Tag Archives: Aztec

Chocolate: From Sheep Droppings to American Staple

Chocolate is arguably the most versatile candy in the United States. From cakes to brownies to fondues, Americans consume chocolate in a multitude of ways. Not only is chocolate extremely versatile, it is one of the most popular forms of candy in America. According to internal sales data examined by candystore.com, last year almost half (eleven to be exact) of the top 25 candies sold on Halloween in the United States were some form of chocolate. (Daily Meal 2018) However, this wasn’t always the case. English-speaking Europeans weren’t very impressed by cocoa beans upon first meeting. In fact, the first English and Dutch sailors to discover cocoa beans on a Spanish treasure ship threw them overboard, confusing the beans with sheep droppings. (Cadbury) So how did chocolate make the transition from sheep droppings to a staple American delicacy that is easily available to anyone? Let’s take a look at its long journey.

Cocoa beans are home to Central and South America, and is speculated to have been a central part of Olmec culture since as far back as 1500 B.C.. (History 2018) The Olmecs passed their knowledge of chocolate on to the Mayans, who primarily used it in drinks to make something most similar to what we know today as hot chocolate. Although cocoa was a central part of Mayan culture, it was available to pretty much everyone in society. The rich and the poor were able to enjoy hot chocolate as a delicacy. However, the Aztecs saw chocolate in a completely different light. To them chocolate was a gift from their gods and was only available to the lower class at celebrations like weddings. Because it came from the gods, chocolate was believed to have divine properties and was used in the most Sacred rituals in Aztec society such as birth, death, marriage and sacrifice. Chocolate was regarded so highly in the culture that Aztec ruler Montezuma II drank gallons of chocolate a day as an energy boost and an aphrodisiac, and also kept cocoa beans reserved for the military should they ever go to war. In Aztec culture, cocoa beans were more valuable than gold, and it is speculated that many European countries were first introduced to chocolate by the Aztecs.

There are differing stories about how and when chocolate first arrived in Europe, however most agree that chocolate arrived in Spain first. The Spanish took the Mayan recipe and added some of their own spices like cinnamon and cane sugar. Soon after arrival, hot chocolate became a popular commodity, and by 1585, Spain was importing chocolate into its ports.  As its popularity continued to soar in Spain, simultaneously other European countries were visiting parts of Central America and bringing cocoa beans back to their individual countries. By the 17th century, chocolate was a popular drink throughout much of Europe, though it was reserved for the upper class. Similar to the Mayans and Aztecs, Europeans believed chocolate had medicinal, nutritional and even aphrodisiac properties. Chocolate would remain exclusive to the upper-class until the late 1700s when the steam engine made mass production possible. As imperialism spread to the Americas, chocolate went with it. Chocolate arrived in the British colony Florida in the late 1690s and by 1773 it was available to all people in the American colonies. Like the Aztecs, Americans believed that chocolate was beneficial in war, and thus soldiers were rationed chocolate in the Revolutionary War. In fact, chocolate was so highly regarded, that it was often given to soldiers instead of actual wages.

There were a number of different factors that led to chocolate being able to be mass-produced at an affordable price, and in the different forms that we are familiar with today.  First and foremost, Imperialism played a major role in the spread of chocolate. As European countries attempted to conquer the Americas and spread their influence across the world, they came in contact with chocolate. Some historians believe that Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes was the first to  discover chocolate when the Aztecs mistook him for a deity and welcomed him with a big feast where they served him large amounts of chocolate. (History 2018) This allowed him to bring the beans back to Spain, and aid in the spread of chocolate across Europe. A major breakthrough occurred in 1828 when a Dutch chemist discovered a way to make chocolate powder. (Fiegl 2008) His discovery paved the way for solid chocolate and the many different forms of chocolate that we are familiar with today. Later in the 1800s companies in Europe and America began making and selling different forms of chocolate candies. For the first time, chocolate became available to consume in different forms to everyone in society.  Another breakthrough, and perhaps most important was the creation of the steam engine. Before the steam engine, the process of creating chocolate was still very remedia, and hadn’t improved much from the formula used by the Aztecs. Before the introduction of the steam engine, grinding cacao beans into chocolate was a grueling process done by hand. It was inefficient to say the least. However, the steam engine allowed chocolate makers to make much larger quantities of chocolate. Joseph Storrs Fry was the first to buy a steam engine for chocolate production, and his success inspired others to do the same. (Coe and Coe 2013) As more people began streamlining their chocolate process, the price of chocolate also fell, which allowed all classes of people to enjoy it.  

Works Cited:

The Daily Meal, 2018. The 25 Most Popular Halloween Candies in America. https://www.thedailymeal.com/holidays/most-popular-halloween-candies-america-gallery

History.com, 2018. History of Chocolate.


Fiegl, A., 2008. A Brief History of Chocolate


Coe, Sophie D., Coe, Michael D., 2013. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, London. Image Citations:

Mostafa, H., 2016., Chocolate And Children’s Teeth And Gums https://www.gumsaver.co.uk/chocolate-and-childrens-teeth-and-gums/

World Kids, 2017., A Sweet (and not so sweet) History  


Johns, A., Spych, B., Kompler, C., Caruthers, D., Caruthers, D., & Green, R. (n.d.). James Watts Steam Engine, 2018. 18th Century Canvas Print https://fineartamerica.com/featured/james-watts-steam-engine-18th-century-dave-king–dorling-kindersley–science-museum-london.html?product=canvas-print

CHC: The Medicinal and Social Perception of Cannabis and Cacao Consumption

Cacao and Cannabis

Today, we tend to think of cannabis and cacao consumption as a treat or indulgence.  Yet, the use and cultivation of these two plants date back through antiquity. Back then, the beliefs about the purpose of cannabis and cacao consumption was much different and far less restrained by negative social or biological implications.  

While much of the eurocentric understanding of cacao is extrapolated from studying the Aztecs, the Mesoamerican origins of cacao can be traced back even further to the Olmec civilization.  The Olmecs, possible ancestors of the Mayans, created a flourishing society in the humid lowlands of the Mexican Gulf Coast around 1500 BC. The humid, tropical rainforest climate created ideal conditions for growing the Theobroma Cacao Tree, but terrible conditions for archeological preservation.  That being said, linguistics experts have deduced the origins of the word “cacao” to the Mixe-Zoquean language used by the Olmecs in 1000 BC. Further, excavators discovered a stone bowl with chemical remnants of cacao (theobromine) at the Olmec capital city (San Lorenzo) and reasonably conclude they were among the first to discover the chocolate process (Coe & Coe, 84).    

Postdating the Olmecs, The Maya existed from 250 AD until its collapse in the ninth century.  The Maya thoroughly advanced wisdom and is remembered particularly for its contributions to agriculture, food, and spirituality.  Cacao, then pronounced “kakaw,” played an important social role for Mayans, even earning its own hieroglyph. Archaeologists find cacao heavily present in the primary source database, especially in connection with the gods.  In visual and written documents, cacao is presented in a sacred light—something consumed by the gods to support supernatural vitality. Specifically, this is evidenced in the Dresden Codex and Popul Vuh, which both feature cacao in direct connection with the gods.  For this reason, many historians refer to cacao as “the food of the gods.” Drinking chocolate was the premier means of cacao consumption in Mayan society, serving a certain symbolic importance in marriage and fertility rituals. Beyond its connection with the gods, cacao was also considered to be of medicinal value in Mayan society; the Maya used cacao for its digestive, anaesthetic, anti-inflammatory, and energy related benefits (Martin).   

