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From cacao to chocolate: Cacao as a Mesoamerican Artifacts

In today’s modern society, when Westerners things of chocolate, images of it’s solid sweetened form is likely the first thing that comes to mind. A more in depth look at the history of cacao shows that nine tenths of the time it was consumed in liquid form not eaten (Coe & Coe, 2013, p. 12). The story of how cacao developed from a sacred drink to the industrialized food that is is today is a rich history that dates back thousands of years to the Amazon basin. As more knowledge about cacao and its history is uncovered, it is important to note the significance that historical linguistics, written documents, and archaeological artifacts play in revealing the ancient uses and significance of cacao. Even the word cacao itself has a disputable lineage. Today, words such as chocolate, cocoa, and cacao float around and are often used interchangeably when in fact they are quite different products. It is useful then to example the word cacao, referring to the unprocessed material that is used to create both chocolate and cocoa.  

First, the historical linguistics of the word cacao should be considered part of and a type of Mesoamerican artifact, for the word itself has helped elucidate the development of modern chocolate as it is now known. The scientific name of chocolate before processing is known as Theobroma cacao, which comes from Greek and means “food of the gods”, aptly names in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus (Coe & Coe, 2013, p. 18). Even from the naming of cacao, it is evident that history of chocolate was written and known mostly from a western-centric point of view and that influence must be considered.

The word cacao was taken by Spanish invaders and their first real knowledge of cacao came from the Maya people of the Yucatan Peninsula and close by parts of Central America. They used the word chokola’j, or ‘to drink together’. Going back even further, the Olmec civilization from the lowlands of the Mexican Gulf Coast, known for their Colossal Head mounds, left no writings behind but research shows that the word cacao originated from kakawa of the Mixe-Zoquen language dating back to 1000 BC  (Presilla, 2009, p. 10-12). Further, there are many word diffusions that came from Uto-Aztecan languages. For instance, classic Nahuatl used the kakaw-atl or cacautl. In addition, there are other known words with similarities to Mesoamerican languages that use versions of the word cacao as Professor Carla Martin of Harvard University and the Founder and Executive Director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (FCCI) discussed in her Harvard Extension School Course on the topic. As she explained, there are many variations of the usages and origins of cacao which include: The proto-Mixean used kakaw, the Nahua used kakawa-tl, the Mazahua used kakawa,the proto-Mayan, Totonac, Salvador Lenka people had the word kakaw, the Paya/pech people used kaku, the Purhépecha used khe´kua, and Hondura used kaw (Martin, 2018b, slide 19).

As the above illustrates cacao did not have its start in Europe, a common misconception from the vantage point of the western elite who have colored the history of cacao in their image. Examples of our current understanding on the Aztec and Maya people in relation to cacao is explored in the general over stereotyping of these cultures through generic and inaccurate hieroglyphs and word use. The Larabar and Rawcholatl examples (Martin, 2018, slide 22,24) below were especially telling for this propagated understanding of what the Aztec and Maya people actually represented and how they lived. Many do not understand the falsity of these representations when it comes to actual history.


In reality, the Mesoamerican region where cacao’s influence can be seen in societal, political, and religious aspects among Preclassic Maya which lasted lasted from 2000 BC-AD 200  to late classic times of AD 200-700. The increasing number of archaeological artifacts discovered and analysed reveal and even deeper history with cacao. For instance, research done at the Hershey Food Technical Center by Jeffrey Hurst detected three types of alkaloids important to cacao in samples that were taken from archaeological ceramics that date back almost 40 centuries, predating even the Olmecs (Coe & Coe, 2013, p. 36). There were many words for cacao throughout the region, which not only further demonstrating its importance as an linguistic artifact but also its widespread use and importance to those civilizations through centuries of history well before europeans decided on the anglicized word chocolate used today.

This linguistic artifact use and misuse can then be viewed in the few remaining written documents of the time. Documents such as the Dresden Codex, Madrid Codex, and Paris Codex are good examples of this. These documents are extremely rare pre-Columbian Maya books written in hieroglyphics that often depict cacao being consumed by gods in ritual activities. They build on and solidify the linguistic Mesoamerican artifact history of cacao.

When Yuri Knorosov deciphered the phonetic part of the Dresden Codex, he made it possible to read its text and from that we learn that ritual activities show Gods with cacao pods and beans. It is written that, “On a Dresden page dealing with the New year ceremonies so important to Post-Classic Yucatan, the Opossum God travels a sacred road to the edge of the town carrying the Rain God on his back, while the associated text tells us that “cacao is his food [kakaw u hanal]”” (Coe & Coe, 2013, p. 42). This is pictured below.


The cacao-containing vessels, or “chocolate pots”, became recognized as powerful social objects unto themselves for the Maya and Aztecs as well.David Stuart, the epigrapher was the one to deciphered the hieroglyphic for cacao. This was an important step in the Primary Standard Sequence (PSS) in gaining better understanding of glyphs of classic ceramics, one such pictured below (Coe & Coe, 2013, p. 44) kakaw

Once the cacao symbol was determined, when other types of vessels were found and  had the cacao hieroglyphic on them, it provided further linguistic proof that these vessels once contain cacao.
To conclude, the word cacao has a fundamental significance that can be traced back through linguistics, written documents, and archaeological artifacts directly linked to a powerful and long standing Mesoamerican history.

Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. (1996).  The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 1 Jan. 2018. Class Lecture.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 2009. Print

All images used from: Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 1 Jan. 2018. Class Lecture.


Prescription, Pleasure and Profit

IMG_20180309_181245915_2 - EditedAs we have seen in Mintz’s Sweetness and Power, the intertwining of medicinal claims about exotic commestibles and marketing to the global north is age-old and seemingly inextricably connected to the exploitation of invisible and anonymous producers. The idea of sugar having medicinal qualities seems absurd to us in this day of “sugar-free” marketing slogans, but in the past few decades there has been a resurgence in interest in the healthfulness of chocolate.

The authors of The True History of Chocolate make strong claims about the role of perceived medicinal qualities of cacao in the rise of chocolate in European ulture, as well as strong assertions about a decline at the beginning of the 19th century.  For the Spanish invaders of the early 16th century, the Coes write, “[chocolate] was a medicine, a drug, . . . qualities altogether absent among the Aztecs and Maya”.  Later, they give us the impression that with the advent of mechanization and the abandonment of medical theories overtly based on Hippocratic-Galenic ideas, chocolate’s medicinal role in Europe disappeared completely. That chocolate is a remarkable substance with a long history of recognition for its nutritional, medicinal and psychoactive properties is not in dispute but the realities were much more nuanced the Coes would have us believe and always driven by the combination of an insatiable need to sell product with the insatiable hunger for the unctuous deliciousness of the seeds of the cacao tree.

Mesoamerican Tradition

Europeans were introduced to the fruit of the cacao tree only after it had already been “discovered” as an exotic necessity by Aztec culture. In the remarkably comprehensive late 16th century Florentine Codex, Bernardino de Sahagún documented clearly the uses to which Aztecs put the seeds of the cacao tree: a beverage refreshing when taken in moderation (but also noted to be taken at time to excess) and as an ingredient in various medicines. Although chocolate did have ritual importance among the Aztec ruling class, it was also distributed to soldiers as payment for work and exchanged for other goods in the marketplace. Aztec money did in fact thus grow on trees, but not Aztec trees: the cacao seeds that the Spanish realized were so valuable to the people they had conquered was in fact sourced through trade or as tribute from an already subjugated people, the cacao-growing Maya. Whether lower classes of Aztecs actually consumed cocoa beans in some form is unclear, but the idea of frothed chocolate as an “exalted food” when imbibed by the Aztec elite and as a medicinal substance had both been made on the Spanish.

