Tag Archives: cacao

The Missing Story: The Spread of Cacao and the Popularity of Cocoa Production in Asia

It is no secret that chocolate was popularized in the Western world by the Europeans, particularly the Spanish, after discovering cacao in the New World. However, since Europeans began to dominate the chocolate industry, particularly relying on colonialism to exploit and export cacao from their colonies, the preeminent narrative has become one of widespread European production and consumption of chocolate. However, the historical focus on how chocolate spread from the European royalty to more broad audiences, such as the “common people” in Europe and in North America, limits the scope of understanding for the global popularity of cacao and chocolate production. The existing research tends to focus on chocolate as it spread from Europe to America, but this leads to a more narrow understanding of cacao and its popularity in other regions like East Asia.

The global narrative of chocolate cultivation, production, and consumptions begins in Mesoamerica. Cacao cultivation and chocolate production originated in Mesoamerica during the early BCE era, and for the Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs, and other Mesoamerican civilizations, cacao (or kakawa) was reserved primarily to produce drinks for the elite (although it also functioned as a form of currency) (Coe 2013, 78-81). Beginning around the early sixteenth-century, chocolate was introduced into the Spanish culture by Hernán Cortes and originally was similarly regarded as a popular delicacy of the European royalty. “It had been an elite drink among the copper-skinned, befeathered Mesoamericans, and it stayed that way among the white-skinned, perfumed, bewigged, overdressed royalty and nobility of Europe,” (Coe 2013, 125). Chocolate remained an elite drink in Europe during the Baroque Age, as it spread in popularity from Spain and Portugal to Italy to France. In fact, the French are credited with the invention of the silver chocolatiére, pictured below, which was a chocolate-pot used to produce and serve the chocolate beverage produced from cocoa. The chocolatiére is significant because the invention evolved from the Mexican practice of producing a cacao beverage using a wooden molinillo, also depicted below. However, the French took this concept and produced the silver chocolatiére in which the European nobles could consume their chocolate beverages (Coe 2013, 156-157).

18th century French silver chocolatiére pictured third from the left, among other styles and types of chocolate-pots.https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2017-11-09_17-54-58_ILCE-6500_DSC09407_(26520185009).jpg

However, once chocolate spread to Britain in the seventeenth century, it also began to spread in popular consumption from the elites to the general public. Like the already-established popular coffee and tea houses, chocolate houses too began to pop up, one of which is depicted below. Chocolate houses were originally frequented by the British nobles and upper class citizens, as demonstrated by the noble style of dress (including the British wigs seen worn by the men in the image), as chocolate still cost more than did coffee (although not as much as tea). While chocolate was still an expensive commodity, the prevalence of the chocolate houses contributed to the spread of chocolate consumption from the elites to the masses as chocolate became popularized in British culture (Coe 2013, 167).

London Chocolate-house c.1708. Silver chocolatiéres can be seen on the tables, while British nobles (dressed accordingly) enjoy the delicacy. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chocolate-house-london-c1708.jpg

Much of the existing literature on the global spread of chocolate focuses primarily on its path between South and Central America, Europe, and North America. In the 1660s, however, cacao began to spread not only to Europe but also across the Pacific Ocean to the Philippines and the South Pacific region (C-spot, A Concise History of Chocolate). Cacao cultivation was especially successful in the Philippines, which at the time was a Spanish colony: “They have brought from New Spain to the Philippines the Cacao plant,” Italian merchant and voyager Giovanni Francesco Gemelli Carreri wrote of his travels to the Philippines in the seventeenth century. “[The Cacao plant] has multiplied so well, although it has degenerated a bit, that in a short while they can do without that of America,” (Coe 2013, 173). The Philippines was chocolate’s “one Asian success,” according to Sophie and Michael Coe; but cacao continued to spread beyond just the Philippines.

Map depicting the main routes for the spread of cacao globally, including to the Philippines and South Pacific/Southeast Asia regions. http://www.c-spot.com/atlas/historical-timeline/

As pictured in the map above, from the islands of the Philippines cacao cultivation first spread south to Indonesia, where the suitable climate, vast unused land, and large and inexpensive labor supply made the two Southeast Asian regions prime for Spanish exploitation (Sampeck and Thayn 2017, 93). Cacao cultivation grew in popularity in the Philippines and Indonesia specifically because their agrarian systems were characterized by the plantation sector, which excelled at producing tropical cash crops like cacao (Hayami 2001, 181-182).  Cocoa farming remained popular, however, because local farmers and large-scale plantation systems alike could cultivate cacao; the video below demonstrates that even now, cocoa farming continues to be popular in the Philippines, despite the global narrative about European production of chocolate and American consumption of chocolate.

Indonesia particularly grew in their share of the global cocoa market, while the Philippines began to grow in production of coconut oil instead (Hayami 2001, 190). Later in the nineteenth century, cacao spread from Indonesia westward across Asia and into Sri Lanka (C-spot, A Concise History of Chocolate). Not only was cocoa farming successful in the Philippines and Indonesia, the video below shows that ecological and technological advances allowed cocoa farming to become even more accessible, widespread, and environmentally conscious in the Philippines than it originally had been. So why does the narrative often stop at the introduction of cacao to the Philippines as a Spanish colony when there is so much more to the story? 

Although the widespread acceptance of chocolate in the Western world is a crucial element in the global history of chocolate, much of the existing research focuses solely on the European and North American cultivation, production, and consumption of chocolate as it spread from the elites to the masses. This leaves out an important element in the story of how chocolate rose to popularity in the global market: Asia, particularly regions in Southeast and South Pacific Asia, played a vital role in contributing to the successful cultivation and production of cocoa.

Works Cited

Chocolate House London C.1708. Photograph. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chocolate-house-london-c1708.jpg.

