When you bite into a chocolate bar, you are probably thinking something along the lines of “Yum, this bar of sugar is delicious” or “I’m on period, I deserve this”. Well, I’m sorry to say, but I am here to ruin chocolate for you. As you bite into that chocolatey sweetness, have you ever paused to think about where chocolate comes from? The origin of what we now call chocolate are racist, violent, and complex. Chocolate as we know it today would not exist without slavery and the forced servitude of entire groups of people around the world.
Chocolate is made from cacao beans and, as far as we can tell, originated with the Olmec in what is now southern Mexico some three thousand years ago. It is theorized that they were the first civilization to make chocolate from cacao (Coe, 37). Cacao was incredibly important in both Maya and Aztec cultures. In ancient Maya society, cacao was consumed as a beverage and used as a flavoring for food. It was usually drunk from tall, cylindrical vase and these jars were often buried with their owners.
Meanwhile, the Aztecs inhabited an area that was not conducive to growing cacao trees, so they mainly imported cacao beans through merchants and used it as currency as well as food. When the Spanish arrived, they found consuming cacao beverages to be a sensory experience unlike anything they had been exposed to before (Sampeck, 77). Columbus himself first came across cacao beans when his ship passed by a canoe full of traders. Though he didn’t know what the beans were at the time, it was clear they held some sort of value based on how the traders treated the beans. Today, people (especially chocolate-aficionados) tend to romanticize that moment, claiming that it was the moment “chocolate was discovered”, while ignoring the centuries of colonization, exploitation, and violence – also just because a white man sees something does not mean he discovered it.
Eventually, the Spanish developed what most textbooks call the encomienda system (it was slavery) so that indigenous people could grow cacao and the Spanish could take it for themselves. In these “systems”, the Spanish owned the land, a percentage of the crops, and the lives of the indigenous laborers toiling in the fields. Indigenous laborers faced serious abuses and violence in these encomiendas, despite the fact that the purpose of this system was to protect indigenous people and bring them into the Christian faith. It doesn’t get much better from here. Cacao beans eventually made their way to Europe, where chocolate drinks became increasingly popular and as Coe writes, it “conquered Europe” (Coe, 125). Thus began the process of enslaving millions of Africans around the world to work on sugar cane plantations and cacao farms to feed the growing hunger for chocolate in Europe and the Americas.
Even today, you would be hard pressed to find chocolate untouched by child labor at some point in the supply chain. Around two-thirds of the world’s cacao supply comes from the former Gold Coast in West Africa. Over 2 million children work in this region on cacao farms, in harsh conditions, away from their families, often unable to attend school. This is chocolate’s dark side. Though it is often advertised as a guilty pleasure, a sultry indulgence, next time you feel the craving for some sweetness, think about where your chocolate has come from and try supporting businesses that ethically grow cacao.
Sampeck, Kathryn, and Jonathan Thayn. 2017. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.”
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 2007. The True History of Chocolate.
AFRAMER 119X: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food
25 March 2020
In historical Mesoamerican culture, the commodity of chocolate played a very big role. Used to eat, drink, and even as a form of currency, without chocolate the Mesoamerican region would never be the same. Despite this extreme importance of the chocolate commodity in Mesoamerican culture, there was a difference between its use in Mayan and Aztec civilizations.
According to Hayes Lavis, a curator of cultural arts at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, “The Olmecs of southern Mexico were probably the first to ferment, roast, and grind cacao beans for drinks and gruels, possibly as early as 1500 B.C. (smithsonianmag.com)”. He followed this with saying that, “there is no written history for the Olmecs… but pots and vessels uncovered from this ancient civilization show traces of the cacao chemical theobromine” (smithsonianmag.com). By studying the process of making chocolate, it becomes visible that the Olmecs were indeed making chocolate.
The traditional way of getting the chocolate ready to be served is usually not used anymore, as there is better technology for the job. “In traditional preparation methods… farmers take seeds out of the pods, ferment them in a leaf-covered pile” (smithsonianmag.com). To go even more in depth, “The beans, plus surrounding white pulp, have to be left in the warm open air – but turned from time to time – to ferment over nearly a week – by which time the seeds are starting to germinate briefly, and the pulp to evaporate. This is important: no fermentation/germination, no chocolate flavour! They are then cleaned, spread in the sun to dry for up to two weeks, and then roasted for 1-2 hours” (mexicolore.co.uk). Fermentation was the first step in historical Mesoamerican chocolate recipes. After this, “the shells were peeled off one by one (a process called ‘winnowing’), leaving the ‘nibs’ ready to be ground to a paste on a stone metate (pic 3, left). At this point, the paste could be allowed to solidify into a block or tablet (pic 3, right), for easy storage, transport and subsequent use” (mexicolore.co.uk). It is even said that ancient Mesoamerican warriors would carry their chocolate supply like this during war campaigns. This is the default process of grinding the cacao beans. After this, flavors and textures would be added to their liking.
In early Mayan civilization, chocolate rapidly became one of the most important items, however, “despite chocolate’s importance in Mayan culture, it wasn’t reserved for the wealthy and powerful but readily available to almost everyone. In many Mayan households, chocolate was enjoyed with every meal” (history.com). Chocolate, something that is viewed as a candy or dessert in our American culture, was eaten at almost every meal for the Mayans. While chocolate as we know it is enjoyed as a savory treat, “the simplest mix was cacao with ground maize (corn) and water, providing a healthy, ‘cheap-and-cheerful’ gruel, that 16th century Spanish friar Toribio Motolinía described as ‘a very common drink’. Frequently combined with ground chilli, this ‘poor man’s chocolate’ was consumed throughout Mesoamerica” (mexicolore.co.uk). Not only did Mesoamericans drink their chocolate, but they had recipes in which it was considered something healthy. As historical Mesoamericans did not have the technology or services available to us now, “The naturally bitter flavor of cacao came through at full strength in early Maya recipes. ‘This was before they had really good roasting techniques, before they had conching, which is a step that mellows out the flavors, before they started looking at genetics,’ says Dandelion co-founder Todd Masonis” (smithsonianmag.com). Over time, as it got towards the end of Mayan civilization, the idea of chocolate evolved, and “cacao drinks in Mesoamerica became associated with high status and special occasions, Palka said, like a fine French wine or a craft beer today. Special occasions might include initiation rites for young men or celebrations marking the end of the Maya calendar year” (smithsonianmag.com).
In Aztec civilization, the idea of chocolate mirrored the later version of Mayan civilization, taking it to an even farther extent. “The Aztecs took chocolate admiration to another level. They believed cacao was given to them by their gods. Like the Mayans, they enjoyed the caffeinated kick of hot or cold, spiced chocolate beverages in ornate containers, but they also used cacao beans as currency to buy food and other goods. In Aztec culture, cacao beans were considered more valuable than gold” (history.com). The value of chocolate rose over time, and people were even using emptied out cacao beans as counterfeit currency! Today, “there are some 20 different species of cultivated Theobrama Cacao tree, each producing its own unique fruit,” however, “most botanists today believe that the Aztecs imported all their cacao from the same criollosubspecies, the most common Mesoamerican variety. The fruit grows directly from the trunk, each ‘pod’ containing some 25-40 ‘beans’, seeds or kernels” (mexicolore.co.uk). With this tree producing a high volume of cacao beans, the use of chocolate increased in Mesoamerica and many new recipes were used to make chocolate beverages. For example, “vanilla vines and annatto trees growing nearby were used to flavor cacao beverages” (smithsonianmag.com). In order to widen the gap between wealthy and poor, royalty and other fortunate people would make their own version of chocolate drinks. “Elite cacao drinks contained pure cacao, to which were added several subtle – and often highly prized – ground and roasted flavourings and spices, rendering them fit for nobles and the very rich. For the Aztecs, the premier flavouring was hueinacaztli, identified by the Coes as ‘the thick, ear-shaped petal of the flower of the Cymbopetalum penduliflorum, a tree of the Annonaceae or custard-apple family, which grows in the tropical lowland forests of Veracruz, Oaxcaca, and Chiapas’ ” (mexicolore.co.uk).
