Mesoamerican Cacao Artifacts

Without the work of epigrapher, David Stuart, we would not know as much about the early Mesoamerican civilization as we do today. Thanks to the discovery and deciphering of Mesoamerican Cacao Artifacts, we are able to trace evidence and the use of cacao in the early Aztec and Mayan civilizations. There were many beliefs associated with cacao and many of the vessels (chocolate pots) were recognized within the Aztec and Mayan civilizations as powerful social objects that depict the traditions and accustoms within the Mesoamerican communities. 

Image of the word “Kakau”, as deciphered on Mesoamerican cacao artifacts

            David Stuart is an epigrapher who was responsible for deciphering the hieroglyphic for cacao on Mesoamerican artifacts. His discovery was significant because it led to more evidence of the use of cacao within these civilizations. After the symbol for cacao was confirmed, it was easier and faster for people to become aware that a particular artifact once contained cacao. As time went on and the understanding and uses of cacao within the Mesoamerican civilizations became more known, this hieroglyphic, along with many other symbols and images on these artifacts revealed the high status of cacao within these civilization. I find it amazing that thanks to science, Stuart was able to decipher this hieroglyphic that does not exactly make it evident that it means “kakau”. In the early Olmec civilizations “ka-ka-w” was their word for currency, and the uses of cacao and evolution of the word lead to the consumption of chocolate today. Stuart’s small discovery is part of the reason we are able to understand the traditions and beliefs of Mesoamerican civilizations. 

Image of a Classic Mayan vase from the seventh century portraying the Maize God

The image on the artifact above is a portrayal of the Maize God who represents the agricultural cycle of planting, harvesting and replanting, and the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. At the top of the vessel, one can see the hieroglyph for cacao as mentioned earlier. Vessels often showed the relationship between cacao and divine entities that were worshiped in Mesoamerica. These vessels were also used to drink and store cacao, which is the reason for the findings of cacao residue within them. Theobromine and Caffeine are two compounds found in cacao, the only plant in the region to contain both compounds, which lead to the concluding evidence of cacao residue contained in the vessels.

This piece is interesting and significant to me because it shows really how highly worshipped cacao was. In the early Mesoamerican civilizations the liquid form of cacao was thought of to be a divine drink. The consumption of cacao was believed to bring the people closer to the divine and a way to please the Gods. This is also intriguing because Religion was believed to be orientation in the ultimate sense, and how one becomes terms with the ultimate significance with one’s place in the world. If this is correct, because cacao was seen a divine, it means that in the early Mesoamerican civilizations cacao was very crucial to an individuals place in the world. Not only was the drinking cacao thought of to be a divine action, but also there were many health benefits associated with the drinking of cacao. In the early Mesoamerican civilizations, the drinking of cacao was believed to be beneficial to the body and soul. The consumption of cacao was believed to boost energy, increase hydration, heal skin eruptions, reduce fevers, and many other heal issues within the body. 

Image of Aztec individual holding a cacao pod

The image to the left, of an individual holding a cacao pod reminds me of how cacao was also used for social reasoning. My interpretation of the artifact is that it appears to be a boy/man offering a cacao seed. In the Mesoamerican civilizations cacao was used as a form of currency and exchange. What made cacao so useful and significant in terms of currency, was that it could be eaten and used as coin. Cacao seeds could also be traded. For example, one turkey was worth 100 full cacao beans (shrunken cacao beans were not fermented and were thought to be no good and hold less value). Cacao was also used during ceremonies and rituals. The consumption of cacao using the vessels was performed during a wedding as the cacao symbolized a royal wedding. 

Image Above: early Mesoamericans making beverages out of cacao

Mesoamerican cacao artifacts show us how the cacao contributed to wealth, religion, social events, and social status. Artifacts that show royal individuals around cacao trees/seeds show us that owning cacao seeds was vital for ones own self-ego and social status. The evolution of what was known as cacao into chocolate today has more significance than modern people know. Thanks to Stuart, and the discovery of many early Mesoamerican cacao artifacts, we are able to trace the history of chocolate and learn about the traditions of an ancient civilization. 

Sources:

“A CONCISE HISTORY OF CHOCOLATE.” Edited by Mark Christian, C-Spot,  www.c-spot.com/atlas/historical-timeline/. Accessed 22 Mar. 2020. (Multimedia source)

Admin. “Ancient Chocolate Discovery Dates Back to Mayans.” FriendsEAT, FriendsEAT, 7 Aug. 2012, friendseat.com/blog/cacao-may-be-older-than-we-thought?utm_source=Opt-in%2BGroup&utm_campaign=7df3778ac0-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email.

Campbell, Lyle & Kaufman, Terrence. 1976. A Linguistic Look at the Olmecs: American Antiquity, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 80-89 Published by: Society for American Archaeology http://www2.hawaii.edu/~lylecamp/LC%20Lx%20look%20at%20Olmecs%20JSTOR.pdf

Cheong, Kong (Powis, T.; Cyphers, A.; Gaikwad, T.W.; Grivetti, L.) 2011. Cacao use and the San Lorenzo Olmec: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). 108(21):8595-600 · May 2011 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51110764_Cacao_Use_and_the_San_Lorenzo_Olmec

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013 [1996] The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson

Festa, Jessica. “Sweet Guatemala: A Look At The Country’s Mayan Chocolate History And Modern Experiences.” Impact Travel Media Network. Epicure & Culture, February 12, 2014. https://epicureandculture.com/history-of-chocolate-guatemala/.

MacCurdy, Charles. “More Than a Drink: Chocolate in the Pre-Columbian World.” YouTube, Berkeley Graduate Division Videos, 30 July 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPjQ82-MlSs.

Martin, Carla. 2017 AAAS E-119 Lecture Slides. February 1st, pp.23- 57

Takushi, Scott (Pioneer Press). 2013, December 17. Museum of Belize and House of Culture: NEWSEUM Blog Spot: Belize’s Maya Collection on Displayhttps://mobnmoc.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/belizes-maya-collection-on-display/mayaex1/

Tlatollotl. “Archeologists, Mayanists, and Hershey’s Collaborated to Reveal This Ancient Vessel’s Secrets.” Tlatollotl, 22 Feb. 2019, tlatollotl.tumblr.com/post/182971919056/archeologists-mayanists-and-hersheys.

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