“Cocoa Farming – The Good Chocolate.” Video, 05:33. Youtube. Posted by John Croft, January 20, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOgksl9DDqI.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate: With 99 Illustrations, 14 in Colour. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.

“A Concise History of Chocolate.” C-spot. http://www.c-spot.com/atlas/historical-timeline/.

French Chocolatieres. Photograph. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2017-11-09_17-54-58_ILCE-6500_DSC09407_(26520185009).jpg.

Hayami, Yujiro. “Ecology, History, and Development: A Perspective from Rural Southeast Asia.” The World Bank Research Observer 16, no. 2 (Fall 2001): 169-98.

Sampeck, Kathryn E., and Jonathan Thayn. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” In Substance and Seduction. Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, by Stacey Schwartzkopf and Kathryn E. Sampeck, 72-99. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017.

“A White Woman Dipped in Chocolate” Misogynoir and Cocoa Throughout History

When an aptly named German chocolate brand “Super Dickmann’s” posted this image of Meghan Markle, some people got upset while others laughed at their sensitivity.

The infamous tweet depicting mixed-race Meghan Markle as a chocolate-covered marshmallow

The German employee in charge of the corporate Facebook account was likely not aware that the comparison between African women and chocolate is imbued with historical misogynoir. Misogynoir, a term coined by black feminist Moya Bailey (Anyangwe, 2015), is double discrimination faced by black women where bias is both race and gender-based (Verve Team, 2018).

While women have long been seen as buyers, preparers and religious devotees of chocolate, the earliest depictions associated with chocolate were those of infants such as cupids or angels (Martin, 2020). Later, chocolate became associated with an idealized image of white womanhood, as society women became an important consumer demographic. An 1874 New York Times issue announced that wealthy women were the biggest purchasers of an “elaborate style of French candies.” New ads featured elegant white women and were meant to appeal to both the tastes of upper-class consumers and the aspirations of lower-class ones (Robertson, 2010).

Aspirational chocolate advertisements, such as this image from the 1970s, continued into the late 20th century

Such ads put white consumers at the forefront and minimized chocolate’s roots in West African agriculture. Romanticized images of white agricultural workers such as of this milkmaid carrying pails attempted to further erase chocolates’ African origins (Robertson, 2010).

Early 20th century Cadbury advertisement

These fictionalized images associated the labor required to produce chocolate with “wholesome whiteness” in the minds of consumers (Robertson, 2010). Notably, a 1930 Cadbury ad that does feature African women, shows them as faceless silhouettes balancing baskets brimming with cocoa pods on their heads (Robertson, 2010). While white women associated with chocolate were bestowed with good taste and wholesomeness, black women were dehumanized and fetishized through racist depictions.

In 1947 a new character “Honeybunch” was created to advertise Rowntree’s Cocoa (Robertson, 2010). Honeybunch looked infantile – barefoot and with bows in her hair. In this ad, she is dehumanized through the juxtaposition of her “imagined” character to “real” white people in the ad (Robertson, 2010).

Honeybunch and “real” white consumers

A 1950 ad goes further to depict Honeybunch as a spring bouncing out of tin of cocoa – an example of a common trope of Africans drawn as actual cocoa (Robertson, 2010) This association of a person with an edible object further solidifies the idea that black people are false commodities (Polanyi, 2001). According to Polanyi, labor is one of those fictitious commodities to which the market mechanisms should not apply (2001). According to Polanyi, not only labor but also the laborer can become commodities for sale if the commodity function of labor is prioritized (2001). Commodity function of labor is the low labor cost for the sake of lower prices, and in the case of chocolate, low labor costs help support higher remuneration for cocoa processors and chocolate producers instead of African workers. This problem persists into modernity: according to the Cocoa Barometer, cocoa farmer households earn merely 37% of living income in Côte d’Ivoire, the leader in cocoa bean production supplying 40% of world’s cocoa (2018).

Blackness is also objectified and commodified through the association between black skin and chocolate – a trope that still pervades today. Food-related descriptions have long been used to describe dark skin. While light foundation shades are often called “nude” or “fair,” darker shades are often named after commodities such as cocoa or coffee. This further solidifies the toxic idea that white womanhood is the default, and objectifies black womanhood through comparisons with edible objects.

A 2004 ice cream advertisement conceived in Brazil

Even black women of the same status as the white women in chocolate ads are not immune to dehumanizing fetishization. In 1976, a magazine editor described supermodel Iman as “a white woman dipped in chocolate,” (Oliver, 2015). The editor’s baffling comment is akin to Charlie’s question about whether the Oompa Loompas, which were distinctly African in the original book, are made out of chocolate (Robertson, 2010).

The fact that class cannot protect black women from misogynoir sheds critical light on “respectability politics,” an ideology that emphasizes the need for black people to gain respect and “uplift the race” by correcting ‘undesirable” characteristics and embodying desirable ones (Harris, 2014). Racist treatment of Iman despite her social prominence parallels the way companies such as Rowntree or Cadbury used depictions of black girls and women like Honeybunch for their “distinct difference” while dehumanizing them.

Pat McGrath, one of the most prominent makeup artists of the century, also had a cocoa related story that shed light on how designers who hire black models failed to provide them with equal supplies. McGrath often had to use cocoa powder on set because she wasn’t provided with darker makeup shades (Prinzivalli, 2019).

A group of black women has found a way to use the association between dark skin and chocolate for their benefit, creating a food-inspired makeup brand “Beauty Bakerie,” which counts cocoa-flavored powder among its products.

The “Beauty Bakerie” website

And what about Pat McGrath who had to use food instead of makeup? Her beauty empire is now worth almost a billion dollars – and her dark foundation colors are named Medium Deep and Deep instead of cocoa and chocolate (Mpinja, 2018).