All in all, in historical Mesoamerican times, chocolate played a huge role in society. By being used as food and drink, a marker of one’s status, and even a form of currency, chocolate became known as a top commodity, and one of value. Now, chocolate is enjoyed all over the world and brings people together in difficult times.
His feet stomped on the ground to the rhythm of the beating drums. Jewels of the great god Quetzalcoatl swung about his body, glinting in the sun as he swayed. His smile slowly slipped off his face as his eyes fell upon the obsidian knife meant to carve out his heart the very next day. The temple elders brought a gourd to his lips, and he obliged (Coe and Coe).
This sacrificial ritual took place annually in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. A slave, chosen to represent Quetzalcoatl, would perform a sacrificial dance on the eve of his sacrifice. If he did not dance joyously, the temple elders would prepare a potion of human blood washed off of sacrificial knives mixed with chocolate in order to make the slave forget about his impending sacrifice and continue to dance cheerfully (Coe and Coe).
From Mesoamerican archaeological records, chocolate is typically known for its economic role as currency or social restriction as a beverage exclusive to the upper class (Prufer and Hurst). So how did its association with human sacrifices originate? In tracing back through Mesoamerican traditions incorporating cacao and blood, it can be theorized that such rituals evolved from beliefs derived from the Olmecs thousands of years before.
During the Aztec slave’s sacrifice, his heart would be extracted and presented to the gods. Chocolate was likely used in the sacrificial ritual due to cacao pods’ symbolism of the human heart torn out in sacrifice (Coe and Coe). Evidence of this is recorded in the Song to Otontecuhtli, in which the verse cuauhinochitla, cacahuatla associates a cacao pod with the heart of a sacrificial victim (Mazariegos). Although this symbolism may be due to the vague similarities between the shapes of human hearts and cacao pods, historian Eric Thompson argues that the association is more likely because “both were the repositories of precious liquids—blood and chocolate” (qtd. in Coe and Coe 85).
This explanation concurs with the Aztecs’ association of cacao as a symbol of the heart and blood. Their priests, poets, and philosophers used yollotl, eztli, or “heart, blood,” as a figure of speech referring to chocolate. Although Spanish informants observing the Aztecs believed the phrase to represent how precious cacao was (Coe and Coe), it is likely that the metaphor had more literal symbolism.
The Codex Féjévary-Mayer
The Codex Féjévary-Mayer, an Aztec manuscript depicting the tonalpohualli, their 260-day calendar (“Fejérváry-Mayer Codex”), serves as further archaeological evidence of the association between cacao and blood. The painting above portrays a god surrounded by four T-shaped trees–the 4 World Trees of cardinal directions (Martin).
Taking a closer look, the tree pointing downwards may seem to have ritually stained knives hanging off of it. In actuality, this depicts a cacao tree (Martin). The cacao tree represents the Tree of the South, which is associated with the Land of the Dead, the color red, and blood (Coe and Coe). This codex provides an artistic record of cacao’s association with both death and blood.
The association between cacao and blood was not exclusive to the Aztecs–rather, it was universal throughout Mesoamerica. For example, the Madrid Codex illustrates four Mayan gods piercing their earlobes and showering cacao pods with their own blood. This is evidence for how the Mayans, who existed over 3000 years before the Aztecs, also equated liquid chocolate with blood, although there is no record that the Mayans used cacao in human sacrificial rituals. Because the symbolism of cacao as blood is so strong, surviving through thousands of years and multiple civilizations, it presumably originated from the robust beliefs of an ancestral culture (Seawright).
The most likely origin of the association between cacao and blood may be traced to the Olmecs. The Olmec civilization, which thrived from 1500 BCE – 400 BCE, is thought to be a possible ancestor of the Mayans (Martin). They were one of the first powerful civilizations to use chocolate, as evidenced by both chemical and linguistic analysis. With their immense prominence, the Olmec were able to spread the use of chocolate to emerging cultures around Mesoamerica (Coe and Coe).
Like the Mayans and Aztecs, the Olmecs placed great ritual significance on chocolate. Although we have no decipherable written record, cacao has been found amongst burial remains of sacrificial victims (Powis), suggesting that the Olmecs associated cacao with death and sacrifice. It is likely that this association, as well as other cultural, religious, and social practices, were spread alongside the diffusion of chocolate itself (Seawright).
Thus, it is reasonable to attribute the origins of the use of chocolate in human sacrifices to the spread of Olmec culture. As the Olmecs’ beliefs spread alongside the use of chocolate, cacao’s association with sacrifice and death remained strong. As this association was adopted by different civilizations, like the Mayans and the Aztecs, it was modified to fit their own cultural practices. Consequently, the Aztecs integrated chocolate into their rituals of human sacrifice.
Coe, Sophie and Michael Coe. The True History of Chocolate, London, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013.
Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, 05 Feb 2020, Harvard University, Lecture.
Mazariegos, Oswaldo Chinchilla. “Human Sacrifice And Divine Nourishment In Mesoamerica: The Iconography Of Cacao On The Pacific Coast Of Guatemala.” Ancient Mesoamerica, vol. 27, no. 2, 2016, pp. 361–375., doi:10.1017/s0956536116000201.
Powis, T. G., et al. “Cacao Use and the San Lorenzo Olmec.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 108, no. 21, Sept. 2011, pp. 8595–8600., doi:10.1073/pnas.1100620108.
Prufer, K. M., and W. J. Hurst. “Chocolate in the Underworld Space of Death: Cacao Seeds from an Early Classic Mortuary Cave.” Ethnohistory, vol. 54, no. 2, Jan. 2007, pp. 273–301., doi:10.1215/00141801-2006-063.
Seawright, Caroline. “ARC2AZT Essay: Life, Death and Chocolate in Mesoamerica: The Aztecs and the Maya; Where Did the Ritual Use of Cacao Originate?” N.p., 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
Being allergic to chocolate is more socially isolating than one would immediately assume. So many birthday cake slices go uneaten, Valentine’s Day candies shamefully chucked into the trashcan when no one is looking, so much time spent wistfully staring at the chocolate-lined shelves of Walgreens and CVS check-out line. Being excluded from such a significant aspect of consumption and food culture affects one’s life in small, unexpected, and sometimes frustrating ways, such as discovering your chocolate allergy at a birthday party and going home with hives. I was four when that happened. That was not, however, the last time I ate chocolate. I have braved the storm of hives induced by my allergies more than a few times simply because I really wanted to partake in the experience of eating chocolate and trying out different brands, such as Twix or Mars Bars. And that is the power of marketing. The question of how European companies, such as Cadbury, Lindt, and Hershey, became the guiding hand in framing chocolate as a product in the west involves historical questions of ownership, appropriation, and colonization. By controlling the historical narrative of chocolate and redefining food culture, the mass-marketing practices of industrial-era European companies continue to influence how chocolate is perceived and consumed today.