European Appropriation

Spanish acceptance of chocolate was not immediate but whether out of necessity or curiosity, European colonists in the New World did adopt and then adapt (by adding sugar) the chocolate-drinking customs of their remaining indigenous Mesoamerican neighbors within the first few decades of conquest. According to Coe, it took until 1585 – almost a century after Columbus’s first voyage to the New World – for a recorded shipment of cacao beans to make it back to Spain, but within the first few decades of the seventeenth century, European elites whiling away the hours in Spanish courts also fully embraced the recreational uses of cacao. Coe’s purple prose in proclaims: “[Chocolate] had been an elite drink among the copper-skinned befeathered Mesoamericans and it stayed that way among the white-skinned, perfumed, bewigged, overdressed royalty and nobility of Europe.”

At the same time, “[Seventeenth century] Spaniards . . . were as obsessed with health and diet as we are [today]” and did their best to make chocolate fit into what Coe describes as “the Galenic nonsense” that passed for medical understanding in Europe at the time. The news spread relatively quickly: in Italy, the physician Zacchio recommended in 1644 the judicious use of the “medicine, . . . Chacolata”, recently introduced from Portugal; in England, chocolate was advertised in 1659 with this assertion, “It cures and preserves the body of many diseases.” But although there are myriad references to the healthful effects of drinking chocolate in moderation as well as the problems of excess consumption – just as Sahagún had noted in the New World – “in the end, pleasure is precisely why people drank chocolate,” writes culinary historian, Ken Albala. The wife of a French abassador to Spain got to the crux of the matter in a 1680 letter: health is the excuse she makes for drinking chocolate, but she also just really likes it.


The True History alludes to Mangin’s 1860 assertion that “Nobody believes any longer in the medicinal virtues that used to be attributed to cacao.” This may have been true about some of the curative claims, based on nebulous humoral nutritional theory. The Coes ask, “Are we shocked to learn that a medicine or drug with supposed curative powers was converted to recreational use?” but this question both oversimplifies the historical role of chocolate as a “recreational substance” and ignores its remaining and enduring connections to the medical profession.

It has been noted that some of the brands of mass-produced, mass-marketed and mass-consumed chocolate that flourished in the 19th century were started by pharmacists. Even Coe mentions without comment that England’s Joseph Fry was a doctor and pharmacist. Henri Nestlé trained as a pharmacist in Germany. In Switzerland, Rudolf Lindt was the son of a pharmacist. Even the firm Jordan u. Timaeus in Dresden, whose primary businesses were always chocolate and chicory, still functioned in pharmacists’ circles as inventors and suppliers of a medicine-filled sugar capsule.

Chocolate remained in the physician’s arsenal even if the extraordinary (and often contradictory) claims of the past had faded away. In 1868, “Physicians and Medical Men who require their patients to use pure cocoa” were encouraged to recommend Snowden’s Pure Flake Cocoa Nibs in an advertisement in none other than the Lancet.  In 1885, cocoa was being actively studied and promoted as an anti-diarrhea medication in Berlin. Based on the continued presence of ads in medical and pharmacological trade papers through the 19th century, it is clear that “homeopathic chocolate” in England, Gesundheitsschokolade in Germany and chocolat analeptique in France continued to be sold in pharmacies, not as treats, but as an aid to health.

Vaguer claims in advertisements aimed at a lay audience lasted even longer: Cadbury’s Cocoa still Makes Strong Men Stronger in 1895; in Germany, Dresden’s Hartwig u. Vogel, “the brand for everyone” was still promoting chocolate as a cure for anemia and “weakness” in 1928; in New Jersey in 1935, children and doctors still agreed: Bosco is Best; and the visual association with healthcare remains unchanged in Droste’s nurse logo even today.

If there was, as the Coe’s claim, a “break with the past” between the 18th century and the rise of mass consumption of chocolate, it was in the decline of the church’s economic power – as chocolate merchant – and in the church’s role in the sphere of social control – as arbiter of chocolate’s medicinal and/or sinful nature, allowing the rich and powerful to partake of what was indubitably pleasurable and nutritious at times when that would otherwise be prohibited. The growth of capitalism and mechanization may have allowed the “masses” access to what had been the exclusive province of the elite, but recreational use was nothing new and the association with health continued to be a factor in the marketing of chocolate.


The potential for objectively studying chocolate for its “medicinal virtues” is theoretical far greater than at any other time in history.  In 2005, the anti-diarrhea study was revisited, seemingly without the obvious branding and commercial promotion that was associated with the study in 1885.  So, what are we to make of what Presilla describes as “compelling data” in very recent research on the vascular benefits of flavanols found in chocolate? This research is spearheaded by Mars Symbioscience (seemingly the new name of what Presilla identified as Mars Botanical in 2009), a division of Mars, Inc. which is of course also the parent company of Mars Wrigley Confectionery, the world’s largest manufacturer of chocolate. In her book, Presilla leaves us ready to buy into the research claims, but of course, the conflict of interest in Mars Symbioscience’s case as well as in the case of research published by Nestle-funded researchers is undeniable. (For a far more skeptical account of the kind of research described in The New Taste of Chocolate, check out Leonid Schneider’s blog post, Chocolate is Good for your Funding.)

As if to prove the speed at which a seemingly sincere effort at objective science can morph into a blatantly commercial enterprise, an internet search for the name “Mars Botanical” leads you directly to the CocoaVia Brand sales website. In other words, the moniker Presilla associated in 2009 with “an informational clearinghouse for several kinds of world-class scientific investigations” links in 2018 to almost comical marketing copy of which any snake-oil merchant would be proud: We create real food with cocoa flavanols, backed by real gold-standard scientific research and as such, we deliver real health benefits for you.” Common sense dictates that industry-financed scientific research should only be presented with a caveat about conflict of interest but even the NIH seemingly started including such an indication just last year on PubMed, its online portal for medical research.

In a world where basic science is severely underfunded by impartial entities and the global economic system is still blighted, even in this age of instant global communication, by exploitative, or even slavery-like conditions, do we thank a privately held company for stepping into the research vacuum and funding basic research, or do we look at any results coming from such research with a highly skeptical eye? Chocolate is not an isolated example of the combination of marketing for health and deplorable working conditions. The story of the crimes of the early years of the banana’s introduction as a staple in the diet of the global north is well known, 1920’s advertisements with the physician-supported claim that bananas cured celiac disease maybe less so. Other foods that have more recent histories of being marketed as the next cure-all – salmonblueberries, and wine – repeat the pattern: health claims increase demand, supply is ramped up by industries only through the use of labor practices ranging from the terrible to the horrific.  While the appeal of chocolate as a healthful food is as tantalizing now as ever, the experience of the last 500 years should lead one to be wary when marketing and medicine converge.

Works cited:

Ken Albala (2007) The Use and Abuse of Chocolate in 17th Century Medical Theory, Food and Foodways, 15:1-2, 53-74, DOI: 10.1080/07409710701193381

Bardoulat, Maria. Le Chocolat: du Plaisir à la Santé. Monaco: Alpen, 2005.

Coe, Sophie D and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate (3rd Edition). London: Thames and Hudson, 2013 pp. 123, 124, 125, 126, 131, 136, 165

Mangin, Arthur. Le Cacao et le Chocolate. Paris: Guillaumin, 1860. 