The Aztecs, from 1300-1521 AD, also believed cocoa had a religious significance.  The Theobroma cacao tree was considered divine—a bridge between earth and heaven.  Beyond the ritualistic significance of cacao consumption to connect the Aztecs with the supernatural world, they also used chocolate for medical purposes.  Archaeologists have uncovered Aztec documentation of healing rites including cacao in ancient codices. Two manuscripts specifically, Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams, describe the proper medicinal applications of cacao for physical ailments and spiritual afflictions (Martin).  Cacao was administered in a variety of different ways to treat a range of illnesses, including skin eruptions, fevers and seizures.  Above all, chocolate was believed to foster vitality and improve love.

Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams

The use and cultivation of cannabis dates back through antiquity as well.  In ancient China, 2700 BC, Emperor Shen Neng prescribed tea with cannabis dissolved in it to treat a number of illnesses.  Marijuana was popular as a medicine, not a delicacy. Its effectiveness led to the proliferation of cannabis as medicine throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Africa (Stack).  Primarily, cannabis was used as a stress and pain relief medication—especially effective during childbirth (Prioreschi). Ancient documents reveal a caveat to the overconsumption of marijuana, marking its negative side effects as impotence, blindness and seeing demons.  By the late 18th century, cannabis as medicine made its way to the occidental world as a remedy for inflamed skin, incontinence and venereal disease. Specifically, one Irish doctor named William O’Shaughnessy praised the medicinal benefits of marijuana and preached about its ability to effectively alleviate pain and nausea (Stack).

While cacao played a sacred role in their society, there is ample evidence the Maya used cannabis to understand the universe as well.  Mayan hieroglyphs and art also depict the act of smoking, whether it be tobacco or marijuana. Archaeologists contend the Maya cultivated marijuana in farms and ground cannabis to create psychoactive beverages.  As alluded to earlier, drinking was also the preferred method for cacao consumption in their ancient society. The psychoactive effects of cannabis allowed the Mayans to communicate with the gods and pray off demons.  Similar to the medicinal uses of cacao, cannabis was used to treat bug bites, snake bites, and alleviate other physical ailments (Civilized).

Today, just as our perception of these ancient civilizations, our realms of knowledge surrounding cacao and cannabis are quite different.  As we move forward from ancient times through history, we begin to see the understanding of cannabis and cacao develop alongside disciplines of knowledge.  For example, the further development of scientific methods and documentation of natural phenomena continues to help society understand these plants with a more robust fact base.  While it has been treated as an illicit drug in America for hundreds of years, cannabis has recently been proven to remedy severe medical impairments, such as epilepsy, and alleviate chronic pain, especially for chemotherapy patients (Zurer).

Scientists have found many similarities between chocolate and marijuana.  In 1996, researchers found cacao consumption to activate cannabinoid receptors in the human brain providing users a subtle “high” similar to the effects of marijuana.  While three substances in cacao were proven to activate cannabinoid receptors, the most prevalent finding was an increase in anandamide levels. The paper explains, “anandamide is a lipid that binds to cannabinoid receptors and mimics the psychoactive effects of the drug” (James).  Because chocolate is believed to enhance the effects of cannabis consumption, these findings imply that medical marijuana can be cushioned and moderated by combining the dose with cacao (Zurer).

These findings have affected not only the medical realm, but the legal realm as well; one lawyer sought to recuse his client by arguing the client tested positive for cannabis due to high levels of chocolate consumption (Tytgat, J., Van Boven, M. & Daenens, P.).  While this bogus argument was refuted, it still goes to show the sociopolitical landscape is changing as science elucidates more and more botanical similarities between these two plants.  Perhaps it is time we retreated from our perception of chocolate and marijuana consumption as gluttonous indulgences back to the ancient purpose of fostering wellness.


“Cacao vs Cannabis.” Digital image. Pics for You Evety Day. http://hulufree.top/When-Im-traveling-morning-cacao-and-yoga-is-an-essential-ritual.html.

Civilized. “5 Facts About How Cannabis Was Used by the Mayan People.” YouTube. October 16, 2017. Accessed March 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xHwa3NH6pG4.

Coe, Sophie D. “The True History of Chocolate.” iBooks.

Harvard University. “Marijuana: The Latest Scientific Findings and Legalization.” YouTube. April 04, 2017. Accessed March 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvRf_3Bil0A&t=1943s.

James, J S. “Marijuana and Chocolate.” AIDS Treatment News, 1996.

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, And The Politics Of Food”. Lecture slides. February 6, 2019.

Peake, Allen. “CNN Documentary on Charlotte’s Web, Medical Marijuana Treating Seizure Disorders.” YouTube. February 09, 2014. Accessed March 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxrKyjeClTk&.

Plinio Prioreschi, and Donald Babin. “Ancient Use of Cannabis.” Nature 364, no. 6439 (1993): 680.

Stack, Patrick, and Claire Suddath. “Medical Marijuana.” Time. October 21, 2009. Accessed March 2019. http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1931247,00.html.

Tytgat, J., Van Boven, M. & Daenens, P. Int J Leg Med (2000) 113: 137. https://doi-org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/10.1007/s004140050284

Zurer, Pamela. “Chocolate May Mimic Marijuana in Brain.” Chemical & Engineering News 74, no. 36 (1996): 31-32.

From Cultural to Commercial: Cocoa’s Geopolitical Transformation

Molded by years of exposure to masterfully crafted marketing campaigns, average consumer knowledge of cacao [or cocoa] is limited to its function as an ingredient and source from which their beloved chocolate is derived. There is much more to the birth, rise, and spread of Theobroma cacao.

The following seeks to explain how a culturally significant crop among early civilizations dating back to 1500 BCE (Coe and Coe, 2013) transformed from a highly treasured ingredient and social currency cultivated within a fairly limited zone to a globally produced and traded commodity: a highly reformulated, mass-produced, and readily available confectionery product.

This journey traces cacao back to its genetic and cultural beginnings where it was religious and cultural fixture among early civilizations; how exploration and migration played into the geographical expansion of its cultivation and rise in popularity as a food; role in accelerating industrialization; and transformation from a social currency and treasured ingredient to a heavily traded commodity and mass manufactured consumer product.

Genetic and Cultural Beginnings

From births and burials, recipes and rituals, cacao’s cultural origins are linked to Mesoamerica (present day Mexico through Central America), where its social and religious significance among the Olmec dates back to 1500 to 400 BCE (Coe and Coe, 2013). The rise of Maya and Aztec civilizations gave way for cacao’s evolution utility and proliferation as a consumable.

Cacao’s Role in Society and Religion

Evidenced by archeologic discoveries, translated texts, and scientific testing, several vessels and writings have been unearthed, clarifying and validating cacao’s significance, religious ties, and early application as a currency.

Mayan and Aztec civilization associated cacao with the gods. As such, they were believed to enrich and afford protections during and after life, playing a central role in offerings and rituals (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Ceramic vessels similar to those pictured here which date back to 455 to 465 CE were found in burial tombs at Río Azul (Martin, 2019). Further testing confirmed positive traces of caffeine and theobromine—two of cacao’s alkaloid signatures (Martin, 2019).