History of Cocoa
Cacao trees produce pods, and those pods contain small almond-shaped seeds that go on to be processed into what we recognize as chocolate. Cacao trees are native to the Amazon basin and they were first domesticated and commodified by Central American natives, namely the Mayans and Aztecs as early as 900 AD. In Mesoamerican culture, chocolate was the frothy beverage of the gods, embodying strength, divinity, and denoting wealth. In other words, if you were not a priest, an elite, or a warrior, you were not getting your hands on any sacred “xocolatl”, one of the many words for chocolate in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs (Coe and Coe 96). The seeds encased in cacao pods were not only the drink of the gods and their few human favorites, they also functioned as currency and demarcated sites of intense geopolitical warfare in the competition for control over fertile cacao-producing lands, such as the Soconusco in present-day Mexico, amongst native Mesoamerican populations (Coe and Coe 97). Whether obtained through means of trading, conflict, or planting, cacao seeds inevitably went into the stockpile of royals and the elite or the production of chocolate.
How Chocolate is Made
Mesoamerican xocolatl— the original chocolate– was produced through a lengthy process that transformed harvested cacao pods into a foamy drink. Cacao seeds were dried, roasted, removed from their shells, and ground into a paste (Coe and 25). A metate stone, a tool that functions as a giant mortar and pestle, was used to grind the beans into a paste. The resulting bitter-tasting paste, which looked like melted chocolate, was often flavored with spicy chili peppers, vanilla, and other natural flavors found in the region (Coe and Coe 90). The chocolate paste resulting from grinding cacao beans on the metate stone, however, was not the end goal. Drinkable chocolate, or xocolatl, meaning ”bitter water” in Mayan, was what many Mesoamerican natives made.
Making xocolatl involved the additional step of pouring a mixture of cacao bean paste and water back and forth between two jars to produce the chocolatey foam that was so prized by the Maya, Aztecs, and other Mesoamerican groups. Little has changed in the process of chocolate-making since 900 AD, but the face of chocolate was forever changed by colonization.
When European colonization began in Central and South America in the 1500s, everything was swept up into the current of goods being stolen and extracted from the New World and sold in Europe. Under this economic climate, indigenous Mesoamericans were enslaved and the artifacts of their world and culture erased and rewritten. A pillar in the architecture of European colonialism was the demonization of indigenous identity and customs. Oftentimes, such demonization was achieved by positioning indigeneity as monstrous and anti-Christian. Thus, it is unsurprising that 16th-century conquistadors, colonists, and priests opposed chocolate in the Spanish colonies of Central and South America. Voyager Girolmo Benzoni, for example, claimed that chocolate “seemed more a drink for pigs” (Coe and Coe 109). Such demonization of Mesoamerican cultures was common throughout European colonial rule and presence in the region. Whether classified as a food, drink, or medicine, the xocolatl brought to Europe by conquistadors quickly gained popularity throughout the continent, giving way to a new industry. Despite their enthusiastic conquest of foreign lands and populations, the European attitude towards the products brought from these regions was ironically cautious and skeptical.
Many European elites who were among the first to receive items from the New World, scrutinized those very goods because of their proximity to indigeneity. European attitudes towards the New World goods “supplanting more familiar items” were not immediately welcoming despite the excitement surrounding their novelty (Mintz 151). Pseudoscientific theories cautioning against chocolate were widespread. For instance, Doctor Giovanni Batista Felici, physician to the Tuscan court, held that chocolate caused “palpitations, thickened blood, lack of appetite, and so on” (Coe and Coe 209). Convincing Europe’s elite to embrace cacao as a delicacy and, later, a staple and medical phenomenon was key to establishing chocolate as an industry in Europe. Spanish colonists’ usage of quick-dissolving tablets to make instant hot chocolate “mixed with spices” in the 1600s, for example, reveals the early chocolate craze that swept Europe’s colonial elite and nobles (Coe and Coe 184). The chocolate-drinking craze which later began to “spread through all classes” of Baroque Europe further demonstrates how the delicacy of the aristocracy became a socioeconomic phenomenon that crossed class lines (Coe and Coe 181). Ultimately, the technological advances and increased production rates of the Industrial era allowed chocolate to become a household staple. In other words, the repackaging of Mesoamerican cacao into a sweet, everyday dessert and medicinal commodity amongst the elite helped set the stage for an expanded market that would eventually reach the general public– the larger and more reliable engine of industry.
How Chocolate was Changed by European Enterprise
The startups of the Industrial period are the tycoons of today, and their marketing influence is historically rooted in the industrial revolution and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. While chocolate had been primarily consumed as a beverage or dessert for the elite, the 1800s industrial boom saw chocolate become accessible to the general public (Coe and Coe 211). Chocolate-making companies, such as Cadbury, Lindt, and Hershey, were launched during the industrial revolution of the 1800s. Continuing the precedents set by Europe’s elite consumers, such as Cosimo III de Medici, these companies departed from the original Mesoamerican chocolate recipes (Coe and Coe 145). Chili peppers were replaced with sugar, vanilla replaced with milk and cream (Coe and Coe 115). Joël Glenn Brenner’s observation notes the westernization of chocolate-making in “The Emperors of Chocolate”:
“Each process produced it’s own unique chocolate flavor, and over time, these differences translated into distinct national tastes. The British, for example, prefer their milk chocolate very sweet and caramel-like, while Americans identify with the harsher, grittier flavor popularized by Hershey. German chocolate generally ranks as the richest because of it’s traditionally high fat content, while Italian chocolate is drier, more bittersweet. Swiss chocolate, considered the finest by connoisseurs, is characterized by a strong, aromatic, almost perfumey flavor and the smoothest, silkiest texture.” (Brenner)
Industrial era companies, such as Nestle, created products that contained little to no actual cacao. Milk Chocolate, a mixture of powdered milk and cacao butter that uses little to no actual cacao, and other similarly faux chocolate products, like nougat, relied more on sweetness and chocolate coating than authentic cacao (Coe and Coe 250). Products from the Western Hemisphere, like cacao and sugar, flowed into Europe through Trans-Atlantic colonialism while the later Industrial Revolution allowed for production on a massive scale. This allowed for a fusion of Mesoamerican cacao with imported goods from the New World brought from Europe (Mintz 151).
Chocolate Moves to the Factory
Industrial-era companies focused heavily on marketing chocolate which had previously been reserved for the elite to the general public– “everything had to be faster, cheaper, bigger, better” (Brenner 8). Milton Hershey, for instance, constructed a town-sized complex to house and facilitate workers in his chocolate factory (D’Antonio 108). This was a sharp contrast to the way chocolate was hoarded in royal courts, like that of Cosimo III, in the seventeenth-century. Given the new technology of the era, the philosophy of chocolate companies transitioned to massive operation and marketing.
The history of chocolate was rewritten with a new origin story that began in Europe, demonstrated by the marketing campaign of companies, like Rowntree which owned one of the largest newspapers in London and used full-page advertisements and billboards to promote their chocolate (Brenner 65). Such marketing campaigns all but erased the Mesoamerican roots of cacao and chocolate consumption by westernizing chocolate’s history and redefining the good as quintessentially European in post-colonial consumer and popular culture. The development of factories allowed for shortened production time and increased volume. Further, the expansion of colonial plantation economies into West Africa and other regions supplied the factory economy developing in Europe. By controlling the historical narrative of chocolate, and redefining food culture, the mass-marketing practices of industrial-era European companies made chocolate a western good. Bolstered by a history of Trans-Atlantic slavery and colonialism, the Industrial Revolution allowed for powerful marketing campaigns that are largely the reason why companies, like Mars, Hershey, Lindt, and others, are among the most popular chocolate-makers today.