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate (Revised): A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009 pp. 18, 15, 57-59

Sahagun, Bernadino. Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España Vol. 3

Wilson, PJ and WJ Hurst. Chocolate as Medicine: A Quest Over the Centuries. Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2012.

Emotional Lows, Chocolate Highs

Emotional Lows and Chocolate Highs

By: 2018e728



The civilizations of Mesoamerica believed cacao, the plant that chocolate is made from, to be a nourishment that revitalizes the body. They regularly supplied it to the most important and strongest members of their society, their leaders and warriors. With that said, I have a question with respect to how much the indigenous people of Mexico and Central America understood about the chemicals included in cacao and whether they had knowledge of any psychotropic effects that the bean had on those who consumed it. Sophie and Michael Coe, authors of the book The True History of Chocolate, state that “psychologists tend to dismiss the possibility that any one of the myriad chemical compounds that constitute chocolate, or any combination of them, could have a physical effect on the consumer” (Coe & Coe, 1993), but what effects does it have on the mind? Does chocolate really affect one’s mood, and if yes, is it a psychotropic stimulant or an inhibitor? Cacao and its believed benefits were discovered centuries ago, since then the concentration of actual cacao included in drinks and edibles has been significantly reduced in most of the chocolate consumed in the United States and European countries. The percent of cacao included in consumable products has been diluted and replaced with milk and sugar. Arguably this dilution of pure cacao would decrease any benefits that the plant might have on consumers. This blog will focus on the psychological benefits of cacao, particularly on depression and whether it can be altered based of the levels of cacao concentration consumed.

Depression is one of the most common mood disorders in the United States. There are several types of depression. These types include persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia), postpartum depression, psychotic depression and seasonal affective disorder. The symptoms associated with these types of depression can range from mild “blues” to more severe and even suicidal actions. The National Institute of Mental Health lists the risk factors for depression as having personal or family history of depression, major life changes, trauma or stress and certain physical illnesses and medications (Depression, 2018).

With that said, there are treatment options for even the most severe cases of depression. Most cases can be managed by antidepressant medications. Effects of these medications can take up to 4 weeks to be realized. It is suggested by medical professionals that patients continue taking their medication up to 12 months before stopping or requesting a decreased dosage.

For more on depression and ways to help, visit the links below:

National Institute of Mental Health Statistics

Depression Helpline


Along with seeking pharmacological remedies, studies show that certain foods can be used to ease symptoms of the blues. A popular recommendation is chocolate. Sweet!


chocolate powerhouseAccording to Dr. Hervé Robert, author of Les vertus thérapeutiques du chocolat, “the caffeine, theobromine, serotonin, and phenylethylamine that chocolate contains make it a tonic, and an anti-depressive and anti-stress agent, enhancing pleasurable activities, including making love” (Coe & Coe, 1993).

Bryn Mawr College student, Kristen Coveleskie, seems to agree with Dr. Robert’s data. She wanted to research the best things to take to a friend in the hospital and found that “One of the more unique neurotransmitters released by chocolate is phenylethylamine. This so called “chocolate amphetamine” causes changes in blood pressure and blood-sugar levels leading to feelings of excitement and alertness. It works like amphetamines to increase mood and decrease depression, but it does not result in the same tolerance or addiction. Phenylethylamine is also called the “love drug” because it causes your pulse rate to quicken, resulting in a similar feeling to when someone is in love” (Coveleskie, 2004). Coveleskie also found that the effects of eating diluted chocolate to only nominal. Particularly, the United States only requires that a product contain 10% of cacao for it to qualify as chocolate, while other countries such as Germany have a higher requirement. She suggests eating chocolate that contains at least a 30% cacao.

With reports like these, I was ready to establish in a lifelong regime of daily truffles and bon-bons, that was until a little more digging uncovered an article on Psychology Today that says more chocolate could mean more depression, and even an increase in suicide rates. The article faults added ingredients such as trans-fats and fillers, which has “detrimental effects on the brain” (Deans, 2015). This study subscribes to the idea that a higher the cacao content, means a higher flavanol and polyphenol concentration, which will be more beneficial to consumers. The article recommends a dose of cocoa containing 500 mg of polyphenols over a 30 day period in order to improve mood.






Works Cited

Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (1993). The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames& Hudson LTD.

Coveleskie, K. (2004). Chocolate on The Brain. Retrieved from

Deans, E. M. (2015). Your Brain on Chocolate. Retrieved from Psychology Today:

Depression. (2018). Retrieved from National Institute of Mental Health:

Depression Hotline. (2017). Retrieved from

Major Depression. (2018). Retrieved from National institute of Mental Health:




Cash Crops, Slavery, Racism, and Where We Are Now

Christopher Columbus did not set out to find the new world for the sense of adventure. He did not even know the Americas existed. Columbus set out to find a faster route to India and the East. He set out for economic gain just like the conquistadors and colonists that followed. One of the greatest sources of economic gain found in the New World for conquistadores and colonists was the cash crop. Cacao and sugar were grown in Central and South America. Tobacco, indigo, and cotton were grown in North America. The challenge for Europeans became how to make cash crops as profitable as possible. The answer came in the form of cheap and ultimately slave labor.

The Spanish in Mexico and Latin America used the encomienda system to establish Spanish rights to native lands and labor. Under the encomienda system, the Spanish Crown gave grants to Spanish colonists stating that said colonist had the right to claim land and demand tribute from indigenous people of that land. Under this system, indigenous people labored extensively to harvest cacao, which was used as currency, for tribute to the Spanish made the Spanish incredibly wealthy and destroyed the indigenous population. Extreme exploitation, culminated with European disease, devastated the ingenious population of Central and South America. In before the arrival of the Spanish, there were an estimated seven million indigenous people in Mexico. In the decades following the arrival of the Spanish, the population was less than ten percent of the original population. (Kepecs and Alexander 52) To supplement rapidly declining populations of indigenous people used as a labor force, the Spanish imported African slaves.

Documentary about African Slaves in Mexico and Peru:

In North America, English colonists established a system of indentured servitude since indigenous peoples of of North America could not be sourced for cheap labor. European indentured servants, who were granted passage across the Atlantic in exchange for years of servitude to the land owner, often had the agreed years of servitude extended beyond the terms of the original contract on the basis of medical care, food costs, clothing purchases, or property damage or loss. (Fields 102) For the property owner, the goal of extending the term of servitude was to get as much labor for the price of passage of the servant as possible. Additionally, indentured servants were often promised and not delivered land at the end of their term of service or were given undesirable land on the frontier which was prone to attack from indigenous peoples and far from urbanized areas and markets. However, exploitation of Europeans was limited due to centuries old social and political terms between elite and poor Europeans and still cheaper sources of labor were sought. (Fields 102) Therefore, North American landowners pursued African slaves as a source of labor since European landowners and Africans had no long standing social and political history to bar the exploitation of African slave labor. (Fields 103) Purchasing already enslaved Africans from Portuguese traders was a far easier and more profitable endeavor than attempting to enslave Europeans.

