao beverages within ancient Mesoamerica, as well as their relationship to ancient rituals and then end by discussing their context within more modern-day rituals within what used to be the Mesoamerican region.

The Origins of Cacao Beverages in Ancient Mesoamerica

            Before the relationship between cacao beverages and rituals in ancient Mesoamerica can be examined and discussed, the origins of these beverages within the region must first be explained. That is, how cacao beverages came about and rose to social, cultural, and ritual prominence within ancient Mesoamerican societies. It is not exactly known to researchers, anthropologists, and scientists how Theobroma, which are a genus of flowering plants that include the type of cacao present in ancient Mesoamerica, arrived in the region. That is, “all wild relatives of domesticated Theobroma are native to northern Amazonian South America, although cacao was not cultivated there in pre-Columbian times…” (Henderson et. al. 18937). Thus, “whether cacao arrived in Mesoamerica through human agency or whether the natural range of Theobroma once extended through Central America is a controversial issue” (Henderson et. al. 18937). However, the best way in which to approach the issue of determining the specific origin of cacao beverages within ancient Mesoamerica is through the scientific examination of artifacts that were used to make, store, and present cacao beverages. However, this process is very difficult due to the fact that, “the process of cacao preparation destroys the pods and seeds, making recovery of macrobotanical remains rare” (Henderson et. al. 18937). However, scientists can determine the ancient presence of cacao beverage by chemically analyzing pottery artifacts for the remanence of Theobroma. Through this chemical analysis, the origins have cacao beverages within ancient Mesoamerica has been determined through the analysis of sherds of vessels from Puerto Escondido in what is now Honduras. That is, chemical analyses of residues extracted from pottery vessels from Puerto Escondido show that cacao beverages were being made there before 1000 B.C., extending the confirmed use of cacao back at least 500 years (Henderson et. al. 18937). Thus, “the preparation, serving, and consumption of cacao beverages in the Early Formative period at Puerto Escondido is the earliest documented context for what became a central dimension of social life in Mesoamerica” (Henderson et. al. 18937).

Bodega Brown bottle from northern Honduras. This vessel is of the same type and form as samples found at Puerto Escondido (Henderson et. al. 18938)

Cacao Beverages and Rituals in Ancient Mesoamerica

           The vast importance of cacao beverages in ancient Mesoamerican societies is well-documented and well-known. However, one of the most important uses of these beverages was to facilitate rituals. That is, following the use of cacao beverages in the Early Formative period at Puerto Escondido, cacao beverages continued to be an essential component of important social ceremonies and ritual events throughout Mesoamerica over the past two and a half millennia (Henderson et. al. 18937). Furthermore, “from 1000 B.C. to the sixteenth century, kakaw [the Mayan word for ‘cacao’] drinks remained a primary component of social and political events among the indigenous peoples of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and as far south as Nicaragua and Costa Rica, its consumption crossing nearly all socioeconomic and political boundaries” (McNeil 206). These cacao beverages were utilized in various important rituals within ancient Mesoamerican societies. More specifically, cacao and cacao beverages were primary objects of exchanges between social groups, marking betrothal, marriage, and children’s life cycle rituals (McNeil 151). Although these particular ritual events were extremely important within these societies, cacao beverages held their most significant role within the facilitation of ritual feasts and communal eating. These beverages’ importance to ritual feasting within ancient Mesoamerica can be confirmed by portrayals on vessels of palace feasts wherein cylinder vases brimming with frothy cacao are offered by attendant women or sit next to the host and close at hand to the gathered guests (McNeil 211). The connection between cacao beverages and the rituals of feasting and communal eating is extremely important because feasting has been linked to emergent sociopolitical complexity in discussions of, “political strategies available to would-be local leaders in societies in which social stratification was not institutionalized” (Joyce and Henderson 650). Feasting allowed local leaders to establish obligations from people who would not otherwise have owed emergent leaders anything (Joyce and Henderson 650). Thus, the feasting system not only created a forum for sociopolitical alliance formation, but it also was an essential mechanism wielded by Mesoamerica’s ruling elites (McNeil 209). And the essential role that cacao beverages played within this vastly important ritual of feasting acts as a case study depicting the inextricable link between cacao beverages and rituals in ancient Mesoamerican societies.

Late Classic period Maya painted vase whose palace scene depicts an aristocratic meeting and feasting event during which tamales are served in a large plate, and a painted ceramic vessel is brimming with foamy cacao beverage (McNeil 211)

Mesoamerican Cacao Beverages and Rituals in a Modern Context

            Along with the vastly important case study of the ritual of feasting, cacao beverages have been, and continue to be, an essential aspect of religious rituals within Mesoamerica. Within the modern context, cacao beverages are still utilized by the Ch’orti’ Maya who live in eastern Guatemala near the Classic period Maya site of Copan in western Honduras (McNeil 384). That is, the Ch’orti’ make and consume cacao beverages during their Rain Ceremonies, which occur during the end of April and into the beginning of May. The Rain Ceremonies are rooted in ancient Mayan culture and the rituals performed during the ceremony are done so that the rain gods may be worshipped (McNeil 384-386). Cacao beverages, along with fermented and alcoholic maize beverages, are consumed throughout the rituals of the Rain Ceremonies (McNeil 390-392). Thus, the Ch’orti’ provide a modern example of the inextricable relationship between cacao beverages and rituals within Mesoamerica.

Chocolate is poured from a guacal into a jícaran containing hot chilate (a Ch’orti’ ritual maize drink) in Quetzaltepeque, Guatemala (McNeil 391)

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Works Cited

Henderson, John S., et al. “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao           Beverages.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 104, no. 48, 2007,          pp. 18937–18940.

Joyce, Rosemary A., and John S. Henderson. “From Feasting to Cuisine: Implications of             Archaeological Research in an Early Honduran Village.” American Anthropologist, vol.             109, no. 4, 2007, pp. 642–653.

McNeil, Cameron L. Chocolate in Mesoamerica : a Cultural History of Cacao. University Press             of Florida, 2006.

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