Brenner, Joel Glenn. “Chapter Five: To the Milky Way and Beyond.” The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars, Broadway Books, 2000, pp. 49–69.
Coe, Sophie D. and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd Edition, London, Thames & Hudson, 2013.
D’Antonio, M. (2006). Hershey. New York, NY. (pp. 121).
Today, many social gatherings revolve around alcoholic drinks – whether that’s going out to a bar for beers and cocktails, having a calm wine night at home, or enjoying a boozy brunch at a local restaurant. Modern ceremonies also frequently involve a celebratory alcoholic drink or a champagne toast. However, in what is now present-day Mexico, the Aztecs preferred chocolate, a cacao-based beverage, to their native alcoholic drink of pulque – or octli as known in their Nahuatl language – which is derived from the fermented nectar of the maguey or agave plant (Coe and Coe 2013). This is significant because chocolate and the cacao, itself, not octli or agave, caught the eye of Mesoamerica’s Spanish colonizers and became the catalyst for European obsession and mass, slave-based crop production.
Because the contemporary reader likely goes out for a beer rather than a cup of chocolate, the preference of the Aztecs might seem puzzling, and the reasoning for this preference and the subsequent Spanish adoption of chocolate is also not as straightforward as it appears. Chocolate won out over octli as the Aztec drink of choice and the Spanish likely gravitated towards cacao rather than agave due to not only the Aztecs’ disdain for intoxication, but also the adoption of cacao as currency and the breakdown of who in the Aztec society drank chocolate versus octli.
The People of the Fifth Sun’s Warning against the Fifth Cup of Octli
The simple answer to as to why the Aztecs, known as the People of the Fifth Sun, preferred chocolate to octli is that they strongly disapproved of intoxication. Many ancient Mexican myths warned against the inebriating effects of taking a fifth cup octli because this fifth cup would cause drunkenness, disrupt the balance of life, and lead to dangerous and ill behavior (DiCesare 2018). For instance, the Florentine Codex includes a tale of Quetzalcoatl, a creator deity, who passes out, as see in Figure 1, after being tricked into drinking a fifth cup of octli. The Annals of Cuauhtitlan also describe how the octli led Quetzalcoatl to desert his people, retreat to the sea, and self-immolate – reinforcing the notion that drunkenness leads to unfavorable and often shameful actions (DiCesare 2018).
In the Aztec tradition, drunkenness also led to severe punishments, whether self-inflicted or imposed by leaders. For example, the Codex Mendoza and the Legend of the Suns detail how a group of youths fails to bring the Sun a drink and instead gets drunk off of octli. In turn, the Sun orders them to be executed (DiCesare 2018). Similarly, the Florentine Codex depicts a drunkard falling off of a cliff to his death, emphasizing the physical dangers of intoxication (DiCesare 2018).
Because of the unfavorable nature of drunkenness and the punishments for public inebriation in the Aztec culture, Weinberg and Bealer claim the ancient people prized chocolate over octli because it was a “safe alternative” with its own benefits, such as caffeine for warriors (Weinberg and Bealer 2004). Coe and Coe further explain how chocolate was a “culturally acceptable replacement” for octli and how it was a particularly more desirable beverage for the nobility and warriors – who needed full control over their senses for leadership and battle – as it was a stimulating, but non-alcoholic, drink (Coe and Coe 2013).
A More Complete View: Chocolate and Octli in Ceremonial Rituals
Although the Aztecs disdained drunkenness, Dr. Catherine DiCesare of Colorado State University outlines that there were many instances in which the Aztecs did drink octli, even to the point of intoxication, without punishment. In fact, octli, and alcohol generally, served as a way for the Aztecs to access divine realms and connect with the gods by producing altered states of consciousness (DiCesare 2018). For example, the Codex Mgliabechiano depicts an octli ritual, shown in Figure 2, in which the Aztecs receive drunken visions of the octli god drinking the beverage among them. There are also many other celebrations involving alcoholic consumption such as the octli festival during Quecholli, an annual ceremony (DiCesare 2018).
Therefore, the mere fact that the Aztecs looked unfavorably upon drunkenness does not completely explain why chocolate became the drink of choice since these ritual uses of octli are not unlike the many ceremonial applications of chocolate. The Aztecs used the cacao beverage in installation ceremonies for warriors, including the esteemed Eagle and Jaguar Knights, and healing rites to cure fevers and other illnesses (Coe and Coe 2013). They also referenced chocolate in many depictions of the gods and rituals because the drink represented blood and the cacao pod, itself, symbolized a sacrificial heart (Coe and Coe 2013).
Likewise, even though Coe and Coe assert the Aztecs preferred chocolate to octli due to their notions of intoxication, they concede that not everyone in the Aztec society believed chocolate was acceptable either (Coe and Coe 2013). They outline a parable about Emperor Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina, who sends sixty sorcerers to Colhuacan, a hill in which the goddess Coatlicue lived. Once they reach Colhuacan, however, the sorcerers struggle to climb the hill, and the old guard claims this is because the sorcerers’ consumption of chocolate has made them weak, heavy, and tired (Coe and Coe 2013). Tales such as these that warn against chocolate resemble the concerns over octli and suggest there must be another reason as to why chocolate became more popular than the alcoholic beverage.
Chocolate in Relation to Currency and Status
Two factors unrelated to the content of the drinks themselves set chocolate apart from octli in the Aztec society: the use of cacao beans as currency and the breakdown of who drank the two beverages.
The Aztecs used cacao beans, pictured in Figure 3, as commodity money to exchange for other goods given their rare, expensive nature and their special role in making the prized chocolate beverage. The preference of cacao beans as a currency over, say, the leaves of the agave plant, pictured in Figure 3, is also supported by the physical properties of the two. As seen in the images, the cacao beans are much more portable as individual units and can easily be exchanged in various quantities as opposed to the large agave leaves.
Figure 3: Cacao beans (left) and Maguey or Agave plant (right)
Moreover, while octli consumption was typically restricted to only those of “sufficiently mature age” and for specific rituals, chocolate was consumed regularly by three socially elite groups in Aztec society: the royal house, the warriors, and the long-distance merchants, known as pochteca, who brought cacao beans to the Aztecs (Weinberg and Bealer 2004; Coe and Coe 2013). Chocolate was, thus, a much more widespread beverage than octli, especially among the lords and nobility. The merchants, warriors, and social elite were also the main groups Mesoamerica’s Spanish conquistadors likely interacted with, given their externally-facing roles.
Therefore, because the Aztecs disdained drunkenness, used cacao as both a drink and currency, and consumed chocolate among the socially elite, the cacao-based beverage gained preference over the alcoholic octli. This proved significant in the development of history, as the Spanish colonizers saw the importance of cacao in Mesoamerica and were attracted to chocolate, not octli. The colonizers partially adopted cacao as a currency, became obsessed with chocolate and hybridized it to their own tastes, and set up encomiendas to control cacao production. These encomiendas later set the stage for the slave trade and the subsequent mass production of cacao that still exists today.
So, why then do modern, Western social gatherings focus on alcoholic beverages if Spain brought cacao, not octli, back to Europe? There is a wide host of answers – perhaps one of which is due to the invention of the ever-present chocolate bar and the rise of solid chocolate over its beverage form – but this is just the beginning of an interesting discussion for another time.
