Tag Archives: cacao

From cacao to chocolate: Cacao as a Mesoamerican Artifacts

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Works Cited:

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

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

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


Cacao From Hands to the Machine

The sourcing and production of chocolate had a direct effect on its place in the social hierarchy in different societies and cultures across time. It is possible to see this by going in depth into three chronological time periods in different places in the world where the allure of cacao had spread. By an early exploration of Mayan chocolate production to Venezuelan plantations ending at the discovery of the Cocoa press in the Netherlands.

Mayan Chocolate Making 

Mayans revered chocolate, it played an essential role in their stories of origin and cosmology. It was used in burial rites and great ceremonies. Cacao was grown agriculturally by the Mayans 1.

Maya Vase

One of the only direct evidence discovered about how Mayans made their chocolate is found in this vessel on the right-hand side which shows a lady pouring chocolate drink from a height into another cup. This was to create the foam that was extremely prized in the Mayan culture; it was thought to be the breath of the Gods.

Maya Princeton Vase

This Maya Princeton Vase is evidence for the heavy usage and importance of cacao in the Mayan culture. It has engraved hieroglyphics for the word cacao coupled with cosmological depictions.

The Maya had many ways of using Cacao to make food.

Chacau haa – This is hot chocolate drink.

Tzune – This is a mix of cacao, maize and sapote seeds.

Saca– A gruel made from cooked maize, water, and cacao.

The flavoring that was commonly used was vanilla and ‘ear flower’2. These different ways of cooking show a creative and vibrant diversity in the usage of the cacao pod. It is highly developed and adaptable. It shows cacao to be an essential part of the Mayan culture and diet.

The remnants of traditional Mayan way of making chocolate drink are still alive today in certain parts of Mexico among the Mayan communities. This video highlights and explains the traditional ways women make the chocolate drink in these Mayan communities.

This video shows us how labor intensive and time consuming it was to make chocolate drink in the Mayan style. The cacao beans have to shelled, roasted, dried in the sun, ground and after this long process mixed with water ready to be consumed.

Venezuelan Cacao Boom

The high-quality strain of Criollo cacao is native to Venezuela. It started being produced agriculturally at the turn of the seventeenth century. The first recorded shipment is in 1607 from La Guaira to Spain 3. This was under the influence of Hispanic colonization, those working on these plantations were slaves and laborers 4.

Here the cacao was so abundantly grown it was consumed on a regular basis by everybody, from slaves to lords. There were three different styles in consuming the cacao 5.

Cerrero– ( rough and ready, bitter ) This was just plain cacao dissolved in water with no added flavorings or sweeteners. It was widely drunk by people in the interiors.

Chorote– Made by creating solid chocolate balls which are dissolved in water, added to this is muscovado sugar. The chocolate balls were created by boiling ground cacao to separate the fats and solids. This was drunk by people in the cities as well as given to slaves and laborers for lunch and dinner.

Chocolate– Made by mixing balls of ground chocolate mixed with sugar or honey, toasted corn, seasonings such as cinnamon, ginger, and allspice. This was consumed by the Spanish elite at morning and noon meals.

The mass production led to cacao being available for everybody to consume. However what marks the social classes is by what process they made their cacao and what was added to it. Also the number of cacao beans used in the food and the time and effort of making it.

Development of industrial techniques of cacao processing

Conrad Johanes Van Houten discovered, along with his father the Cocoa press and Dutch process chocolate 6.

Conrad Johanes Van Houten

This created a fast and easy chocolate producing technique. It was adopted by big industries to use in their ways of chocolate production. This created a speedy and cheaper way of making good tasting chocolate.

Another process invented was the conching of chocolate. This was invented by Rudolfhe Lindt in Switzerland 7.
. It created smoother chocolate and covered the origins and original flavors and textures of the cacao bean, hence a bean sourced from anywhere of any strain could be used. The image below portrays the process of creating smoother chocolate.

Image from page 148 of "Cocoa and chocolate : their history from plantation to consumer" (1920)

These invented process allowed for the anonymity of cacao in the chocolate drink and bar. It became possible to mass produce chocolate without knowing of the origins and sourcing of the cacao bean that went into the chocolate. This created a lot of distance between the agriculture of growing cacao, strains and qualities of the pod and the consumer of the chocolate.


Mass Chocolate Production Today

This kind of mechanized industrialized mass production allows for a lot of chocolate to be produced. When chocolate production moved to such a mechanized way of being made, it became widely available for the average consumer. In today’s world chocolate is a regular household good with a large gap between knowledge of the sourcing and production of chocolate and the regular consumers of chocolate. The intensive agricultural development of cacao with the support of slave exploitation and the inventions of chocolate processing in Europe led to chocolate as is known today.


1- Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013.

2- Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013.

3- Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Random House Digital, Inc., 2009.

4- Romero, Simon. “In Venezuela, plantations of cocoa stir bitterness.” The New York Times (2009): A04.

5- Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Random House Digital, Inc., 2009.

6-  Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Random House Digital, Inc., 2009.

7-  Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Random House Digital, Inc., 2009.

Cheap Sugar and Expensive Cacao: the democratization of the “food of the gods.”

Chocolate means many things to many people, invoking feelings of romance, decadence, comfort, celebration, and memories of childhood. And despite its ubiquity across most of the globe, chocolate has maintained an aura of lavishness, mystery, and prestige. Once a food item strictly for the elites, chocolate has kept its image as a luxury item even though it has been cheaply available for over a century. How and why did chocolate go from an exclusive luxury item for the privileged to a staple everyday treat for the masses? The history of chocolate, or cacao, the treated fruit-seeds from which chocolate is produced, and how it became commonplace is inseparable from the history of colonialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the industrial revolution. And the same is true of the history of sugar. Ultimately it was the evolution and combining of these two once-exclusive products that changed chocolate from an expensive, rare commodity for a small elite class to an affordable, mass-producible snack for the everyday citizen of the industrialised world.

Chocolate finds its origin in the cacao tree, or theobroma cacao, literally “food of the gods, cacao,” as it was named by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus.1 However, the word cacao had been used, as had the fruits and the seeds within, since long before Linnaeus encountered the species. Traces of cacao have been discovered on pottery dating as far back as 3,300 B.C. in Zamora Chinchipe, Ecuador,2 almost five thousand years before contact between Europe and Mesoamerica began. When Europeans first encountered cacao at the beginning of the sixteenth century, cacao was used as currency and consumed as a beverage by the ruling class of the Aztec empire. The drinking chocolate travelled first to the royal courts of Spain and then spread to the other major powers in Europe including, Italy, France, and England.  Drinking chocolate prevailed until the middle of the nineteenth century when solid chocolate was first produced for widespread sale.


