Tag Archives: cacao

The Evolution of Cacao-Based Drinks in Mexico

Millions of tons of chocolate are produced each year, yet few today would guess that this sugary treat had its origins in frothy, semi-sweet cacao drinks prepared for Maya and Aztec royalty. Chocolate bars, candies, cakes, and pastries are the most popular forms of the food in most of the US and Europe today. Chocolate milk and hot chocolate retain some basic similarity with the cacao drinks of thousands of years ago, yet they combine the chocolate with milk, sugar, and other ingredients that would have been foreign to the Maya and Aztecs. Yet, in Mexico, a tradition of cacao beverages has been preserved from the fall of the Aztec empire to the present day. In this paper, I investigate modern cacao drinks and argue that though they are often marketed with references to the Maya and Aztecs, modern drinks represent a unique hybridity of ancient traditions and European ingredients and styles of preparation.

Chemical analysis has shown that cacao beverages were produced in Mesoamerica as early as 1100 BCE.[1] Cacao beverages were prepared by both the Maya and Aztec, and were considered very precious because cacao beans were used as a form of currency.[2] Maya drinks, especially those produced in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, were known for being prepared hot, while Aztec cacao drinks were generally cold.[3] In Aztec times, cacao beverages were often prepared in different ways depending on the quality of the cacao. High quality cacao was combined with water and frothed, while lower-quality cacao was often combined with other ingredients, including corn, seeds, chili peppers, vanilla, and other flowers.[4] By the time the Spanish arrived in the 1600’s, cacao beverages were sold in markets across Mexico, though cacao remained expensive and had high social significance.[5] Because of the wide range of different flavorings combined with cacao drinks, different regions of present-day Mexico each had unique interpretations of cacao beverages during Aztec times.[6]

Today, Mexico still has a wide range of cacao-based drinks available in different regions of the country. During lecture on February 1st, we watched a video detailing the preparation of Champurrado, a popular chocolate beverage in Mexico today.[7] In this video, the drink is prepared using pre-processed bars of dark chocolate, rather than the raw cacao that would have been used in ancient beverages. Additionally, the Champurrado is mixed with sugar, milk, cinnamon, and star anise – additions that are distinctively European. However, Champurrado also contains masa harina (a form of corn flour) and water, and makes use of a traditional molinillo (an item introduced to Mesoamerica by the Spanish[8]) to mix the ingredients and create a froth. Though the mixture of cacao and water is distinctively Mesoamerican, the additional ingredients and use of a molinillo reflect the influence of Spanish colonialism.

However, Champurrado is just one of many popular cacao drinks in Mexico today – and just one of many unique combinations of ancient recipes and European influences. Today there are a variety of different cacao drinks made in different regions of Mexico, for example bu’pu in Tehuantepec, chorote in Tabasco, tascalate in Chiapas, and tejate in Oaxaca.[9]

Tejate is perhaps the most authentic, as archaeological research has shown that many of its ingredients, as well as the vessels it is served in, reflect the style of cacao beverages produced in Oaxaca for thousands of years.[10] According to a 2009 article from The Atlantic, in tejate’s recipe “you’ll almost always find a blend of nixtamal corn, cacao beans, mamey seed, and rosita de cacao–the secret ingredient that makes tejate truly special. Rosita de cacao is the flower of the funeral tree (Quararibea funebris).”[11] Once the ingredients are combined, tejate is served combined with water and topped with a pile of frothy foam.[12] Similar cacao-foam-based drinks can be found passed-down from generation to generation in Cholula, Puebla, and other regions of Mexico.[13] Though tejate combines cacao, corn, flowers, and abundant foam, much like ancient drinks, it also includes modern influences. Today, tejate is served with a sugar-based syrup, and some have experimented with serving tejate paste “in cookies, cake, ice, powder,” and other forms that stray away from the traditional liquid.[14] Though tejate recipes have been passed down for generations and represent a unique cultural inheritance, they have not been immune to the ingredients and new tastes imported by Spanish colonizers.

The video below describes a drink that can be found in Mexico City, Espuma de Cacao[15] – a beverage very similar to the tejate prepared across Oaxaca. However, it is notable that this version of the drink specifically calls it “El elixir de los Dioses” – the elixir of the Gods – a direct reference to the elite pedigree of cacao beverages in Maya and Aztec times. The video does not reference the influence of Spanish colonialism, yet the inclusion of sugar in the recipe reflects the changes to traditional recipes that occurred under Spanish rule.

Video is from OZY travel blog article.[16]

Besides the recipes for cacao-foam drinks passed down in communities across Mexico, there are also recipes that have been created specifically to recreate the cacao-drinking experience of the Aztecs and Mayans. Munchies documents some such recipes made by Fernando Rodriguez, a businessman in Teotihuacan.[17] Rodriguez uses recipes for ancient drinks, found in such sources as the Popul Vuh and Florentine Codex, to design modern drinks that rely on the same key spices, flavors, flowers, and production methods.[18] Though Rodriguez bases most of his drinks on the historical clues he finds from ancient writings, he still makes some blends that introduce cinnamon, ginger, and other spices that were first introduced to Mesoamerica by Spanish colonizers.[19]

Though different areas of Mexico each have their own variations on how to prepare and serve cacao-based drinks, there are common threads that connect all these beverages. In all areas, modern Mexicans are proud of their unique cultural heritage stemming from Aztec and Maya civilization, and market modern cacao drinks for the ancient wisdom and tradition that they perpetuate. Many of the ancient drink-making customs remain the same – corn, flowers, and water are often added, and foam is still often considered a desirable element to top the beverage. Yet, Spanish and European taste and colonial influence can also be seen in many variations of these drinks. The most common manifestation of this is the addition of sugar, though cinnamon, ginger, star anise, other spices, and milk also reflect the influx of European ingredients and taste preferences. The cacao beverages produced across Mexico today are unique, with no clear counterpart in most other countries, yet they represent both the heritage of ancient civilizations and, more subtly, the complex and difficult legacy of Spanish colonialism.

 

[1] John S. Henderson, Rosemary A. Joyce, Gretchen R. Hall, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Patrick E. Mcgovern, “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, no. 48 (2007): 18937. http://www.pnas.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/content/104/48/18937.full

[2] Sophie D. Coe, and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 3rd ed. (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013), 81-84.

[3] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 83-84.

[4] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 86-94.

[5] Daniela Soleri, Marcus Winter, Steven R. Bozarth, and W. Jeffrey Hurst, “Archaeological Residues and Recipes: Exploratory Testing for Evidence of Maize and Cacao Beverages in Postclassic Vessels from the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico,” Latin American Antiquity 24, no. 03 (2013): 345-62, 345-347, accessed via Hollis, http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/23645680?seq=3#page_scan_tab_contents

[6] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 94.

[7] Dr. Carla Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods,’” February 1, 2017, slide 82, https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1FzrAQvjXJZnu7lTixblZ1FsyfDjnXtQ-8JyXd2uq5ZM/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_4_279

[8] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 83-85.

[9] Soleri, et al, “Archaeological Residues and Recipes,” 347.

[10] Soleri, et al, “Archaeological Residues and Recipes.”

[11] Alex Whitmore, “Cacao Tejate: Ancient Chocolate Drink,” The Atlantic, April 28, 2009, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/04/cacao-tejate-ancient-chocolate-drink/16609/

[12] Whitmore, “Cacao Tejate.”

[13] Margot Castaneda, “How Mexico Is Rediscovering (and Reinventing) Ancient Cacao Drinks,” Munchies (a branch of Vice News), January 7, 2017, https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/how-mexico-is-rediscovering-ancient-cacao-drinks

[14] Castaneda, “How Mexico Is Rediscovering (and Reinventing) Ancient Cacao Drinks.”

[15] Libby Coleman, “This Chocolatey Mexican Drink Will Get You Foaming at the Mouth,” OZY, January 24, 2017, http://www.ozy.com/good-sht/this-chocolatey-mexican-drink-will-get-you-foaming-at-the-mouth/75134

[16] Coleman, “This Chocolatey Mexican Drink.”

[17] Castaneda, “How Mexico Is Rediscovering (and Reinventing) Ancient Cacao Drinks.”

