Cacao and chocolate had a wide variety of uses and associations in pre-Columbian society, as it was a highly multifunctional good that was respected and coveted. Cacao first originated in Mesoamerica and was used for religious purposes, as a luxurious food item, as currency, and as medicine. These uses were often interconnected and posed a variety of implications, ranging from economic, social, cultural, and/or political.
Cacao has many origin stories rooted in religion. The Theobroma tree, also known as the World Tree, was believed to be the center of the universe and the source of life (Martin, 2020). It was thought to connect the realm of the sky, earth, and the underworld. In addition, religious gods and figures were often portrayed as trees, transforming into trees, or born from trees (Martin, 2020). Some even believed that by drinking chocolate, one could obtain god-like qualities or wisdom (Dreiss & Greenhill, 2008). For example, the two figures below provide representations of gods portrayed as cacao trees or wearing elements of the tree:
Cacao was also used in various religious rituals and ceremonies, such as baptisms, marriages, and rites of births and death. The Maya people would often baptize children with a mixture of cacao, virgin water, and crushed flowers (Dreiss & Greenhill, 2008). In addition, Frier Bernardino de Sahagún reported that Aztec fathers would often instruct their sons to offer a cacaoatl drink to God as they entered religious school (Dreiss & Greenhill, 2008). Cacao was also incorporated into marriage ceremonies. According to the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, the groom often offered cacao (beans or a drink) to the woman they were marrying. It is interesting that cacao was often used to signify the significance of a certain ceremony or ritual, almost as if documenting authenticity and serving as a symbol of religious respect. The figure below depicts a Mixtec ceremony where Lady Thirteen Serpent offers a bowl of cacao to Lord Eight Deer to solemnise their marriage (Dreiss & Greenhill, 2008):
Moreover, the Maya people were often buried with some form of cacao, whether it cups or vases or bowls. These pottery items were often personalized, containing the Primary Standard Sequence – the name of the deceased and the type of cacao the cup contained (Seawright, 2012). It was thought that chocolate energized and eased the soul’s journey to the underworld (Martin, 2020). It is interesting that chocolate was often viewed to have some sort of “superpower” or healing quality for both the living and the dead. Below is a figure of relatives offering the deceased individual cacao for his journey to the underworld/afterlife (Seawright, 2012):
Cacao was also involved in religious sacrifice rituals. Human sacrifices were often made to various gods or deities to show respect and honor, and they were first signaled by offering chocolate (Dillinger et al., 2000). Extracting the cacao beans from the pod was also viewed as symbolically similar to the extraction of the human heart during a sacrifice (Dillinger et al., 2000). This is just another example proving the high regard that chocolate held, especially in a religious sense. It was truly viewed as a sacred item, and using it in a sacrifice showed generosity and reverence.
Besides its religious purposes, cacao had always been widely recognized as a delicious food item to be consumed. In the Pre-Columbian era, it was typically consumed as a beverage and limited only to the very elite or royal. The beans were often used to prepare a drink called Xocoatl, which was a very bitter drink made of roasted and ground beans mixed with water and spices (De Maré, 2013). Maya ruins often depicted cacao as being associated with the god of abundance and wealth, which helps to explain cacao’s restriction to the very elites – priests, royals, distinguished warriors, and military officers (Dillinger et al., 2000). It was also believed that cacao was an intoxicating substance, and thus not appropriate for women and children (Dillinger et al., 2000). This had implications for social structures of the societies that included cacao, as cacao served as a hierarchical catalyst that enforced a disparity between the elites and the commoners.
Moreover, cacao was used as a form of currency. It may be strange to think of a food/beverage as a form of currency, but this helps to explain why only the rich and royal elite were consuming cacao. These people were essentially swallowing money, which lower-class people could not afford to do. When the Aztecs, who at the time were one of the most advanced societies, captured the Maya people and their land, they also seized their economy. This included cacao, as the land in this area was most suitable for growing the pods (De Maré, 2013). The Aztecs entered trade, assisted by cacao beans as a form of commodity money (De Maré, 2013). Cacao beans soon became one of the most common means of exchange among pre-Columbian people for simple, low-value transactions. In a letter Cortes wrote to Charles V, he stated: “This seed was being used as currency for daily exchanges” (De Maré, 2013). The number of seeds used was proportional to relative worth – for example, one rabbit was 10 cocoa beans, while one slave was 100 cocoa beans (De Maré, 2013). Cacao beans soon became the main currency of the Empire, and its value was officially fixed in 1555 when a decree stated that one Spanish real equaled 140 cacao beans (De Maré, 2013). This currency even spread to countries that are now in present-day South America, and it was in use until the start of the 19th century.
Lastly, cacao was utilized as a form of medicine. It was believed to have digestive, anti-inflammatory, anesthetic, and energy-related applications that would assist in healing. People often believed illnesses were connected to the gods, and due to the fact that many also believed cacao to be a powerfully divine item, cacao was used as a healing agent. Evidently, these applications of cacao began to become interrelated. In terms of evidence of cacao’s medicinal properties, there were many documents and manuscripts that recorded its uses. The Badianus Codex indicated that cacao flowers may be used to alleviate fatigue, while the Florentine Codex took note of a recipe of cacao beans, maize, and the herb tlacoxochitl to relieve fevers and shortness of breath (Lippi, 2009). It also cautioned against excessive consumption of cocoa from unroasted beans but approved it in moderation to help replenish and invigorate the body (Lippi, 2009). Later, manuscripts like Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams recorded over a hundred uses and instructions for medicinal cacao. There were several themes of cacao’s healing properties found within these records – it was often used to treat emaciated patients to gain weight, to address exhaustion and stimulate patients’ nervous systems, and to aid digestion. Besides these common uses, chocolate had a variety of other health issues it was prescribed to treat, such as poor appetite, anemia, kidney stones, etc. (Dillinger et al., 2000). Likely due to the fact that chocolate was believed to have divine origins and thus god-like properties, it was utilized to treat a large variety of illnesses. This provides support for the idea that the various uses and applications for chocolate were often intertwined and circled back to one another, thus rendering chocolate as one of the most dominating forces in the Pre-Columbian society.
Dillinger, T. L., Barriga, P., Escárcega Sylvia, Jimenez, M., Lowe, D. S., & Grivetti, L. E. (2000). Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate. The Journal of Nutrition, 130(8). doi: 10.1093/jn/130.8.2057s
De Maré, L. (2013, March 4). Museum of the National Bank of Belgium. Retrieved from https://www.nbbmuseum.be/en/2013/03/kakao.htm
Dreiss, M. L., & Greenhill, S. (2008). Chocolate: pathway to the gods. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Lippi, D. (2009). Chocolate and medicine: Dangerous liaisons? Nutrition, 25(11-12), 1100–1103. doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2009.08.002
Martin, C. (2020). Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”. Retrieved from Canvas.
Seawright, C. (2012). Life, Death and Chocolate in Mesoamerica: The Aztecs and the Maya; Where did the Ritual Use of Cacao Originate? ResearchGate. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Caroline_Seawright/publication/274837640_ARC2AZT_Essay_Life_Death_and_Chocolate_in_Mesoamerica_The_Aztecs_and_the_Maya_Where_did_the_Ritual_Use_of_Cacao_Originate/links/55f8b47908aec948c4864629.pdf