Sugar has been known in Europe since long before cacao. Cultivated into its crystallized form in India as far back as 500 A.D.,3 and spread through the Arabic conquests of the eighth century, it was and remained “a luxury, a medicine, and a spice”4 until the seventeenth century. With the discovery and conquering of the West Indies, Europeans colonialists began to cultivate and mass-produce the luxury items – cacao, tobacco, coffee, rum, tea, and sugar – that would dramatically change the economies of the world forever.

By the nineteenth century sugar had a become a necessity of British daily life. And it was during this century that Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes Van Houten invented a machine that would lead to the ability to produce chocolate in its solid form. Van Houten’s hydraulic press separated the fat, cacao butter, from the cacao beans, leaving behind a powder we call cocoa.5 The British Fry family, who had been producing and selling drinking chocolate since the eighteenth century, discovered that by remixing this cocoa with the butter and adding sugar, a liquid that would harden could be made, and the first real chocolate bar was born.6


It should be stated that none of the major producers of solid chocolate who would come to dominate the market were the first to think to sweeten cacao for consumption. Adding honey to sweeten drinking chocolate had been commonplace in Mesoamerica before the arrival of the Spanish, and drinking chocolate recipes enjoyed by the aristocracy in Europe pervasively contained sugar. The change that took place that would significantly spread the consumption of chocolate was the pronounced increased, first, in the consumption of sugar. According to Sidney W. Mintz’s estimates, between 1800 and 1890 world production shot from approximately two-hundred and forty-five thousand tonnes of sugar to over six million, and he writes, “there is no doubt that the sucrose consumption of the poorer classes in the United Kingdom came to exceed that of the wealthier classes after 1850.”7 This transformative period in sugar production and consumption paired with Van Houten’s machine, which meant for easier and cheaper production of higher quality cacao powder and butter, set the stage for the mass-production and consumption of chocolate.


The public’s insatiable appetite for sugar has meant that chocolate production can be much cheaper, as the most expensive ingredient, cacao, can be used in less quantity. A good example of this is the enormously successful Hershey’s kiss that is just eleven percent cocoa and over fifty percent sugar.8 And the mass-production ideology that came with the industrial revolution led to astonishing manufacturing achievements. A good example of this is the lettering machine at the M&M factory that is able to print the M’s on M&M’s at, “200,000 M&M’s a minute, or 100 million M&M’s every eight hours:”9 needless to say, a far cry from the time-consuming procedure to make the drinking chocolate that was enjoyed by Mayans, Aztecs, and European “nobility” for the centuries and millennia prior. That milk chocolate can be legally called as such with just 10% cacao content has meant a form of chocolate can be made, and therefore bought and eaten, cheaply and regularly across class lines. So while there is debate as to the health effects of cheap chocolate and ethical concerns of cheaply sourced cacao, the “food of the gods” is now available to all mortals. And thank god for that.


Works Cited


  1. Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press. Page 5
  2. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-22733002
  3. Mintz, Sidney W. 1985. Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin. Page 23
  4. Page 30
  5. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 1996. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson. Page 234
  6. Page 241
  7. Page 143
  8. Martin, Carla D. “The rise of big chocolate and race for the global market.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 3/7/18, Class Lecture
  9. Brenner, Joel. 2000. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars. Page 185

A Salute to Chocolate

Endurance to Diplomacy: Highlights of Chocolate in the Military

Chocolate is enjoyed worldwide by both children and adults and its popularity continues to grow. A recent report by Technavio valued the global chocolate market at $105.56 billion with an estimated value of 137.12 billion in 2021.[1] With these earnings, chocolate is truly the “food of the [shareholder] gods.”

Setting market success aside, chocolate is a unique fruit that contains theobromine, caffeine, and cocoa butter (fat), which can provide a needed energy boost, stave off hunger, and it is less likely to spoil on long journeys. These qualities make chocolate practical for many uses. One use probably not at the forefront of everyone’s mind, is military use, which has its roots in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

Map of Mesoamerica highlighting Mayan and Aztec empires
Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (partial view). Highlighting Mayan influence and Aztec empire.
Statuette of Mayan with cacao pods on uniform
Cacao pods dangle from this Mayan warrior or Mayan athlete? Academic debate continues on this Mayan’s identity. Either way, he would benefit from cacao’s energy boosting and fortifying properties.

The people of Mesoamerica may not have known the scientific reasons why their chocolate, or cacao, gave them energy or satisfied their hunger, but they were certainly aware of these benefits. Chocolate was a common ration for both Mayan and Aztec warriors. Although the Aztecs limited their chocolate consumption to the elite, their soldiers were allowed to partake. Ground cacao could be made into small wafers for easier travel and remote preparation.[2] Chocolate use, among Mayans, was more democratized and consumed along many classes for rituals, medicinal, and social occasions. Mayan soldiers too carried chocolate into battle.[3] Flexible and fortifying, chocolate provided a handy fix to fight hunger, or an opponent, for soldiers in Mesoamerica as for those in North America.

In 1757, 1,200 French and Indian forces were preparing for battle from Fort Carillon (then Fort Ticonderoga) in New York state. The officers issued an additional “two pounds of chocolate,” to energize the troops.[4] Twenty years later at that very fort, chocolate continued to fortify. During the American Revolution, young Captain Moses Greenleaf noted in his diary that he had hot chocolate when he first arrived at Fort Ticonderoga in the spring of 1777.[5] That summer, when he and his small army were ordered to evacuation the fort, he ate chocolate dinner and breakfast to strengthen him on “as fatigueing [sic] a[9].”[6] In additional to fortifying soldiers, chocolate’s popularity was also due to its perceived health benefits.

General Grant sits atop of horse in front of Union Army camp
General Ulysses S. Grant at City Point during Civil War. Close quarters like these, for long periods of time, could create unsanitary conditions.