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

 

Bibliography

Multimedia Sources 

Castaneda, Margot. “How Mexico Is Rediscovering (and Reinventing) Ancient Cacao Drinks.” Munchies (a branch of Vice News). January 7, 2017. https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/how-mexico-is-rediscovering-ancient-cacao-drinks

Coleman, Libby. “This Chocolatey Mexican Drink Will Get You Foaming at the Mouth.” OZY. January 24, 2017. http://www.ozy.com/good-sht/this-chocolatey-mexican-drink-will-get-you-foaming-at-the-mouth/75134

Whitmore, Alex. “Cacao Tejate: Ancient Chocolate Drink.” The Atlantic. April 28, 2009. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/04/cacao-tejate-ancient-chocolate-drink/16609/

 

Academic Sources 

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

Henderson, John S., Rosemary A. Joyce, Gretchen R. Hall, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Patrick E. Mcgovern. “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, no. 48 (2007): 18937. Accessed via Hollis. http://www.pnas.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/content/104/48/18937.full

Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” February 1, 2017. https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1FzrAQvjXJZnu7lTixblZ1FsyfDjnXtQ-8JyXd2uq5ZM/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_4_279

Soleri, Daniela, Marcus Winter, Steven R. Bozarth, and W. Jeffrey Hurst. “Archaeological Residues and Recipes: Exploratory Testing for Evidence of Maize and Cacao Beverages in Postclassic Vessels from the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico.” Latin American Antiquity 24, no. 03 (2013): 345-62. accessed via Hollis. http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/23645680?seq=3#page_scan_tab_contents

Chocolatey Perceptions: The Simulacra of Cacao

“… the human body is basically an ambulatory colony of trillions of benevolent bacteria of many species, and their complex activity in metabolism and absorption of specific compounds is just becoming known to medical science.” (Coe, p. 31)[1]

A principal perceptive conceit innate to the human condition is the tendency to obscure staggeringly complex phenomena with simulacra[2], which applies so pertinently to our own self-perception as it does to any exogenous phenomenon. This, stemming from the exigences of adaptive prudence, or evolutionary imperative, nonetheless sullies our capacity for holistic and objective appraisal of phenomena and our interactions therewith. By conceptualisation, sociocultural, biopsychological, and linguistic construction, what might simply be labelled and categorised as ‘cacao’ or ‘chocolate’ is to humans a functional simulacrum, with all manner of narratives relative to time and place projected thereon; which, in turn, entail little comprehension of the complex chemistry, economics, industry, and so forth, existential to the product consumed. This article is not intended as a dissection of contemporary conceptions and misconceptions of cacao, but rather as an exploration of the semiotics that surrounded it in Maya, Mexica, and related indigenous Mesoamerican cultures, to offer elucidation of our own perceptions of the ‘food of the gods’ and indeed our predilection for simulacra more widely.

 

Factors monetary

            There are few starker examples of the simulacrum than money. Money is something into which we divest value – divest in the sense that value is displaced from the material objects or practicable services that the metric represents, and for which it is a means of exchange, to the point that, so often in monetary economies of all kinds and not simply in advanced consumerist marketocracies, it becomes an object in and of itself; our conception of value becomes invested in that symbol thereof: money. One of the key particularities of cacao is that it was, for centuries, used by the peoples of Mesoamerica, and later European colonists, as currency (Coe, p. 59). Cacao is a cultigen indigenous to the New World (Mintz, p. 36), specifically to the Amazonian basin towards the Ecuadorian coast, but, while radiocarbon dating has placed the consumption of cacao, in a semi-refined form, in the ancient Barra civilisation through the Olmecs and Izapa (Coe, pp. 36-38), it is the Maya and Mexica for whom we have a wealth of evidence that cacao beans were used as a means of exchange.

Ironically, it may be that one of the first examples of cacao as currency comes from the troves of counterfeit, clay cacao beans found at Balberta, a Classic Maya settlement near to Izapa in the south of modern-day Guatemala (p. 50). The crafting of delicate, ‘almond-like’ cacao beans would have been painstaking and the absurdity of such an endeavour highlights the marked subjective value, psychologically constructed upon its economic usage as tender, and thus indulgence of the simulacrum. When Christopher Columbus made contact with the Maya, believed to be the Putún Maya, near the island Guajana, he and his son, Ferdinand, made mention of the outwardly peculiar inclination of the natives to these beans – ‘those almonds which in New Spain are used for money’ (Weinberg et al., pp. 53-55). In perspicacity, we might similarly substitute the symbolic value placed on paper or digital money in our own cultures to cacao beans, as our own simulacrum is, superficially, of similar arbitrariness – as indeed the Spanish would learn to in their new colonies (Weinberg et al., p. 254). Yet, this would be to make little interrogation into the nature of that particular cultigen and its specificity.

 

Factors otherwise economic

aztec-maya-map

Map of Aztec and Maya Regions, latinamericanstudies.org

Central to cacao’s trade were the waterway networks of the aforementioned Chontal or Putún Maya, who rose to great prominence in the twilight of the Classic Maya period, 250-900 AD, judging by the dress of those depicted on stelae as far and wide as Seibal, in Petén, and Cacaxtla in Tlaxcala (Coe, pp. 52-53) – which may well be demonstrative of the reach and penetration of the cacao-based economy in Mesoamerica even prior to the collapse of Classic Maya ca. 900 AD. Their descendants in the Maya heartlands – see map above – would never be subjugated by the Mexica given their shrewd and peaceful management of trade eastward and onwards into South America (p. 73). Indeed, the Mexica would attribute some degree of prestige to the role of their own guild-like merchants, the pachteca, who would venture across a territory spanning the map of Mesoamerica. The Mexica, as the Spanish, would assimilate into the extant economic order and adopt the incumbent social construction of value, maintaining the norms at play even to the point of collaboration with the gatekeepers of that economic order. This memetic transmission of the symbolic value of cacao between cultures may offer some insight into the processes by which our own perceptions of phenomena, not only that of chocolate, are reproduced.

 

Factors theological

gods-cutting-their-ears-and-bleeding-on-cacao-pods

Gods blood-letting over cacao, Madrid Codex (Public Domain)

            The symbolic value of cacao is omnipresent in the theology of Mesoamerican cultures. Mayan documents were typically written on bark paper and were thus perishable, placing extra importance on the few that survive (Coe, p. 43). In the Late Mayan Madrid Codex gods are depicted letting their own blood onto cacao, part of a persistent metaphorical link between divinity, blood, and cacao (p. 43; see image above). One key factor in the sanguine element of this symbolism was that chocolate was, at the time, often prepared by mixture of ground cocoa powder with achiote[3]. One might view this as predication for symbolism that came about post hoc, as conscious and perfunctory development of the recipe to fit theological and ceremonial purpose, or as some sort of coalescence of the two, but it is the development of that visceral, aesthetic, and ultimately semiotic function to the chocolate that is chiefly of pertinence here – not causality. Another text, the Popul Vuh, was codified by Spanish colonists in an attempt to detail the theology of the Quiché Maya, but it would appear to corroborate beliefs held somewhat consistently, or at least developed dialectically, in Mesoamerica – as attested by Izapa era stone stelae (Coe, pp. 37-40). The sacrosanctity of trees, often anthropomorphised and in the form of a cacao tree, was a consistent feature and the fact that the divine twins and mortal realm were born of the axis mundi[4] can be thought of as another major element in cacao’s rich symbolism[5]. If one were in need of any further proof of chocolate as a simulacrum, its very presence in grave goods[6] shows conceptions extending far beyond the intrinsic value its consumption holds in the mortal realm.

 

Factors psychological

(Please follow hyperlink for video)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnWNNW6C5ss

Chocolate: Benefits vs. Dangers | Is Theobromine Safe?

The complex chemistry of chocolate, and specifically that of cacao, has certainly played a role in the psychology of its perception, be that specious or otherwise. Hervé Robert’s Les vertus thérapeutiques du chocolat is, to date, the most comprehensive medical study of the effects of chocolate, in which he indicated the psychoactive and stimulant effects of methylxanthines[7] theobromine (named for the genus Theobroma) and caffeine and β-phenylethylamine[8], as well as the production of serotonin[9] (Smith, p. 1). Both the Maya and Mexica appear to have used chocolate drinks for stimulant purposes, supplying them to soldiers before combat and athletes before competitions (Weinberg et al., p. 55) – much as we might today drink cups of strong coffee before writing an article. Since there is widespread evidence of cacao consumption in spite of its status as tender[10] there must have been some degree of pleasure associated therewith. One can see how differential food preference across vast cultures and thousands of years may have led to the selective elevation of this particular crop, an affinity therefor. The video above offers an introduction to the debate over the psychological effects of theobromine and caffeine on the brain and body; in modern debates surrounding nutritional and psychological effects of certain substances there tends to be a degree of moral hazard due to the vested economic interests of companies or government agencies that fund research, inertia in food preferences, and the conscious search for foodstuffs with unbalanced value[11]. Stalemate maintains the simulacrum as the technical or highly specialised nature of debates, be they on economics, psychology, chemistry, or any other avenue for debate, often so wholly obfuscate nuances in approach to the phenomenon, ie. chocolate, as to nullify it and so strengthen superficial, expedient categorisation much in the way that ethnobotany, theology, or even the Hippocratic-Galenic humoural system did before.