Dating back to 455 to 465 CE, “funerary vessels” similar to those pictured here were discovered in tombs at Río Azul. As testing revealed traces of caffeine and theobromine, two of cacao’s signature alkaloids, this further supported evidence of cacao’s religious significance (Martin, 2019).

As a food or drink, cacao took many forms. Popular among the Maya and Aztec, “cacahuatl” was a frothy preparation often transferred from one vessel to another and served cold (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Described by Coe and Coe in The True History of Chocolate and drawn by Diane Griffiths Peck, this illustration provides a glimpse into one of many Maya and Aztec cacao preparation and serving methods.
Of the 15 discovered, translated, and still intact, the Dresden Codex contains the aforementioned Mayan hieroglyphic depiction of cacao being consumed by gods and used in rituals (Martin, 2019). Other major works include the Popol Vuh or “Book of Counsel” is a colonial document later translated by Friar Francisco Ximénez that reveals the importance of cacao among early civilizations.

Exploration and Migration: Changes in Cultivation and Consumption

By definition, explorers were bound to make new discoveries and learn from their experience. Capturing the innocent confusion and eye-opening experience (only to be realized years later), the following briefly details just how one explorer mistakenly thought that cacao beans were almonds.”

Mistaken for Almonds: When recounting observations from his 1502 landing at Guanaja, one of many landmasses that make up the Bay Islands archipelago, Ferdinand Columbus, one of Christopher Columbus’ sons wrote about cherished “almonds” that traded hands similarly to how currency would pass between customers and merchants (Coe and Coe, 2013). It was not until years later after multiple interpretations and sources concluded that what he presumed to be almonds were in fact cacao beans.

As it came to be more widely known, not far from where Ferdidnad landed, throughout the Rio Ceniza Valley (present day coast of El Salvador), cacao was an increasingly popular form of currency being produced and traded in record volume—something . In time, this led to further learnings about the “Nahua counting system” and subsequent adoption of cacao as payment for “protection” by Spanish conquistadors.

Generally relegated to tropical climates falling 10-15 degrees north and south of equator, is was inevitable that cacao would make its way around the world. So as people moved, and culture spread, so too did the cacao, as a crop, currency, and curiosity, ultimately leading to its introduction to new geographies, and paving the way for new industries and traditions around the world (Martin, 2019).

New Formulations and Complementary Ingredients

As ingredients such as vanilla, chili, and many others traveled around the world, pairings and formulations rapidly evolved. Marking a major development and informing direction for the confectionery side as we know it today, sugar was introduced to Europe around 1100 CE and chocolate followed shortly thereafter in 1500 CE (Martin, 2019).

Cacao’s Role in Accelerating Industrialization and Expanding its Place in Society

While cacao consumption continued to be reserved for certain classes during its journey around the world, increasingly sophisticated processing methods streamlined productions, regulation eventually brought its price down, and despite medical and religious challenges to its place in society, cacao products were increasingly available to a grander population.

By the 1600 and 1700s, advances in processing continued to align with rising and more diverse consumption habits. Of course, by this time, the separation between “producing” and “processing” countries (read: colonies vs. industrialized nations) was increasingly clear.

So while cultivation and production spread across Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa to meet demand, industry began to take shape on the consumer side as well with the emergence of social gathering halls or “Chocolate Houses” in Britain, France, Spain, the United States, and other “industrialized” nations who had transitioned to managing the cacao’s trade as a commodity and processing for various food and beverage applications. It was not until Rudolphe Lindt’s invention of the conche in 1879, an advancement that bolstered flavor and feel (among other things), and set the stage for quality, processing, and mass production to take off (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Illustrated above, the matete, grinder, and conche are examples of what cacao processing tools were used by early civilizations (and are still used in the same or similar forms today) and evolved or industrialized processing equipment employed today (Martin, 2019).

From early civilizations to present day, cacao’s role in society, cultural significance, availability and consumption have evolved tremendously. However, its mystique and association as something special are still true to this day—just as they were in different and more elaborate forms among early civilizations. Perhaps this condensed history will give pause and reason for the average consumer to think beyond commercialization of cacao, cocoa, or chocolate, and value and validate its history and claims made by brands to improve global understanding, perception, and consumer habits.

Works Cited

  • Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd Edition, Thames & Hudson, 2013.
  • Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.Hu, Vol. 3, 2015, pp. 37–60.
  • Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.
  • Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018

Media Cited

  • Hansen, Magnus Pharao. “Cacao: How a Single Word Holds the Key to Understanding the Mesoamerican Past”. Nawatl Scholar. January 1, 1970. Accessed March 15, 2019. http://nahuatlstudies.blogspot.com/2015/01/cacao-how-contested-history-of-single.html?spref=tw.
  • Olver, Lynne. “Food Timeline FAQs: Aztec, Maya, & Inca foods and recipes”. Lynne Olver 2000. March 1, 2015. Accessed February 17, 2019. http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodmaya.html.
  • Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies. “Map of Mesoamerica.” Accessed February 17, 2019. http://www.famsi.org/maps/.
  • Río Azul [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
  • Wikimedia Commons. File:Popol vuh.jpg. (January 16, 2015). Retrieved February 17, 2019. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Popol_vuh.jpg&oldid=146695431.
  • Matete [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
  • Grinder [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
  • Conche [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.

Lectures Cited

  • Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. February 13, 2019. Lecture.
  • Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. February 20, 2019. Lecture.
  • Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.

Maya and Aztec Chocolate Recipes: Authenticity and Origins

A quick search online for “Mesoamerican chocolate recipe” yields a plethora of interesting search results. Recipes range from “Mayan Chocolate Pudding,” a dark chocolate pudding flavored with habanero pepper, allspice, and cinnamon, to “Spicy Aztec Hot Chocolate” which starts off with a typical recipe for hot chocolate but then calls for the fiery addition of chili, cinnamon, and the Mexican spirit Mezcal. A recipe for “Mayan Chocolate Truffles,” described as “dark chocolate truffles with some kick,” contains vanilla, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and coffee liqueur, and are then coated with everything from toasted coconut to ground almonds and even candy melts. Digging deeper, one can even find a video tutorial for Montezuma’s own recipe, which instructs the viewer to mix all the ingredients for hot chocolate together using a blender.


Pictured: Mayan Chocolate Truffles. Would the Maya have prepared similar confections?

While we can appreciate that these modern recipes acknowledge the historical origins of cacao, how closely do they actually resemble the cacao preparations from the Maya and Aztec cultures?

Cacao in the Classic Maya civilization

Cacao was a beverage enjoyed mostly by the nobility during this time. Believed to have been consumed by the gods, it was considered to be a sacred product and played a valuable role in almost every aspect of elite Maya culture. Events such as fertility rites, marriage rituals, and rituals of burial and death were toasted or celebrated with a ceremony of cacao drinking. Serving cacao beverages at feasts were displays of wealth and power, and it was used in negotiations and even political pacts (Leissle 30). It was also believed to have medicinal and healing effects so was often incorporated in healing rituals. Warriors consumed it as a stimulant as it was believed to imbue the warrior with invincible, protective powers. Cacao beans were so valuable that they were used as currency across Mesoamerica, often harvested by commoners who would pay tribute to rulers in beans (Leissle 30). Commoners were also the ones who prepared the cacao beverages for the elite, so there was certainly a class difference between those who produced cacao and those who consumed and enjoyed it.