Justifications for exploitation and slavery became a social necessity for profiteering land owners and slave traders. The encomienda system explicitly stated that in exchange for Christianization and protection, indigenous people would pay tribute to Spanish settlers. Much in the same way the Spanish justified exploitation of the indigenous Mesoamericans by arguing that they were Christianizing the natives, slave traders and slave owners in North America justified that by making these people slaves, they were saving these people’s souls. As time went on, the justification shifted to race and supposed racial inferiority of non-whites. This shift in justification was sorely needed in North America, where the United States of America was establishing itself as a free country. (Fields 101) Free countries with open slavery need to maintain a clear justification for said slavery or the claim of being a free country would come under question. (Fields 101)

Presently, few countries in Central and South America retain evidence of their past of African slavery. (Fiehrer 39) The most notable exception is Brazil, which still struggles with race and identity today. Despite being hailed by some scholars as a post racial society, also referred to as a racial democracy, Brazil still struggles with racial issues. The Brazilian magazine Veja describes that, “One hundred years after abolition, there are in Brazil two distinct citizenships – the white and the black.” The massage goes on to detail that, “The black man, when he is born, has a thirty percent less chance of completing five years of age. As he grows up, his chances of leaving school before learning to read are double [those of whites]. When he dies, he ends a life whose expectancy is 50 years. If he were white, he would have a life expectancy of 63 years.” (Sheriff 6) Black Brazilians earn 40 to 45 percent of what white Brazilians earn. (Bonilla-Silva 40) In Brazil, the term “black” does not exclude people of indigenous descent who were also exploited by profiteering Europeans. As a Brazilian woman, Neusa, describes, “‘these things [additional terms for race] do not exist. One is white, or one is black. But people feel so humiliated to be negro. The negro was a slave. The negro suffered. The negro was treated like an animal. All that. But here [Brazil], it is truly correct to say that one is white or one is black. No one can be anything else.’” There are two distinct groups in Brazil as there are throughout the story of cash crops and slavery: The white Europeans who enslaved and the “negro” Africans and indigenous people who were enslaved.

The divide between white Europeans and non-whites exists in the United States as it does in Brazil. Wealth, and the socioeconomic advantages of being born into the family with wealth even if said wealth is never directly inherited, is the defining reason that whites have more economic success to this day.


European slave owners, made rich off the labor of African slaves on lands stolen from indigenous people, were able to build immense wealth not only for themselves, but their families, communities, and countries. (Mintz 157) The effect of this great European wealth born from the unpaid labor of Africans and indigenous people was that white Americans have had greater accumulation of wealth and great means to further accumulate wealth through access to academic and economic resources. Meanwhile, African and indigenous slaves were so far detached from the wealth born from their land and their backs that generational poverty, created by the institution of slavery for the purpose of maximum profits of the European planter, still lingers today in racial mixed societies that abolished slavery years ago.

Brazil and the United States are examples of long term effects of the cash crop boom, the exploitation of labor to make cash crops profitable, and the racial ideologies established to justify such exploitation. Disproportionate wealth, prison populations, and landlessness seen today are after effects of trade and slave policies centuries ago.


Works Cited

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Shades of Difference. Standford: Stanford University Press, n.d.

Fiehrer. “Slaves and Freedmen in Colonial Central America: Rediscovering a Forgotten Black Past.” The Journal of African American History (1979).

Fields, Barbara Jeanne. “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America.” (n.d.).

Kepecs, Susan and Rani Alexander. The Postclassic to Spanish-era Transition in Mesoamerica: Archaeological Perspectives. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.

Mintz, Sydney W. Sweetness and Power. London: Penguin Group, 1985.

Mexico & Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet. Dir. Ricardo Pollack. Perf. Henry Louis Gates. 2011.

Sheriff, Robin. Dreaming Equality. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001.


The Politics of Eating: Chocolate

Our relationship with cacao and chocolate has always been viewed through a lens of exoticism and excitement as cacao is not native to the United States.  This sweet, dark treat that comes from a distant tropical place has somehow been processed and designed to fit our American palettes.  Sugar is the main ingredient that has sparked the addiction to chocolate in the West and it has been one of the most influential commodities to ever exist.  The combination of exoticism, fat and sugar create a dynamic bite that we simply can’t get enough of.

As adults, we all know that candy is not healthy for us yet we sill feed our children bite after bite and drink after drink pumped full of high fructose corn syrup and other synthetic compounds that have no place in the human body.  For example, teenage boys eat the equivalent of eighteen fun-size candy bars every day according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (  We also have one day out of the year, Halloween, where kids are given pounds of candy, for free, from their neighbors.  From a young age we are accustomed to this high level of sugar and chocolate.


Chocolate fundamentally changed as candy bar production was introduced into the world market.  At every grocery store check-out across the country there is a multi-shelf unit that hosts twenty to thirty different candy options.  More than half of them consist of chocolate.  Even though candy bars typically do not have a high percentage of chocolate they are often thought of to be the most common way that most of us ingest the sweet treat.  If you stop at the grocery check-out aisle and look at the back panel of one of the candy bar packages you will see a list of chemicals and no specific designation to the origin of the cacao.  Chocolate in the United States is a blurred statement of different sugars and additives.


Understanding where your food comes from creates a system of integrity that forces you to make a decision every time you put a bite into your mouth.  Every day consumers are faced with choices such as “grass fed”, “free range”, “BPA Free”.  Someone might be unfamiliar with the term “BPA Free” but will automatically assume that it’s better for them not to use products with BPA.  Educating the consumer is tricky because the food system in the United States was founded on efficiency, not quality.  Only in the last twenty years have line-specific brands of chocolate come to the market place.  Companies such as Whole Foods will only sell fair-trade chocolate as it has been a major factor in establishing sustainable relationships with cacao producers around the world.


The five major chocolate companies in the world have been known to have poor working conditions, unfair wages and some have been tied to slavery and indentured servants.  Now these companies thrive in American culture using models and children to sell chocolate as sophistication and happiness.  What if the public knew the history behind the success?  Would you stop buying a product if you knew that it caused diabetes, cavities, high-blood pressure and contributed to other deadly diseases?  The answer is no. Chocolate and sugar consumption have been on a steady rise for the last one hundred years in America.  Sidney Mintz states that “All over the world sugar has helped to fill the calorie gap for the laboring poor, and has become of the first foods of the industrial work break.” (Sweetness and Power-149) Sugar is used as a crutch, a stimulant, a break from reality for people when their stress levels are high.  This sugar is often consumed in combination with chocolate which softens the delivery to the blood stream by adding a buffer of fat and other inclusions.  Emotional eating is directly correlated to sugar, or sucrose.  The sugar culture has steadily raised the rates of obesity and diabetes in the United States.  We know the effects yet we continue to stuff our faces.


Sugar has been heavily subsidized and is available, in candy form, at prices that are half the cost of fruits and vegetables.  If the government is willing to make the unhealthy food cheap and healthy food expensive, what kind of black hole does this create for lower income economies?

Image result for obesity

Are we setting them up for failure?  What responsibility does the chocolate and sugar industry have to its customers?  These companies control the lobbyists and their voices are the only ones that are heard.  Julie Guthman, author of Weighing In, comments in reference to the politicians making food policy decisions, “they see social change as making people become like them.  This gives far too much power to those who happen to be privileged (and thin) to define the parameters of food system change.”  If we know that these chocolate companies were built on the backs of slaves and that their products damage the nutrition of our youth and also lead to high rates of diabetes and obesity, why on Earth do we still consume so much of them?


Works Cited

Guthman, Julie.  Weighing In. Pg. #141 UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS. 2012.

Mintz, Sidney W.  Sweetness and Power: The place of sugar in modern history. Pg.# 149  Penguin Random House LLC

Union of Concerned Scientists.


Pre-Columbian Cacao: Culture, Religion, and Economy

Chocolate is one of mankind’s most indulgent of foods. What now may be known as a sweet to savor was once something much greater than a nice treat to have on holidays such as Valentines Day, Mother’s Day, and Halloween. Chocolate is the derivative of cacao, and cacao has a long history that originates in the Amazon River basin where it was first said to grow (Presilla 8).  Cacao’s significance spans cultural, religious, and economic realms, and in this blog post I will further explore the importance of all of these facets of cacao’s illustrious Pre-Columbian history.