 

As alluded by the quotation that begun this essay, we have a tendency to reduce the individual human unit to one of uniformity, and consistency of narrative purpose and action, and we take comfort in the somewhat fallacious notion that the trillions of bacteria and cells, even their organelles, that compose us are altogether singular in their congruence. We construct flattened, reductive, two-dimensional avatars that allow us to obscure that complexity with the simulacra ‘Matthew’ or ‘Elliott’, et cetera. This expedient form of categorisation extends from self-perception to all exogenous phenomena, amongst which cacao is no different.

 

 

Endnotes

[1] This article is greatly indebted to the scholarship of Jonathan D. Coe and his late wife Sophie D. Coe, whose book The True History of Chocolate provides the backbone of the historical knowledge here discussed and, in this initial quotation, the genesis for exploration of simulacra in cacao.

[2] “A simulacrum refers to something that replaces reality with its representation”; Dino Franco Felluga, discussing Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (Felluga, p. 281).

[3] Bixa orellana, a red colouring agent

[4] The ‘world’s axis’, a tree that spans the underworld, Xibalba in Mayan mythology, from whence the divine twins originate, the mortal, and the celestial realms – an element common to numerous world theologies.

[5] The 7th century Palenque Maya king Pakal the Great claimed divine legitimacy for his rule by claiming to have descended from a cacao tree.

[6] Incidentally of major import to the ‘cracking’ of Mayan script given the propensity to analyse contents of containers by microspectroscopy and cross-reference this to labels and historical linguistics.

[7] Methylxanthines (ie. caffeine and theobromine) are a class of chemical often sought out with vigour by humanity; they tend to arise in plants as response to injury and can offer neural shock to small pests but in humans an effect found to be in some way pleasing, and that pleasure may be considered psychologically addictive.

[8] The neuro-regulatory effect of phenylethylamine approximates a shallow increase in serotonin. Indeed, there is ongoing discussion in the scientific community as to whether the trans-resveratrol, the bio-active quotient of the anti-oxidant resveratrol that is present in cacao, stimulates actual release of serotonin (cf. NCBI links).

[9] A biochemical process typically associated with softer mood transitions and thus pleasantness or contentedness.

[10] There are of course elements of social stratification not touched on here, and indeed the direct relationship of consumption to the monetary value of the product gives it an air of decadence still played on in chocolate marketing to this day (cf. Godiva link below); though intrinsically it is no different to the consumption of any other product of economic value it is compared to lighting cigars with $50 bills.

[11] As in the current taste for antioxidants, specifically quercetin in chocolate (cf. Life Enhancement link).

 

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2006 (3rd Ed).

Felluga, Dino F.. Critical Theory: The Key Concepts. London: Routledge, 2005.

Mintz, Sidney W.. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1985.

Smith, Lucie. “Les vertus du chocolat.” Review of Les vertus thérapeutiques du chocolat by Hervé Robert. Paris: Éditions Artulen, 1990.

Weinberg, Bennett A. and Bonnie K. Bealer. The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug. London: Routledge, 2002.

 

Web Sources

‘6 pc. Dark Decadence Truffle Flight, $17’ (containing ‘Aztec Spice Truffles’), Godiva

http://www.godiva.com/6pc-dark-decandence-truffle-flight/78350.html

‘Metabolism and bioavailability of trans-resveratrol’, PubMed.gov

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15779070

‘Antidepressant-like effect of trans-resveratrol: Involvement of serotonin and noradrenaline system’, PubMed.gov

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20353885

‘Effects of resveratrol on memory performance, hippocampal functional connectivity, and glucose metabolism in healthy older adults’, PubMed.gov

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24899709

‘Trace Amines and the Trace Amine-Associated Receptor 1: Pharmacology, Neurochemistry, and Clinical Implications’, PubMed.gov

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4820462/

‘Reservatrol and Quercetin – Puzzling Gifts of Nature’, Life Enhancement

http://www.life-enhancement.com/magazine/article/1098-resveratrol-and-quercetin-puzzling-gifts-of-nature

‘Rival Candy Projects Both Parse Cocoa’s DNA’, New York Times; September 15th 2010

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/15/business/15chocolate.html

 

Further Reading

‘7 Facts You Should Know About Trans-Resveratrol’, Global Healing Center

http://www.globalhealingcenter.com/natural-health/7-amazing-facts-trans-resveratrol/

‘The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and Aztecs’, Godiva

https://www.godivachocolates.co.uk/the-history-of-chocolate-mayans-aztecs.html

Pre-Columbian cacao usage: more than a delicious snack

 

In contemporary society, the primary role of chocolate is as something to consume. Although some types of chocolate are more expensive or valued than others, it is generally easy to obtain, not necessarily precious, and available to just about anyone who desires it. In pre-Columbian cultures, however, although chocolate was used as a food, it also had other kinds of significance. It was a precious item, not necessarily available to those who were not elite, and had much symbolic and religious significance, playing an important role at various occasions.

Although evidence of cacao has been found on Olmec pottery shards from as early as 1650 B.C., not much is known about the cacao related customs or beliefs of the Olmec people. More is known about the role of cacao in the Mayan and Aztec civilizations that followed them, thanks to the depictions of cacao in Mayan books (codices) and ceramics and the recollections of the Spanish priests and conquerors, who observed Aztec society before it fell. Indeed, the decoding of the Mayan symbol for cacao (see below) was one of the keys to translating the Mayan hieroglyphic language. (Carla Martin, chocolate class).

kakaw_28mayan_word29

Mayan script for the word ‘kakaw’. The drawing is based on Kettunen, Harri; Helmke, Christophe (2008).  “Introduction to Maya Hieroglyphs: Workshop Handbook'”. p. 73.  To learn more about Mayan hieroglyphs, visit: http://www.mesoweb.com/resources/handbook/WH2008.pdf.

The Mayan and Aztec civilizations shared similarities in their use of cacao. It’s preparation was far more varied than it is today. Presilla tells us that the idea of how to prepare cacao may have come from other foodstuffs such as maize that were dried, roasted and ground. The beverage made of ground cacao beans and water was typically bitter and savory –  often flavored with chilis and other botanicals – and only sometimes sweetened. Coe tells us that it was often mixed with maize (mature or young) was a way to make a nutritious gruel with more caloric value. Presilla mentions the use of cacao as a seasoning in other dishes as well. The froth was particularly desirable and was created by pouring the liquid from one container into another, sometimes at great height.

Aztec woman pouring

Picture of Aztec woman, from the Codex Tudela, pouring chocolate from one container to another to raise the foam.

Although cacao may have been available to various strata of Mayan society, in Aztec society it could only be used by the elite: nobles, the merchant class (long distance traders), and warriors. The Aztecs felt that bad luck would come if a commoner drank cacao – and the penalty for a commoner who did so was death. According to Coe, the Aztecs also did not care for drunkenness (the penalty was death) and chocolate was viewed as an alternative beverage to alcoholic beverages.  Warm cacao generally seems to have been preferred by Mayans, and it was typically served in tall vessels. When it was served cool, they served it in shallow bowls. The Aztecs liked their cacao cool and served it in small round gourd bowls. The Aztec warrior class also had cacao as part of their rations – the ground cacao was pressed into wafers for portability on their treks. (Coe)

Cacao vessels could be quite elaborate. The ornate ceramic jar depicted below is an example of a Mayan cacao drinking cup. According to the Walters art gallery, the hieroglyphs describe it as a cacao drinking cup, and include the name of the owner. It is covered with a variety of cacao imagery and decorated with molded cacao pods, which also indicate that it is intended for cacao. It’s fine construction indicates that it is for the use of the upper classes. It may have been intended for use in a special feast or as a special gift.

mayan_-_lidded_vessel_-_walters_20092039_-_side_a

Mayan lidded cacao vessel, decorated with molded cacao pods and cacao imagery and glyphs

Festive and ceremonial use of cacao was a feature for both the Aztecs and the Mayans. At Mayan marriages, the couple exchanged 5 cacao beans with each other. Mayans also had a baptism-like ritual in which children who reached puberty were anointed with a cacao mixture. (Coe, Mexilore). Aztec traders (the pocheta) hosted large banquets as a means of climbing the ladder to higher ranks within the guild, and cacao was an important aspect of the banquet. (Coe) The word “chokolaj” means “to drink chocolate together”, thus referring to the communal aspect of consuming chocolate. (Coe)

Although important as a foodstuff, cacao was also used as money. It was a precious item, as it was fussy to grow and could only be cultivated in a narrow range of temperatures. It would not grow in Aztec lands and had to be acquired through long distance trade or as tribute paid by conquered peoples. Cacao beans were used to pay laborers and Coe tells us of price lists which show the value of various commodities (tomato, rabbit, avocado, etc.) in cacao beans. As Coe points out, drinking cacao was equivalent to actually drinking actual money.