Currency is the most influential object or idea to ever grace humanity. Wars have been fought, people have been killed, and important decisions have been made all because of money. Whether we realize it or not, money impacts our everyday life, and a lot of the decisions we make are based upon money or the potential to acquire more. The concept of currency hasn’t really changed throughout history, but the medium in which we exchange has. Back in the time of Mesoamerica money quite literally grew on trees, instead of the paper currency we use today, Mesoamericans used cacao beans as currency. Using cacao beans as currency really signified just how important cacao was to the Mesoamericans, and was also an excellent medium of currency for them .
Mesoamericans trading cacao beans (Cartwright)
Cacao was a staple for mesoamerican life and was used daily. At the time of the early Mayan’s, cacao beans weren’t exactly used how they are today, instead they were still bitter since the Mayan’s didn’t have the best roasting techniques, but still, recipes consisted of an abundance of cacao. As time went on though, cacao gained much more of a cultural significance. Cacao became a sign of prestige, gained social importance, used during religious rituals and social gatherings, and much more. And even to this day, some Mayans and Spaniard grow chocolate as a cultural practice or as a family tradition. (Garthwaite)
Mayan marriage ceremony based around cacao (Mexicolore)
Cacao had been thought of by the Mayan’s as a “Food of the gods” and that it was found in the mountains by the gods and passed down to the humans after creation. In the early stages of chocolate, liquid chocolate drinks were only consumed by the elite and rich, and wasn’t like how it is today. Instead, chocolate drinks were spicy and sultry, as they were also mixed with an arrangement of spices (Jean). Other uses of cacao included medicinal uses. With a major ingredient in cacao being caffeine, the mayans used this in many different ways, soldiers would even consume cacao before battle to get more energy.
All of these factors contributed to the importance of cacao to the Mayans, making it an even better option of currency. Because of the already high cultural significance, it was an easy decision to add even more significance by also making it a currency.
The interesting part of cacao to me is how it was used as currency. Some may think it to be crazy how something you could grow in your backyard could be used as currency, but for the Aztecs and Mayans, it proved to be a pretty effective system. To be a good currency, there are three big factors: durability, convenience, and distinctiveness. Cacao beans embody all three of these characteristics, and paired with their already highly touted nature, they made for the perfect currency. Cacao beans are relatively small, easy to carry, have a smoothly rounded shape, and are distinguishable from other common beans (Sampek). In order to be used as currency, the object needs to be relatively rare or precious in order for it to be desirable and of want (Maré), which characterizes cacao beans perfectly. Keep in mind, Cacao serves a function moreso as a means of trade rather than a standard value of money.
How a Cacao bean looks and its uses (Lecture slide)
Although this may have seemed like you could have infinite money by planting an infinite amount of trees, that notion was wrong. In fact, Cacao needs to be grown under the right circumstances in order to grow successfully. Cacao trees are actually pretty picky in that they need the right amount of shade, water, and just the right soil in order to sustain life. And even under all of these conditions, it takes several years until the tree even begins to produce the cacao, which means a lot of labor has to be put in before you can begin to even see any earnings. (Sampek)
There were some flaws with cacao. Like modern day money, cacao was sometimes counterfeited. People would counterfeit cacao by emptying out the inside contents of the bean, then fill it up with mud to the appropriate weight (Maré). But with some disadvantages came many advantages, and cacao doubled as a currency as well as a staple in mesoamerican culture and cuisine.
Cacao played many roles in mesoamerican life from food, to medicine, being a social icon, to currency. No matter how you want to look at it, cacao defined mesoamerica and arguably was the biggest contributing factor to the culture back then. The use of cacao as currency showed just how significant it was in mesoamerican life, and also proved to be a great medium of exchange.
In life and in death. In books and on bowls. In the Pre-Columbian Era, cacao was everywhere, and it characterized many of the most fundamental components of survival and society. Whether it was a medicinal remedy, Mesoamerican currency, or a burial ritual, cacao always remained within the scope of visibility. In the modern day, cacao is often simplified to being the principal ingredient in processed chocolate; however, in the Pre-Columbian era, cacao acted as a grounding and stabilizing entity that made up the functional premise of Mesoamerican society and way of life. The stability imparted by cacao onto Mesoamerican society can be most strongly articulated via an analysis of Mesoamerican religious artifacts, socioeconomic practices and the physical uses of cacao.
To explain the omnipresence and consequential significance of cacao in Mesoamerican society, we first must understand the idea of the World Tree (Martin, 2020). A World Tree is believed to “embody the most essential powers of fertility, stability, and the renewal of life on Earth” (Castillo, 2012). World Trees were believed to reach from the Earthly world to both the sky and the underworld – effectively connecting the Maya with their past ancestors in death, and sky-based, life-supporting elements such as rain (Castillo, 2012). In regions that contained the cacao tree, the cacao tree acted as the World Tree (Martin, 2020). Henceforth, amongst Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican natives, the cacao tree was viewed as the center of life and was a guiding symbol in their society.
The view that cacao symbolized the center of life can be seen throughout the Mesoamerican region amongst religious artifacts left by the Maya and the Aztecs. With the aid of these Pre-Columbian artifacts, we can see how cacao played into themes of fertility and renewal of life throughout the Pre-Columbian era, and how the presence of life-bearing themes effectively cement the perception of cacao as a symbol of societal stability during this time period.
In this first image taken from a Mayan vase, the head of the Maize god rests among cacao pods (Coe and Coe, 2013). In the image, the Maize god is physically a part of the cacao plant. This physical connection between the cacao plant and the gods symbolically highlights the Mayan association between cacao and the sprouting of life. A similar message can be deduced from a second image of the Maize god amongst cacao pods.
In this image carved into a bowl, we again see an explicit relationship between fertility, cacao and the gods (Coe and Coe, 2013). In this image, we see an image of the Mayan Maize god as a literal cacao tree with cacao pods sprouting from their sides. This physical relationship between the gods and the cacao plant again demonstrates the Mesoamerican association between the cacao plant, fertility, and the stability of survival conditions.
When the images from the artifacts above are taken in context with other Mesoamerican beliefs, i.e. the Aztec belief that the cacao pod symbolized a human heart, the physiological driver of human life, it is clear that cacao was synonymous with the maintenance of survival in the Pre-Columbian Era (Coe and Coe, 2013). However, note that the view that cacao was synonymous with the concept of life stability was not limited to religious practice and was also observed in rites of passage.
Given the involvement of cacao in social contracts and celebrations, i.e. marriages and funerals, it is clear that cacao was also perceived to symbolize stability of relationships and socially-recognized moments of transition.
As a part of arranging marriages, Mayan culture included the transaction of a cacao bean dowry to the family of the bride to be (Dreiss and Greenhill, 2008). Acceptance of the cacao bean dowry by the bride was indicative of acceptance of the marriage proposal by the bride’s family such as in the image below (Dreiss and Greenhill, 2008).
In this image, we observe Lord Eight Deer and Lady Thirteen Serpent unite over a chocolate beverage (Ancient Scripts Mixtec). Given the ritualistic incorporation of cacao in marriage discussions, we can note the role of cacao in facilitating not only the growth of life, but new relationships as well. Here, cacao is seen to be a social, rather than a societal stabilizer.
On a less lively note, cacao was also incorporated into rituals of death. Amongst both the Maya and the Aztec, it is believed that cacao eased the soul in its journey to the Underworld (Martin, 2020; Dreiss and Greenhill, 2008). Amongst the Aztecs, a last rite consisted of feeding the soon-to-be sacrificed a dyed blood-red cacao drink (Dreiss and Greeenhill, 2008).