The wonderful treat that we know of as chocolate is made from cacao that comes from a plant, Theobroma cacao. This name, meaning “food-of-the-gods,” was given to this prolific plant by a Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus in 1753 (Presilla 5; Coe and Coe 17). Linnaeus wasn’t exaggerating when he gave cacao this name. Given this plant’s pre-Columbian history in Mesoamerica, it makes sense that he would go on to give cacao this supreme name.

Cacao (Theobroma cacao)
Theobroma Cacao Grows Its Cacao Pods on the Thickest Areas of the Branches. This Is Known as cauliflory.


According to Coe and Coe, the Olmecs were the first society to domesticate Theobroma cacao (35). Living between 1200 BC and 300 BC, the Olmecs are thought to be the ancestors of the Mayan people, and the Mayan people thrived from 250 AD until the 9th century AD (Presilla 9; Coe and Coe 37). Culturally speaking, besides drinking cacao with ground maize in a beverage form, one way the Mayans used cacao was when burying their elite. Mayans would leave cacao in the elite’s tombs and graves (Coe and Coe 43). Before delving further into Mayan and Aztec cultural influences from cacao, let us explore how we know cacao’s presence is true.

How Do We Know Cacao Was Present?

Cacao’s presence is known given the existence of two compounds: Theobromine and caffeine. When these two compounds coexist, it is known that cacao was at some point present due to the fact that in the region of Mesoamerica, only Theobroma cacao contains both of these chemical compounds (Martin). Another sign that cacao was used was by the presence of scenes or hieroglyphics. If not clearly depicted in a scene on pottery, one may find cacao’s presence from the Mayan’s hieroglyphic for cacao that translated into, “kakawa” (Presilla 12). This hieroglyphic, first seen on the Río Azul jar, was one of the first hieroglyphics to be identified by scholars due to its extensive use by the Mayans (Presilla 12).

Culture: Marriages and Burials

Cacao was present in vessels used for marriage ceremonies, burials, banquets, baptisms, and weddings (Martin). In marriage ceremonies, such as tac haa, (translated roughly into, “To serve chocolate”) cacao was used as an offering from the bride’s father to the groom (Martin). The use of cacao here depicts seriousness and respect that was given to the plant of Theobroma cacao.


This is a depiction of a marriage ceremony in which cacao is being exchanged.



People known as pochtecas were tasked with carrying loads of cacao back to the capital of Tenochtitlan (Coe and Coe 74). Only the elite, like the royal families, were able to access cacao (Coe and Coe 95). Royal families used cacao to portray their bloodline lineage. For example, Pakal the Great, the 7th century Mayan king of Palenque, had a burial site that included vessels depicting trees of cacao and images of his mother, Lady Zac-Kuk (Martin). In the image the cacao tree flowers and cacao pods growing off of its branches and transforms into Lady Zac-Kuk (Martin).   This imagery portrays how highly cacao was thought of at the time. Royal bloodlines were connected to the cacao plant, and the cacao plant was even further connected to the gods.


Thanks to Bernardino de Sahagún, an Aztec anthropologist,  plenty of knowledge is recorded about the Aztec civilization (Presilla 19). From this information, we see the use of cacao in religion in numerous instances. In rites of death, cacao was used along with red dye from achiote, a spice also known as annatto, to energize the soul and ease one’s path towards the underworld (Martin). In the Codex Nuttal, a pre-Columbian document with pictures from the indigenous Mesoamericans, there is a depicted scene of a Mixtec funeral procession where there is a foamed cacao beverage present (Martin). In the Codez Féjévary-Mayer, there are 4 World Trees of cardinal directions, and the southern tree, the Land of the Dead and Underworld,  depicts cacao pods growing off of the cacao plant (Martin). On one side of the tree lies the Aztec god of maize, Cinteotl, and on the other side is the Aztec god of death, Mictlantecuhtli (Martin). The connection between sustenance and death is evident here and clarifies the central role cacao played in Mayan life and culture.


This is a photograph of the Codex Fejervary-Mayer in which the southern tree is that of cacao, therefore depicting the importance and high regard given to the plant.

It turns out that money does grow on trees! This was a true fact of life for the Aztecs, as cacao beans were treated as currency. In order for an item to be treated as currency, it must be rare enough and durable enough in its most basic form in order to have value and to survive over time (De Maré, Laurie). Cacao fit the bill, and was therefore able to be saved up for long periods of time and in various quantities. Motecuhzoma II, reigning from 1502-1520, saved 40,000 xiquipilli, or 960 million cacao beans (Martin). This extent of wealth was far greater than what existed throughout the rest of Aztec society, though smaller caches of cacao beans made their way around Tlaxcala (Coe and Coe 99). Included in a Nahuatl document dating from 1545 is a list of commodities and their prices when paid in cacao beans (Coe and Coe 99). A small rabbit could be purchased for 30 cacao beans, one large tomato for one cacao bean, and one turkey cock for 200 cacao beans (Coe and Coe 99).


Cacao beans were more than an ingredient in a frothy beverage enjoyed by the Pre-Columbian Aztecs and Mayans. Theobroma cacao truly was a, “food of the gods.” Cacao had an important presence in rituals such as burials and weddings, and the significance of cacao was akin to that of the gods when looking at depictions of the Four World Trees of cardinal direction. Furthermore, cacao was used as money by the Aztecs to purchase daily items such as tomatoes and meat. As evident from the copious uses of cacao in the daily lives of Pre-Columbian Aztecs and Mayan people, cacao’s significance is seen in cultural, religious, and economic spheres of life. One may wonder what would have given the Aztecs a similar level of meaning and significance had the pochtecas not been able to bring cacao to the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.



Works Cited

De Maré, Laurie. “A Tasty Currency: Cocoa.” Museum of the National Bank of Belgium, National Bank of Belgium, 4 Mar. 2013,

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press, 2009.

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

Martin, Carla. Mesoamerica and the “Food of the Gods”. Mesoamerica and the “Food of the Gods”.



Multimedia Works Cited

“The Codex Fejervary-Mayer, 15th Century.” Wikimedia Commons, wiki/File:Xiuhtecuhtli_1.jpg.

“Codex Zouche-Nuttall.” Mexicolore,

Luisovalles. “Theobroma Cacao Grows Its Cacao Pods on the Thickest Areas of the Branches. This Is Known as cauliflory.” Wikimedia Commons, 12 Feb. 2010,


Cadbury Bros. and the Chocolate Islands Scandal

Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management (28)
Image displayed on page 28 in Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton. The image shows an early Cadbury’s Cocoa advertisement. Printed in 1907 version. By Isabella Beeton. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1908, a report by Cadbury Bros. agent Joseph Burtt detailing practices of slave labor in the Portuguese-owned “chocolate islands” of Sao Tome and Principe began circulating in Britain (Satre 73); and in March of the following year, the Quaker-owned firm announced its decision to cease the purchase of cocoa from the islands (Higgs 148). These announcements were met not with acclaim but coldness (Higgs 152-153); an article in the Standard attacked Cadbury’s policies, and Cadbury’s libel suit against the paper won them only a farthing in damages (152). The problem? The firm had known about the existence of slave labor on the chocolate islands for upwards of six years before Burtt’s report was ever made available or the boycott instated (Satre 32, 98)—and thanks to already-aired evidence (Satre 20), including a series of articles by journalist Henry Nevinson, so had much of Cadbury’s political peerage (Satre 12, 82; Higgs 152; Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, 566–568.) The firm’s disregard of evidence and lengthy delays (Satre 76) led to accusations of hypocrisy (Higgs 143, 152-153; Satre 78, 82), inaction (Satre 76), and greater concern for international politics than for the plight of those who provided their livelihood (Satre 75), all of which threatened to render null Cadbury’s righteous core. The story sheds a troubling light on the conflict between good business and good ethics (Higgs 165), and leaves open dark questions about how Western culture treats its less-seen, less-valued workers.