Cacao was also a feature of the symbolic and spiritual universe of the pre-Columbians. Many pictures depict gods with cacao trees, pods, and seeds, including a portrait of the opossum god bearing the legend, “cacao is his food.” (Coe) Cacao was among the offerings placed in graves for the dead to take to the after life. (Presilla) In Aztec cosmic imagery a cacao tree stands at the south, in the land of the dead. (Coe)

The Mayans and the Aztecs also associated blood and cacao.  According to Coe, cacao could metaphorically be referred to by the words for heart and blood, and cacao was sometimes colored with achiote to become red like blood. Some scholars believe that this could be because of the resemblance of the cacao pod to the heart. Or, perhaps as Coe suggests, it was because both the heart and the cacao pod “were the repositories of precious liquids.” Coe also refers to an image in the Mayan Madrid Codex in which gods pierce their ears with obsidian blades. The blood drops down and sprinkles on cacao pods. Finally, as Coe and Mexilore tell us, in the annual Aztec ritual to ensure the continuation of the world, the sacrificial victim was supposed to dance happily before his death and the removal of his heart. To enchant him and keep him happy as he danced, he was made to drink cacao made with the water used to wash the blood from the obsidian blades that were used on the previous sacrificial victim. (Coe)

Cacao played a large and significant role in pre-Columbian society. As a foodstuff, it was prepared in a myriad of ways. It marked important occasions and was typically consumed by the elite. It’s preciousness is shown in that it could be used as money. Indeed, cacao was a significant aspect of the pre-columbian view of the cosmos. One has to wonder what they would think of today’s easy availability, low cost, and casual use.

References Cited

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

Maricel E. Presilla, The New Taste of Chocolate, revised. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009.

Mexicolore, The food of the Gods: Cacao use among the prehispanic Maya, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/cacao-use-among-the-prehispanic-maya.

Mexicolore, Chocolate: the blood of the Gods?, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/blood-of-the-gods. 

Walters Art Gallery, lidded vessel description                    http://art.thewalters.org/detail/80194/lidded-vessel/

Wikipedia Commons, Mayan glyph for cacao, public domain.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cb/Kakaw_%28Mayan_word%29.png

Wikipedia Commons, Aztec woman in Codex Tudela.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/ff/Mujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_Tudela.jpg/366px-Mujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_Tudela.jpg

Wikipedia Commons, Mayan lidded vessel, owned by Walters Art Gallery, public domain. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/37/Mayan_-_Lidded_Vessel_-_Walters_20092039_-_Side_D.jpg/423px-Mayan_-_Lidded_Vessel_-_Walters_20092039_-_Side_D.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Spread of Cacao and Cultural Appropriation

Cacao is a staple of the western culinary tradition and is enjoyed in nearly every region of the world. Why has cacao become so popular? The answer to this question is not simply “because it tastes good.” Some will turn to biology to answer this question. The presence of theobromine, caffeine, and sugar in chocolate releases feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine to the frontal lobe, hippocampus and hypothalamus (1). While this helps explain why so many different cultures throughout history enjoy chocolate, this biological explanation is not sufficient. Cacao in its natural form has very different chemical properties than a bar of chocolate. Cacao is difficult to cultivate and requires complex processes to go from bean to chocolate bar. It is true that people crave chocolate– but the stimulant properties in chocolate are not strong enough to justify the amount of effort and expertise required to bring chocolate on the market.

Tracing the spread of cacao from Central America requires us to examine how culture, economics, and biology interact.For most of history, the world has borrowed the process of cacao production without paying homage to the cultures that discovered the process. This Food must be understood from a holistic point of view where we are not only examining the final product, but the entire system of production bringing that product into existence (2). The processes used to cultivate cacao are intrinsically intertwined with the cultures that discovered the process of cultivation.

Understanding the spread of cacao requires us to examine its origins and the cultural practices surrounding it. Examining this migration offers important lessons about cultural appropriation and economic development and can help us be more mindful, compassionate consumers.

The first people to cultivate cacao were the Olmec civilization (1500 BCE – 400 BCE). The genetic origin of cacao can be traced to the amazon river bed area in what is modern day ecuador (3).

Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 8.59.27 PM.png

(Source: Martin, Carla. 01 FEB 2017, Chocolate Culture and the Politics of Food. Lecture Slide, Harvard Extension School)

Cacao developed humid lowlands of Yucatan Peninsula, generally the domain of the Maya. However, much of the culture surrounding cacao did not develop in that area. We find evidence of cacao culture in the Aztec region which was much hotter and drier. The Aztec relied on Maya labor to produce the cacao products which were central to their religious and cultural practices.

Much of what we know about the early culture surrounding cacao development comes from Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590), who spent many years learning about the way of life of the Aztec. Sahagún is credited as being the world’s first anthropologist and strived to understand the Aztec civilization outside of western biases. The culmination of Sahagún’s work was Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España, in which he chronicled the significance of cacao in Aztec rituals, as an indicator of social class for the wealthy, and as a conduit of trade. Sahagún also detailed the crucial network of roads that enabled interregional trade. The reason why we know cacao moved from the Maya zone of influence to the Aztec zone of influence is from Sahagún’s writings.

Beyond this, there is further evidence that cacao trade extended beyond the Aztec-Maya empire as far north as present day Southwestern United States. A cylindrical vessel from 900 CE found in this area tested positive for evidence of cacao and it is believed that the residents of southwest pueblo bartered turquoise in exchange for cacao. This suggests that cacao was central to interregional trade in early Mesoamerica.

Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 10.00.12 PM.png

(Source: Martin, Carla. 01 FEB 2017, Chocolate Culture and the Politics of Food. Lecture Slide, Harvard Extension School)

Development of cacao remained confined to this region of the world until Christopher Columbus arrived in Guanaja Bay Island off the coast of present-day Honduras in the Caribbean. Cacao was of particular interest to the Spanish colonists who were suffering malnutrition from their long voyage across the ocean. Cacao was seen as an advantageous export and as a medicinal supplement. The first exports of cacao from the Izalcos port of Acajutla saw rapid growth between the 1500s to 1600s. The price of cacao skyrocketed as chocolate became a popular luxury among European nobility.

Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 10.11.25 PM.png

(Source: Martin, Carla. 01 FEB 2017, Chocolate Culture and the Politics of Food. Lecture Slide, Harvard Extension School)

The rise in popularity of cacao occurred alongside the rise of sugar exports. As colonies grew to develop the production of sugar and cacao, so grew the rise of racism and the international slave trade. The industrial revolution ushered in a new age of economic prosperity built on innovation and also exploited labor and resources. Much like the Aztecs to the Maya, Europeans and North Americans relied on slave labor to produce their goods, especially chocolate.

Presently, the systems of exploitation and inequality on cacao production still persist. Chocolate is a $100 billion dollar per year industry and 75% of the world’s chocolate is consumed in North America and Europe. However, 75% of cacao comes from West and Central Africa. The average cacao farmer makes 0.50-0.80 cents per day– well below the Work Bank’s global poverty line of $1.10. Looking at these figures and statistics, it is incumbent upon us to be conscious consumers so we don’t continue the system of oppression and exploitation that has persisted throughout the past.

Footnotes

(1) Albers, Susan. 11 FEB 2014, Psychology Today. Retrieved 05 MAR 2017. Link: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/comfort-cravings/201402/why-do-we-crave-chocolate-so-much

(2) Mintz, Sidney W. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power. pp. 74-150.

(3) Proposed by Cheeseman in 1994. Motomayor et all (2002).

Containing Chocolate and Culture

The instruments used to hold chocolate reveal more about the history and culture of the time period than one might first assume. Chocolate consumption began with the Olmecs, a civilization who lived along the Gulf Coast of Mexico between 1500 BC and 400 BC (Presilla, 46). Around 500 AD, the Mayan people also embraced chocolate as a drink and as part of traditional rituals like marriage, funerals, and religious ceremonies. Over 1000 years later, chocolate had made its way to Europe as a luxury enjoyed by the elite members of society (Coe and Coe, 158). The transformation of chocolate from a religious food to an indulgence for the wealthy is reflected through the vessels used to contain cacao. The culture and beliefs surrounding chocolate are reflected by a vessel found in a Mayan tomb discovery and the French silver chocolatière.