While many recipes may have existed, customized by the flair of the individual preparing it, cacao was consumed solely as a beverage. Methods of processing the cacao pods were entirely manual and without the tools and machinery that would arrive centuries later with the Industrial Revolution, cacao could not be transformed into the bars or confections that we recognize as chocolate today. Instead, the cacao beans were roasted and ground into a paste and combined with ground maize and hot water. Then the concoction was poured from above from one vessel into another in order to create a foam, which was considered to be the most sacred part of the drink (Coe 48). This drink was typically flavored with ingredients native to the region such as vanilla and achiote, a native spice that imparts a red or orange color (Coe 61-62).

Cacao in the Aztec civilization

In Aztec culture, the cacao beverage was consumed similarly but usually served cold rather than hot (Coe 84). The cacao beans were ground into a powder and mixed with water, then poured from one vessel to another in order to achieve the prized foam. The Aztecs took many more liberties than the Maya when it came to flavoring this drink. Like the Maya, the Aztecs often mixed in ground maize, vanilla, “ear flower,” and achiote, but other flavorings included dried chili powder, allspice, and honey (Coe 86-87). “Ear flower,” a flower that was dried and ground into a powder was a very popular chocolate flavoring that tasted of black pepper possibly with notes of nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon (Coe 88). Another plant that was used was “string flower,” a plant related to black pepper that may have imparted a tarragon or anise flavor to chocolate. Other plants include magnolia flowers and the rose-scented “popcorn flower” (Coe 93-94).

Similar to the customs of the Maya culture, this elite drink was reserved solely for the nobility in the highly stratified Aztec society. As cacao beans were valuable currency, money that literally grew on trees, the drink was strictly consumed by the elite class. Interestingly, warriors were permitted cacao and were even given military rations of cacao ground and pressed into pellets or wafers (perhaps a precursor to the modern-day chocolate bar), signifying their importance and prominence in the Aztec culture (Coe 98).

So how accurate are the modern recipes?

Revisiting the modern recipes found online today, it is highly unlikely that Montezuma himself prepared his own cacao beverage (much less with the use of a electric blender!) as it was usually the commoners who prepared the sacred drink for the nobility.

However, our modern interpretations of these ancient recipes may not have been entirely inaccurate. Of course, the Maya and the Aztecs were not concocting puddings and truffles with their prized cacao. And since sugar only arrived post-Columbian conquest, if the cacao beverages were sweetened it was primarily with honey. The spices in these modern recipes such as chili pepper, allspice, vanilla are not inaccurate as they were all native ingredients utilized during that time period.


Pictured: A modern recipe for Spicy Aztec Hot Chocolate with Mezcal and garnished with a cinnamon stick 

The only curious ingredient that seems to be included in every modern recipe is cinnamon. Cinnamon was not native to the Mesoamerican region and therefore perhaps never encountered by the Maya or the Aztecs. Its inclusion then, while inaccurate, speaks more to our imagination of these ancient beverages. After all, “ear flower” reportedly hinted at notes of nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon. So while we may not be able to easily achieve the exact flavors of this ancient sacred beverage, at least in the United States, we can at least use our imagination.


Works Cited

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

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Lopez-Alt, Kenji J. “Spicy Aztec Hot Chocolate with Chili, Cinnamon, and Mezcal Recipe.” Serious Eats, http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2012/02/spicy-aztec-hot-chocolate-with-chili-cinnamon-mezcal-recipe.html. Accessed 17 March 2019.

“Mayan Chocolate Pudding.” Food & Wine, January 2013, http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/mayan-chocolate-pudding. Accessed 17 March 2019.

“Mayan Chocolate Truffles.” Tasty Kitchen, 9 March 2012, tastykitchen.com/blog/2012/03/mayan-chocolate-truffles. Accessed 17 March 2019.

“Montezuma’s Chocolate Drink, Recipe Rewind, S1E5.” Youtube, uploaded by Recipe Rewind, 28 Sept. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWhorrHUItE.

The Aztec Allure

Sign outside Paul A Young Fine Chocolates

In 2014, a flickr user who goes by the username “Kake” posted a visual guide to the London restaurant scene (Flikr 2014) Among the many photos in his album of London storefronts and delicious-looking meals, he shared this photograph of a sign outside of the Paul A. Young Fine Chocolaterie in London, UK. The sign emphasizes, in large bold lettering, an exciting feature on the chocolaterie’s menu: Aztec Hot Chocolate. Below the Aztec Hot Chocolate text, and in a distinctly different color and font style, Paul A. Young details the rest of their offerings, including “Sea Salted Caramel Billionaire Shortbread,” “Sichuan Pepper and Slem,” and “Ginger Pavé and Pavé shards.” These offerings, written in yellow, are more typical of chocolate desserts and are united by their yellow text color. They are described in specific detail, while the Hot Chocolate’s main attention drawing descriptor is that it’s “Aztec.”

Before they were used to describe hot chocolate at a London Chocolaterie, the Aztecs were a Mesoamerican people who inhabited the region we now largely classify as Central Mexico between the 14th to 16th century (Smith, 12). Like the Maya, their Southern Mexican predecessors, the Aztecs cherished and cultivated cacao, creating numerous cacao-based food and drinks which soon inspired the Spanish and other nations to introduce cacao and chocolate to their diets. Eventually, cacao and chocolate became global products, commercialized through colonization and exploitative labor practices and making their way to countries like England and the U.S. Paul A Young’s “Aztec Chocolate” is one of many modern-day chocolate products which recognizes chocolate’s origins as a publicity technique, while creating a chocolate product that most likely fails to resemble what scholars actually believe the Aztec’s produced.

The Aztecs primarily consumed chocolate as a drink, but with flavorings and recipes which deviate from how hot chocolate is popularly consumed in the present day. In one of the earliest accounts of chocolate consumption in Aztec society, an associate of the conquistador Hernan Cortes described the Aztec chocolate drink making process. He explains that the cacao is ground into powder, mixed with water, and changed from “one basin to another, so that a foam is raised” (Anonymous Conqueror 1556). The anonymous author highlights the process of foaming chocolate drinks, utilized by both the Aztecs and Maya. The Aztecs would pour their chocolate drinks from one container to another to create a foamy texture that they believed to be intrinsic to the chocolate consumption experience. The anonymous author also specifies that the chocolate “is better in hot weather than in cool, being cold in its nature” (Anonymous Conqueror 1556). Unlike most modern day hot chocolate consumers, the Aztecs consumed their chocolate cold (Coe 83).

Aztec woman pours chocolate.