Anyangwe, E. (2015, October 5). Misogynoir: where racism and sexism meet. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/oct/05/what-is-misogynoir

Fountain, A and Friedel, H. (2018). Cocoa Barometer

Harris, F.C. (2014). The Rise of Respectability Politics. Dissent 61(1), 33-37. doi:10.1353/dss.2014.0010.

Mpinja, B. (2018, July 23). Why Makeup Artist Pat McGrath Is the Self-Made Beauty Billionaire We Need. Retrieved from https://www.allure.com/story/pat-mcgrath-self-made-billionaire-success

Phillip, N. (2018, October 23). My Very Personal Taste of Racism Abroad. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/23/travel/racism-travel-italy-study-abroad.html

Oliver, D. (2015, September 10). Iman Opens Up About Deeply Upsetting Career Moment. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/iman-racism-fashion-industry_n_55f02b31e4b002d5c0775000

Polanyi, karl. The great transformation: the political and economic origins of our time. Boston: bEACON, 2001. Prin

Prinzivalli, L. (2019, May 21). Why Makeup Artist Pat McGrath Grew Up Using Cocoa Powder as Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.allure.com/story/pat-mcgrath-cocoa-powder-foundation-dark-skin-tone-shades

Robertson, Emma. 2010. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History.

Team, V. E. R. V. E. (2018, September 4). Feminist Facts: What is Misogynoir? Retrieved from https://medium.com/verve-up/feminist-facts-what-is-misogynoir-5392c29d6aab

The Princeton Vase as a Clue to the Significance of Cacao in Mayan Society

Art reflects the values and mores of a society. By analyzing ancient artworks, we can learn much about a culture. Art from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, for example, reflect the important role of wine in ceremonial life. These ancient artworks depict wine gods, royal feasts, wedding celebrations, and funeral rites with wine vessels prominently displayed. An analysis of artwork from ancient Mayan society reveals that, rather than wine, the Mayan people prized chocolate. Indeed, chocolate appears to function in an almost identical role as wine did in those other ancient societies, taking on significant roles in religion, celebrations, court life, and even funeral processions. Dating from 670 to 750 CE, the Princeton Vase subtly communicates the sacred and all-encompassing nature of cacao in the Maya civilization.

The Princeton Vase

The Princeton Vase, depicting a woman making the prized foam of a chocolate beverage by pouring the liquid back and forth between two vessels (Courtesy of the Princeton University Art Museum)

The Princeton Vase features several scenes, including a representation of royal life, one of chocolate beverage-making, and one mythological proportions. On one side of the vase, an elderly god without any teeth sits on a throne within a palace, which is represented by the cornice above him and the pier behind him. Curtains, which were used as doors in the ancient Mayan society, are pulled up to display the scene. Known as God L among scholars, this figure wears a shawl and a hat ornamented with owl feathers and an owl. God L ruled the underworld and was also a patron god of tobacco and merchants (Princeton). Five female figures, who may be concubines, surround him, and a rabbit scribe sits below him, writing in a book.

To the right of the king, a woman stands bent over with a vessel like the Princeton Vase in both size and shape, pouring a liquid down into what is probably another vessel – unfortunately, that part of the vase has been eroded. This scene likely depicts the common method of preparing the chocolate beverage that this vessel served at the time. This is the first known picture of a chocolate beverage being made, showing the pouring back and forth between vessels that was used to create a prized foam (Coe).

The next scene is that of two men wearing detailed masks and holding axes decapitating an unclothed bound figure, who has a serpent coming out of him to bite one of the executioners. This scene resembles a section of the Popol Vuh, a Mayan mythological text written in the 1500s about the Hero Twins who trick the gods of the underworld into requesting their own decapitations (Princeton). The text at the upper edge of the vessel consecrated it and specified that the vase was intended for drinking “maize tree” chocolate, in addition to naming its owner (a lord called MuWaan K’uk’). The vase would have been used in “courtly feasts” like the one displayed on it (Princeton).

The significance of cacao

As depicted on the vase, chocolate served a social function in Mayan society. Converting the cacao pod to a chocolate beverage was a time-consuming and laborious process that brought people together. While co-directing an archeological project in Mexico, anthropologist Joel Palka, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, still meets people who create chocolate as a family tradition and cultural practice. This custom, he says, is “part of their identity” (qtd. in Garthwaite). Cacao drinks in Mayan society were associated with high status and special events, including many rituals (Garthwaite). These beverages were even involved in marriage, both in dowries and the ceremony itself (Martin). In Guatemala, early records of Mayan marriages show that sometimes a woman would have to make a cacao beverage to prove that she was capable of making it with the proper froth (Garthwaite). Cacao also became integrated into religion and law, with recovered paintings from the time showcasing its use in mythological scenes and court proceedings (Garthwaite). The beans were also used as a form of currency, based on archaeologist Joanne Baron’s analysis of Mayan artwork from about 691 CE to 900 CE (Learn). Lastly, cacao was considered important enough that it even traveled to the underworld, with the deceased’s body surrounded by pottery dishes, vases, and bowls, of which the latter two often contained several different types of chocolate beverages (Coe). Cacao was a constant in Mayan society, present for all major milestones, special occasions, and transactions, even in death.

A man pays his taxes with cacao beans (Courtesy of Open Culture)

The revealing nature of the Princeton Vase

The Princeton Vase informs us of the centrality of chocolate to Mayan life. By including a woman making a chocolate beverage with a tall cylindrical vessel just like the Princeton Vase alongside scenes of death, heroism, godliness, and court life, the vase’s creator emphasizes the lofty level at which Mayans regarded chocolate. Moreover, a post-Conquest source attributes the invention of the processing of cacao to someone named Hunahpú (Coe), which just so happens to be the name of one of the Hero Twins from the Popol Vuh who is thought to be depicted on the vase. In a subtle, understated fashion, this vase pays homage to the mythological creation of chocolate, and tells of the earthly ways chocolate presented itself in the life and death of royals and gods.