Figure 4: “Mixtec funeral scene with funeral procession of Twelve Movement, Lord Eight Deer’s older half brother; bottom vessel of foaming cacao beverage” as depicted in the Codex Nuttal (Provided by Martin, 2020).
In this image from the Codex Nuttal, we observe funeral rites that include a foaming cacao beverage in the bottom vessel (Martin, 2020). Here, we witness cacao provided to the deceased in death as well to provide comfort – indicating the Mesoamerican perception that cacao symbolized transitional stability.
As seen in the rites of passage discussed above, cacao not only played a role in maintaining metaphysical stability, but in supporting the stability of momentous life transitions and agreements as well. As we proceed to discuss cacao in economics and medicine, we will see that cacao’s motif of stability extends beyond symbolism to tangible forms of stability.
Amongst Mesoamericans, cacao served as a form of currency; likewise, cacao also brought on societal stability by creating an economic and socioeconomic order. The typical load of cacao with a trade or porter was three xiquipillis, which translates to 24,000 beans, and could be used to trade for various items (Coe and Coe, 2013). However, currency was not the only way cacao created socioeconomic order. Cacao, being a comestible, was also employed to make beverages indicative of one’s elite status (Coe and Coe, 2013). Cacao solidified the social order in terms of finances and in terms of consumption. As a result, Mesoamercian leadership would accrue exorbitant amounts of cacao beans to highlight their own wealth (Coe and Coe, 2013). To observe the socioeconomic relevance of cacao, consider merchant behaviors. In order to ascend the social ladder, merchants needed to hold banquets with a wide variety of food, slaves for sacrifice, hallucinogenic mushrooms and cacao drink to highlight their own status (Coe and Coe, 2013). As can be seen here, cacao created a social hierarchy, and in doing so, stabilized the social order amongst Mesoamericans.
As a form of medicine, cacao beans were believed to improve health. In this context, cacao beans brought on physiological homeostasis – the stability of the body. Amongst Aztec doctors, or ticitl, a combination of magic and plant-based remedies were used to combat ailments (Coe and Coe, 2013). As a part of these treatments, cacao was incorporated to treat diseases such as dysentery (Martin, 2020). To treat dysentery, five cacao beans would be combined with the bark of plants, i.e. an avocado, and provided to an individual following an incantation (Martin, 2020). The medical knowledge of the Aztecs was relatively thorough given their extensive understanding of the plants in their vicinity (Coe and Coe, 2013). The fact that cacao was incorporated into this magical, botanical-based medicinal process speaks volumes to the contributions of cacao as a physiologically stabilizing entity.
All in all, cacao took on multiple roles in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Cacao was not only an object of religious reverence, but also a ritualistic staple, a socioeconomic driver, and a medicinal ingredient. Despite having many explicitly different purposes, cacao plays a singular thematic role: stabilization of life, transitional experiences, and society as a whole. Across its many uses, cacao symbolically grounded the order of all things. Cacao was a notable symbol of multifaceted harmony amongst Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans; therefore, it can be ultimately argued that cacao was indeed the great Pre-Columbian stabilizer.
Excluding In-Text Citations, Sources and Figure Labels, Content Word Count: 1,211
Castillo, Bernal Diaz del. The True History of The Conquest of New Spain. Translated by Janet Burke and Ted Humphrey, UK ed. edition, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2012.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3 edition, Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Dreiss, Meredith L., and Sharon Greenhill. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. University of Arizona Press, 2008.
For the many Mesoamerican peoples with access to cacao, traditional preparation methods contributed largely to the plant’s known cultural significance. The customary techniques of chocolate production represented a cornerstone of cultural and political gatherings (Coe and Coe 45-47). Additionally, the presence of ritualistic cacao preparations at momentous occasions, and the product’s spiritual connotations and economic utility (Leissle 30), maintained an intimate connection between the sacred plant and Mesoamerican life. The reach of cacao expanded following encounters with Western colonizers, and gradually Mesoamerican preparation practices were hybridized through a European lens. Furthermore, an industrializing Europe introduced numerous innovations in the preparation of chocolate products (Leissle 38-39). Hence, by the 19th century, a large factor in cacao’s original cultural significance—its preparation—had been separated from the plant itself.
On account of the plant’s particular environmental preferences, there were just several epicenters of intensive Theobroma cacao production in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Nevertheless, cacao was among the most prevalent products in Mesoamerican life, serving numerous cultural and economic purposes (Sampeck and Thayn 75). The nature of the T. cacao plant influenced many of the processing steps required prior to the preparation of cacao beverages. The pods cannot be opened to unveil the prized seeds (“beans”) without the aid of an animal (Leissle 27); moreover, much of the sought-after aroma and flavor profile of the beans must be brought out through production processes such as fermentation and roasting (Coe and Coe 22-24). These arduous procedures are essential to produce cacao nibs, the starting point for deeper exploration of Mesoamerican preparation techniques and recipes (Coe and Coe 22).
From its nib state, the cacao was ground into small granules which, with enough grinding, could become a paste-like substance now known as cacao liquor (Coe and Coe 24). Mesoamerican societies like the Aztecs employed a metate, or curved grinding stone, during this process (Coe and Coe 115).
Importantly, once the cacao was ground, Mesoamerican preparations diverged based on ingredients, the terroir of the cacao used, and the target consumers—elites, common people, or gods (Coe and Coe 61-63; Sampeck and Thayn 77). Cacao beverage recipes distinguished Mesoamerican regions from their neighbors, as common supplemental ingredients included vanilla, chilis, various flowers, and the corn-based atole (Sampeck and Thayn 81-82). One widely desired element in cacao beverages across Mesoamerica was a frothy texture, often created in pre-Columbian times by repeatedly pouring a cacao beverage from one vessel into another from a height (Coe and Coe 48, 62; Leissle 31). The below scene from the Princeton Vase, while quite dramatic and busy, includes on the right-hand side a woman pouring a cacao beverage from one vessel to another in pursuit of the foamy texture cherished in pre-colonial Mesoamerica (Coe and Coe 48). This calligraphic painting supports the presence of ritualistic cacao preparations in cultural settings, such as the mythological scene unfolding below.
Cultural Significance and Ubiquity of Cacao
The traditional preparations of cacao in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica—both the techniques used and the recipes followed—were meticulous and even ritualistic. Martin and Sampeck note, “The distinctive tools and preparation of cacao beverages…created a highly distinctive sensorial experience of cacao beverages in Mesoamerican foodways” (41). This cultural experience was especially present in Mesoamerican life due to the social, spiritual, and economic pervasiveness of cacao.
The T. cacao plant itself was intimately linked to Maya culture. The Dresden Codex frequently depicts gods as cacao trees or holding cacao pods and beans (Coe and Coe 42-43). In addition, cacao was offered during healing rituals, marriage arrangements, and burials (Coe and Coe 45-47; Martin and Sampeck 39). In both the Maya and Aztec civilizations, rituals of preparing and drinking cacao were instrumental in political and economic affairs (Leissle 30). In short, cacao was undeniably embedded in Mesoamerican society. Plus, the techniques and recipes used to make cacao beverages were relatively familiar to the people of a given region (Sampeck and Thayn 82). Thus, each instance of cacao in religious, cultural, or economic life represented an opportunity for Mesoamerican people to stay in touch with their local traditions of taste and preparation. The ritualistic preparations of cacao in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica served to reinforce the connection between the people and the plant.