Aztec chocolate makers were also immersed in all aspects of the chocolate-making labor, from the cracking of the cacao bean to the mixing of chocolate drink. Much of what we currently know about Aztec chocolate practices comes from Fray Bernadino de Sahagún, a Spanish missionary who is considered to be the world’s first field ethnographer (Coe 66). One of Sahagún’s native informants described the chocolate making process conducted by a female seller. She crushed and separates the cacao beans, soaks them, aerates them, filters them, grinds them and, finally, stirs in water (Sahagún 1950-59). The seller not only created the final cocoa and water mixture, but also worked with the cacao at every stage of the process. This process differs from that of chocolate-makers and consumers today, who often do not know the process behind the cocoa or chocolate they use to produce their chocolate and chocolate drinks

The Aztec chocolate beverage existed in many variations with different spices and flavorings. Chili was a very popular addition to chocolate, and chocolate makers added it in powder form to chocolate drinks called “Chilcacahuatl” (Coe 86). They also added maize or corn to drinks, making them nutritional and savory (Coe 85). The most popular chocolate flavor among the Aztecs was “cymbaopetalum penduliflorum,” a flower that was both flavorful and potentially inebriating (Coe 88). Absent from these chocolate recipes, however, is sugar or milk, both ingredients which were central to future European and global chocolate recipes (Coe 131). Ultimately, global chocolate production lead to the 1847 British chocolate company J.S. Fry & Sons creating the first solid edible chocolate bar from cocoa butter, cocoa powder and sugar (History.com 2014).

Chocolate has gone through many transformations since its Aztec origins. Red Online offers some clarity as to the way in which Paul A Young interpreted Aztec-style hot chocolate. A published 2015 recipe includes sugar, cocoa powder, dark chocolate, and a variety of spices like chili, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom and instructs. It instructs the reader to mix and heat the sugar, cocoa, and chocolate in a saucepan and then to add spices. While it adopts the Aztec name, the Paul A Young Aztec-style chocolate drink holds little resemblance to the often hearty and chilled beverage consumed by the Aztecs. The Aztec name serves moreso as its own ingredient, an exotic and exciting reminder of a historic civilization.

Works Cited

An Aztec woman generates foam by pouring chocolate from one vessel to another in the Codex Totula, “History of Chocolate.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Mar. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_chocolate#/media/File:Mujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_Tudela.jpg.

Anonymous Conqueror 1556: 306a, cited and translated by Coe, Sophie D., and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2007.

Coe, Sophie D., and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2007.

Kake. “Sign Outside Paul A Young, City, London, EC3.” Flickr, Yahoo!, 22 Mar. 2014, http://www.flickr.com/photos/kake_pugh/13324305415/in/photostream/.

Klein, Christopher. “The Sweet History of Chocolate.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 14 Feb. 2014, www.history.com/news/the-sweet-history-of-chocolate.

Smith, Michael Ernest. The Aztecs. 3rd ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Sahuagan 1950-59, cited by Coe, Sophie D., and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2007.

Comparing culture surrounding cacao in Mayan and Aztec Civilizations

The history of chocolate is something that countless people tend to take for granted in today’s world.  It is very rare to find someone eating a chocolate bar to stop and think, “what elements of this food have had significant historical influence? are the ingredients found in present day chocolate similar to those used millenniums ago? what types of techniques were involved in making chocolate hundreds, if not thousands of years ago?” A large percentage of people do not understand how influential chocolate, more specifically cacao, was during the earliest time periods is production. Furthermore, an awareness of the true history of the culture surrounding cacao.

Mayan and Aztec Production of Chocolate:

Some of the earliest civilizations to implement cacao as a main element of daily diet were the Maya and Aztec people.   It is believed that the first civilization to use cacao was the Olmec people dating back to 1500 BCE. However, it was not until the Maya and Aztec civilizations that the production of cacao was recorded. They would “harvest the beans from cacao trees… ferment and dry them, roast them, remove their shells, and ground them into paste. They often combined this paste with water, cornmeal, chili peppers, and other spices, then poured the spicy, bitter mixture back and forth between two containers to create a frothy head” (Howstuffworks). The “frothy head” was considered the most desirable aspect of the drink to the Maya and Aztec people (Coe & Coe, 2013). The final product had a very bitter taste, but cacao was looked upon in such high regard that the Mayans called it the “food of the gods” (Godiva).

Cacao Uses in Mayan Culture:

Cacao was available to people of all classes, which resulted in the bean making a large presence in the Maya culture. Cacao was consumed, used in marriage rituals, sacrificed to gods, implemented as a currency, placed in graves, and given as medicine.  The Maya consumed the cacao beverage warm.   Royal elites of the Maya would consume the cacao beverage at the end of meals with different spices such as vanilla and flowers. While the middle and lower class would enjoy cacao with less expensive ingredients (Howstuffworks).

In marriage, “the bride would give the bridegroom a small stool painted in colors, and also gives him five grains of cacao” (Coe & Coe, 2013).  Here we see that the exchange of cacao between bridge and groom was used to seal marriage ceremonies. It also important to note cacao was served while the father of the bride and the groom would sit to discuss the marriage (Martin, 2019).

Cacao was often called the “food of the gods”. Furthermore, the Maya worshiped the God, Ek Chuaj (seen below), who was the patron of cacao and had a festival each April.  The sacrifices during the holiday included offerings of cacao (ricochetscience).

            As a currency, cacao beans were used as a bargaining tool to exchange for everyday items like cloths and food. The True History of Chocolate gives insight into the varying prices for different goods. The example, “a rabbit was worth about ten of these “almonds,” eight chicosapote fruits were worth four “almonds,” a slave about a hundred of them, and the services of a prostitute, eight to ten “according to how they agree,” provides a clear value of cacao bean within the Mayan rule (Coe &Coe 2013).

            The final use of cacao was medicine. Cacao was prescribed as a cure for digestive problems, anesthetic, and anti-inflammatory purposes (Martin, 2019).

Cacao Uses in Aztec Culture:

When comparing the Maya and Aztec uses of cacao, we see that there are many overlaps in cultural aspects. Similar to the Maya, Aztec peoples used cacao as a food, currency, divine sacrifice, and for medicinal purposes (Chocolate.org). The main differences between the two cultures is found with in the minor details of the categories mentioned above.  

Unlike the Maya, the Aztec people would consume the cacao beverage cold. Additionally, the cacao drink was not widely spread throughout social classes of the Aztecs. The drink was more expensive to make, due to the importance cacao beans as a main form of currency, so only upper-class citizens would enjoy it frequently. The lower-class citizens would only enjoy cacao on very special occasions (Godiva).

            The Aztec took cacao as currency to different levels compared to the Maya.  As it was the main form of currency and more valuable than gold. The cacao beans were taxed and held a strict price level for trade (Chocolate.org). The cacao was used as a form of “ready cash” which was used to buy anything from small household items to farm animals (Coe & Coe, 2013).

            Lastly, the Aztec would use cacao for a variety of medical treatments, like the Maya, which included fevers, skin eruptions, and seizures (Martin, 2019).

            In the image above we see an Aztec glyphic of two individuals worshiping a cacao tree and its produce. The Maya and Aztec had similar ideologies on the cacao bean as something of divine nature.

            The two Mesoamerican civilizations are the reason chocolate is so popular today. If it wasn’t for the European invasion, the chocolate we eat so much of today could have played an extremely different role in our everyday lives. 

Works Cited:

Source 1

 Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames &

            Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

Source 2

Contributors, HowStuffWorks.com. “The History of Chocolate.” HowStuffWorks,

            HowStuffWorks, 18 Nov. 2007, recipes.howstuffworks.com/food-facts/history-of-


Source 3

The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and Aztecs, www.godivachocolates.co.uk/the-history-of-


Source 4

 “Cacao: The Mayan ‘Food of the Gods’ • Ricochet Science.” Ricochet Science, 14 Apr. 2016,


Source 5

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, And The Politics Of Food”. 2019. Lecture slides.