Cadbury's Cocoa advert with rower 1885
“Drink Cadbury’s Cocoa” advertisement with rower and lady friend – B&W engraving – 1885. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Cadbury became aware of slave labor in practice on the island of Sao Tome in 1901, by “an offer of a plantation for sale … that listed as assets two hundred black laborers worth £3555” (Satre 18). Lowell J. Satre marks this bill of sale as the initial point of concern for William A. Cadbury, then in charge of purchases for the company (18); but “ample” evidence was available to William through his connections with England’s Anti-Slavery Society (20)—reports describing starving workers, ships full of bought men and women, and brutal death rates of “servicaes” (Grant 1), or indentured servants, on the plantations (Satre 22-24). Cadbury Bros. was a Quaker company founded on Quaker ideals (Satre 14), with close ties to the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Societies (Satre 21) and a reputation for taking care of its workers at home (15-16), even building the Bournville Village Trust for factory employees (15-16), in addition to which the Cadbury-owned Daily News had run stories railing against slavery-like work conditions and “sweated trades” (16). Their treatment of the prospect that the plantations from which had come 45% of its beans in 1900 (Satre 19, 24) were practicing an evil they had long publicly opposed would have heavy implications for their hold on their moral high ground. Would the company apply the same stringent ethics they championed at home, and against other countries and trades, to matters that affected their own business? William Cadbury aired on the side of patient and cautious inaction; he never published the bill of sale, citing the document’s vagueness (as Satre icily puts it, his reasoning made “little sense, as the document specifically identified human beings as property”; Satre 19), and continued to dither in the face of distressing accounts. This silence would stretch until 1904 (22-24), when with new Portuguese labor legislation, and permission from the company’s board, William hired Joseph Burtt to travel to the Portuguese West African colonies (Satre 30-32) and investigate whether the whole unsavory matter had been put to rest on its own.

The beginning of Burtt’s journey to Sao Tome overlapped with the end of journalist Henry Nevinson’s (Satre 32); Burtt would return to England in 1907 (Satre 32, 73), by which time Nevinson’s articles and subsequent book (A Modern Slavery, 1906) about what he had seen in the islands were already two years published and on the market (Satre 32, 73). Burtt produced what Nevinson declared “an abstract of my book and no more” (Higgs 137), which nevertheless echoed Nevinson and the reports William Cadbury had heard: slavery, under a euphemistic title and technical obfuscations (Satre 76, Grant 1, Higgs 136-137), was producing the chocolate that Cadbury Bros. was buying (Satre 74). The onus was now on Cadbury, and its industry peers and allies, to put pressure on the Portuguese (78, 79)—but while the Aborigines’ Protection Society demanded an immediate boycott of the islands’ chocolate, international politics (one wonders if the companies’ bottom line and need for product didn’t also figure in) begged for another solution (Satre 81-82). William Cadbury’s decision to carry out the wishes of the Foreign Office (Higgs 135) by delaying Burtt’s report in lieu of a diplomatic meeting between the chocolatiers and the Portuguese planters (Higgs 134, Satre 75) nearly started a full-blown war with the outraged H.R. Fox Bourne of the APS (Higgs 134-136, Satre 78-80). The meeting with the planters took place in late 1907, with ineffective compromises, pleasantries, and technicalities exchanged (Higgs 141-142); it was followed by further negotiation the next year (143), by which William ended up taking a personal trip in October to Principe, Sao Tome (145) and the coast of Africa (146) to see if reform had been instated – and to look at the construction site of a railroad on the Gold Coast.

Cadbury’s almanack for 2,000 years – a literary & useful curiosity
Print shows a young boy dressed as a chef carrying a tray on which are a steaming ewer and cup of “cocoa essence”; also shows various graphics around the central motif and states that it is “Registered”. Digital file from original print. No known restrictions on publication. Manchester, England: Henry Blacklock & Co., [1885?] Via Library of Congress.
After meetings with reasonably cooperative planters and recalcitrant officials (146), William finally recommended the long-in-limbo boycott in January 1909, and in March Cadbury ceased buying cocoa from the chocolate islands – but not before the firm had purchased fourteen acres of land on the Gold Coast, near the new railroad, for a factory (147). Inaction, compounded by desire to maintain positive relations with the Portuguese in spite of the colonies’ violent and oppressive practices (Satre 77, 81), had forestalled the boycott for eight years; and though the guilt of the islands was off the company’s hands, and something of a backup plan in place, more sticky consequences had been set in motion. Cadbury Bros. was fighting a veritable media circus, demanding apologies from multiple papers for articles questioning the company’s actions regarding the islands (Higgs 143). By the time William left for Africa in 1908, a libel suit against the Standard was underway for a blistering (though hardly hypocrisy-free) article wondering “why the solicitude for the ‘white hands of the Bournville chocolate makers’ seemed not to extend to ‘African hands’” (Higgs 145).  William returned home in plenty of time to testify at the trial, which ruled in favor of Cadbury—awarding them all of a quarter-penny (152). Letters from Cadbury customers delivered their version of this scathing verdict—one addressed the company as “You pious Frauds,” “You Anointed Hypocrites” (152-153).

Cadbury’s Quaker morals, so intact in their home country, were proven by the chocolate islands scandal to be shaky with regard to their business dealings and their concern for what Fox Bourne phrased as “putting an end to a monstrous evil, for the tolerance and development of which Great Britain is to a large extent responsible” (Satre 77). William Cadbury taking earlier action might have been risky, but his caution and protection of trade interests in the face of oppressive practices led him to conflict and embarrassment. A review of Nevinson’s A Modern Slavery published in 1908 reads: “After reading Nevinson’s most interesting book one cannot doubt that slavery is still a tremendous problem, and that its origin and continuance are due to the fact that, for the present, peculiar … conditions have appealed to the selfishness of the Portuguese so strongly as to overcome all scruples” (Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, vol. 40, no. 9, 567-568). In light of the long years it took to acknowledge and boycott the slavery that gave them their cocoa, such a statement could well be applied to Cadbury Bros.

Grant, Kevin. A civilised savagery: Britain and the new slaveries in Africa, 1884-1926. Routledge, 2005.

E.H. “Bulletin of the American Geographical Society.” Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, vol. 40, no. 9, 1908, pp. 566–568. JSTOR,

Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on trial slavery, politics, and the ethics of business. Ohio University Press, 2006.

Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate islands: cocoa, slavery, and colonial Africa. Ohio University Press, 2013.

“Cadbury’s almanack for 2,000 years – a literary & useful curiosity.” Library of Congress, Image. Accessed March 11, 2018.