Modern chocolate shaped like Mayan glyphs, displaying the convergence of modern and ancient (Courtesy of Science Magazine)

Today, cacao is prominent in Western society, but it is an everyday treat for all, from children to adults and the poor to the wealthy. While enjoyed by many, it is not elevated in contemporary society. For the Mayans, however, it was sacrosanct and vital to religious rituals, feasts for royalty, weddings, funeral offerings, and economic currency. This crucial role of cacao is depicted in Mayan art, which reflects the values and customs of Mayan society. The Princeton Vase exemplifies this phenomenon by linking the act of creating a chocolate beverage to gods, heroes, feasting, and death, showcasing the enormous cultural significance of cacao.

Works Cited

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

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

Learn, Joshua Rapp. “The Maya Civilization Used Chocolate as Money.” Science Magazine, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 27 June 2018, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/06/maya-civilization-used-chocolate-money#.

Marshall, Colin. “How the Ancient Mayans Used Chocolate as Money.” Open Culture, 8 Oct. 2018, http://www.openculture.com/2018/10/ancient-mayans-used-chocolate-money.html.“The Princeton Vase.” Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University, artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/objects/32221.

Till Death Do Us Part- Cacao in Religion, Marriage, and Death in Maya Civilization

Cacao served as an important element in many different rituals and customs in Maya civilization. Cacao can be found in Maya religious imagery, but also cacao held importance at many of the social milestones of an individual’s life like a wedding or funeral. Much in this way, Cacao has both symbolic and practical significance in the Maya civilization as it served as an indicator of an individual’s power and wealth. In this blog post, I will further explore the cultural significance of Cacao in Maya civilization in religious, social and political contexts. This cultural significance allows us to better conceptualize the long history of Cacao in the Americas that existed before the arrival of Columbus. 

Historical texts provide insight into the religious sphere of the Maya civilization. 

File:Empiezan las historias(Popol vuh).jpg

The Popol Vuh, otherwise known as the “Book of Counsel,” is a text written shortly after the Spanish Conquest regarding the Maya civilization. It is important to note that some of the stories can be linked back to the Izapans of the Late Pre-Classic, who had ties to the Olmec civilization. In The True History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael Doe write about the first set of twins who face a painful death, “The severed head of one of that unlucky pair (now known to be the Maize God) is hung up in a tree-said to be a calabash tree in the story, but pictured as a cacao tree on a class Maya vase.” (Coe, and Coe; pg. 39) The choice of the cacao tree is an intentional choice as the Maize God protects the Maize crops, which is a lifeline for their civilization. 

The Dresden Codex offers many Classic Maya characteristics like calligraphy and astronomical information but it dates back to the end of the Pre-Conquest era. 

File:Dresden Codex pp.58-62 78.jpg The imagery in the Dresden Codex shows deities holding onto cacao pods. Sophie and Michael Doe write about a Dresden page from the Post-Classic Yucatán that shows the Opossum God and an, “associated text tells us that “cacao is his food [kakaw u hanal]. “” (Coe, and Coe; pg. 42) These two examples in the Dresden Codex demonstrate the long-lasting significance of cacao within a religious context. 

File:Codex Tro-Cortesianus.jpg

The Madrid Codex contains a large amount of ritual imagery and text with regards to cacao. Sophie and Michael Doe highlight a striking example in the Madrid Codex that contains four deities piercing their ears and letting the blood flow over cacao pods, “This is especially interesting since our ethnohistoric sources tell us that there were strong symbolic associations between chocolate and human blood among both the late Post-Classic Maya and the Aztecs.” (Coe, and Coe; pg. 42) These two civilizations had strong systems of religious sacrifice and offerings. This emphasizes the power of cacao within their society and the place that it holds within the hierarchy of value. 

Cacao was immensely popular for social settings as well. It was frequently served at expensive banquets, baptisms, weddings, and burials.  Cacao beverages were consumed in many of these different celebrations, as it was known in the Maya civilization to have many health benefits including digestive, anti-inflammatory, and energy-related benefits. It was common for merchants and nobles to throw these huge banquets. Sophie and Michael Coe note that the baptisms performed in the Maya civilizations typically included a type of liquid that included flowers and cacao powder. (Coe, and Coe; pg. 60) The Madrid Codex displays images in relation to Maya marriage rituals. Just as cacao held a special place within the role of religion, cacao held practice and symbolic power within marriage. One of the rituals included tac haa (“to serve chocolate”) which generally meant inviting the girl’s father over to discuss marriage prospects and drinking a cacao beverage. The cacao drink also symbolized the phrase for royal marriage. Cacao was a type of social capital that indicated that someone was worthy of a marriage. Later on, the cacao seeds were used as a currency for marriage dowry in the 1500s. Cacao was not only used for joyous occasions either. In the Codex Nuttall, there is a Mixtec scene with a funeral procession showing a foaming cacao beverage. Cacao was thought to energize and help the soul’s journey through the underworld. This still has bearings on today’s celebration of Dia de Los Muertos, which includes chocolate beverages today. 

The Maya Civilization is one of many Pre-Columbian groups that has history tied together with cacao. In Cocoa, Kristy Leissle notes that, “From the earliest records of its uses among the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations, cocoa has always been politicized.” (Leissle; pg. 17) The politics of cacao goes hand in hand with the way in which it was used to shape society. Just like the Maize God and the connection to the cacao tree, cacao was used in many political ways to determine power and wealth. It is essential to remember this as many times history has been told from a white, Eurocentric point of view. In Chocolate, women, and empire, Emma Robertson highlights that focusing on over-looked history can allow for reparations of this imperial acts of colonization that have happened throughout time, “The imperial history of cocoa thus becomes stabilized, not to be disrupted by the violence of imperial conquest.”  (Robertson; pg. 65) 

Cacao was not only the food of the gods, but also the demonstration of love and power.