Khan, Gulnaz, director. Ancient Art of Chocolate Making National Geographic, 11 Sept. 2017,



Picture 1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ek_Chuaj

Picture 2 https://tonantzinchocolate.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/simbolismo.jpg

The Worship of Cacao in Pre-Columbian Civilizations

Today we consume chocolate when we crave something sweet, as a warm drink on a cold day, or to acknowledge the ones we love on Valentine’s Day.  Chocolate is a part of our day to day life as an indulgence.  However, the culture of chocolate has developed and changed throughout the centuries.  The first uses and production of cacao can be tracked all the way back to Pre-Columbian civilizations where it was valued greater than a delicious treat.  Chocolate and cacao were staples in Pre-Columbian traditions, religion, status, and health and are portrayed in several artifacts and evidence we use to study the history today.

Thanks to companies such as Hersey’s or Ghirardelli, chocolate is consistently at an easy access and takes just minutes to retrieve from a nearby convenience store.  The process of chocolate making has not always been this simple and to Pre-Columbian civilizations, the making of cacao was a unique experience and the end result was never a bar of milk chocolate.  There were various methods of using cacao beans depending on the outcome these people desired.  In “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe”, it is expressed that cacao could be made into ritual offerings, beverages, and even currency during this time period.  Inscriptions on “monogrammed vases”, such as the one below, strongly reflect how the Mesoamericans “invested meaning in cacao” through their consumption and production (Martin and Sampeck, 39).  Through these and many other inscriptions, we are able to understand the presence of cacao and chocolate through one’s life during marriage rituals, religious practices, and at funerals.  

“Princeton Vase”, a Maya chocolate-drinking cup

At marriages, chocolate beverages were shared between the groom and the bride’s father during a pre-martial discussion.  In contrast, cacao was dried and dyed red during funeral processions and was believed to ease the soul into the afterlife, as portrayed in the image below. These chocolate beverages were prepared in a way very sacred to Mesoamericans.  It was made with a frothy foam that was believed to be for the soul.

“Codex Nuttal”, Mixtec funeral scene with funeral procession

Cacao was highly emphasized in religion with the Mayas as they believed “cacao was discovered by the gods in a mountain and was to be given to the people following their creation,” (St Jean, 1).  Ek Chuah was believed to be the Cacao God and the cacao tree resembled one of the Maya’s most prized possessions.  Other Maya gods, such as the Maize God were often represented as cacao pods and trees in inscriptions revealing the importance of these Pre-Columbian rituals and beliefs. The term “World Tree” is used to describe the center of the universe connecting Gods, Sky, Earth and the Underworld. The World Tree was also essential for maintaining the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.  Often, deities are represented as these World Trees in several artifacts. Different civilizations had trees that they believed was their World Tree and for cacao-growing regions, it was the cacao tree. 

The Maize God as a cacao pod on a Maya vase

As previously mentioned, cacao was also used as currency during this era. An Aztec document, the Nahuatl, contains a list of conversions from cacao beans to other various goods. “A male turkey is worth 200 cacao beans. A hare or forest rabbit is worth 100 cacao beans each.A small rabbit is worth 30.  One turkey egg is worth 3 cacao beans. An avocado newly picked is worth 3 cacao beans; when an avocado is fully ripe it will be equivalent to one cacao bean,” (Nahuatl, 1545).  According to “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe”, this was likely due to a currency crisis and a lack of small denominations (Martin and Sampeck, 41). In fact, cacao was also the target of counterfeiting and Mesoamericans would often empty the beans and fill them with mud of the equivalent weight.  Cacao was so precious to these individuals that it was difficult for those with cacao plants to give up this good in exchange for something else.  For this reason, cacao was a very practical instrument of currency, (A Tasty Currency, 8).

The importance of cacao in the Pre-Columbian era can be examined in artifacts and documents dating back to the 15thcentury. Their beliefs and culture revolved around these trees and pods that they idolized from birth to death and everything in between.  The production meant much more to them than imagining a Hersey’s chocolate factory spitting out wrapped desserts.  The Mayas and Aztecs worshipped their World Tree and chocolate as a beverage, a death rite, a currency, and the representation of their Gods. 

Work Cited

Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘food of the gods’.” February 6 2018.

Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, no. special issue 3, 2015, pp. 37–60., doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.

“Museum of the National Bank of Belgium.” A Tasty Currency: Cocoa – Museum of the National Bank of Belgium, http://www.nbbmuseum.be/en/2013/03/kakao.htm.

St Jean, Julie. “Medicinal and Ritualistic Uses for Chocolate in Mesoamerica – HeritageDaily – Archaeology News.” HeritageDaily, 4 May 2018, http://www.heritagedaily.com/2018/02/medicinal-and-ritualistic-uses-for-chocolate-in-mesoamerica-2/98809.

Drinking Money: Cacao as Currency in Mesoamerica

Nowadays the first thought that comes to mind when we think about cacao is chocolate, the sweet dessert that is easily attainable and can be enjoyed by all. Cacao had a very different meaning in Mesoamerica, it was consumed as a drink by the elite during religious rituals and banquets, it was highly valuable as it was also used for religious offerings and gift exchanges. It’s no surprise that thanks to its connection to the elite and its exclusivity, cacao beans were eventually used as currency throughout Mesoamerica.

Cacao Beans

European encounters

The first European encounter with cacao as currency happened in 1502 when Columbus and his son Ferdinand, during his fourth voyage to the Americas, captured a Maya trading canoe (Coe and Coe 107-108).  This vessel contained a number of goods valuable to the Maya, including what Ferdinand Columbus called “almonds”, he noticed their value but didn’t understand their importance (Leissle 32). He wrote, “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 and Coe 108-109). Cortes on the other hand, was quick to realize cacao’s importance and use it to his advantage “to buy things, and to pay the wages of their native laborers” (Coe and Coe 93).

Aztec man carrying a cacao pod

From Drink to Currency

Cacao wasn’t initially thought of as money, its beans were used to create a frothy drink we call chocolate. This beverage was produced and consumed by both the Mayan and the Aztec elites, becoming a marker for high social status (Baron 211). “The drinking of chocolate was confined to the Aztec elite – to the royal house, to the lords and nobility, to the long-distance merchants and to the warriors” (Coe and Coe 89-90). It was served during marriage ceremonies, religious rituals and feasts, and used as valuable gifts to exchange during feasts, as tributes to form diplomatic alliances and as dowries (Reents-Budet 220). What transitioned cacao’s role as a drink to money was its use as tribute payments demanded by polities from their subordinates, “facilitating their use as a store of value for future transactions” (Baron 214).

A possible Maya lord sits before an individual with a container of frothed chocolate

Cacao as Currency

The cacao bean possessed several qualities that made it possible for it to become money in Mesoamerica: it had great value due to its use by the elite and during religious rituals, it was also “portable, relatively durable, divisible, recognizable, and somewhat difficult to counterfeit” (Gasco 225). Yet cacao beans are perishable, they could be only stored for a year before they spoiled, forcing owners to spend it or drink it before it became devalued, therefore preventing inflation (Baron 219).  

