Pre-Columbian Cacao: The Great Societal Stabilizer

In life and in death. In books and on bowls. In the Pre-Columbian Era, cacao was everywhere, and it characterized many of the most fundamental components of survival and society. Whether it was a medicinal remedy, Mesoamerican currency, or a burial ritual, cacao always remained within the scope of visibility. In the modern day, cacao is often simplified to being the principal ingredient in processed chocolate; however, in the Pre-Columbian era, cacao acted as a grounding and stabilizing entity that made up the functional premise of Mesoamerican society and way of life. The stability imparted by cacao onto Mesoamerican society can be most strongly articulated via an analysis of Mesoamerican religious artifacts, socioeconomic practices and the physical uses of cacao.

To explain the omnipresence and consequential significance of cacao in Mesoamerican society, we first must understand the idea of the World Tree (Martin, 2020). A World Tree is believed to “embody the most essential powers of fertility, stability, and the renewal of life on Earth” (Castillo, 2012). World Trees were believed to reach from the Earthly world to both the sky and the underworld – effectively connecting the Maya with their past ancestors in death, and sky-based, life-supporting elements such as rain (Castillo, 2012). In regions that contained the cacao tree, the cacao tree acted as the World Tree (Martin, 2020). Henceforth, amongst Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican natives, the cacao tree was viewed as the center of life and was a guiding symbol in their society.

The view that cacao symbolized the center of life can be seen throughout the Mesoamerican region amongst religious artifacts left by the Maya and the Aztecs. With the aid of these Pre-Columbian artifacts, we can see how cacao played into themes of fertility and renewal of life throughout the Pre-Columbian era, and how the presence of life-bearing themes effectively cement the perception of cacao as a symbol of societal stability during this time period.

Figure 1: “The head of the Maize god suspended in a cacao tree” as depicted on a Classic Maya Vase (Image provided by Coe and Coe, 2013).

In this first image taken from a Mayan vase, the head of the Maize god rests among cacao pods (Coe and Coe, 2013). In the image, the Maize god is physically a part of the cacao plant. This physical connection between the cacao plant and the gods symbolically highlights the Mayan association between cacao and the sprouting of life. A similar message can be deduced from a second image of the Maize god amongst cacao pods.

Figure 2: “The Classic Maya Maize god depicted as a cacao tree” as depicted on a bowl from the Dumbarton Oaks Collection in Washington D.C., USA (Image provided by Coe and Coe, 2013).

In this image carved into a bowl, we again see an explicit relationship between fertility, cacao and the gods (Coe and Coe, 2013). In this image, we see an image of the Mayan Maize god as a literal cacao tree with cacao pods sprouting from their sides. This physical relationship between the gods and the cacao plant again demonstrates the Mesoamerican association between the cacao plant, fertility, and the stability of survival conditions.

When the images from the artifacts above are taken in context with other Mesoamerican beliefs, i.e. the Aztec belief that the cacao pod symbolized a human heart, the physiological driver of human life, it is clear that cacao was synonymous with the maintenance of survival in the Pre-Columbian Era (Coe and Coe, 2013). However, note that the view that cacao was synonymous with the concept of life stability was not limited to religious practice and was also observed in rites of passage.

Given the involvement of cacao in social contracts and celebrations, i.e. marriages and funerals, it is clear that cacao was also perceived to symbolize stability of relationships and socially-recognized moments of transition. 

As a part of arranging marriages, Mayan culture included the transaction of a cacao bean dowry to the family of the bride to be (Dreiss and Greenhill, 2008). Acceptance of the cacao bean dowry by the bride was indicative of acceptance of the marriage proposal by the bride’s family such as in the image below (Dreiss and Greenhill, 2008).

Figure 3: “The Mixtec Marriage of Lord Eight Deer and Lady Thirteen Serpent” in 1041 BCE as depicted in the Codex Nuttall  (Provided by Ancient Scripts Mixtec Website).

In this image, we observe Lord Eight Deer and Lady Thirteen Serpent unite over a chocolate beverage (Ancient Scripts Mixtec). Given the ritualistic incorporation of cacao in marriage discussions, we can note the role of cacao in facilitating not only the growth of life, but new relationships as well. Here, cacao is seen to be a social, rather than a societal stabilizer.