During the Civil War unsanitary field conditions and malnutrition claimed more lives than battle. Concerned with this growing public health crisis, The United States Sanitary Commission (USSC), purchased more than $20,000 pounds of chocolate during the Civil War from the Baker Chocolate Company. The USSC believed chocolate had nutritional and healing properties and served it to wounded soldiers to improve their health. [8] In 1864, Dr. E. Donnelly, a field surgeon wrote the Baker Company with this endorsement “a chocolate should be made to keep in a powdered condition, not too sweet, and free from all husks or other irritating substances. Chocolate … would be much more nutritious than coffee, not so irritating to the bowels.” [9] The Baker Company would later show their patriotism through chocolate.

During World War I, the Baker Company would stamp chocolate with the intials “W.T.W” (Win The War).[10]  A warm sentiment that would reach Allied soldiers around the world, forming strong bonds with them. This is just one example of chocolate diplomacy.

Berlin Airlift, Lt. Halverson, Chocolate Flyer
Miniature parachutes can be seen dropping from Halvorsen’s C-54 as he brings the plane in for a landing at Tempelhof.

Another example of chocolate diplomacy against a backdrop of hardship and despair comes in post World War II Germany. Berlin was split between the U.S. and its Allies (West Germany) and the Soviets (East Germany). In 1948 the Soviet Union sought to control all of Berlin and closed it off in hopes of starving out West Berliners. For over a year, Allied forces provided daily airdrops of provisions to West Berliners. One the most popular pilots was Lieutenant Gail S. Halvorsen, better known as the “the Chocolate Flyer.” Inspired by meeting the children of Berlin and their shy demeanor, Halvorsen wrapped candy bars and gum into little packages, then dropped them to the awaiting children. As Halvorsen explains “Day by day the crowd of kids waiting for the drop got bigger, and day by day my supply of handkerchiefs, old shirts, GI sheets, and old shorts, all of which I use for parachutes, gets smaller.”[11] The chocolate drops would be repeated many times after Halverson left Germany. The Operation was covered by the International press displaying Allied forces in a positive light on the world stage.

On the heels of World War II and at the start of the Cold War, chocolate was able to perform yet another service – publicity.  For centuries, chocolate has been serving the military on many levels. From fortification to diplomacy; energy to encouragement; now publicity and propaganda, chocolate continues to serve.

Works Cited

[1] Business Wire. Technavio. Top 6 Vendors in the Global Chocolate Market from 2017 to 2021: Technavio. June 28, 2017. Web. March 4, 2018. https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20170628005998/en/Top-6-Vendors-Global-Chocolate-Market-2017

[2] Coe, Sophie D.. The True History of Chocolate (Kindle Locations 1372-1373). Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition.

[3] Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerican and the “food of the gods”. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. Jan. 31, 2018. Class Lecture 2.

[4] Grivetti, Louis E.; Shapiro, Howard-Yana. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage (Kindle Locations 15908-15911). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

[5] Ibid. (Kindle Location 15887).

[6] Ibid. (Kindle Location 16244).

[7] Ibid. (Kindle Locations 12681-12682).

[8] Ibid. (Kindle Location 14089).

[9] Ibid. (Kindle Locations 14093-14094).

[10] Ibid. (Kindle Location 14212).

[11] Giangreco, D.M. and Griffin, Robert E. The Berlin Crisis of 1948, its Origins and Aftermath. Presidio Press. New York. Excerpts Published by Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum. Web. March 8, 2018. https://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/BERLIN_A/CHOCOLAT.HTM


Not So Sweet: Slavery in the Cacao Industry

dairy-milk-barsChocolate is arguably one of the greatest culinary achievements in human history. I currently do not have a citation for that statement, however I am banking on scholars and researchers to catch up to my sweeping generalizations. Chocolate, and cultivation of Cacao have been interwoven into the fabric of societies all across the globe. These connections have happened in so many ways that are not just appealing to the pallet but also to the spirit. Chocolate confections for some are the corner stone to childhood, and to others it is a symbol of ancestral connection. For some groups and societies, this connection has a more malevolent feel, either due to historical significance or even current trends in the chocolate marketplace. Chocolate and cacao production, have and continue to be connected to one of the darkest parts of the human experience. Slavery and forced labor are probably not what most consumers of chocolate think when they pick up their favorite chocolate candy in the local grocery aisle. This is likely due to the disparity and disconnection of the consumer from chocolates actual production. Chocolate production has been, and can continue to be, a marker for where such social disparity exists in our global market places. Using examples of past and present issues related to cacao production, it may be possible to shed light on how practice and policy of large candy manufacturers could potentially impact the lives of some of the most vulnerable communities in the world.
screen-shot-2015-03-12-at-7-11-13-pmGeorge Santayana said “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Building on this philosophy, it is important to acknowledge our past mistakes in order to inform our future practice. On the other side of the coin, we can also adopt what was successful into the same playbook. One instance that is important to highlight takes place over 100 years ago with a Quaker owned chocolate producer called Cadbury. The Cadbury family was not just associated with the prominent industrialist family, but also with the Quaker philosophy of passivity and equity. In the workplace, it was also important to the Cadbury brand and philosophy that this applied to the treatment of those in their employ. In the early 1900s, William Cadbury investigated allegations that the primary source of their chocolate was being produced with slave labor. Their chocolate was being imported from the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, just off the western coast of the African continent. Once the allegations were verified, Cadbury petitioned the Portuguese government to change the labor practices and laws in their colony, however was not successful in its initial attempts. During this time, Cadbury continued to import a great deal of chocolate from the island, and in response faced a tremendous outpouring of public pressure. Due to their inability to appeal to the Portuguese government, Cadbury refocused their chocolate production elsewhere, and urged other chocolate companies to do the same. (Satre, 2005) While it was not a solution to the problem, it did demonstrate a morality in business practices that can be emulated in today’s chocolate industry.

So why look to Cadbury and the action of a chocolate maker 100 years ago? Well in the past two decades, allegations of chocolates connection to slavery have surfaced again. One of the countries that has been a focus for this issue has been Côte d’Ivoire. The accusations stated that nearly 90% of all chocolate produced there, had been involved in some form of slave labor. The international community was outraged, as Côte d’Ivoire was responsible for almost half of the world’s supply of chocolate. (John, 2002) cocoa-productin-and-consumption-map This practice also involves children, who are sometimes sold into labor from bordering nations like Mali. A great deal of pressure was put onto some of the largest chocolate manufactures such as Nestle, due to international laws and increased media attention on the subject. (Schrage & Ewing, 2005) One of the major differences in this instance and the Cadbury example is the speed of information and the influence of the global media. The outcry from the international community was enormous and promises were made from major manufactures because of it.