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

Dresden Codex. 2020, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dresden_Codex_pp.58-62_78.jpg. Accessed 25 Mar 2020.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Madrid Codex. 2020, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Codex_Tro-Cortesianus.jpg. Accessed 25 Mar 2020.

Popol Vuh. 2020, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Empiezan_las_historias(Popol_vuh).jpg. Accessed 25 Mar 2020.

Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women And Empire. Manchester University Press, 2009.

The Development of Chocolate as a Mass Commodity Over Time

I will be discussing the development of chocolate as an industrialized food in the modern world. We take the existence of chocolate a mass commodity — and that is as a easy to find and massively consumed commodity — for granted. However chocolate was not always this way. Chocolate originated in the Americas that is that is where the cacao plant from which chocolate is created was initially a grown. That is where it is native and it had been used by the peoples in those areas to our knowledge for thousands of years and it had been used for various purposes. But initially well it is difficult to it is difficult to know exactly all the ways in which chocolate has been used and exactly when it have been using these ways throughout all of history due to birth inherent limitations in looking back at history but also the unfortunate reality that much of mesoamerica History has been obscured and erase do to colonialism. 

But none the less the information that we do have indicates that chocolate largely had spiritual purposes in these Mesoamerican societies and was seen as something of the elite. So in other words it was not a massively consumed food. Cacao products there were massively used for non culinary purposes for example they were used as a means of exchange, as a currency. This is the way in which cacao products and chocolate were being used and the way they were distributed throughout Mesoamerican societies when the Spanish first came to these Societies in the late 1400s and early 1500s. 

Initially the Spanish did not Produce chocolate for culinary purposes because they did not like the taste of chocolate. It was very bitter at that time and was usually consumed as a drink and this did not fit the Spanish is liking for Taste. However overall overtime they began to see more and more the potential for the use of chocolate is food and part is this coincided with their introduction of sugar into chocolate products to make it sweeter. Once they’ve found a combination of ingredients that made chocolate palpable to them they decided to mass produce it. In order to mass produce chocolate and other ingredients in chocolate products especially sugar they turn to slavery to a master juice cacao and chocolate on plantations. Initially they use the native peoples of mesoamerica for these purposes but after while when these people started to unfortunately die off due to diseases imported by Europeans and also just the harshness of slave life the Spanish began to use slaves from Africa. They would import people from Africa and use them as slaves to grow chocolate in the Americas cacao and sugar. 

Eventually other European powers such as Britain starting to do the same thing to the point where it became mass-produced and discontinued into the twentieth century even after the abolition of official slavery. What also began to happen is that cacao began to be grown in Africa and in other regions of the world that had been colonized by the European powers. Slowly the location of cattle growth shifted sister today most Cacao is grown outside of its native regions. That is Cacao a genetically we know probably began in South America but then was I move to mesoamerica and was largely use there and then from there imported to Africa in other regions. 

Cacao is now mostly grown in those after mentioned other regions. Even though in modern times cacao and sugar, which are highly linked in terms of their production, to one another are not a generally not grown using official slavery they are however still unfortunately grown using coerced labor. Brown and Black people  are paid peanuts for their work and work under very harsh conditions and actually suffer disease and early death as a result of what they do. And that has coincided of course with chocolate being massively consumed all over the world by by many different people. And even though chocolate is consumed worldwide, it is consumed more in the West in industrialized nations. So in other words the people who bear the brunt of chocolate production, the production of cacao, the production of sugar, and the refinement of those raw materials into chocolate actually consume chocolate the least whereas the people who profit most off of of the production of chocolate consume it the most. So chocolate is tasty and massively consumed but also over time has become a blood-stained commodity, and that is the unfortunate reality of our culinary world.

Works Cited

“Consequences of Violence.” Violence, 2019, pp. 161–181., doi:10.1002/9781119240716.ch9.

Schwartzkopf, Stacey, and Kathryn E. Sampeck. Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica. University of Texas Press, 2017.

Sloan, Kealy, et al. “One Size Does Not Fit All: Private-Sector Perspectives on Climate Change, Agriculture and Adaptation.” The Climate-Smart Agriculture Papers, 2018, pp. 227–233., doi:10.1007/978-3-319-92798-5_19.

Multimedia Sources


Loo, John. “Chocolate.” Flickr, Yahoo!, 24 June 2007, http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnloo/606739059.

Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Slaves_cutting_the_sugar_cane_-_Ten_Views_in_the_Island_of_Antigua_(1823),_plate_IV_-_BL.jpg.

The Importance of Agricultural Implications to the History of Cacao

            The history of cacao production involves a complex tale of many different players and factors, mainly economic and societal, from various cultures around the world. As important as the sociopolitical factors about the production of cacao are to the history of chocolate that we are studying in our coursework is, another factor that cannot be ignored is the agricultural history of cacao. I argue that the methods and techniques of cacao farming that have been developed over centuries of growing this crop have played an essential role in the continued global importance of chocolate that has persisted to present day. In the current climate—perhaps more than ever—we see how truly indispensable farmers and growers of food are to society. The hard manual labor, along with the technical skills required to grow cacao is an underappreciated piece in the history of chocolate. The individual and collective efforts of cacao producers who have continued to put in real work in the field to produce cacao are the unsung heroes of the chocolate saga. Without the efforts of these hard-working men and women—whether forced labor or voluntary—has shaped the entire social, political, and economic history of chocolate.