On a less lively note, cacao was also incorporated into rituals of death. Amongst both the Maya and the Aztec, it is believed that cacao eased the soul in its journey to the Underworld (Martin, 2020; Dreiss and Greenhill, 2008). Amongst the Aztecs, a last rite consisted of feeding the soon-to-be sacrificed a dyed blood-red cacao drink (Dreiss and Greeenhill, 2008).


Figure 4: “Mixtec funeral scene with funeral procession of Twelve Movement, Lord Eight Deer’s older half brother; bottom vessel of foaming cacao beverage as depicted in the Codex Nuttal (Provided by Martin, 2020).

In this image from the Codex Nuttal, we observe funeral rites that include a foaming cacao beverage in the bottom vessel (Martin, 2020). Here, we witness cacao provided to the deceased in death as well to provide comfort – indicating the Mesoamerican perception that cacao symbolized transitional stability.

As seen in the rites of passage discussed above, cacao not only played a role in maintaining metaphysical stability, but in supporting the stability of momentous life transitions and agreements as well. As we proceed to discuss cacao in economics and medicine, we will see that cacao’s motif of stability extends beyond symbolism to tangible forms of stability.

Amongst Mesoamericans, cacao served as a form of currency; likewise, cacao also brought on societal stability by creating an economic and socioeconomic order. The typical load of cacao with a trade or porter was three xiquipillis, which translates to 24,000 beans, and could be used to trade for various items (Coe and Coe, 2013). However, currency was not the only way cacao created socioeconomic order. Cacao, being a comestible, was also employed to make beverages indicative of one’s elite status (Coe and Coe, 2013). Cacao solidified the social order in terms of finances and in terms of consumption. As a result, Mesoamercian leadership would accrue exorbitant amounts of cacao beans to highlight their own wealth (Coe and Coe, 2013). To observe the socioeconomic relevance of cacao, consider merchant behaviors. In order to ascend the social ladder, merchants needed to hold banquets with a wide variety of food, slaves for sacrifice, hallucinogenic mushrooms and cacao drink to highlight their own status (Coe and Coe, 2013). As can be seen here, cacao created a social hierarchy, and in doing so, stabilized the social order amongst Mesoamericans.

As a form of medicine, cacao beans were believed to improve health. In this context, cacao beans brought on physiological homeostasis – the stability of the body. Amongst Aztec doctors, or ticitl, a combination of magic and plant-based remedies were used to combat ailments (Coe and Coe, 2013). As a part of these treatments, cacao was incorporated to treat diseases such as dysentery (Martin, 2020). To treat dysentery, five cacao beans would be combined with the bark of plants, i.e. an avocado, and provided to an individual following an incantation (Martin, 2020). The medical knowledge of the Aztecs was relatively thorough given their extensive understanding of the plants in their vicinity (Coe and Coe, 2013). The fact that cacao was incorporated into this magical, botanical-based medicinal process speaks volumes to the contributions of cacao as a physiologically stabilizing entity.

All in all, cacao took on multiple roles in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Cacao was not only an object of religious reverence, but also a ritualistic staple, a socioeconomic driver, and a medicinal ingredient. Despite having many explicitly different purposes, cacao plays a singular thematic role: stabilization of life, transitional experiences, and society as a whole. Across its many uses, cacao symbolically grounded the order of all things. Cacao was a notable symbol of multifaceted harmony amongst Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans; therefore, it can be ultimately argued that cacao was indeed the great Pre-Columbian stabilizer.

Excluding In-Text Citations, Sources and Figure Labels, Content Word Count: 1,211

Content Sources

Castillo, Bernal Diaz del. The True History of The Conquest of New Spain. Translated by Janet Burke and Ted Humphrey, UK ed. edition, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2012.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3 edition, Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Dreiss, Meredith L., and Sharon Greenhill. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. University of Arizona Press, 2008.

Martin, Carla. “02 Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Google Docs, Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Image Sources: 

Ancient Scripts: Mixtec. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3 edition, Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Martin, Carla. “02 Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Google Docs, Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

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