That was almost 20 years ago that light was shed on this issue. What about today? Côte d’Ivoire, along with others, is still listed by the U.S. Department of Labor as an exploiter of forced/child labor. (U.S. Department of Labor, 2016) Apart of their research found that in 2016, 2.1 million children had been involved in cacao production in an “inappropriate form.” (Lowy, 2016) 13E10CBB-C119-4185-AF0F-985DBD4FDAFE
Using Cadbury as a case study, it is possible to show that morality in business practice does not just positively affect the global community, but also can still be lucrative for a company. Cadbury did not solve the issue of slavery in the instance of the Portuguese colony, however they did influence the other chocolate makers to change their business practices which ultimately did leave a lasting impact on the islands need for forced labor. By doing so, they did not cease to exist, and by all accounts still flourish today. In today’s global economy, large manufactures have the opportunity to follow Cadbury’s example, and even potentially go a step further to create more sustainable practices for the global community.

Works Cited:

John, A. V. (2002, June). A new slavery? History Today; London, 52(6), 34–35.

Lowy, B. (2016). Inside Big Chocolate’s Child Labor Problem. Retrieved March 9, 2018, from http://fortune.com/big-chocolate-child-labor/

Satre, L. J. (2005). Chocolate on trial: slavery, politics, and the ethics of business (1st ed.). Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Schrage, E. J., & Ewing, A. P. (2005). The Cocoa Industry and Child Labour. Journal of Corporate Citizenship, (18), 99–112.

U.S. Department of Labor. (2016). List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. Retrieved March 9, 2018, from https://www.dol.gov/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods/


The Significance of Mesoamerican Artifacts to Modern Cacao Consumption

Artifacts play a significant role in shaping how we view history and cultures.  In the case of cacao artifacts, they have changed not only what we know about Mesoamerican culture, but also how/what we enjoy tasting in America today.  Today, “sugar is so familiar, so common, and so ubiquitous that it is difficult to imagine a world without it” (Mintz, 1986, p. 74).  In Mesoamerica – 1500 BCE – 1521 AD (Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. [FAMSI], 2012), sugar was considered a spice and not nearly as prevalent as it is now.  If ancient artifacts had not been found to illustrate the use of cacao, particularly by the elite, both cacao and sugar may potentially be consumed less than they are in America today.

The discovery of the Dresden Codex (and lesser-known Madrid Codex) are perhaps two of the largest breakthroughs in discovering how cacao was used in Mesoamerica.  This Dresden Codex, “deal[s] with ritual activities tied in to the Maya’s scared 260-day cycle” (Coe & Coe, 2013, p. 42).  When Yuri Knorosov broke the phonetic element of the hieroglyphs used to write the Dresden Codex, it was discovered that “the text written above each deity states that what is held in the hand is ‘his cacao [u kakaw]’” (p. 42).  This shows that cacao was viewed as sacred in the Mayan culture.  In the Classic era – 300-950 AD (FAMSI, 2012), very few documented incidents of cacao being used exist, and the few that do are, “elegantly painted or carved vessels that accompanied the elite” (Coe & Coe, 2013, p. 43).  It is not known if ordinary Mayans consumed cacao or if they could even afford it.

The view that cacao is only for the wealthy and/or holy leads one to wonder if this is not what led to its mass consumption today.  People want what they cannot have.  Since cacao was viewed as a delicacy for the higher classes when it was brought to Europe, average people wanted to try this luxury, likely to emulate the wealthy.  With an increase in demand, ways had to be found to increase the number of cacao products that were available.  An increase in cacao production and importation would enable those other than the wealthy to access and consume it. “In 1898 in the United States a dollar bought forty-two percent more milk, fifty-one percent more coffee, a third more beef, twice as much sugar, and twice as much flour as in 1872” (Laudan, n.d,  p. 41, as cited in Martin, 2018a, slide 9).  With the increasing amounts of sugar people were able to purchase, adding it to cacao seemed the logical choice for companies to dilute – and thus cheapen – the cacao and allow ordinary people to access and enjoy it…or think they were enjoying it, even though they were actually tasting fillers such as sugar and condensed milk.  According to Martin (2018a), in the United States today, out of “300 million people, 3 billion pounds annually, 12 pounds per person” (slide 42) of chocolate is consumed.  This illustrates the mass scale in which chocolate is consumed today.  Without the discovery of the Dresden Codex, cacao may never have been viewed as a delicacy enjoyed by gods, thus its demand would not be as high as it is today.

The Dresden and Madrid Codices are not the only examples of artifacts that shaped how we view cacao. A Classic Mayan tomb was discovered in 1984 at Río Azul, Guatemala and was found “to be full of the paraphernalia of chocolate consumption” (Coe & Coe, 2013, p. 46).  The most obvious example of the existence of cacao in this tomb was “a stirrup-handled pot with a screw-on lid” (p. 46).  This vessel had six hieroglyphs painted on it

and two of them “read ‘cacao’” (p.46). These hieroglyphs lead one to believe that these vessels were very likely used to store cacao, but it was not proven until a selection of the vessels found in Río Azul were tested.  “[T]he screw-top jar had contained both theobromine and caffeine, two of the cylindrical vases had definite traces of theobromine, one had possible traces of theobromine, and the last had no traces of either alkaloid” (p. 46).  In the period in which these vessels were constructed – the end of 5th century AD, cacao was the only plant in the region that contained both the caffeine and theobromine compounds (Martin, 2018b, slide 48).  This proved that these vessels did, in fact, store liquid cacao at the time the tomb was closed.

The Copan excavations in western Honduras have opened an entirely new way of thinking in regard to the excavation and testing of Mesoamerican artifacts (Presilla, 2009).  In fact, “[a]t one time nearly everyone assumed that the presence or absence of cacao residue could be inferred by the shape of a vessel.  If it didn’t look like a tall drinking vessel, it wasn’t worth examining for evidence of cacao” (Presilla, 2009, p. 15). In fact, “the Deer Vessel (far left, [below])…contained chocolate (cacao). A shell scoop in the shape of a hand (second from left) was found inside the Deer Vessel” (Sharer, 2012a, Copan Altar Q section).offerning-vessels-hunai-tomb-copan The team excavating Copan has been sending all forms and shapes of vessels to be analyzed for cacao residue.  Finding residue on various types of vessels outside of the typical drinking vessel could unveil an entirely new way in which the Mayans utilized, prepared, and consumed cacao. The implications of these discoveries could include modern Americans thinking about new ways to use cacao, beyond its standard use in candy products.