 

THE MAYANS AND TOMB DISCOVERY

In 1984, archeologists uncovered a Mayan tomb from the late 5th century containing 14 decorated vessels. This tomb was found at Rio Azul, a Maya city located in Guatemala (Presilla, 46). Specifically, one artifact found in this tomb helped researchers to discover Cacao’s importance in Mayan funeral traditions. In their book, Michael D. Coe and Sophie D. Coe describe the artifact:

mayachocolatepot

“There was a single example of an extremely rare form, a stirrup-handled pot with a screw-on lid. This strange object had been surfaced with stucco and brilliantly painted with six large hieroglyphs, including two which read ‘cacao.’” (Coe and Coe, 46)

Kakaw_(Mayan_word).pngFigure 1:  A close up of the glyph that helped identify this vessel. This symbol meant “cacao” in the Classic Maya period. 

Figure 2 (on left): The pot found at Rio Azul that Coe describes.

 

For the Mayans, chocolate was more than just a substance to consume. Chocolate held spiritual power. This connection between religion and chocolate is clear when we take into consideration the location of this pot. This artifact was found in a tomb, surrounding the body of the deceased ruler. When tested in a lab, this screw-top jar had traces of caffeine and theobromine—the two trace compounds found together only in chocolate (Martin.) This discovery confirmed that the ruler was buried with chocolate. For further proof that the vessel contained chocolate, researcher David Stuart decoded the glyphs along the outside to read “a drinking vessel for witik cacao, for kox caco” (Coe and Coe, 46).

Funerals and chocolate were also linked in Mayan scripture.  The Mayans believed that chocolate eased the journey to the underworld. Chocolate is mentioned in conjunction with different religious rituals in the Dresden Codex, a Maya text that still exists today (Martin).
choco_pour1.jpg

Not only does the Rio Azul discovery reveal the connection between religion and chocolate, it also clues us into the consumption process. Some of the other vases are tall and narrow. They were picked up and poured into other pots to increase the foam.
Figure 3: This image is found on the Princeton Vase, and it depicts the process in which people made the chocolate drink. The chocolate was poured from one jug to the other to add froth, as the foam was considered the most important part. 

 

 

Luxury in the 18th century France

In France in the 17th and 18th centuries, the vessels used to contain chocolate also reflect the attitudes towards chocolate and the way it was imbibed. Chocolate was heralded as a beneficial delicacy with many health benefits. The French “are usually credited with the invention of the chocolatière, the chocolate pot ”(Coe and Coe, 156). Many of the elite took chocolate daily to cure a number of ailments (Coe and Coe, 156). The vessels from which hot chocolate was poured reflect the extravagance of the segment of society who embraced chocolate.

METmet2

Figure 4 and 5: This chocolatière, currently on display in the Metropolitan museum of art, was made in the 1760s and  is typical for the time period.

 

 

 

 

“The French innovation seems to have been fix a straight wooden handle to the metal pot at right angles to the spout; this handle was usually unscrewed clockwise so that it would remain tight while pouring from the pot in a counter-clockwise motion. At the top was a hinged lid, with a central hole under the swiveling (or hinged) finial to take the handle of the moussoir (“froth maker”), as they called the molinillo.… Of course, this would have been in silver, as would the chocolatiers of all the nobility.” – Coe 

 

The extravagance of this pot highlights how only the wealthy had access to chocolate at the time. The average citizen would have never been able to afford such an intricate piece of silverware (Righthand). Chocolatières were also used as gifts between royalty. Coe cites the first appearance of a silver chocolatières in France as a gift from a Siamese mission. “It was not that the Thai had suddenly turned into chocolate drinkers (they never did so), but [the minister to the King of Siam] had obviously instructed the royal metalsmiths to turn out something that would appeal to the French court.” And the metalsmith’s idea of what would appeal to the French court was an extravagant set of chocolatières. The chocolatières given to the French court incuded “two chocolatières in silver, one with golden flowers and the other Japenned” as well as another “entirely in gold” (Coe and Coe, 158). Chocolatières were brought as a gift and to signify diplomacy. This incident establishes the way chocolate was viewed in society—something for only the elite to enjoy for pleasure.

 

painting

Figure 6:  “La Famille du duc de Penthièvre en 1768” a painting by Jean-Baptiste Charpentier illustrates how chocolate was for the wealthy.

 

Same food, different cultures

For the Europeans of the 17th century, chocolate was a status symbol. As the price was still expensive, only the wealthy could afford to take chocolate. The intricacies of the chocolatières highlight their function in society. For the most part, chocolate no longer held any spiritual affiliation. While the Mayan pots were decorated with glyphs and drawings depicting what was inside and religious rituals, the chocolatières were ornately decorated illustrating the wealth and class of those who used them. Although both pots hold chocolate, their uses and sociological function were very different, illustrating the adaptation of chocolate as it spread to Europe as a secular delicacy, rather than a religious artifact.

 

Works cited:

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

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 1 Feb. 2017. Class Lecture.

Righthand, Jess. “A Brief History of the Chocolate Pot.” Smithsonian.com. February 13, 2015. Accessed March 10, 2017. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/brief-history-chocolate-pot-180954241/.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 2009 Print.

Multimedia:

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/200368

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_famille_du_Duc_de_Penthi%C3%A8vre_dit_la_tasse_de_chocolat.jpg

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kakaw_(Mayan_word).png

http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/images-6/688_09_2.jpg

http://www.chocoguatemaya.com/content/mayan-ingredients

When Chocolate Was Young



1. Into the Garden
Born on the slopes of the Amazon Basin, the first chocolate trees (Theobroma cacao) shed their fruit pods to the ground and could barely capture the attention of a passing squirrel or macaw. The Amazon by this time was a paradise of intertwined plant and animal life in greens, browns, all colors, in a quantity and variety not seen anywhere else on earth. Immense ceiba and laurel trees rose to protect the cacao from the burning rays of the sun, and grasses and leaves provided a moist and fertile blanket below. It would be an unknown many thousands of years but eventually the first man and woman walked barefoot down the slopes of the Andes and found the cacao tree, broke open a pod on a rock, and ate and drank of the sweet pulp inside. This was the beginning of the end of cacao in its truly pure and natural state; so began thousands of years of history as men became inextricably linked to the bitter seeds of the plant and made the first chocolate, and the seeds helped fuel war campaigns of the Olmec, Maya, Aztec and others, and meanwhile the seeds became the engine of trade, and literally the money that made the ancient Mesoamerican economies go round. Later they were the seeds of enslavement and the forced relocation of many millions of African men and women to cacao plantations in the Americas. In this article we will focus on the first cultivation of the cacao tree and the first making of chocolate; we are interested in who made chocolate, when, where, and for what purpose. We concentrate on the very beginning of the story. It is a story we know from the chemists and archaeologists whose artifact testing is writing the history of the earliest chocolate in the world.

As demonstrated above the cacao tree is exotic in appearance, with colored seed pods ranging from green to red to yellow to brown, and grow from the trunk instead of the branches (“cauliflory”). As the tree will only grow in warm and humid conditions of plus or minus 20 degrees of latitude, the surrounding plants are also exotic. Inside the thick rind of the fruit is a white or purplish pulp that can be made into a beverage–alcoholic or non-alcoholic–and also almond sized seeds which can be dried in the sun, roasted on a heated stone, de-shelled, and finally ground into a semi-liquid paste (raw chocolate). At some point, by man or by nature, the trees spread to upper central America and southern Mexico (the region known as Mesoamerica). From this vast garden setting the early peoples would add maize and water to chocolate to make gruel, and add also relishes like chili peppers, petals of “ear flower,” honey, maguey sap, vanilla, and achiote (Coe, 2013, pp. 62, 87, 94; Presilla, 2009, p. 9). It is important to know that both the pulp of cacao and the seed contain 1-2 % by weight caffeine and related stimulants (Coe, 2013, p. 29; Henderson, 2007). The Aztecs were known to make disks of solid chocolate, and amplified by the equivalent of 10 cups of coffee in 50 grams of chocolate their warriors would take to the trails, hunting for enemies and looking for new sources of slaves.


