A life without chocolate seems impossible to imagine. Yet, chocolate has only been a part of human history since at least 1500 BC after the domestication of cacao by the Olmec empire. Even then, chocolate would not be heavily distributed until its introduction to the old world during the early sixteenth century. Since it’s beginning, chocolate had a dual identity as a transactional entity (cacao beans) as well as a consumable good in the form of a beverage in many mesoamerican civilizations. However, the shift of chocolate into the sugary concoction we know today can be attributed to the interaction of Spain with the Aztecs during the Spanish conquest.
Importance of Cacao in the Aztec Empire
The main ingredient of chocolate is cacao beans. Cacao occupied a special significance in the Aztec empire being attributed a sense of godly aura as it is often referred to as “food from the gods”. The Aztecs believed that cacao seeds were gifts from the god of wisdom, Quetzalcoatl, who brought the seeds to cultivate in his garden on Earth thus introducing this delicacy to humans (Garcia 10). This mystical attribution to cacao increases the overall value of this crop and helps understand its establishment as a suitable form of currency. In fact, in many mesoamerican civilizations such as the Maya and Aztec, there is evidence that cacao seeds were used as currency. Unlike the Maya, in which chocolate was consumed by both elite and the general population, the Aztec empire only allowed the emperor, elites and warriors to consume cacao brews (Squicciarini 13). The non-elite population was discouraged from consuming cacao solidifying chocolate symbolism as an indication of power and wealth. Aztec warriors were paid with cocoa beans and it was part of their regular military rations indicating the importance of cacao in this society (Squicciarini 13). The mystical aura and exclusivity of cacao increased the acceptance of cacao as a form of currency since it was not readily available to the public.
In addition, the rarity of cacao contributed to its attribution as a valuable commodity. In the fourteenth century, the Aztecs were the dominating empire in the region. However, the Aztecs were not able to grow cacao themselves. Tenochtitlan, central Mexico, did not have the appropriate climate conditions for cacao cultivation due to its location if the highlands of the region (Presilla 17). Cacao is a very difficult crop to cultivate not only because it is labor intensive, but because it requires specific tropical climate conditions. As a result, The Aztecs had to find another way to obtain cacao beans.
As a result of the inability to grow cacao themselves, the Aztecs required all areas under the empire that grew cacao to pay the Aztec empire cacao beans as tribute or taxes (Coe & Coe 99). This exchange between the empire and its colonies cemented cacao as a currency. Colonial documents show the exchange rates established and accepted by the empire. Cacao beans were used to make any kind of purchase raging from clothes, food, and even services. For example, a turkey hen costs 100 cacao beans while a turkey egg costs 3 cacao beans (Coe & Coe 99). These records show that cacao had infiltrated every transaction in daily life. Cacao beans as currency was accepted and honored throughout the empire. By the Spanish arrival, cacao was the main medium of transaction in the empire.
Spanish conquistadors quickly realized the importance of cacao beans in the Aztec empire and became interested in cacao for its economic importance rather than for its flavor (Presilla 18). The Spanish did not enjoy the bitter taste of the chocolate beverage. The importance of cacao is exemplified by Ferdinand Columbus (c. 1502):
“For their provisions they had such roots and grains as are eaten in Hispaniola [these would have been maize and manioc], and a sort of wine made out of maize which resembled English beer; and many of those almonds which in New Spain [Mexico] are used for money. They seemed to hold these almonds at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen.”(Coe & Coe 109)
The “almonds” refer to cacao beans. The realization of its value came from the great care the Aztecs showed towards the preservation of this crop indicated by “they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen”. As the conquest advanced, the Spanish opted to continue the use of cacao beans as currency in conquered regions and as basis of chocolate beverage as a way to manage the empire more efficiently (Squicciarini 14). To establish their power, the Spanish assumed control of both the production and trade of cacao beans by setting up cacao plantations and taxing both its production and trade (Squicciarini 14). If cacao did not hold an importance place in mesoamerican civilizations, chocolate may have been lost during the Spanish conquest. The currency used could have easily been gold as the Spanish were accustomed to, but the significance of cacao allowed the Spanish to take control of mesoamerica by monopolizing the production of cacao.
Cacao and chocolate were introduced to Spain during the sixteenth century as a consumable good. The cocoa concoctions were first advertised as medicine, but later became liked for its taste and stimulation (Squicciarini 15). Its pairing with sugar (already available in Europe) increased its appetitiveness to the European population. This sweetened drink became a common beverage among Spanish nobility during early seventeenth century. Even through its changing preparation, chocolate retained its symbolism as an indication of power, wealth and luxury in Spain. The shift from elite to commoners occurred after the invention of the steam engine which allowed mass production during the late seventeenth century (Squicciarini 20). As new machines became available allowing for different types of chocolate to emerge, the price of chocolate dropped in the 1890 and 1900s increasing accessibility to the general population(Squicciarini 20). The boom of chocolate in Spain and the rest of Europe cemented chocolate as a consumable commodity erasing the identity as a currency that was attributed to chocolate for many centuries.
Without chocolate’s dual role as both a beverage and currency in the Aztec empire, it’s possible that chocolate as we know it today may have never existed. If cacao beans were not used as a currency, the Spanish conquistadors would have not been enticed to incorporate cacao and chocolate into their civilization thus dooming chocolate to be buried in history.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate, Third Edition. New York: Thames & Hudson, Ltd, 2013.
Garcia, Jesus. “Cacao and Marker-Assisted Selection.(Cacao Breeding Begins to Combat Diseases).” Agricultural Research, vol. 49, no. 8, 2001, p. 10.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised. A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009.
Squicciarini, M., and Johan F. M. Swinnen. The Economics of Chocolate. First ed., Oxford University Press, 2016.
Cacao production map obtained from Carla D. Martin, “Lecture 2: Mesoamerica and the ‘food of the gods’” February 5, 2020.