Those who possessed cacao beans could spend them on material and immaterial commodities. They could be used to pay work service, to purchase freedom from forced labor, and to pay taxes or service obligations (Reents-Budet 220). They could also be used to purchase goods, for example: a turkey hen for 100 full cacao beans, a turkey cock for 200 full cacao beans, a hare for 100 cacao beans, an avocado for 3 cacao beans, a tomato for 1 cacao bean, a tamale for 1 cacao bean (Coe and Coe 93-94).

Aztec tribute list demanding 200 loads of cacao beans
Folio 47r of the Codex Mendoza

Even though this money grew on trees, these trees were found only in specific areas within Mesoamerica, so beans were either demanded as tribute by rulers or transported by long-distance merchants to markets.  In the case of the Aztec, long distance merchants were called pochteca, they were part of the elite class since they were considered warriors, “they were often armed, they traveled through very dangerous lands to reach their markets, and often fought pitched battles with hostile foreign groups” (Coe and Coe 92). There were several pochteca guilds whose membership was hereditary, rising in rank within a guild involved hosting a banquet where chocolate made from beans from their storehouses would be served (Coe and Coe 91-92).

The royalty had storehouses where they kept a massive amount of cacao beans they collected as tributes from their people. Famously, Moctezuma’s warehouse stored 960,000,000 beans (Coe and Coe 82). These beans were used to finance war, pay salaries, trade with other empires, and maintain government institutions (Baron 214).  

Pochtecas with their freight,
Illustration from the Florentine Codex


Cacao had a dual purpose in Mesoamerica, a social and an economic one. Cacao beans were used to create a beverage that was consumed during social and religious occasions by the elite. At the same time, it served as currency demanded as tribute and exchanged for goods.

Even though cacao was used as money, it continued to be consumed during social events, which maintained its value and importance. Because of this dualism, we could say that the members of the elite were drinking their own money when consuming chocolate.

Works Cited:

Baron, Joanne P. “Making Money in Mesoamerica: Currency Production and Procurement in the Classic Maya Financial System.” Economic Anthropology, vol. 5, no. 2, 2018, pp. 210–223.

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

Gasco, Janine. “Cacao and Commerce in Late Postclassic Xoconochco.” Rethinking the Aztec Economy, edited by Deborah Nichols, Frances Berdan, Michael Smith, University of Arizona Press, 2017, pp. 221-247.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. 1st ed., Polity, 2018.

Reents-Budet, Doreen. “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking Among the Ancient Maya.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, edited by Cameron McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2006, pp. 202-223.

Multimedia Sources

“A Possible Maya Lord Sits before an Individual with a Container of Frothed Chocolate.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mayan_people_and_chocolate.jpg.

“Aztec Man Carrying a Cacao Pod.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aztec._Man_Carrying_a_Cacao_Pod,_1440-1521.jpg.

“Codex Mendoza Folio 47r.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Codex_Mendoza_folio_47r.jpg.

“Illustration from the Florentine Codex, Late 16th Century.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pochtecas_con_su_carga.jpg.

Symens, Isai. “Cacao Beans.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cacao_beans.jpg.

Cacao as it Exists Today

Cacao Plants hanging from branches

We are a species that seeks to discover all of the wonders of this world so that we may collect and consume them of our own volition. Everyday items that are utilized such as minerals, oil, money, and food are things we collectively yearn for, and there is no limit to what will satisfy our appetite. Among these everyday items exists one that has been a part of our history for as long as we can remember. Cacao plants and what can be created with them have navigated their way into our hearts, minds and influence our appetites daily. Whether it be beans, liquids, or solid chocolate bars, we have become far more engrossed with Cacao than those who originally possessed it long ago. These Ancient civilizations, which consisted of Mesoamerican’s such as the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec’s utilized Cacao in a controlled and market fashion similar to our own. However, we are on a much different playing field than they were back then.

Cacao in Mesoamerica…

As early as 900 AD is when it is believed that the Mayans discovered the Cacao plant. Almost immediately afterwards did the plant and it’s properties become ingrained into every faucet of life during the height of Mesoamerican society. The Olmec, Maya, and Aztec’s each ensured that the Cacao which was produced, was shared with royalty before any other societal class. It is fascinating to think about how the Cacao they were producing quickly became an important part of their lifestyles. Their understanding of it and its significance in regard to their culture during this time period laid the groundwork for how we indulge in the delicacies we have today. Additionally, it was during this era that Cacao began to take different forms that we have simply grown to know as Chocolate. Chocolate beverages were of the most popular amongst rulers that had the power to obtain large portions of Cacao, and they were usually representative of one’s nobility as well as one’s wealth during extravagant parties.

Mesoamerican’s indulging in a Chocolate beverage

Aside from that, there were a number of other uses those with access to Cacao stumbled upon. Considering the scarcity amongst common folk, the beans from the Cacao plant became a form of currency. Slightly more disturbing was it’s use in ceremonies where a selected citizen was sacrificed to the Gods and consumed copious amounts of chocolate before being killed. It is safe to say that the obsession this era had with Cacao is the reason why we cannot get enough of it now. Due to how the Cacao plant was held in such high regard by those in power, as well as the way the common folk idolized it since they lacked an abundance of said delicacy at their disposal during this time period, it comes to no surprise how that influence has undoubtedly played a role in the market we have today.

Cacao Now…

So, with all that being said what does that mean for us today? In what ways were the Mesoamericans influential in the way we produce and consume our Cacao? For one, the chocolate beverage these people were so obsessed with has soared to heights no one could have imagined. Whether it be coffee, milkshakes, or hot chocolate, Cacao has evolved into something everyone craves. Coffee being the most predominant of the chocolate drinks, as it has been commercialized and sold to a market that has fallen in love with the tasty beverage. Starbucks, Hershey, Godiva, the list goes on.

These companies that practice selling Cacao in its newly fashioned state have identified what makes it so special and have capitalized on it. Firstly, the healthy abundance of Chocolate as well as how affordable it is in the United States allows citizens to consume as much of the popular product, more so than that of a noble person during the Mesoamerican era. Coupled with their ability to mass produce chocolate in multiple ways while simultaneously producing new ways to sell it, they have effectively created a system in which they can sell us cacao in any shape or form and we will still purchase it. Although we do not force individuals to consume chocolate before sacrificing one another to the Gods, it is still revered as something that everyone cherishes deeply, almost on a ritualistic level. Valentine’s Day, birthday’s, treats, snacks etc. Whatever your preference may be, chocolate is a delicacy that is near and dear to millions and for some it is considered a blessing to receive it as a gift.

What Cacao could look like in the future…

Now although Cacao (or chocolate) in this instance is an important product in circulation around the globe, some issues do arise with how it is produced and what that may look like for us in the future. As I stated earlier, Cacao has been highly influential in our market. It’s found on every corner in the U.S. as well as thriving sections of the world. Yet we are not truly indulging in a complete Cacao product. A vast majority of the companies making a profit off of chocolate are working with a product that is for the majority, made up of sugar. Compared to our Mesoamerican ancestors, we are consuming far less Cacao than we are sugar whenever we enjoy a delicious Cacao “treat.” Perhaps this is done in part to sustain the Cacao plants for a bit longer. However, the production of processed Cacao is not allowing people to experience it as the Aztecs, Maya and Olmec did. Because of this, we may reach a point in society where Cacao no longer exists in any of the “chocolate” products we consume and a vast majority would be none the wiser.