2. Into the Pot
Most of what we know or can guess about the earliest chocolate use in Mesoamerica is projected backwards from chocolate use today in rural regions, first-hand accounts of the Spanish colonizers, and Mesoamerican texts (codices), languages, and artifacts. As far as prehistoric use of chocolate goes, almost all of what we know has been gleaned from close examination of cooking and serving vessels, which may have illustrations, hieroglyphics, or even ancient residues that can be analyzed in the laboratory. 

Mesoamericans have made and used ceramic cookware for at least 3,500 years (Soleri, 2013). The forms can be remarkably evolved, as for example vessels with handles, double spouts, bridged spouts, lids with locking bayonets, colored illustrations, relief sculptures, or tripod legs (Hall, 1990; Powis, 2002). The vessels were made well enough to last several thousand years in some cases. Illustrations of cacao on prehistoric cookware are not so common and the textbook example is the Princeton Vase, a Mayan vessel from 670-750 AD (Late Classic); this illustration shows an elegantly dressed woman pouring what is undoubtedly a chocolate drink from a height to make a froth, with a wild assortment of other women and Mayan gods in attendance. The scene suggests gender aspects and class aspects of the early Mayan consumption of chocolate. The Maya were interested in the metaphysical aspects of frothy drinks, and the cylindrical jar and method of preparing chocolate shown is also described in Conquest era literature; perhaps this pouring from a height originally resembled the froth from waterfalls in the Yucatan. On another Mayan vessel a smart-looking monkey contemplates a cacao tree; of course monkeys were cracking open cacao pods on the peninsula long before man arrived in the region.

In the case of hieroglyphic writing on vessels, this shows the vivid and imaginative writing system created by the Mayans, the fine detail the artists were capable of, and an interesting Mayan version of the monogram. The various serving vessels, for example, might be labeled to identify the owner (usually male), the function of the vessel, and the recipe of the contents; in fact one of these personalized jars used for chocolate (vessel 15 of Hurst, 1989) was key to begin decoding the Mayan hieroglyphic system. (See David Stuart’s article in McNeil, 2006.)
Of course, careful examination of the excavation site around an artifact is essential to estimate age and function. 90% of Mesoamerican vessels shown to be associated with chocolate consumption are discovered in burial locations (Powis, 2002), and by context these are invariably burials of high-status individuals (see Powis for diagrams of graves containing approximately 20 vessels each, dubbed a “complete table setting”). These vessels are thought to have been filled with chocolate drinks and other foodstuffs for nourishment on the journey to the underworld (Hall, 1990); by the fill lines still visible we know they contained liquids, and sometimes residues remain that can be scraped off and tested. Intact chocolate vessels are likely to be found in burial sites because of the natural protection, however pieces of vessels (“potsherds”) are also found in ancient refuse heaps and ancient construction fill. Intact vessels removed from protected locations are preferred for residue testing because they are thought less likely to be contaminated.

(A detail of a line drawing by John Montgomery of the Princeton Vase is shown below. The original vase can be viewed at the Princeton University website, http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/objects/32221 .)

3. Into the Laboratory

The sections above have hinted at some interesting questions without providing all of the answers. By the end of the 1980s, research into the natural history of chocolate had generated more questions than answers and new methods of attacking problems were needed; in 1989 Jeffrey Hurst, a chemist at the Hershey company, performed for the first time chemical testing on ceramic vessels recovered from digs in Mesoamerica (Hurst, 1989). There was a new expectation of discovery regarding who had made the first chocolate, what were the prehistoric recipes, which social classes consumed chocolate, and so forth.

In that first study Hurst tested an unspecified number of Mayan vessels from the Rio Azul site in Guatemala by High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), the usual laboratory method for separating and identifying compounds (Fig. 1 below). The Hurst paper determined that several vessels dating to 460-480 AD had contained cacao; this pushed the use of cacao back to approximately one millenium before the first Spanish records and was therefore a landmark study. The paper also introduced two important notions that would be used (and sometimes questioned) in subsequent studies: 1. Theobroma cacao is the only Mesoamerican commodity containing theobromine, so theobromine can be used as a marker for cacao, and 2. Unglazed ceramics absorb theobromine, which is stable indefinitely and can be sampled without contamination by removing some of the ceramic (page 279, and see also Soleri, 2013, pages 349 and 357.) We remarked above that cacao contains 1-2% by weight theobromine and caffeine.

In 2002 Terry Powis sampled Mayan spouted pots from the Colha site in Belize on the Gulf Coast and found two of the pots had used for cacao, pushing the use of cacao back to 600-400 BC (Powis, 2002). Powis entertained the notion that the spout itself could be used as a marker for frothing and chocolate consumption (pp. 94, 96), although a spout may just be easier for pouring in general.

In 2007 John Henderson pushed consumption back to 1150 BC when he found 11 of 13 vessels from the Puerto Escondido site, Honduras, had been used for cacao (Henderson, 2007). Recall that pulp of cacao as well as the seeds contains theobromine and caffeine; Henderson concluded that the most ancient cacao drinks were not chocolate but made from the fermented cacao pulp. Unfortunately, both the volatile alcohol in pulp drinks and the lipids in chocolate drinks would disappear quickly from containers (Henderson p. 18939; Hurst, 1989, p. 286), and there is no test to distinguish between chocolate drinks and pulp drinks. Like Powis, Henderson suggested that spouted pots appearing approximately 1000 BC may be associated with frothing and chocolate drinks, versus pulp drinks. The vessels in this study were also tested for beeswax and capsain (markers for honey and chili pepper, respectively); the findings were negative.

In an effort to pin down the prehistoric use of cacao geographically, Powis next sampled over 100 vessels from both the Pacific and Gulf Coast regions (Powis, 2008) and found two very old vessels testing positive, one from each coastal region. It turns out a Mokaya vessel from the Paso de la Amada site in the state of Chiapas, Mexico is the oldest vessel with cacao residue ever found–dated to 1900-1500 BC by the construction fill where it was discovered. It is actually a broken piece from a small brown gourd-shaped pot with vertical ridges. The Mokaya were some of the very earliest settlers in Mesoamerica (1900-1700 BC; p. 36), and the find may settle the question of which coast first spread the cultivation of cacao, unless cultivation arose independently in both regions. Powis concluded that the Mokaya brought chocolate drink consumption to the Gulf Coast; in any case the Mokaya and pre-Olmecs had cacao drinks long before the Maya and the Aztecs had them.

By the time of a study by Daniela Soleri in 2013, researchers had gained confidence in their knowledge of Mesoamerican cacao consumption; in this study vessels from the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico were tested for maize as well as cacao, with the hopes of obtaining information on ancient cacao recipes (Soleri, 2013). As mentioned above, it is known that the Aztecs and Mayas prepared drinks and gruels made from cacao with maize; in fact this practice continues among some of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. The study found 3 of 8 artifact vessels had been used for cacao and 2 of these had also been used for maize; the conclusion was these very old vessels had been used for a recipe containing both cacao and maize. Of course, the positive test for cacao and maize does not prove simultaneous use beyond a doubt; vessels can be used across time for different things. The Soleri study is noteworthy as the first effort to provide any kind of a control: a present-day ceramic vessel used for five years to prepare cacao was also sampled.

Finally we report on a study of Daniela Washburn, which came under immediate fire because of its sampling method and conclusions. The 2014 study is notable for introduction of a proper control and testing for statistical significance. By sampling dust on the shelves at six museums (including the Peabody at Harvard) Washburn showed there is always some background methylxanthine contamination (theobromine and caffeine), but the theobromine levels found in vessels used for cacao are significantly greater and this is easily tested by an analysis of variance. The new non-destructive sampling method involves simply rinsing the ceramic vessel followed by centrifugation of the rinse water. The paper of Washburn was interested in whether cacao from Central America was traded to indigenous peoples of the American Southwest, Midwest, and Southeast; the study found that cacao was being used by populations as far away as Florida (1000 AD).

We caution the reader that we have not summarized here every study on the subject of artifact testing for chocolate/cacao; undoubtedly the number of studies will continue to multiply due to simpler testing procedures, the popularity of chocolate, and interest in the Aztecs and Maya and the history of chocolate. We hope we have given, however, some idea of what the archaeological interest in ancient chocolate consumption is all about.

Figure 1. A typical High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) setup is shown below. A solvent or solvents in (1) that are appropriate to the substance (7) to be separated out and identified are pumped by (5) though a “column” (9) that separates by adsorption. (10) is a detector for the wavelengths of e.g. UV light absorbed by the sample, and this information or “chromatogram” is recorded by the computer (11). The substance (in solution) is collected in (12). 