Chocolate in Modern Day Ecuador

IMG_9888Throughout our time in chocolate class so far I have wondered what the modern-day chocolate industry looks like outside of the United States. During my recent travels through Ecuador, I visited several markets, pictured left. Indoor and outdoor, the tables and surrounding floors of these markets were piled high with products: produce, grains and meats, some more familiar than others. These markets were, for the most part, similar to ones I’ve seen during travels through European countries. A lifelong lover and now student of gastronomy, one of the reasons I enjoy exploring markets in different countries is to see and understand the different products the local people consume on a daily basis. Being my first time traveling to a South American country, I had never seen the wide variety of cacao products many of the vendors were selling before. These products are, of course, remarkably unprocessed in comparison to the chocolate products that line the shelves of the baking and candy aisles in grocery stores here in America. Seeing, smelling, feeling, and tasting these raw, minimally processed products gave me a new appreciation for the abundance of this rich, historic product and the various ways it is sold and marketed in Ecuador today. I was happy to see that the cacao products offered in the markets were undisturbed by modernization to some degree.

IMG_9054 In contrast to the cacao products found in the market, I also visited several high-end chocolate retail shops, all using a unique approach to marketing their chocolate as the best of the best. Amedeo Chocolate, located in the city of Cuenca, Ecuador seems to be on the rise in terms of luxury, single-origin chocolates. Having stopped into their shop several times while in Cuenca, I became well oriented to their company and products. They offer several different kinds of chocolate, each bar indicating on it where the cacao beans were sourced from. A favorite of mine and others I was with was their dark milk chocolate using cacao from Los Rios, Ecuador. At 53%, this chocolate bar was very appealing to me, a milk chocolate lover, while still managing to be appealing to others who favor dark chocolate more highly. There truly is a large difference in the quality of the single-origin chocolate found in Ecuador in regards to flavor; mass produced, multiple-sourced chocolate bars truly do not come close in regards to overall quality.

We were lucky enough to be able to meet the owner as well as the chef at Amedeo to learn even more about their chocolate production. I was curious about how a modern company approached production in a place rich with cacao history. Our conversation began with a tasting of the white, fluffy edible fruit that surrounds the bean. It tasted IMG_7953surprisingly like a mix of papaya and kiwi. I was equally surprised to learn that when the bean is broken in half, it is a deep purple color. Amedeo receives their beans after they have been fermented and dried. Chef Ruth Mahoney sources only rare, heirloom-certified beans from three cacao plantations in coastal Ecuador and from one other plantation in Tumbres, Peru. The cacao sourced from the coast of Ecuador is considered Forastero, one of the major branches of origin for cacao. The others being Criollo as well as a hybrid of the two known as Trinitarios (Presilla 2009).  After the beans arrive at the Amedeo factory they are hand sorted and then roasted. Following this first step, they grind the beans and separate out the dried husks. Next they crush the beans into broken pieces, what are widely known as ‘nibs’, and refined until they reach 10 microns. Mahoney explains that this releases and blends the acidic chemicals while creating an amazing sensory experience. Finally, the chocolate undergoes constant stirring which smooths the molecules. Mahoney explained, “We treat our chocolate like fine wine. We let it age for up to 60 days, allowing all of the chemical flavors and crystals to blend and bind together.” From there, products are poured into molds and shaped into bars. Amedeo prides themselves on their goal to reduce waste as much as possible and as such offer several other interesting products like cacao tea made from the dried husks as well as cacao powder, drinking chocolate, and cocoa butter hand lotion. In addition to their bars, which sell for between $10 and $16 USD, they also offer several different kinds of truffles as well as a new product: cacao beans hand-rubbed and coated with liquefied chocolate and then hand rolled in cocoa powder. Despite their success in developing connections within the United States to distribute and sell their chocolate, they are very limited in terms of the amount of production they can do. For example, the beans used in their dark milk chocolate bar have become increasingly popular and because of this, more beans will not become available until 2019, we were told.

While cacao seems to be alive and well, this hasn’t always been the case. “Ecuador’s cacoa industry has been collapsing throughout the twentieth century. Its prized Arriba, already in serious trouble, received what may have been the coup de grace from the 1982 to 1983 and the 1997 to 1998 climate disruptions of El Nino” (Presilla 2009 p. 49). Despite this, there are a few individuals leading the way in trying to create a thriving market for Ecuadorian Cacao. “Latin America has been sitting on a gold mine of cacao that has historically been sold to other countries,” said Maricel Presilla, U.S. based chef, food historian and member of the International Chocolate Awards, “but now is the time to reclaim that resource” (NBC News 2016) See how they do it at Pacari Chocolate , one of Ecuador’s most thriving chocolate companies. 

Works Cited
Caselli, Irene. “Is Ecuador Home to the World’s Best Chocolate?” BBC News, BBC, 6 June 2013,
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: a Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press, 2009.
“This Couple Aims to Make Ecuador the Cradle of Fine Chocolate Making.” NBC News, NBCUniversal News Group, 7 Jan. 2016,




The Spirit of Chocolate: The Role of Cacao in Pre Colombian Mesoamerican Spirituality



Outside of San Marcos, Guatemala on the shores of Lake Atitlan lies a small expatriate community made up of loosely organized new age spiritualists.  Long famous for meditation centers and hippie centric counter culture, this area shares the dual value of pristine Eden like wilderness and a remote, mountainous location.  Among this enclave of wanderers is the self proclaimed “Chocolate Shaman.”  This lanky, bearded American utilizes ceremonial cacao to facilitate spiritual ascension unto a place where a person can make “quantum jumps” into parallel universes.  He claims that the 100% cacao mixture that they drink before the group meditation enhances focus and allows the “cacao spirit” to aide in the user’s spiritual journey.  His name is Keith.

Keith the Chocolate Shaman explains his connection to the Cacao Spirit

The role of cacao as a spiritual tool to connect with the divine has ancient roots.   While this use for chocolate may have fallen out of popular favor, its genesis lies in this region of pre Colombian Mesoamerica.  The Olmec, Maya and Aztec cultures of Southern Mexico and Guatemala each utilized cacao in ceremony with growing usage until colonial intervention in the 16th Century.   There is evidence of cacao’s centrality in the spiritual practice of each of the pre Colombian cultures, with varying detail.  While cacao eventually took on other roles, such as currency and medicine, its divine nature remains consistent.

The oldest recognized culture in Mesoamerica, the Olmec, are thought to be the first to have cultivated the tree Theobroma Cacao with the intent of turning the seeds of its fruit, the cacao pod, into chocolate.  As the warm and wet climate in this region is not conducive to the preservation of artifacts, evidence of cacao’s role in early pre classic Mesoamerican spirituality is sparse.  However, clues to cacaos origin lie in linguistic anthropology and modern chemical science.

The earliest usage of a word describing what we know of today as cacao date back to this period, roughly 1500BCE.  While there is debate as to the originators of the common phrase, the phonetics are consistent between Uto-Aztecan and Mixe-Zoquean languages, both known to have been in use in this region.  (Hansen, 2015)  The hieroglyph “KaKaw” is featured on Mayan artifacts and while the importance of these vessels has been understood for some time, only recently has modern chemical science offered proof of the association between them and cacao.  Using mass spectrometry analysis, two alkaloids have been found to be present in scrapings from the interior of the artifacts.  The unique combination of caffeine and theobromine mark the presence of cacao and confirm the purpose of the vessels. (Martin, 2018) This evidence, the linguistics and the chemical analysis, point to the origin of chocolate with the Olmec.  Unfortunately, the methods and practices of the Olmec use of cacao in spiritual practice have yet to be confirmed.