The Flowering and Fruiting Stem of the Cacao Tree

Cacao, like any other crop, has a set of environmental conditions that promotes best growing practices. The economic and political triumphs regarding chocolate are deeply affected by the environment needed to grow cacao. The cacao tree thrives in loose, clay-like soil, surrounded by shade trees, and prefers a hot climate typical of areas within 20 degrees north and south of the equator (Bartelink 7). The limitations of the proper growing conditions for cacao have affected not only where cacao is produced, but who reaps the benefits from its production. The fact that cacao was used as currency in pre-Columbian history further complicates the relationship between agricultural and economy, as cacao serves not only as a commodity, but as capital as well (Sampeck 2). Thus, those who produced cacao in these times, also produced a source of wealth. Even in instances where cacao is not used as a source of currency, but is strictly a commodity, the origin of production plays a role in power structures because of the colonial and imperial implications of controlling regions that produce cacao.

            The agriculture of cacao has developed and experienced changes throughout the many centuries that people have been tending to the crop. Like in many arenas, climate change has raised questions of sustainability and continuity in the agricultural practices surrounding cacao production. Though the changing environment will cause stress to cacao plants, researchers believe that the crop is resilient enough to adapt to these stressors, and will employ ways of increasing the resilience of this crop (Bunn 10). The effects of climate change on the production of cacao represents another way in which the agricultural history of cacao has had, and continues to have, direct effects on economic systems of production, as resources need to be funneled into research to improve the growing of this crop in order to ensure that the profitable production of cacao will continue in the future, despite environmental stressors.

A cocoa farmer on his farm in Ghana

The embedded video below shows several parts of the process of farming cacao, and exhibits some of the people who make the production of cacao possible. It is far too easy to forget the incredible amount of labor that is put into things we take for granted each and every day. As consumers of chocolate, and as citizens of a society that has benefitted from the production of cacao, it is the responsibility of each of us to recognize and appreciate the work that is put into a commodity that many of us consume on a daily basis. The agricultural history of cacao and the immeasurable work of the farmers and laborers who grow and cultivate cacao for the world’s consumption have shaped the history of chocolate as we know it. Without the essential work of these people, the political, social, and economic effects that the production and consumption of chocolate products have had for centuries would simply not be possible.


            In times of stability as well as times of uncertainty, farmers work every day to provide for a growing society. For centuries, cacao farmers have done their part to meet the growing demand for chocolate, facing environmental, political, and many other struggles. Farmers remain a constant in the story of chocolate—an absolute necessity in the world of chocolate for centuries past and centuries to come.

Works Cited

Bartelink, E.J. The Cacao Planters’ Manual. London: Kirkland Cope 1884.

Bunn, Christian, et al. “Recommendation Domains to Scale out Climate Change Adaptation in Cocoa Production in Ghana.” Climate Services, 2019.

Dahlgren, Bror Eric. “The Flowering and Fruiting Stem of the Cacao Tree.jpg. 1 January 1923. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:Cacao_by_Dahlgren,_B._E._(Bror_Eric).djvu/8

Etteowora. “Cacao” . Internet Archives, 21 February, 2006. https://archive.org/details/cacao

Rberchie, Raphael. “A Cocoa Farmer on His Farm in Ghana.” 28 August 2014. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34989358

Sampeck, Kathryn E. Sampeck. “Cacao and Violence: Consequences of Money in Colonial Guatemala.” Society for Historical Archaelogy, 2019.

Trinitario and Terroir: the Tale of How Cacao Circumnavigated the Globe

It is ironic indeed that West Africa, the land from which innumerable people were stolen from, enslaved, and eventually forced to work on foreign cacao plantations, would one day become the world’s leading producer of cacao (1). The reasons for this shift are myriad and complex, but one piece of the puzzle, at least, is clear. The various subtle differences in chocolate breeds around the world played a significant role in the shift from Mexico to Africa when it came to cacao production. The fact that West Africa is geographically closer to Europe than South America no doubt also had an impact because of the steep cost of transporting goods across the Atlantic Ocean, as likely did the massacre of and widespread death in indigenous South American populations—which of course affected the amount of local free labor and the ease of acquiring it. However, it seems that it is the diversity of cacao breeds themselves that is often underestimated (1, 2).

It is crucial to first firmly establish that this change was brought about by European colonization. In the first half of the 18th century, Portuguese colonizers transplanted forastero (“foreign”) cuttings from Brazil to São Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea in Central Africa. That cacao soon became one of the island’s principal exports, up until the end of the following century (1). Then, in the 1850s, cacao cuttings were taken from São Tomé to Bioko, an island off the west coast of Equatorial Guinea. Bioko soon began exporting forastero, which was by that point quite pervasive (1). From these Portuguese colonies in Africa, Theobroma cacao spread to Ghana (the Gold Coast); then to Nigeria; and then, in 1905, to the Ivory Coast (1). And Portugal was not alone; near the end of the century, German colonizers began planting cacao in the Cameroons (1).

Still, it was not mere colonial pressure in West Africa that brought about the massive rise in cocoa production outside Mexico. Driven by the preferences of the elite, European colonizers brought specific chocolate breeds to their African colonies. When forastero seedlings were brought to Trinidad, they hybridized with what remained of the local criollo trees, producing the new variety trinitario. The quality of criollo is arguably superior to all other varieties; the flavor and aroma of forastero, which is hardier and more fruitful, cannot compare. Indeed, criollo was the “prerogative of the rulers and warriors of ancient Mesoamerica” and “seduced” the European aristocracies of the 17th and 18th centuries (1). Trinitario combined the unique taste qualities of criollo with the “vigor, hardiness, and high yields” of forastero (1). Thus, when trinitario—with its wonderful blend of attributes—was born, the strain soon came to dominate the cacao trade, fueling cultivation around the globe. Today, there are at least eleven commercial varieties of trinitario grown in Trinidad alone (7).

The role of the elite in these happenings cannot be underestimated. It was the aristocracy of old that defined refinement, and in the extremely stratified socioeconomic pyramids of many pre-19th century European nations, there was a marked desire by the common people to imitate the nobility. As chocolate addition swept their ranks, European elites ushered in the spread of cocoa “downward…to the urban working classes, then outward to the countryside” (1). 