Clearly, artifacts play a role in shaping how we view history and cultures. They also impact how we utilize and consume products, in this case, cacao, today.  Had ancient artifacts like those in the tomb at Río Azul, Guatemala and Copan, Honduras, and the Dresden Codex artifact not been found, cacao may not be as highly sought after as it is today. We may also not know how to use it in such a variety of ways. The prevalence of cacao grew because of this knowledge and the availability of sugar; sugar helped make cacao available to the masses, albeit in highly diluted form. Today, every American can consume the “food of the gods.”


Coe, S.D., & Coe, M.D. (2013). The true history of chocolate.  London: Thames and Hudson LTD.

Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI). (2012). John Pohl’s Mesoamerica. Retrieved from http://www.famsi.org/research/pohl/chronology.html

Untitled image of stirrup-handled pot from Río Azul [electronic image]. Retrieved from http://yaplog.jp/quirigua/archive/901

Martin, C. (2018a). 20180307 The rise of big chocolate and race for the global market [PowerPoint presentation]. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Extension School.

Martin, C. (2018b). 20180131 Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods” [PowerPoint presentation]. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Extension School.

Mintz, S. W. (1986). Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history.  New York, NY: The Penguin Group

Presilla, M. E. (2009). The new taste of chocolate revised: A cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. New York, NY: Crown Publishing.

Sharer, R. (2012a). Time of kings and queens. Expedition Magazine, 54(1). Retrieved from https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/time-of-kings-and-queens/

Sharer, R. (2012b). Untitled image of deer vessel, scoop, and two other vessels [electronic image]. Retrieved from https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/time-of-kings-and-queens/

The Maya Dresden Codex [electronic image]. Retrieved from http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/dresden-codex.htm


Let Us Raise a Vessel to Cacao… Mayan Style!

Do you remember the last time you had a cup of hot chocolate? Was it served in a mug, topped with whipped cream? Or maybe you sipped it from a to-go cup from your favorite drive-thru restaurant. Most of the time we don’t fuss with what we’re drinking our hot chocolate from because we’re too busy enjoying the aroma and experience this time honored beverage provides us. Yet, ancient cultures, alike the Mayans, respected their cacao drinking methods and admired the cup they drank from just as much as they prized the drink itself. In many cases, cacao wouldn’t have been drunk if it wasn’t out of an artistically treasured and symbolized vessel… a far cry from how we view and present our version of hot chocolate today. Nevertheless, this customary beverage and the material in which it was once presented in was systematically ritualized throughout the ancient Classic Maya culture, proving a frothy cup of cacao was more than just something to cheers with.

The Classic Maya period (250 A.D. to 900 A.D.) was considered to be the most influential and profound stage of the ancient Mayan civilization. Fabulous accomplishments, such as towering pyramids and vast palaces throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, beautifully decorated ceramics, and a distinguishable writing system flourished during this time. This was also a time when the Maya elite prospered, and their admiration for the finer things in life influenced their daily lives and dietary intake, ritualizing items such as cacao and the vessels they were ingested from. David Stuart, an archaeologist and epigrapher who specializes in Mesoamerican cultures, describes in a chapter within the book, Chocolate in Mesoamerica, the ways in which the Maya civilization upheld the role of cacao within their society. Stuart suggests, “The importance of cacao in Classic Maya society was not widely appreciated until the decipherment of glyphic texts on ceramics in the 1980s, when it became clear that seemingly countless ceramic vessels were inscribed with a dedicatory formula identifying them as drinking vessels for chocolate” (Stuart 184).

Around the same time those descriptive discoveries were uncovered, much excitement arose when two vessels were found in Guatemala containing chemical remains of cacao (Theobromine), a study that was performed by W. Jeffery Hurst, a chemist at the Hershey Foods Technical Center (Carla D. Martin, Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods,” January 31, 2018). By identifying the Maya word and glyph for cacao (ka-ka-wa), including the remains of Theobromine, archaeologists soon realized the extensive amount of Maya vessels which were artistically depicted with the kakaw glyph, symbolizing the importance of cacao within their culture, alongside the vessels in which they were consumed from (Stuart 184). In most early cases, a vessel that depicted the kakaw glyph was considered to be apart of a Maya elites collection, illustrating the consumption of cacao was reserved for those of importance within the community.

The Kakaw Glyph
Figure 1. The kakaw glyph (ka-ka-wa) in the Dresden Codex. a. The individual syllables of ka-ka-wa. b. The representation of the God of Death holding an offering of a bowl of cacao. Drawings by Carlos Villacorta from the Dresden Codex (1976).

Maricel E. Presilla, a cultural historian, chef, and author of the book, The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes, reviews the ways in which the kakaw glyph was depicted on Maya pots and drinking vessels, and goes on to say, “Dozens of Classic Maya pots and jars, included along with other furnishings in burial chambers, depict chocolate as a crucial, central element of opulent feasts” (Presilla 12). Archaeologists have also come to believe that the vessel in which the cacao drink was drunk from had different levels of significance and cultural value, through the means of the artwork depicted on the cup and the individuals utilizing this piece of material culture (Presilla 12). Realizations as such have contributed to many other professionals from a plethora of academic fields, such as anthropologists and art curators, into the mix, creating a vast amount of research conducted around this specific topic. Dr. Dorie Reents-Budet, an Art Curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, describes the functionality of these impressive vessels in a chapter within the book, Chocolate in Mesoamerica, and considers these vessels, “Function as containers for edibles and also as portable props whose myths-political imagery lent power and prestige to their owners and the event during which they were used” (Reents-Budet 210).

As a result, these elaborate cacao drinking vessels served up a frothy-drink of dualism between the vessel itself and the individual enjoying this influential beverage. Illustrations of exclusive banquets held by the Maya elite were plentiful, and according to Reents-Budet, these elite banquets which included fantastic kakaw serving vessels, “Transcended their primary function as food service wares and were transformed into indispensable status markers and essential gifts; that is, they became social currency” (Reents-Budet 213). The aftereffect of these frequent banquets lead to those creative kakaw drinking vessels to be perceived as social currency and a higher status, and soon after, production of cacao drinking vessels by “highly trained artisans and renewed painters” (Reents-Budet 214) was off and running.

A Late Classic Maya Vase
Figure 2. A Late Classic Maya period polychrome vase for serving chocolate beverages and giving as gifts during elite feasts. Collections of the New Orleans Museum of Art. Photograph copyright Justin Kerr (K2800).