References

Coe, M. (2013). The true history of chocolate. London, England: Thames & Hudson, Ltd.
Hall, G. (1990). Cacao residues in ancient Maya vessels from Rio Azul, Guatemala. American Antiquity, 55(1), 138-143.
Henderson, J. (2007). Chemical and archaeological evidence for the earliest cacao beverages. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(48), 18937-18940.
Hurst, W. (1989). Authentication of cocoa in Maya vessels using High Performance Liquid Chromatographic techniques. Journal of Chromatography, 466, 279-289.
Lo Coco, F. (2007). Determination of theobromine, theophylline, and caffeine in by-products of cupuacu and cacao seeds by High Performance Liquid Chromatography. Journal of Chromatographic Science, 45, 273-275.
Loudon, G. (2016). Organic Chemistry. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman.
McNeil, C. 2006. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: a cultural history of cacao. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Gainesville.
Powis, T. (2002). Spouted vessels and cacao use among the Preclassic Maya. Latin American Antiquity, 13(1), 85-106.
Powis, T. (2008). The origins of cacao use in Mesoamerica. Mexicon [sic], 30, 35-38.
Presilla, M. (2009). The new taste of chocolate. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.
Snyder, L. (2010). Introduction to modern liquid chromatography. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Soleri, D. (2013). Archaeological residues and recipes: exploratory testing for evidence of maize and cacao beverages in Postclassic vessels from the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity, 24(3), 345-362.
Washburn D. (2014). Chemical analysis of cacao residues in archaeological ceramics from North America: considerations of contamination, sample size and systematic controls. Journal of Archaeological Science, 50, 2014.
* The red pod cacao tree illustration is (C) 2013; we obtained kind permission to use it from Lake Champlain Chocolates. The Princeton Vase line drawing is (C) 2000 by John Montgomery. The HPLC schematic drawing is licensed under Creative Commons.

Venezuela’s Forgotten Treasure

What makes chocolate so desirable? Chocolate is divine! It has become one of the most exquisite delicacies to savor and a main ingredient for fine cuisine, baking, and chocolatiers around the world. Eating chocolate is a pleasure that most people on the planet love having, including myself.  When people describe this pleasure, whether it is a piece of a chocolate bar, chocolate cake, chocolate gelato or ice cream, they do it with joyful facial expressions, describing the texture, flavor, quality, and quantity. In the class, “Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food” at Harvard Extension School, Prof. Carla D. Martin lectures about the origin of cacao in Mesoamerica, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. She also lectures about cacao’s preparation, its use, the artifacts used, production of the chocolate paste, and the industrialization era when cacao was discovered.

In this blog, I will introduce the vessel Coco Chocolatero as one of the artifacts that was created during the colonial era in Venezuela. This artifact has historical significance because drinking hot chocolate using the coco chocolatero was a ritual, and a passion, among the Venezuelan elite social class. During the discovery and growth of cacao, Venezuela was a top producer and, to this day, still produces a rich and excellent cacao (Presilla 75). The enjoyment of drinking one of the best chocolates in the world allowed the elite people to use these vessels with elegance and prestige during the colony time. These vessels became so important in the lives of the Venezuelan elite, that they were written into the wills as Carlos F. Duarte presents in his book The Art of Drinking Chocolate (Presilla 32).

To my knowledge, there are no specifications on how the Coco Chocolatero was made in the colonial time. However, in 2013, the Fundacion Reto Aguas Abiertas (Open Water Foundation Raga) in Paria, State of Sucre, Venezuela, decided to rescue the value and tradition of the Coco Chocolatero by making a contemporary version of it. Mr. Jose Manuel Raga, director of this foundation,  states “…it is an exclusive object, forgotten in Venezuelan daily life from over 300 years ago, which we decided to rescue from our memory and reproduce it in a contemporary version so that people enjoy the select taste of treasuring the Coco Chocolatero or drinking a good chocolate in the style and privilege of a Great Cocoa” (Fundacion website).  Through a phone conversation on March 7, 2017, I spoke with Jose Manuel Raga in Venezuela to ask him about the process of making this vessel. Jose Manuel very kindly guided me through the steps taken to make the Coco Chocolatero. It is made from a hollowed-out green or yellow coconut, he said, and the process to make one is lengthy since it takes several steps. Inside, there is a nut with a hard brown shell covered with long bristle-like strands of hair. The nut is cut in half, the white hard meat inside is scooped out and it becomes an empty hard shell. This shell is brushed repeatedly and uniformly in and out with a thick brush until the brown hairs disappear from the shell. The next step of the artisan is to use the lightest to sand the shell until is smooth and even in texture and appearance. He also informed me that to preserve the natural color of the shell inside and outside, it is important to polish it with coconut oil. To beautify this vessel, a silver or gold ring is placed around the opening of the vessel as well as a handle on each side of the shell. Finally, the shell is centered and placed on a base to be permanently held.

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Photo of coconuts taken by me, 2017e459

The Coco Chocolatero rises again after three hundred years as a valued piece of cacao’s history in Venezuela, projecting pride for the fruit that continues to be a desired jewel for many other countries around the world. The love that plantation workers display in their daily routine for cacao, and the legacy that their ancestors began centuries ago by passing the lessons learned from generation to generation, is a very significant reality among all the cacao plantations workers thus making them a powerful force.  The cacao pods are always waiting on land to be processed, and thanks to the willingness, hard work, and kindness of the plantation workers, Venezuelans and the rest of the world have enjoyed a high-quality cup of chocolate!

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Courtesy of Fundacion Reto Aguas Abiertas

http://fundacionretoaguasabiertas.org/fundacion-reto-aguas-abiertas-rescata-el-coco-chocolatero/

Before being able to make the first Coco Chocolatero, there had to be a necessity for its use. Chocolate is what fills this large vessel, so how exactly is chocolate made? It is derived from cacao and the history begins with a tree called the Tree of the Food of the Gods as Michael Coe writes in The True History of Chocolate (17). Cacao pods are not uniformly shaped and their size varies. The pods ripen, turning their green skin into beautiful tones of red, yellow, orange, and light green accentuating the ridges in the skin. It is quite a spectacular change to see.  Despite the natural beauty of the cocoa pods, the white pulp inside is the gem of this long-lasting fruit that produces chocolate, which is considered a diamond.

The fresh pulp from the cacao pods are first harvested, then dried, fermented, roasted, and finally grinded. These are the steps required to make chocolate. “Working with cacao is hard work and a long process. Talking about cacao is philosophy, very rich and oxygenating” says Pedro, a plantation worker in the book Historias que Laten en Choroni by Liza Lopez (18). The process of creating chocolate is not as simple as it sounds in the description. It is laborious work that requires much patience and dedication. As time passes and innovation progresses, the world will still continue savoring the new creations of chocolate all while holding on to the roots from which it comes from; cacao.

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Photo of Sweet Cocoa taken by me, 2017e459

 

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Photo of Unsweetened Cocoa taken by me, 2017e459

Works Cited

S.D., Coe, 2013; M. D., Coe,  2013.  The True History of Chocolate. London, Thames                     & Hudson, Ltd.

Lopez, Liza. Historias que Laten en Choroni: 16 personajes, 16 historias. Fundacion Casa Nacional de las Letras Andres Bello. Caracas, Venezuela, 2013.

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

Raga, Jose Manuel. Telephone interview.  March 7, 2017.

 

Multimedia Sources

Fundacion Reto Aguas Abiertas. Jose Manuel Raga. Paria, State of Sucre, Venezuela. 2013.

http://fundacionretoaguasabiertas.org/fundacion-reto-aguas-abiertas-rescata-el-coco-chocolatero/

 

 

 

Chocolate’s Change from Elite Drink to Common Confection

The chocolate prevalently consumed today isn’t the chocolate known to the ancient Mesoamericans, or elite Europeans of the past. What was once a rich, decadent drink of the wealthy has now become a common confection, easily attainable by all members of our society. Due to the many innovations introduced during the Industrial Revolution, now most readily available chocolate is heavily processed and adulterated with sugar.

The chocolate the Mayans and Aztecs sipped was made by a process of grinding roasted cacao seeds until they formed chocolate liquor. This bitter, fatty liquid was mixed with corn flour, a little water, and some spices to add flavor.  A similar process was used in Europe when the Spaniards first brought back cacao seeds from the New World in the 1500’s. “For many years cacao beans were roasted and ground into a thick, grainy paste (cacao mass or liquor), by methods differing very little form the pre-Columbian metate grinding…”(Presilla, 2009, p. 30). Pictured below is a metate, the grinding stone that would be heated and used to grind cacao seeds.

metate_et_mano           Figure 1. A Mesoamerican Metate used for grinding cacao.