Beginnings of Western Influence
In the 16th century, European explorers encountered Mesoamerican peoples and their cacao-based traditions. Europeans initially appreciated the beans’ utility as currency (Martin and Sampeck 41). As for the comestible side of cacao, European adoption was more gradual (Norton 660); in fact, Europeans took up the newly coined chocolate “in a generally Mesoamerican way, both in flavorings and in manner of preparation” (Sampeck and Thayn 80). These early encounters marked the beginning of Western influence on the preparation of cacao and chocolate products—a multi-century trend that steadily eroded the sociocultural significance of the plant and its bounty.
To bridge the unique tastes of Mesoamerica and Western Europe, cacao experienced a process of hybridization: Europeans drank their chocolate hot, rather than cold as in the Aztec tradition; they sweetened the product with cane sugar; and they introduced Old World spices, such as cinnamon, anise, and black pepper, into their chocolate recipes (Coe and Coe 114-115). Some preparation methods, such as grinding the nibs over a heated metate, carried over in early European recipes. Other techniques changed, such as the introduction of the molinillo, a swizzle-stick that replaced the pouring-between-vessels method of frothing the beverage (Coe and Coe 115). Europeans further translated cacao-making tools into new materials, such as metal and porcelain (Martin and Sampeck 43).
In 1556, the so-called “Anonymous Conqueror,” a companion of Hernán Cortés, described the preparation of an Aztec cacao beverage (Frydenborg 58). The author’s awed descriptions of the instruments used, the novel foam texture, and cacao’s health benefits display a Western curiosity toward Mesoamerican cacao preparation. Through encounters like these, cacao preparation began to be filtered through a Western lens—one which eventually rendered cacao a global commodity (Leissle 34). Increasingly, the preparation of a once-sacred product became detached from its sociocultural significance, as Kristy Leissle summarizes superbly:
“For all its history prior to European colonization, cacao as a fruit on a tree, as currency, and as a drink had been deeply connected, within civilizational traditions that barely distinguished between its economic, social, cultural, and food values. Now, those values diverged”
Innovating the Culture Away
Over the next two centuries, the global taste for chocolate expanded, and a broader socioeconomic base gained access to the product (Leissle 36-38). In the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution unlocked new preparation methods for chocolate that drastically separated the modern conception of cacao from its traditional Mesoamerican roots. For one, the burgeoning industrial manufacture of chocolate nullified the notion of cacao’s terroir, once so important to the localization of recipes and preparation techniques. The goal of creating uniform products was achieved by blending cacao beans, yielding a new consumption experience in “stark contrast to historical chocolate flavor experiences” (Martin and Sampeck 49). Today’s most renowned names in chocolate—Cadbury, Nestlé, Lindt, Hershey, and the like—were behind these industrial shifts in preparation (Martin and Sampeck 49). Rudolphe Lindt’s 1879 invention of the conche, a device that employed rollers to reduce the size of ground cacao particles, attained a smoother chocolate for confections (Coe and Coe 247-248; Leissle 39).
Innovations like the conche supported the chocolate industry’s ability to scale globally (Martin and Sampeck 49). Yet, they also contributed to a striking shift from local production—settings in which “people knew who made the tools they used and the foods they ate”—to factory production (Leissle 38). The impersonal preparation methods of 19th-century chocolate were wholly disparate from the socioculturally relevant, ritualistic Mesoamerican preparations from the days of the Maya and Aztecs.
Conclusion: Food for Thought
The historical narrative of chocolate preparation, featuring a glaring dislocation of cacao’s cultural connotations from its purely comestible properties, represents a critical step in the formation of the modern conception of chocolate. Compared to cacao’s Mesoamerican roots, most chocolate is mass-produced with little sociocultural attachment; in the absence of traditional preparation practices, there are fewer reminders of the cacao plant’s original societal significance. Thus, cacao has been reduced to a mere commodity in the eyes of most global chocolate producers. This shift in the world’s conception of cacao allowed the product to be “absorbed into expanding overseas…capitalism” (Mintz 69), which arguably set the stage for the well-documented exploitation and inequity underlying chocolate production to this day.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition., Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Frydenborg, Kay. Chocolate: Sweet Science & Dark Secrets of the World’s Favorite Treat. 2015.
Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 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.
Mintz, Sidney W. (Sidney Wilfred). Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.
Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review, vol. 111, no. 3, 2006, pp. 660–91.
Sampeck, Kathryn E., and Jonathan Thayn. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” Substance and Seduction : Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, First edition., University of Texas Press, 2017, pp. 72–99.
Today, if you ask the average American to describe the use of chocolate in their society, they will likely regale you with happy stories of enjoying chocolate rabbits on Easter morning or giving heart-shaped boxes of chocolate to a loved one on Valentine’s Day. Chocolate is beloved for the role that it plays in many western rituals, including Halloween, Christmas, and others, but few would venture that chocolate holds a deeply important place in American society. Similarly, while chocolate is a multi-billion-dollar industry in the United States, few would advance that the chocolate industry is a pillar upon which the economy rests (Professor Martin, “Introduction”). Chocolate is considered a sweet treat or an indulgence, but not an object of tremendous religious or economic significance in modern American society.
However, in the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica, where the cultivation and consumption of cacao originated, cacao was of the utmost religious, economic, and cultural importance. To prove this point, I will describe in detail many of the uses of cacao in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica to illustrate the important role that cacao played in the religion, economy, and culture of these magnificent societies.
The importance of cacao to the religion of the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica is exemplified by the Dresden Codex of the Maya civilization. The Dresden Codex, the oldest surviving book from the Americas, is believed to be dated to the 13th or 14th century and describes the association between cacao and religion. Cacao is featured throughout the document, which even describes the Mayan gods consuming cacao. The gods are portrayed as seated and enjoying delicious dishes of cacao beans, above which is written the label “his cacao.” Furthermore, the below image from the Dresden Codex presents the Opossum God carrying the Rain God on his back and reads: “Cacao is his food” (Coe and Coe, 2013). In this way, cacao is represented as a food of the Gods and is therefore very closely associated with the religion of the Maya civilization.
Below: An illustration from the Dresden Codex (Professor Martin).
Similarly, in the Aztec civilization, cacao and the cacao tree form an important part of religious understanding and the civilization’s relationship with the divine. This is revealed by the Codex Féjévary-Mayer, a document believed to depict the Aztec civilization in the 14th through 16th centuries. The Codex Féjévary-Mayer depicts four trees dividing the world up by the cardinal directions (“The Codex Féjévary-Mayer”). As can be seen in the image below, the tree on the right side of the codex, the Tree of the South, is a cacao tree emerging from the jaws of the Underworld serpent. The tree is flanked by the Cinteotl, the Aztec god of maize, on one side, and Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of death, on the other (Coe and Coe, 2013). The cacao tree is closely associated with the Underworld, Cinteotl, and Mictlantecuhtli in the Codex Féjévary-Mayer, displaying the religious importance of cacao in the Aztec society. These examples, from both the Maya and Aztec civilizations, illustrate the important role that cacao played in the religious thought of the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica.
Below: An illustration from the Codex Féjévary-Mayer (Wikipedia Commons).