As a result of this newfound kakaw drinking vessel popularity, the Maya civilization never looked back, and the ideals around this foamy, ritualized beverage flourished for the rest of their reign. Through mysterious circumstances, the decline of the Maya culture happened sometime between the late eighth and ninth century, creating a sense of wonder around this distinguished ancient civilization. While we may never know what truly happened to the Mayans and their artistic culture, the remnants of their treasured vessels and love for cacao has overcome their deterioration, and continues to thrive in our modern day society through academic means and pure curiosity for what was once a fascinating and complex society.

Depiction of a Cacao Beverage Being Frothed
Figure 3. Classic Maya period depicting the aerating of a kakaw beverage by pouring the liquid from one jar to another placed on the floor. Collections from the Princeton Art Museum (acc. no. 75-17, the Hans and Dorthy Widenmann Foundation). Photograph copyright Justin Kerr (K511).

References Cited:

Martin, Carla D. Mesoamerica and the “food gods.” Harvard University, Jan. 2018, https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1XF-lM9Z9iks0cVhUFRJ1QWBokKTRrdvZISwAJVSe_Ag/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_2_18

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

Reents-Budet, Dorie. “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking among the Ancient Maya.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. 202-223.

Stuart, David. “The Language of Chocolate References to Cacao on Classic Maya Drinking Vessels.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. 184-201.

Dumbledore Loves Chocolate
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Dir. Chris Columbus. Warner Bros., 2001. DVD.



The Then and Now of Cacao: Contrasting the Cacao of Mesoamerica with Today’s Chocolate

From simple Hershey Kisses, to rich Swiss chocolates, to wacky Japanese Kit-Kats, few foods have become as wildly and internationally popular as chocolate. Chocolate has a long and rich history, with the first confirmed cacao container being dated to approximately 1400 BCE (Coe and Coe 36). While many are aware that Mesoamericans were the first to cultivate and consume cacao, there are many misconceptions about the ‘chocolate’  they ate. The ingredients, preparation, and traditions surrounding cacao in pre-Columbian civilizations is very different from the chocolate many of us enjoy today. While modern western-style chocolate has its roots in Mesoamerica, it is almost alien to the cacao that the Mayans and Aztecs consumed.

One of the differences between modern chocolate and Mesoamerican cacao is the state in which it was consumed. While some might imagine the Mayans eating a chocolate bar or chocolate-covered ice-cream, in actuality cacao was very rarely consumed in a solid form. It was usually served as a drink or a thin maze-gruel.

This Magnum ice cream commercial perpetuates the misconception that the Mayans produced solid chocolate

Mesoamerican cacao tasted very different from the chocolate we know today. Original cacao was not a sweet treat. Mesoamericans tended to use more spicy and savory ingredients to flavor their cacao drinks, such as chillies, (Coe and Coe 49) peppery ‘ear flower’ (62), ground achiote, and herbs (Presilla 9). There was no sugarcane in the pre-Colombian Americas, so if the drink was sweetened it was with honey, maguey sap, or mamey sapote pits (9). This gave cacao a much wider spectrum of flavors than modern chocolate. Some flavors of Mesoamerican cacao might not be reproducible; two plants, the itsim-te and yu-tal (Coe and Coe 49) were common Mayan cacao ingredients, but the translation of what these items were has been lost. Contrary to popular belief, cinnamon was not an ingredient used in Mesoamerican cacao. This is because cinnamon is not a New World spice; it was only introduced to the Aztecs once the Spanish invaded. The misguided belief that ‘Old-World’ flavors like cinnamon were used in Mesoamerican cacao can likely be attributed to modern companies. Haagen-Dazs used cinnamon in their ‘Mayan chocolate’ flavor, and created interactive ads in which one can use a ‘Mayan stone tool’ to peel the bark off of a cinnamon tree.



This Haagen Dazs ice cream looks tasty, but is historically inaccurate

The preparation of chocolate today is highly mechanized and produces a solid product. The preparation of cacao in Mesoamerica was quite different. To create the cacao, beans were first laid out to dry in the sun. They were then roasted on a clay griddle called a comale. The shells were removed, and the roasted cacao was ground into paste on

A traditional Metate grinding stone

stone slabs called metates.  Water and the other ingredients were then mixed into the cacao paste. Once the paste had reached a liquid state, it was poured between two containers to achieve a foamy texture.  The cacao was then served, either warm by the Mayans or cool by the Aztecs, in clay goblets.

Cacao being poured back and forth to create a foam.

One of the most stark differences between modern chocolate and Mesoamerican cacao is the ritual and association surrounding its consumption. If you were to ask a modern a chocolate-eater about the occasions they consume chocolate, they might recall a casual snack, a fancy gift box, or a Valentine’s Day treat. Most modern chocolate ‘rituals’ usually have positive associations and its consumption is fairly unexceptional. In contrast, Mesoamerican societies viewed the consumption of cacao to be a semi-sacred event. In Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, Cameron McNeil noted that “In later Mesoamerican societies for which we have data on social alliances, cacao was a primary object of exchanges between social groups, marking betrothal, marriage, and children’s life cycle rituals. In the Codex Nuttall, scenes showing vessels containing a brown foamy beverage are found in contexts of marriage, betrothal, children’s life-cycle rituals, funerary, and ancestor veneration ceremonies.” (McNeil) The ritual surrounding Mesoamerican cacao can be paralleled to how wine might be held sacred in many modern religious ceremonies.  One can see how highly cacao was venerated by looking at its use in death rituals. When examining the Hunal and Magarita royal tombs, eleven of the sixty-three containers found tested positive for Theobromine, a chemical indicator of cacao. Aside from lack of sacred rituals associated with eating chocolate today, there is also another significant difference between cacao then and now; attainability. While in modern times anyone can walk into a candy store and buy a bar of chocolate for a reasonable price, the majority of Mesoamericans never had the chance to consume cacao. The True History of Chocolate states that “among the Aztecs and other Mesoamericans… the drinking of chocolate was confined to the elite, to the royal house, to the lords and nobility, to the long distance merchants, and to the warriors.” (Coe and Coe 95)

This video illustrates the evolving nature of cacao and chocolate. 

Modern chocolate and Mesoamerican cacao are undeniably different from each other. While they both are products of the cacao bean, the other ingredients, the preparation, and the cultural attitude surrounding Mesoamerican cacao drinks are far removed from today’s average chocolate bar.