As cacao spread from Mesoamerica to the Caribbean to sub-Saharan Africa to Asia (2), unavoidable differences in breeds led to differences in preference. At least ten genetically distinct cacao varieties have been recognized (4), some of which were rediscovered as recently as 2011. Though the cacao breeds grown in colonies might have originally been genetically identical, growing method and environment play a significant role in taste and texture. Terroir is defined as “the unique flavours and quality associated with the manner of production and almost ineffable qualities of genetics, climate, soil, and place” (3). In other words, terroir is “the sense of a place” (3). 

Above: components of terroir (8)

Ancient Mayan royal scribes recorded recipes that included particular types of cacao from particular regions (3), making it clear that that even genetically identical cacao grown in adjoining territories can be differentiated by taste and other attributes. It follows that such a trend would be mirrored in the aristocracy of Europe, with nobles determining and declaring their favorite cacao (ostensibly from the appropriate colony) in order to boast not only their wealth but their sophistication. Indeed, as Martin and Sampeck assert, “Europeans truly embraced cacao as a way to define distinct tastes” (3).

Above: terroir map showing the overall taste descriptions of cacao around the world (8)

This phenomenon is further supported by the contemporary chocolate market, the direct descendant of late 18th, 19th, and early 20th century trends. A simple internet search reveals a vast array of sampler chocolate collections available for purchase—the majority of which contain confections produced with cacao grown in different countries. Bar & Cocoa, for example, sells a “Chocolate Bars of the World” gift box. The accompanying description differentiates cocoa from Madagascar, Vietnam, and Venezuela by aroma, richness, flavor notes, and even “spice” (5). Another company, Tabal Chocolate, offers an assortment of Costa Rican,  Bolivian, and Peruvian chocolate (6). 

Above: Bar & Cacao’s “Chocolate Bars of the World” gift box (5)

It is perhaps wrong, then, to state that cacao circumnavigated the globe. Cacao conquered it.

Works Cited

  1. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames and Hudson, 2013.
  2. Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. 1st ed., Polity Press, 2018.
  3. 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.
  4. Motamayor, Juan C., et al. “Geographic and Genetic Population Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree (Theobroma Cacao L).” PLoS ONE, vol. 3, no. 10, 1 Oct. 2008, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0003311.
  5. “Chocolate Bars of the World Gift Box.” Bar & Cocoa, Bar & Cocoa, barandcocoa.com/products/chocolate-bars-of-the-world-gift-box?variant=19094053879862&utm_medium=cpc&utm_source=google&utm_campaign=Google Shopping&gclid=EAIaIQobChMIrtmF4p-26AIVwx-tBh1Ydg4iEAQYASABEgJcvvD_BwE.
  6. “Three Bar World Sampler.” Tabal Chocolate, Tabal Chocolate, tabalchocolate.com/world-samplers/three-bar-world-sampler.
  7. “What Is Trinitario Chocolate?” Cocoa Republic, Cocoa Republic, 18 July 2016, http://www.cocoa-republic.com/2016/06/29/what-is-trinitario-chocolate/.
  8. Giller, Megan. Bean-to-Bar Chocolate: Americas Craft Chocolate Revolution: the Origins, the Makers, the Mind-Blowing Flavors. Storey Publishing, 2017.

Chocolate Estranged; Mesoamerica and Mars, Inc.


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.

A video detailing the chocolate-making process used by Mayans and other Mesoamericans

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. 

Takalik Abaj metate 1.jpg
Traditional metate stone used to grind cacao beans into paste by Mesoamericans

Chocolate Colonized

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.

Image result for town hershey factory town
The original Hershey factory built in 1894, photographed in 1976

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.

Works Cited

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).

File:Hershey Factory.jpg. (2016, November 29). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 20:19, March 25, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Hershey_Factory.jpg&oldid=223766892.

File:Takalik Abaj metate 1.jpg. (2019, March 20). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 20:20, March 25, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Takalik_Abaj_metate_1.jpg&oldid=343320395.

Khan, Gulnaz. “Watch the Ancient Art of Chocolate-Making.” National Geographic, September 11, 2017. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/north-america/guatemala/anitgua-maya-chocolate-making/
Mintz, S. W. (1985). Sweetness and power: the place of sugar in modern history. New York.

Cacao Currency

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. 

Works Cited 

De Maré, Laurie. “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.

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/.

Sampek , Kathryn. “Cacao Money.” Cacao Money, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/cacao-money.

Cartwright , Mark. “Chocolate in Mesoamerica.” Brewminate, 18 Sept. 2019, brewminate.com/chocolate-in-mesoamerica/.

Chocolate Consumption and Production: How Mesoamerican Cacao Culture has Faded

The significance of chocolate holds a profound and broad importance in our modern day American society. Chocolate has been incorporated in our everyday life as an indulgence.The commonly found sweet treat melts in one’s mouth, and in American culture, is used to melt one’s heart! However, chocolate is not bound by its asset of sweetness, as that asset was incorporated into chocolate fairly recently; chocolate can be bitter and brittle, and can even be featured as a drink! There are many types of chocolate varying by texture and taste, and the good has evolved over the ages, and so has its pairwise culture as it has moved from society to society, but all types stem from cacao. The original chocolate/cacao and its production can be traced all the way back to Pre-Columbian civilizations where it was valued highly and reserved for nobility and important people. In that time, Cacao was much more than a sweet, refreshing treat: it was a vital and versatile part in Pre-Columbian traditions including religion, status, and health. These traditions are portrayed in several interesting artifacts allowing us to better understand cacao’s significance in the Aztec, Mayan, Olmec and other Mesoamerican societies. Analysis of these artifacts allows us to discern that the culture of cacao has been distorted and watered down over the ages, and this can be seen in a comparison of modern day chocolate related activities to its ancient roots.

