Cacao at the Center

Chocolate seems like an ordinary sweet that people consume when craving a sweet treat. When digging into a chocolate bar or indulging in a hot chocolate beverage on a cold winter night, most people wouldn’t immediately think back to the origins of cacao. Chocolate doesn’t seem all that impressive at first glance. It looks like any other sweet, and it’s available at many common supermarkets. In this day, chocolate is something common and widely available, and it doesn’t hold too much significance. However, in tracing the origins of chocolate and cacao, one finds that in the pre-Columbian era, cacao had a much more important role and was more than just treat. Cacao represented social status, and it was used for important rites of passage. Not only was cacao used as a product of consumption, but it was a tool used for forging social, economic, and spiritual relationships.

One of the most important associations with cacao in the pre-Columbian era is its ties to wealth and political stability. Mesoamerican iconography demonstrates the relationship between cacao and elite prestige and rulership (Prufer, 274). Many vessels that once contained cacao, have images of palaces and royalty which further strengthens the relationship between royalty and cacao. In addition to cacao’s use as a social status marker, cacao also had economic importance and it signaled wealth. The dried cacao seeds could be used as currency to exchange for other goods. For example, one good turkey hen was worth 100 full cacao beans or 120 shrunken cacao beans. The economic significance of cacao is further emphasized by the Spanish and Moctezuma’s attitudes towards cacao. Moctezuma’s wealth came from extracting cacao from local communities, which cements the role of cacao as a currency and an elite status symbol. When the Spanish first arrived to the Americas, they too quickly adopted the cacao bean currency, and when setting up the encomienda system to control the production of agriculture, they too extracted cacao from the indigenous population. Furthermore, chocolate drinking was a prevalent custom during rites of passage, and people lived amongst cacao orchard, where the elite drank chocolate beverages daily, unlike the common people (Mcanany, 14). The drinking of cacao “provided opportunities for forging relationships and obligations, because the drinks served as tools of social inclusion and exclusion” (Crown, 7). Through the consumption of cacao, people in Mesoamerican societies understood their place within the society because cacao was a social status symbol.

In addition to cacao’s use as symbol of wealth, cacao was an important element of rituals and rites of passage. Cacao was closely associated with rites of passage, social mobility, birth, initiation, and death (Prufer, 274). There is evidence that various preparations of cacao were important elements in funerary assemblages, especially for the elite, but beyond cacao’s role in the lives of the elite, cacao was just as important in domestic and public rituals (Prufer, 274). Cacao was usually at the center of important life transitions. For example, the dead were often buried with cacao because it was thought to accompany them into the afterlife and give them a boost of energy. The cacao was sometimes dyed red to look like blood. However, cacao wasn’t just reserved for the dead in funerary practices. The living also consumed cacao as part of the funeral rituals. In addition to the ceremonial use of cacao, the process of cultivating and preparing cacao itself was also highly ritualized. The preparation of cacao beverages followed a ritualized protocol. At court rituals, for example, the cacao beverages were much more refined than ordinary cacao beverages, and the “role of royal females in preparing and serving cacao likely was highly formalized as was the manner of consuming the prepared drink” (Mcanany, 19). An important aspect to the preparation of these chocolate beverages was the frothing of the drink. The process of frothing the beverage was done by pouring the liquid from one container to another in order to create the foam, which was considered the most desirable part of the drink (Powis, 94). There is evidence for this important preparation on the Princeton Vase, where we can see a woman in the palace pouring liquid from one vase to another.

On the right side of this image of the Princeton Vase, there is a woman who is pouring a liquid from one container to another. This is how the foam was created in cacao drinks

Beyond cacao’s ties to wealth, power, and ritual, cacao was also at the center of Mesoamerican societies’ conception of the world. First of all, cacao is associated with the gods as a divine food, and there is evidence of the divine nature of cacao within the name itself. The first part of the binomial Theobroma cacao translates to “food of the gods” (Coe, 17). Already we can see that cacao holds a special distinction above other foods.

In the Madrid Codex, there is a depiction of the moon goddess and rain god exchanging cacao in order to maintain the fertility of the earth

Another important belief about cacao and its role in the formation of the universe, is that the Maya believed that the gods chose different foods in the Maya region to form human bodies, with cacao being crucial to the conception of how humans were formed. Cacao was an important item that is often shown as an important offering in codices. For example, Codex Fejéváry-Mayer depicts the Mesoamerican cosmovision. The universe is split into four quadrants, and one of the most notable details in this codex is the use of trees. There is a cacao tree in the codex (see below), which is very important to understanding the Mesoamerican conception of the universe. Trees are significant in Mesoamerican religion because flowering trees stand “at the center of the universe, linking up, like a vertical shaft, the upper middle, and lower worlds” (Carrasco, 70), therefore the cacao tree essentially serves as an axis mundi or a center. Eliade describes the axis mundi as a place where the heavens and earth meet (12), thus the structure of the universe exists in a delicate balance at this point. Cacao’s role is suddenly much more significant than just serving as a representation of the gods; instead cacao is at the center of the universe, holding the structures of the cosmos together in a delicate balance.

In Codex Fejéváry-Mayer there are two gods besides the cacao tree which is sprouting from the jaws of the underworld. The cacao tree serves as an axis mundi.

Though cacao seems like an ordinary product at first glance, there is much more to it than meets the eye. In examining cacao’s history, it served more purposes than just a food. For Pre-Columbian societies, cacao was a the center of important life transitions and it was essential for understanding the universe and its structure.

Credit for Images

Princeton Vase:

Madrid Codex:

Codex Fejéváry-Mayer:

Works Cited

Carrasco, Davíd. Religions of Mesoamerica. Second ed., Waveland Press, 2014.

Coe, Sophie D. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Crown, Patricia L, et al. “Ritual Drinks in the Pre-Hispanic US Southwest and Mexican Northwest.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 112, no. 37, 2015, pp. 11436–11442.

Mcanany, Patricia A, and Satoru Murata. “America’s First Connoisseurs of Chocolate.” Food and Foodways: Chocolate: Case Studies in History and Culture, vol. 15, no. 1-2, 2007, pp. 7–30.

Powis, Tg, et al. “Spouted Vessels and Cacao Use among the Preclassic Maya.” Latin American Antiquity, vol. 13, no. 1, 2002, pp. 85–106.

Prufer, Keith M., and Hurst, W. Jeffrey. “Chocolate in the Underworld Space of Death: Cacao Seeds from an Early Classic Mortuary Cave.” Ethnohistory, vol. 54, no. 2, 2007, pp. 273–301.

 “The Symbolism of the Center.” Cosmos and History: the Myth of the Eternal Return. Translated from the French by Willard R. Trask, by Mircea Eliade, Harper, 1959.

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