Text Sources:

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

“HAAGEN-DAZS: MAYAN CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM.” Creativity Online, 7 June 2006, creativity-online.com/work/haagendazs-mayan-chocolate-ice-cream/6611.

McNeil, Cameron L. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao (Maya Studies). University Press of Florida, 2006. University Scholarship Press Online, florida.universitypressscholarship.com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/view/10.5744/florida/9780813029535.001.0001/upso-9780813029535.

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

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

“The History of Chocolate Part 2: European.” Godiva Chocolates.co.uk, www.godivachocolates.co.uk/the-history-of-chocolate-europe.html

Photo and Video sources, in order of appearance (starting with featured image):

“Two Mixtec Kings Drinking and Giving Teh Cacao Licour.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ans_21_06_2.jpg#/media/File:Ans_21_06_2.jpg.

rockerboydaniel. “Magnum Mayan Mystica.” YouTube, YouTube, 24 June 2008, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ltHkoisXNmg.

“HAAGEN-DAZS: MAYAN CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM.” Creativity Online, 7 June 2006, creativity-online.com/work/haagendazs-mayan-chocolate-ice-cream/6611.

“A Mexican Metate or Grinding Stone.” Wikipedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fotg_cocoa_d195_a_mexican_metate_or_grinding_stone.png.

“Mujer Vertiendo Chocolate – Codex Tudela.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Cocoa#/media/File:Mujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_Tudela.jpg.

TEDEducation. “The History of Chocolate – Deanna Pucciarelli.” YouTube, YouTube, 16 Mar. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibjUpk9Iagk



The Maya link between Cacao and Religion

People and societies are always looking for ways in which to find meaning in their world. Whether it is through creating rituals, forming habits, or connecting with others, humans are constantly looking for ways to find meaning, connection, and a greater purpose. Because of this need to to create values, societies often elevate everyday, mundane aspects of life to something significant and powerful. In Charles Long’s analysis of religion, he explains how religion is about “orientation in the ultimate sense, that is, how one comes to terms with the ultimate significance of one’s place in the world” (Long 7). In order to create a religion and to find meaning in life, societies must orient themselves using the objects and experiences around them. Each society assigns values to different and unique aspects of their daily lives, and for the ancient Maya civilization cacao became an elevated and important aspect substance. Mayas used cacao as a way to understand their place in the world, which elevated cacao to more than just food for sustenance; it became a lens in which they could see the world through.

As David Carrasco describes, the tree is “rooted in the underworld, has its trunk in the middleworld, and its high branches or top ascending into heaven or the upperworld: (Carrasco 124). The cacao tree acted as useful visual and tool for the Maya as they sought out ways to understand their place in the world.

First and foremost, The Maya used cacao trees as a framework to conceptualize how their place in the world related to the afterlife and underworld. The different parts of the tree correspond to the the different aspects of life and afterlife, with the roots representing the underworld, the trunk representing the present, everyday life, and the leaves connecting to heaven (Carrasco 124). By thinking about these abstract ideas in terms of a understandable visual, it not only elevates the significance of the tree but also makes lofty and complicated ideas more accessible. Further, cacao was used as a powerful safeguard when people transitioned into the underworld. At a tomb in Río Azul (a Maya city in present day Guatamala), ancient jars with traces of chocolate were discovered, suggesting that “the dead lord began his voyage through the underworld with sustaining portions of what were probably several different chocolate drinks by his side” (Coe & Coe 46). Cacao trees not only had connections to the underworld through its roots, but it was also a resource for individuals as they transitioned into life after death.  By taking cacao and using it as a means of orienting themselves and their understanding of afterlife, it both elevated cacao’s significance and helped the Maya understand their life cycle. Not only did cacao provide a way to understand life and afterlife, it helped Maya transition into the afterlife comfortably.

The Popul Vuh references cacao in a variety of ways, and the story of Hunahpu is just one unique tale demonstrating cacao’s significance.

Additionally, the Maya used cacao as a way to conceptualize passing along traits and characteristics from one generation to the next. The Popol Vuh, one of the oldest documented Maya myths, has many references to cacao and helps to demonstrate how valuable cacao was for the Maya and the way in which they viewed the world. The story in the Popol Vuh of the Maize God, Hunahpu, is a myth that describes the sacrifice of Hunahpu (Martin 163). After Hunahpu was killed, his head was placed in a tree that had never grown fruit, yet once his head became a part of the tree it was able to produce fruit in abundance. Because of this, Hunahpu’s offspring, the Hero Twins, were able to carry his legacy with them. As Simon Martin describes, this tale “sets out the divine origins of cacao, as well as its role as a means of exchange. […] Here the fruit serves the purpose it has in nature: a means of generational descent” (Martin 164). Once again, the Maya were able to take a somewhat abstract religious concept and use cacao as a way to understand it.

The Hero Twins are the offspring of Hunahpu whose characteristics were carried on through the fruits of the tree in which his head was placed (Martin 163).

Finally, the Maya used cacao as a way to provide meaning and significance in various rituals, like baptisms. By bringing cacao into different types of rituals, it extends cacao’s previously established significance in order to assign greater meaning to to new rituals. For example, as Coe & Coe describe, “the pagan Maya had a baptismal rite for boys and girls… The children were gathered together… [and ] then the noble who was giving the ceremony took a bone and wet it in a vessel filled with water made of ‘certain flowers and of cacao pounded and dissolved in virgin water […]’; with this liquid he anointed the children on their foreheads, faces, and in the spaces between their fingers and toes, in complete silence” (Coe & Coe 60). Many religions have baptism rituals, and they each reflect important values within each group of people. For these Maya, cacao is clearly a highly valued and treasured substance that adds greater meaning and connection to this important ceremony.

By using cacao as a way to understand and find meaning in the world from understanding the afterlife to baptisms, cacao’s relevance and power were strengthened and it became an important framework for the Maya to understand the world through. Cacao did not have any meaning until the Maya decided to use it as lens for them to see the world through, which goes to show how powerful societies can be in taking something mundane and using it as a tool to create religion and meaning. The narratives around cacao are so strong that we still today associate the Maya with cacao and recognize its significance. For example, Godiva, a popular premium and mainstream chocolate company, references the Maya’s relationship with with cacao, noting its prominence on many Maya artifacts and its place in Maya ceremonies on their website (Godiva website). The Maya were able to take something seemingly mundane, a fruit bearing tree, and use it as a tool to help them understand and interact with the world. This not only helped the Maya create religious significance in their lives, but it completely changed the way we view cacao today and has shaped our understanding of cacao as special and important.