Cacao was also tremendously important to the economic functioning of the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica. The Maya civilization never used fiat currency, opting instead to rely on systems of bartering and trading. The work of archaeologist Joanne Baron has revealed that by the 8th century, the Maya civilization developed beyond one-off bartering and began using cacao beans as a form of currency. As part of her research, Baron documented over 150 different scenes on Maya ceramics and murals, dating from between 700-600 C.E. These scenes depict goods being delivered to Mayan leaders as a form of tax. The most frequently-occurring such good is cacao beans, delivered in bulk in woven bags (Learn, 2018). Literature reveals that in the Aztec civilization, like the Maya, collected cacao as a form of tax from the population (“Chocolate Use in Early Aztec Cultures”).
Additionally, in The True History of Chocolate, it is revealed how in both the Maya and Aztec civilizations, many different types of laborers working for the state would be paid cacao beans as their daily wage (Coe and Coe, 2013). In this way, the use of cacao as a currency was tremendously important to the functioning of the state in both the Maya and Aztec civilizations, as cacao beans were used to levy taxes to fund the state and to pay laborers working for the state. Therefore, cacao was deeply important to the economy and state-functioning of the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica.
Cacao was also used in the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica in various cultural rituals, making it an integral element of the cultural cohesion and unity of these remarkable civilizations. For the Maya civilization, cacao was both a sign of social prestige and a social centerpiece. Anthropologist Joel Palka describes how the process of preparing cacao was grounded in social relations in the Maya civilization, as it brought many people together. Palka argues that cacao production was more than the mere production of a good, rather, it was an important tradition and cultural practice, making cacao deeply significant to the cultural identity of the Maya civilization (Garthwaite, 2015). Cacao, because it was difficult to grow and produce, became associated with high status and special occasions. For example, cacao was tremendously important in Mayan marriage rituals, known as “tac haa,” which translates to “the serving of chocolate.” Cacao was commonly given by a suitor to the father of a potential-bride in order to begin the marriage negotiations. Furthermore, cacao was used in Mayan funerary rituals, as it was believed that the stimulant properties of cacao would aid the soul on its journey to the underworld (Professor Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods’”).
Similarly, in the Aztec civilization, cacao was associated with high status and special occasions, and therefore held a position of great cultural significance. Most interestingly, many uses of cacao in the Aztec society are revealed in the Florentine Codex, an ethnographic study conducted by Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún in the 16th century. Sahagún interviewed hundreds of individuals in the Aztec civilization and gathered a wealth of information about the lives of Aztec royals, the customs of the Aztec society, and the cultural and ritual significance of cacao (Professor Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods’”). The document includes an exhaustive list of medical uses for cacao, revealing the important role that cacao played in Aztec healing rituals. Cacao was believed to help reduce fever, relieve respiratory issues, and improve energy and sexual appetite (Jean, 2020). These examples, from both the Maya and Aztec Civilizations, illustrate the important role that cacao played in the culture of the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica.
Below: The Florentine Codex depicting the production of cacao (Cacaosophy).
In conclusion, in the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica, where the cultivation and consumption of cacao originated, cacao was of the utmost religious, economic, and cultural importance. Cacao was closely associated with the Gods in both the Maya and Aztec civilizations, as revealed by the Dresden Codex and the Codex Féjévary-Mayer. Cacao was also tremendously important to the economic functioning of the Maya and Aztec states, as cacao was paid to the state as a form of taxes, and in turn, used to pay state workers. Lastly, cacao was an integral element of the cultural cohesion of these civilizations. For the Maya and Aztec, cacao was associated with high status and special occasions and rituals, and therefore held a position of great cultural significance.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Garthwaite, Josie. “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Feb. 2015.
Jean, Julie. “Medicinal and Ritualistic Uses for Chocolate in Mesoamerica .” HeritageDaily Journal, HeritageDaily, 6 Jan. 2020.
Learn, Joshua Rapp. “The Maya Civilization Used Chocolate as Money.” Science Magazine, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 28 June 2018.
In Ancient Mesoamerica, money really did grow on trees. Although people mostly bartered goods, the use of cacao stood out from the others. While cacao beans were consumable commodities, the ways ancient peoples used them exhibited the attributes of the use of currency. The civilizations at the time, such as the Mayans and Aztecs, valued cacao as money. Records remain of societies assigning amounts of cacao beans that could be used to purchase specific items. For example, using 200 cacao beans could secure someone a male turkey.
Ancient Mayans and Chocolate
The prominence of literature and research of the Aztec use of cacao often overshadows the central place the beans had in Mayan society. Yet the Maya had used cacao as a foundational item in their lives as well. The Maya used the beans in many important ceremonial rituals as it was believed cacao was a gift from the gods. Per this reverence, the Maya participated in sacred ceremonies that celebrated cacao. Archaeologists believe that ancient peoples used these ceremonies to open the mind to the spirit world. Cacao beans and chocolate beverage preparations also played an important role in special occasions throughout a person’s life. Anthropological research has shown that cacao was used as a form of dowry in wedding ceremonies. Cacao was also used to ceremonially introduce a child to the world shortly after birth. The Mayan would anoint the heads of babies with a chocolate mixture made up of cacao, flowers, and water. The Mayans were also convinced of the healing power of cacao and the drinks prepared with them and often used them for medicinal purposes. Finally, as cacao played an essential role throughout people’s lives, it was necessary for the end of their lives as well. Cacao beans played crucial roles in burial rights for the Mayan people. Cacao mixtures were often buried with people to give them a boost of energy to aid them on the journey to the afterlife.
From this massive reverence and dependence on cacao, a strong cacao trade emerged. The consistent use of cacao as a source of inherent value contributed to the beans becoming a secure form of currency for the people. A system in which one could pay fixed rates for goods with cacao beans emerged. Additionally, varying scenes on paintings and ceramics from the time show commodities delivered to Maya leaders as a tribute. Often shown in these depictions are woven bags labeled with the number of cacao beans they contain, thus exhibiting that the Mayans may have used cacao as a way to pay their taxes.
Aztecs and their Cacao Use
Aztecs highly valued cacao and used it as a form of currency as well. They used the beans in similar manners compared to the Mayans. They utilized the beans mainly for ceremonial measures and relevant circumstances mentioned above, such as in weddings and death rights. For example, the Aztecs revered the cacao as a gift from their god of wisdom, Quetzalcoatl. They viewed the cacao tree as the joining of the earth to heaven.
Yet beans were much harder to obtain as the ideal climate for growing cacao did not overlap with the regions of the Aztec empire. Therefore, the consumption of the beans was different compared to the Mayans. In Mayan culture, the use of cacao was considered to be for everyone, not just for the Maya elite. Commoners were to indulge in this gift from the gods as well.
Meanwhile, in the Aztec empire, the chocolate beverages were only to be consumed by elite royals, warriors, noblemen, and merchants. The primary source of beans for the Aztecs was through importation. The famed cacao importers in the Aztec empire were the pochteca, who had to travel great distances to acquire cacao. They connected the buyers of cacao, which was mostly made up of Aztec nobility, with the sellers in other regions. In addition to its religious and inherent value, the pochteca added value to the cacao beans as an exchangeable good.
Cacao beans were so valuable that people began to produce counterfeit seeds to pass as the currency. Sometimes they would hollow out the interior of the beans and re-filled them with substitutes such as rocks or sand. In an account by Bernardino de Sahagun, the counterfeiters would use items such as “amaranth seed dough, wax, (and) avocado pits” to falsify cacao beans. They would also make “fresh cacao beans whitish” to give them a dried look by “stirring them into the ashes”. The value perceived in cacao is evident through these counterfeit activities, as merchants risked their livelihoods and lives to manufacture additional beans.