By the time the first Mayan cities were developed around 500 BCE, cacao’s role in ritual spiritual practice was much better documented.  Various codices, or large folding-screen books,  feature chocolate throughout, often in the presence of Gods.  The Dresden Codex features depictions of the Opossum God carrying the Rain God on his back with the text “cacao is his food.” The Madrid codex illustrates Maya Gods shedding blood over cacao, further emphasizing divine nature and preference for chocolate. (Coe & Coe, 1996)  Further evidence of the spiritual role of cacao is found in depictions of marital and death rites, where its presence would serve to represent and pay homage to the divine.


The Popol Vuh, a colonial document recorded by a Franciscan Friar centralized cacao in Mayan creation.  According to Mayan legend, humans were created from a combination of sweet things, maize and cacao.  Cacao presence in the epic is frequent, however ambiguously, often being traded between Gods and used as a sort of divine currency.  The cacao tree became a meta structure, where the leaves represent the heavens, the roots represent the underworld and the trunk represent the living earth.  In this context, the cacao tree becomes a conduit to communicate between the heavens and the earth.  (Dreiss and Greenhill, 2008)

Continuing the metaphor, the Aztec utilized cacao in a more hierarchal fashion.  Empirical and militaristic, the Aztec cities of the Colombian period were large, wealthy and powerful.  Understandably, the most powerful kings and lords collected duties of cacao from the populace.  Now used as currency, massive wealth was built by the Aztec elite, and large ceremonies were fueled by chocolate consumption. Tenochtitlans Moteccuhzoma Xocoyotzin was believed to have collected 960 million beans. (Coe, 1996) By consuming a material both monetary and divine, one would not only be embodying the sacred nature of cacao, but they would be literally consuming their own wealth, further enhancing the divine nature of their rule.

Michael Coe discusses Aztec ceremonies that feature chocolate. 55:00

As the Colombian age began, the conquistadors dully collected this wealth. It was exported to Europe where chocolate took on a new role, one of luxury and exoticism, absent of the sacred and precious.  While still valuable, cacaos rustic form of consumption, with Maize, fell away to additions of sugar and dairy.  Chocolate was commoditized and its role continued to evolve as it passed from culture to culture, absent of the divine provenance it once held.

The role of cacao by those who consume it has evolved dramatically over the centuries.  Paradoxically, chocolate is both rare and common, cheap yet luxurious, sweet and bitter.  Allusions to feelings of love and association with the emotional and physical heart are complicated by a deep history of violent oppression, theft and conquest.  Today, it is difficult to see how a chocolate candy bar could evoke feelings of spirituality and divine connection.  Keith has reinvigorated the role of cacao in the spiritual realm, seeing it as both a gift and a tool to embody and experience the Cacao Spirit and connect with alternate states of being.  The Chocolate Shaman, it seems, has brought the spirituality of cacao full circle, back into a realm of contemporary exoticism and divinity.


Coe, M. & Coe, C. 1996 The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, New York

Dreiss, M & Greenhil, S. 2008. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. University of Arizona Press, Tuscon

Keith, The Chocolate Shaman. The Art of Ascension

Martin, C. 2018 Lecture

Hansen, M. 2015 Cacao: How a Single Word Holds the Key to Understanding the Mesoamerican Past



Cacao, A Mesoamerican Treasure


Cacao Pods, pulp and seeds, fermented seeds and Cacao nibs

Cacao grew organically in Pre-Columbian times and was a Mesoamerican cultural staple for the three more well-known civilizations: Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs. These cultures saw it as a divine food crop used to accompany ritualistic human sacrifices. The cacao pod and its seeds (beans, after fermentation,) became a divine treasure consumed, offered, and used as currency in Mesoamerican civilizations.

Map of Mesoamerican Civilizations

The Pre-Columbian Cacao Tree grew wildly along the “Pacific coastal plain of Chiapas (in southeast Mexico,) according to the American archaeologist Michael D Coe, and it grew adjacent to Guatemala in the region formarly known as Soconusco. The tree flourished as an understory tree in the rainforests of mesoamerica. The Theobroma cacao tree pollinated and germinated itself, with the help of midges in the warm, damp, and mulch environment which, created the atmosphere for cacao trees to sprout cacao pods.  Theobroma, (Cacao Tree) in Greek literally means “food for the gods” and right before the Spaniards touched down in the New World, the ancient mesoamericans were drinking xocolatl, literally translated to “bitter-water” as a daily ritual and as a god offering.

In The True History of Chocolate by Michael D. Coe, research by Terry Powis found Theobrama residues in pottery shards that can be traced back to the Olmecs.

Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 14.29.52

A colossal stone head, of the Olmec civilization (1500 – 400 BC) Courtesy of Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate

The Olmecs are believed to be the first to cultivate and domesticate the cacao seeds from the cacao pods, between 1650 BC and 1500 BC.  The process for creating chocolate included fermenting, drying, and hulling the beans to reveal the nibs. Which were then ground into powder on a metate to formulate pure, unadulterated cacao (Coe, 22-24). Cacao, which derived from kakaw and borrowed from Zoque the Olmec language, is pure from of chocolate.

Public Domain

The word ‘kakaw’, the Mayan for ‘cacao’, written in the Maya script.

Yelkrokoyade Mayan Metate and mano used to grind up cacao beans.

Human Sacrifice and Cacao

Mayan civilization followed, and Cacao would maintain its sacred place in that society. The Mayan’s venerated Ek Chugh, the Cacao god, as he was believed to farmers and merchants whom traded cacao for goods.  Additionally, Mayan’s used cacao beans, and chocolate drinks as gravesite offerings.  Though they are probably best remembered for using chocolate in there during rituals involving human sacrifice.  The ritual human sacrifice was explained by Cameron L. McNeil’s 2006 article, “In Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao,” human as honoring the Mayan gods of mesoamerica. Cacao was drank during sacrifice which was artificially colored by the addition of achiote to strengthen the connection between blood and sacrifice.  The picture of the Mayan tree life below illustrates the Cacao tree’s importance in life and death in their culture

Mayan Cacao“Tree of Life” with Olmec head

The Essential Art of Chocolate Frothing

Cacao drinking was an elite and royal food product. The most important important aspect of preparation was the art of frothing.  This consisted of pouring the chocolate from high enough to create a froth; which was the most desirable portion of drinking chocolate. The chocolate drink was consumed by all in drinking vessels as depicted below from Pre-Columbian times.  The Aztec empire followed that of the Mayans, and they too borrowed customs and practices from the preceding empire.


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The “Do not touch my chocolate and tamales” motif.

The image above is from a polychrome Mayan vase. It depicts the Mayan lord sitting next to a cacao beverage tinted red with achiote, (note the froth) and tamales in a pot below.

The art of frothing the chocolate, as well as adding native spices to the chocolate is depicted below. The Aztecs again used maize and spices to enhance the taste. In contrast Aztec elite, specifically, royalty, warriors, and rich merchants, were only allowed to legally consume chocolate. The Aztecs also used cacao seeds or beans as currency (Presilla, p17.) Additionally, the art of frothing chocolate for ceremonies played a key role in the experience of drinking.

Public Domain

The “barista– expert frother of chocolate” motif. Codice Tudela, sixteenth century. An Aztec woman preparing the cacao drink. The liquid was poured back and forth from a height to create a frothy head or foam on top. 


The Taste of Chocolate
The taste was not like modern day chocolate but instead was quite bitter, due in large part to the fact that sugar had not yet reached the Americas. There was however local honey to sweeten, maize was used as a filler, and other spices added to produce a tasty food product.  They used these products to honor their gods, celebrate betrothals and marriages, and as sustenance (calories.)cacao-mama-the-history-and-spirit-cacao-served-to-aztec-couple-on-wedding-day