Cacao in Early European Culture

While cacao didn’t originate in Europe, its role in European society has been dynamic since its introduction and can be used to understand the evolution of European culture. Over time, cacao has influenced social, economic, and political decisions in Europe and Europeans treatment of cacao has also changed. Many of these changes can be seen in early European customs and beliefs involving cacao and chocolate.

Understanding the role of cacao in Mesoamerican culture is fundamental to analyzing its place in European culture, as many Mesoamerican practices were adopted by the Europeans (Martin and Sampeck).

Despite originating from the northern Amazonian basin, cacao had a prominent place in Mesoamerican culture. The crop itself is difficult to produce, thriving only in regions with its narrow range of shade and moisture. Therefore, its production occurred in small quantities in many places. Its widespread cultivation and preparation was not standardized but led to various different recipes for preparing cacao that were heavily regionally influenced.

Figure 1. Cacao growing regions in Mesoamerica (BERGMANN)

Distinct tastes and flavors influenced by the production and ingredients could be tied to a particular place and its identity, to quote Mintz “food preferences are close to the center of their self-definition” (Mintz).

Cacao had a place throughout Mesoamerican culture as it was used in marriage rituals, fertility rites, rites of death, healing rituals, and as a sign of a royal bloodline. Both the wealthy and commoners had access to cacao though how it was used differed by social class. Cacao was a unique commodity in that it was used simultaneously as a food flavoring and drink, ritual offering, but also as a currency. While quantifying the divide between social classes, this also provides the opportunity to accumulate cacao and change one’s status.

Surprisingly, many of these practices were conserved when cacao made its way to Europe. The most obvious being cacao as currency. It took its place as a small coin in Europe, one Spanish real was equivalent to 200 cacao beans (Cacao Money). It took a little more time for the widespread consumption of cacao to reach Europe. As a food, cacao was unpopular at first because of its bitter taste, but later grew as regions developed a taste for it and their own distinct recipes. Similar to the regionally specific tastes found in Mesoamerica, Europeans added their own more familiar flavorings to distinguish their recipes.

Figure 2. Frequencies of ingredients in colonial European chocolate recipes (Sampeck and Thayn)

Cacao’s changing role from Mesoamerican to European culture can be seen by comparing the different vessels used to serve it. While both developed specific vessels for the beverage, they were used for different purposes and constructed out of different materials. Mesoamerican drinking vessels were made from clay and decorated with hieroglyphs. Vessels could also be burial items indicating cacao’s significance in Mesoamerican rituals. European chocolate vessels were made from metal or ceramic indicating a wealthier owner and ornate for the sake of aesthetics rather than ritual. Chocolate’s association with a culture outside of Europe was part of its appeal but also led to several debates on its social acceptability. The ambiguity around its acceptance into European culture slowed its integration and popularization. Over time chocolate became more common, but its spread was monitored because of a fear of foreign religious influence due to its origin. (Aram and Yun-Casalilla)

Figure 3. Rio Azul funerary vessel (left) Spanish mancerina (right)

Consuming chocolate became a social activity in early Europe. It was an expensive commodity and could thus be used as a sign of wealth and status when shared with guests. It circulated across Europe at first among the wealthy as gifts. It existed as an exotic good and a sign of distinction for the socially elite. As both culinary and medicinal uses for cacao spread, the demand for chocolate increased leading to the establishment of cocoa plantations (McCabe).

Cacao’s role in European society seems to parallel much of its place in Mesoamerican culture in its transition to early Europe. Despite fears over its spiritual ties to Mesoamerican beliefs, chocolate was commodified and separated from any religious background. It spread through the upper class and eventually becoming more commonplace, but its uses and consumption still varied by class.

Aram, B., and B. Yun-Casalilla. Global Goods and the Spanish Empire, 1492-1824: Circulation, Resistance and Diversity. Springer, 2014.

BERGMANN, JOHN F. “The Distribution of Cacao Cultivation in Pre-Columbian America.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 59, no. 1, Routledge, Mar. 1969, pp. 85–96. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, doi:10.1111/j.1467-8306.1969.tb00659.x.

Cacao Money. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe. 2016, doi:10.18030/

McCabe, Ina Baghdiantz. A History of Global Consumption: 1500 – 1800. Routledge, 2014.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. Penguin Group, 1986,

Sampeck, Kathryn E., and Jonathan Thayn. Translating Tastes. 2017.

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