Works Cited

Garthwaite, Josie. “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Feb. 2015, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/.

The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and Aztecs, http://www.godivachocolates.co.uk/the-history-of-chocolate-mayans-aztecs.html.

Cartwright, Mark. “Chocolate in Mesoamerica.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 14 Mar. 2019, http://www.ancient.eu/Chocolate_in_Mesoamerica/.

The Importance of Mythology: Cacao and Why We Study Its Significance

It was just a game of ball – an innocent game in which the Mayan Maize God and his brother were participating. But this rowdy game angered the lords of Xibalbá, the Maya underworld. So as a punishment, the Maize God and his brother were cast down to Xibalbá (meaning ‘place of fright’), where they were beheaded. However, the story takes an unexpected turn when the Maize God’s head is placed in what is pictured as a cacao tree. His head, now representing a cacao pod, attracts the daughter of one of the underworld lords — she had heard that the fruit of the tree was sweet. Upon interacting with the Maize God’s head, she somehow becomes impregnated and eventually gives birth to his two children, the Hero Twins.

The Maize God’s head on a cacao tree, representing a cacao pod

The Hero Twins’ subsequent adventure in the underworld, some argue, is a metaphor possibly corresponding to the steps in processing cacao. For example, in The Recipe for Rebirth: Cacao as Fish in the Mythology and Symbolism of the Ancient Maya, Grofe claims that their entrance into the underworld represents the burial and fermentation stages in making chocolate. He then describes that they go through burning (representing the roasting of the beans), before having their bones ground on a metate and then poured into water. All of these events in the lives of the Hero Twins seem to parallel those of turning cacao into chocolate. Grofe concludes from this that cacao must represent a powerful symbol of rebirth (1).

We might think of this story as simply another example of a myth — a unique creation that reflects beliefs and values that may seem alien to us. But this myth comes from the Popol Vuh, a book that was sacred to the Maya (Coe & Coe, 38). What was so special about cacao that it was considered to have religious importance? That it represented blood, death, rebirth and that it was reserved for the elite? Were the Maya just arbitrarily fixated on cacao, or does it actually have some deeper uniqueness? And what could we gain by studying other cultures’ fixations on something so common and “normal” to us?

Popol Vuh: sacred Mayan book which indicates the importance of cacao

Below is an advertisement for a chocolate candy which emphasizes just how universal and accessible chocolate has become; this candy is a stark contrast to the reverently prepared chocolate drinks that the elite Mayans drank. We see that there is an extraordinary difference between the chocolate that seems so normal to us today and the sacred cacao that the Mayans valued. We will now examine why it may have been so special to them.

An advertisement for a chocolate candy bar

Is cacao actually special?

It seems possible that the specialness of cacao was just the Mayans’ imagination — that they randomly chose to elevate cacao for the sake of elevating something, and that the myths are based upon this random decision. But it seems unlikely that so many Mayans would share this same attraction, and to such an extent that their sacred books (like the Popol Vuh) highlight it. Furthermore, the globalization of cacao tells us that there must be something special about cacao — at least, it must be good enough to spread and keep spreading.

What specifically, then, makes cacao special? It does make some sense that the Mayans would be fascinated by cacao upon seeing a cacao tree. The pods look at once unnatural and beautiful: hanging directly from the trunk of the tree, they are bumpy and elongated fruits of vibrant hues. But aside from this, the Mayans’ fascination with cacao most likely had to do with its rich and multi-dimensional taste. In fact, from a scientific standpoint, chocolate has many chemical properties that are so complexly intertwined that flavorists have never been able to synthesize it (Brenner, 2000). So cacao is indeed a unique flavor in nature. This explains why cacao had such significance to people such as the Aztecs and Mayans; it also explains why cacao has not gone out of style since then, but has instead spread across the world.

Alien-looking cacao pods on a tree trunk

What is the importance of this significance?

There are several reasons why we might want to care about the significance of cacao to cultures of the past. For one, the respect with which they handled cacao caught the attention of Europeans, urging the globalization of cacao: Europeans did not at first have relevant knowledge to help them understand the fruit, but perhaps they just knew that it had religious significance (Cocoa, 28). But aside from helping to globalize it, the significance of cacao teaches us about the culture in which it is significant.

For example, one significant group that also valued cacao highly were the Aztecs. A large amount of the information that we know about the Aztecs comes from what we hear about their culture from other sources — for example, from Spanish conquistadors and their apologists (Coe & Coe, 65). This results in a one-dimensional stereotype of Aztecs being bloodthirsty savages.

But often times, it turns out we can learn a lot about a people by observing what is important to them, and how they convey this importance. For example, we look at the way the Aztecs prepared chocolate drinks: they are healthy and with the “greatest sustenance,” with particular instructions for how to drink the chocolate and the foam (Coe & Coe, 84). To create a more sophisticated flavor, they added maize, chili, flowers, or vanilla. The Aztecs, then, were more than just violence: they also had custom and science and art. In learning about how cacao fits into their culture, we can have a deeper understanding of it and also become more open to learning about other aspects of their culture in general.

Europeanized watercolor of Aztec woman carefully pouring chocolate to raise foam

We have seen through mythology that cacao has a rare significance compared to other flavors. We also saw this scientifically, but additionally there is something remarkable about an entire culture (such as the Mayans and Aztecs) becoming fascinated with a flavor — to the point where they believe it comes from the gods. It turns out that there is worth in studying something so innocent and common as cacao, and in studying its significance to others. Examining the significance of cacao to certain cultures gives us a different perspective on that culture, which might help clear previous misconceptions about it. Perhaps if we avoid viewing such cultures in such dramatized ways as we are used to, we can see that we have much to gain from them even today.

Works Cited

Brenner, Joël Glenn. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars. Broadway Books, 2000.

Cartwright, Mark. “Xibalba.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 15 Mar. 2019, www.ancient.eu/Xibalba/.

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

Grofe, Michael J. “The Recipe for Rebirth: Cacao as Fish in the Mythology and Symbolism of the Ancient Maya.” 15 Mar. 2019.

Grofe, Michael J. “Xibalba.” Xibalba Cacao, 15 Mar. 2019, www.xibalbacacao.com/about.htm.
Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.


“Cocoa Pods.” Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, 15 Mar. 2019, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cocoa_Pods.JPG.

“Europeanized Watercolor of Aztec Woman Pouring Chocolate to Raise Foam.” Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, 15 Mar. 2019, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_Tudela.jpg.

“Pic 6.” Late Classic Period Polychrome Maya Vase, Popol Vuh Museum Guatemala (Detail) (K5615*); the Head of the Maize God as a Cacao Pod. Drawing by Simon Martin (Click on Image to Enlarge), http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/cacao-in-ancient-maya-religion, 15 Mar. 2019.

“Popol Vuh.” Wikimedia Commons, 15 Mar. 2019, upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b2/Popol_vuh.jpg/335px-Popol_vuh.jpg.

“1950 Mars Bar Advertisement Life Magazine October 16 1950.” Flickr, Flickr, 15 Mar. 2019, www.flickr.com/photos/91591049@N00/15591740934.