Modern day practices with chocolate primarily involve mass production and consumption of chocolate. Because of the bustling chocolate industry, people from all over the world are able to experience and indulge in a version of cacao, thus somewhat honoring the importance of cacao through enjoying its consumption. However, historical companies like Cadbury and others have significantly watered down the original culture of the product in order to capture a larger target market. The process of making chocolate used to be a niche and special thing and rarely resulted in the type of sugar-infused chocolate bars that we love today. There were various unique recipes and methods of production for the cacao beans. In cacao’s historical roots, every part of production was done by hand. Cacao beans were obtained from open cacao pods and were fermented, then dried, then roasted and winnowed, and then finally ground into the “chocolate liquor” paste.

Once this product was created, there were various ways to proceed in the making of the final product. Popular preparations of the time included fresh cacao pulp batidos, cacao and chile balls, and cacao and corn based beverages.

The production of the final cacao product in Mesoamerican tradition is very laborious but feels raw and real. Here, a woman follows traditional practices in making the highly regarded cacao-corn beverage

However, as the world became more interconnected over time, cacao production was adopted and altered primarily by Europeans in the mid to late 1600’s. “Europe is the biggest processor of cacao as well as the largest per-capita consumer of cacao” (Martin & Sampeck 2016, 37). Thus, Europeans altered cacao recipes to better suit their taste and culture. “The industrial chocolate that they produced was higher in sugar and less complex in taste compared to the variety of local chocolate makers” (Martin & Sampeck 2016, 37). So as the primary production center of cacao shifted from Mesoamerica to Europe, variety and quality of the product mattered less to the masses, and cacao’s original tastes were neglected. The driving force for this change in chocolate production was the introduction of chocolate to the world, and the resulting different chocolate consumption.

Cacao consumption was extremely significant in Mesoamerican culture. There weren’t many who were able to consume it every day, especially because of its cultural importance, not just because of its scarcity. “People in Central America and Mexico linked cacao and vital cosmological forces. These associations made cacao the proper offering in rituals related to fertility, health and travel as well as consecrating social unions such as marriage” (Sampeck & Schwartzkopf 2017, 74). Cacao was held in high regard in its original culture and we can confirm this through the analysis of Mesoamerican artifacts. Inscriptions on “monogrammed vases”, such as the one presented, reflect how the Mesoamericans “invested meaning in cacao” through their consumption and production (Martin & Sampeck 39). Analyzing a variety of inscriptions allows us to further understand the presence of cacao and chocolate in one’s life, and we can discern that cacao was pivotal during major social events such as religious practices, marriage rituals and funerals. In marriage ceremonies, cacao beverages were shared between the groom and the bride’s father during a pre-martial discussion. Cacao was dried and dyed red during funeral procession and was believed to ease the soul into the afterlife.

“Princeton Vase”, a Maya cacao-drinking cup depicting a rite of passage during a marriage ceremony – the presentation of a cacao beverage

These cacao beverages were prepared in a very sacred practice in ancient Mesoamerica. The primary ingredients were corn and cacao. In the making and drinking of the beverage, it was crucial that it had a frothy foam on top as it was believed that it “satisfies the soul.”

Depiction of the preparation of the frothy cacao-corn beverage – a tall pour to create bubbles
“Codex Nuttal”, Mixtec funeral scene with funeral procession

On the contrary, once the primary consumption and production of cacao shifted away from Mesoamerica, chocolate lost a little part of its identity. All of the tangible practices of production and consumption of cacao were stolen – the Europeans even crafted their own chocolate consumption drinking vessels – and barely any of the cultural practices that made cacao so special in its original culture were adopted. Instead, Europeans looked to make cacao production the most efficient. They imposed on Africa and coerced African labor for cacao production. And those historical shifts have had lasting impacts today. The ones on the frontline – the farmers – who wether the hot sun and the excruciating physical labor to harvest cacao beans have almost no power in the supply chain of chocolate. According to the “Cocoa Barometer 2018” smallholder cocoa farmers in Cote d’lvoire, already struggling with poverty, have seen their income from cocoa decline by as much as 30-40% from one year to the next”(Fountain & Huetz-Adams 2018, 10), and this is just on example of the perpetuated injustice that grips the chocolate industry. Although Europeans found a way to globalize chocolate for the taste buds of all, the sacrifice of culture and humanity is too monumental.

In conclusion, traditional ways of producing and consuming cacao have been neglected in exchange for the health of an industry that was built upon the tired backs of Africans and South Americans. The significance of cacao in the Pre-Columbian era can be examined in artifacts and documents dating back to the 15th century, and we can learn a lot from them about this faded culture. We can see through these artifacts that their beliefs and culture revolved around these special Theobroma trees, and it is quite fascinating to see how the ancients interacted with cacao.

Works Cited:

“Toledo Ecotourism Association – making a chocolate drink.” Youtube. May 10, 2008. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vC4dq69rqE&feature=youtu.be

Fountain, Antonie, and Friedel Huetz-Adams. “Cocoa Barometer 2018.” VOICE Network. Accessed March 25, 2020. https://www.voicenetwork.eu/cocoa-barometer/.

Martin, Carla D, and Kathryn E Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, 16 June 2015, socio.hu/uploads/files/2015en_food/chocolate.pdf.

“The Princeton Vase (y1975-17).” Princeton University, The Trustees of Princeton University, artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/objects/32221.

Schwartzkopf, Stacey, and Kathryn E. Sampeck. Substance and Seduction. Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica. University of Texas Press, 2017.

Gaddis, Donald. “The Codex Nuttall: Funeral Scene.” Pinterest, http://www.pinterest.com/pin/13581236346174560/. IMG.