Works Cited

“Cacao Tree and Seedling.” Wikimedia Commons. Web. 30 August 2012.


Carrasco, David. Religions of Mesoamerica, Second Edition. Long Grove:

Waveland Press, Inc, 2013. Print.

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

Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

“Hero Twins,” Wikimedia Commons. Web. 25 September 2014.


Long, Charles H. Significations: Signs, Symbols, And Images In The Interpretation

Of Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986. Print.

Martin, Simon. “Cacao in ancient Maya religion: first fruit from the maize free and other

tales from the underworld.” Chocolate In Mesoamerica : a Cultural History of

Cacao. Ed. Cameron L. McNeil: Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.

154-183. Print.

“Popol Vuh.” Wikimedia Commons. Web. 17 April 2012.


“The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and Aztecs.” Godiva Chocolate, Godiva.

Web. 8 March 2018. <https://www.godivachocolates.co.uk/the-history-of-




Chocolate in Mesoamerican and Western traditions: A Social and Ceremonial Treat

In our American culture, there is no sweet flavor that enjoys the popularity of chocolate. From its use in cakes to ice cream, the sweet and creamy nature of chocolate has become a massive cultural and entrepreneurial phenomenon that is central to our eating habits and socialization. However, the origins of chocolate date back to thousands of years in the Amazonian rainforest where the Cacao plant was first domesticated. Most people are accustomed to its sweet flavor and mildly roasted aftertaste, however, for the Maya and Aztecs, chocolate encompassed a variety of drinks with different flavors that were enjoyed by everyone from commoners to elite rulers like Aztec emperor Moctezuma, who was said to consume more than ten cups of chocolate a day (How Chocolate Works, 25:21). The perception around chocolate in pre-Columbian times included religious, social and medicinal elements that survive to this day in our modern times.

Our obsession with chocolate (Cacao) can be said to be quite extreme, however, for ancient Mesoamerican civilization it encompassed a much broader category of food and rituals. For the Aztecs and Maya, chocolate became central for their relationship with others and fulfilled a religious purpose within its mythology: “ […]the ethnohistorical sources from Central Mexico make clear that many types of chocolate drinks were enjoyed by elites of the Highlands. The Florentine Codex describes the rich variety of chocolate offered to Mexica Aztec rulers, including “green cacao-pods, honeyed chocolate, flowered chocolate, flavored with green vanilla, bright red chocolate, huitztecolli-flavored chocolate, flower-colored chocolate, black chocolate, white chocolate” (McNeil, 184). Chocolate, or its original fruit name Cacao, was treated not only as a comfort sweet drink as we perceive it in our society; they also attributed medicinal, aphrodisiac and even ceremonial purposes to the fruit itself which has a citrus-like flavor.

Initially, South American tribes created a variety of fermented drinks with the Cacao pulp or “chicha” which later evolved into including its bitter seeds or “almendras”. Such drinks became central for socialization and are still enjoyed by most adults in celebratory and everyday settings (depending on the drink). For example, non-alcoholic recipes: “ [they] are made by fermenting the cacao seeds, drying them, optionally toasting them, grinding them, and mixing them with water in a thick, bitter suspension” (McNeil, 140). This drink can be considered the equivalent of our current understanding of coffee; it is often described as refreshing, gives you energy and does not inebriate. The slightly roasted and bitter flavor of chocolate we are accustomed to came to be after years of experimentation with the fruit. Archeological evidence shows that the Maya applied roasting and drying techniques to peppers, squashes and achiote, and such practice was later applied to cacao seeds that eventually developed the roasted and bitter flavor of chocolate as we know it today. “[…] the Classic Maya took their chocolate very seriously and that it was a drink of pleasure as well as political and social importance” (McNeil, 201). Scientists were are able to find the alkaloids Theobromine and Feine which are found cacao products. Such presence in ancient vessels along Maya writings describing “Kakaw” made it possible to infer that Mesoamerican civilizations attributed significant importance to cacao-made drinks and even attributed aphrodisiac properties (Sophie & Michael D. Coe, 31). In addition, ceremonial varieties were also used by the Maya who even had a cacao deity. In her book, The New Taste of Chocolate, Maricel Presilla writes: “We know that chocolate colored with Achiote had the symbolic meaning of a sacrificial victim’s blood, the sacred fluid that was the fuel of the Maya ritual universe” (Presilla, 13). As cacao was sacredly mentioned in the creation story of the Popol Vuh, in which the cacao god ascends from the underworld, it was given sacred properties and therefore used in religious ceremonies.

Maya rise and Fall; Princeton Museum; Ancient Cultures; Maya; Mayan; ; Princeton Vase; Cacao

In modern western tradition, chocolate is socialized slightly different than its Mesoamerican counterparts: chocolate is treated as a comfort food (or a treat) of a rewarding nature without ceremonial purposes. As a result, aggressive marketing campaigns are developed in which chocolate becomes a commodity to show affection or endearment such as Valentine’s Day. In this way, chocolate still plays a role in developing a highly social interaction between members of such societies around the food. In the western world, cacao seeds are usually roasted, milk is added, and sweetened with sugar and the byproduct is not alcoholic. Some Europeans chocolate producers like the Belgian company Godiva Chocolatier make high profits by marketing all varieties of chocolate products (from milk and dark chocolate bars to smoothies and seasonal strawberries that are covered in melted chocolate). Sweet chocolate has become an accessible delicacy that is enjoyed by most members of our society and shows no sigs of slowing down. The cacao plant has become so influential in our society that it has been adapted all over the world to suit each market’s needs. For example, in Mexico, some varieties of spicy chocolate still exist, and in South America, some varieties of sweet chocolate make use of the pulp to add some flavor.

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 Coe, Sophie D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

“Princeton Vase, from Nakbe Region.” Princeton Vase, from Nakbe Region.

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

Marshall Brain & Shanna Freeman “How Chocolate Works” 1 April 2000.
HowStuffWorks.com. <https://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/edible-innovations/chocolate.htm&gt; 8 March

McNeil, Cameron L. Chocolate in Mesoamerica : a Cultural History of Cacao. University Press of Florida, 2006. Print.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate : a Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. 1st rev. ed., Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.