As chocolate gained popularity throughout Europe, its target audience remained the same. “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 & Coe, 2013, p. 125). Several inventions in the 1800’s would eventually change chocolate’s status as an exclusive drink, to a low-cost food.

This change was first precipitated in 1828 by Conrad Van Houten from the Netherlands. Van Houten devised a way to use a hydrolyzed press in order to extract the cacao fat from chocolate liquor; leaving both cocoa powder and the cocoa butter. Cocoa powder was quicker to turn into hot chocolate than the traditional method, and the cocoa butter had many uses, such as making soaps. He further invented an alkalizing process which helped to make less acidic, smoother tasting cocoa powder (Presilla, 2009, p. 40).

chocolate_melanger          Figure 2. Modern Melangeur used to mix ingredients.

Pictured above is a modern day version of a machine introduced during the industrial revolution, the Melangeur. This is a large mixer used to combine ingredients into a uniform dough. This added greater consistency and speed to an otherwise laborious process. In 1879 Rodolphe Lindt, of Switzerland, developed a machine to take the smoothing and combing process one step further. With his conching machine all grittiness could be removed and a truly smooth, melt in your mouth, solid, chocolate was created. During that same year another Swiss inventor, Daniel Peter, came up with the process of adding dried milk (Prescilla, 2009, p. 41).

Through trial and error, a self-stable bar chocolate was made from conching cocoa, sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla and dried milk. The end result was a product that could be made inexpensively on a very large scale. As the price went down, the demand rose. This new form of chocolate could not have been mass produced so cheaply without its main ingredient; sugar. Mintz (1987) tells us sugar changed from a luxury of the wealthy to a dietary staple of the poor in Britain (p. 133). Pictures below are sugar cane workers on the island of Jamaica in the 1880s. As sugar consumption increased in staggering rates in Europe and North America, the need for affordable mass labor led to slavery. Even after slavery was abolished, the working conditions of laborers on plantations was terrible.

cane_cutters_in_jamaica          Figure 3.  Jamaican sugar cane works in the 1880’s.

The strong consumer demand in our society for ever more sweet treats has led chocolate manufacturers to look for ways to continue to make mass produce quantities of chocolate for as little money as possible. Of course this has resulted in paying sugar and cacao farmers as little as possible. Historically, before food and drug regulations, this also meant a free for all on adding cheaper ingredients into chocolate (Coe & Coe, 2013, p. 244).  Large scale chocolate making meant, and continues to mean, a reduction in overall chocolate quality.

Before chocolate became the conched bar of sugar, dried milk and cocoa we know of today, the quality of beans used mattered a great deal. The most prized beans came from the variety called Criollo. This name has lost significance outside of niche markets due to the nature of modern chocolate making. Many things can go awry when making cacao ready for eating. Not only do varies varieties, namely forastero, potentially have a less ideal flavor, issues can arise during growing, fermenting, drying and roasting. Van Houten’s alkali treatment and conching can both help salvage imperfect beans (Presilla, 2009, p. 41). The high amount of sugar can also help mask unpleasant flavors. After the Industrial Revolution Priscilla (2009) notes “Even excellent chocolate had become faceless and anonymous, for the great majority of consumers had no way of seeing and judging the cacao from which it was made (p. 41.)

Chocolate was once a fine crafted drink of elite Mesoamericans. Then cacao traveled to Europe, and for many years, was kept in the same tradition of being sipped by the upper class. Innovation, and an unfortunate acceptance of slave labor, allowed chocolate during the Industrial Revolution to be transformed. It became a common, edible food available to all of our society. The origin and quality of the ingredients has become unknown to the average consumer. Today most think of chocolate as a highly sweetened candy. This has not always been true. Chocolate had a different life long before industrialization.

 

References

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

Mintz, S. W. (1987). Sweetness and power: the place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin Books.

Presilla, M. E. (2009). The new taste of chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Figure 1. Yelkrokoyade (2008) Metate et mano [Online image]                                                          Retrieved March 8, 2017 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMetate_et_mano.jpg

Figure 2. Sanjay Acharya (2008) Chocolate melanger [Online image]                                            Retrieved March 8, 2017 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChocolate_melanger.jpg

Figure 3. Cane cutters in Jamaica [Online image] (1880’s)  Retrieved March 8, 2017 from https//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACane_cutters_Jamaica.jpg

 

The Development of the Atlantic Slave Trade into Modern Day Slavery in Cacao Growing Regions

The Atlantic slave trade was much more complicated than your middle school teachers may have lead you to believe.  Common knowledge rarely acknowledge the complexity of the economics of the slave trade, its far-reaching consequences, and the specific, long-lasting impact it had in cacao growing regions. The slave trade presented challenges to the chocolate industry as it pitted economic necessity against shady moral practices. I argue that over the course of its history, the slave trade created such profound inequalities that even though it was abolished in the mid- to late-1800s, the essence of slavery still exists today.

The Atlantic slave trade had in the New World.  Europeans forced indigenous populations to work which produced a dangerous power dynamic from which the Europeans benefitted for centuries. The Europeans that migrated to the Americas would encroach on indigenous land. By taking ownership of that land, the settlers forced those residing on it already to work for them under extremely undesirable conditions, especially in cacao growing regions where the days were long and unimaginably hot. This developed into “chattel slavery” which means that those enslaved were regarded as property and could be traded as a commodity (Martin lecture). As they burned through the indigenous population, Europeans were pressured to meet a growing demand for labor. They found a new source in Africa.

In order to understand the connection between slavery and cacao, we must first understand under what conditions the slave trade developed in cacao growing regions. Rodney explains in his article that “slavery prevailed on the African continent before the arrival of the Europeans” which implies that African society was susceptible to European manipulation  (Rodney, 431). Europeans looked to Africa simply because they needed more cheap labor and the western coast was the most economically viable. On top of the preexisting societal structure, the addition of the Atlantic slave trade proved disastrous and demonstrates why “it was [that] only after two and a half centuries of slave-trading that the vast majority of the peoples of the Upper Guinea Coast were said to have been living in a state of subjection” (Rodney, 434). The compounded effect of the Atlantic slave trade on the already-problematic African regions left lasting impacts on its people and culture.

Take a look at this video by Anthony Hazard and published by TED-Ed which details the nuances of the slave trade.

This video points out how the culture of Africa was heavily affected by the Atlantic slave trade. Europeans would pit tribes against each other. This created an environment where Africans of different communities would be abducting each other to sell into slavery across the Atlantic in exchange for weapons or safety. The video uses simple animation and voiceover to convey how uniformly destructive the slave trade was to the African economy and culture.

As the abolition movement emerged, the Atlantic slave trade began to change. The abolition movement always existed among slaves and gained momentum after the Haitian Revolution in 1789. This was a pivotal moment because it was the biggest slave revolt to date. At the time, Haiti was an exceptionally valuable asset to France because it exported nearly half of the world’s coffee and sugar (Martin lecture). A significant amount of people depended on the slave trade, either directly or indirectly, through the products it produced. For the enslaved population to overthrow such a dominant colonial power inspired others across the world and spurred the abolition movement forward. Slowly, the Atlantic slave trade began to diminish. Finally, in 1888, Britain was the last place to abolish slavery.

Yet, the abolition process was gradual and hard-fought. You can plainly see in the picture how it was satirized for its very slow implementation.

This image is particularly relevant because it incorporates the dependence on sugar that Europeans had formed. Mintz writes that sugar “had become an essential ingredient in the British national diet” and that “it was consumed daily by almost every living Briton” (Mintz, 187). The fact that he uses words like “national diet” is significant. It implicates everyone in the consumption of sugar. Since sugar is a common ingredient used with cacao, this figure really identifies how everyone is implicated in the slave trade as an extension of consuming sugar and chocolate. This speaks to the reason for the delay in abolishing it: the final product was too tantalizing and the consumers were too far removed. This is also representative of our mentality today.

The Atlantic slave trade left deep-seated damage to the African regions which it affected, the most important of which is the legacy of slavery. There was a compounded effect as the emphasis shifted to cacao growing regions for mass production. Today, “[a]pproximately two-thirds of the cocoa destined for the world market is produced on West African farms” (Manzo, 529). The exploitative power dynamic is still so strong that modern day slavery still exists in the form of coerced labor. Watch this video to catch a glimpse of what life is like for a child working on a cacao farm on the Ivory Coast today.

After slavery was largely abolished in the Americas around 1850, the geographic regions where cacao was being grown changed. The focus transferred to Fiji, Mauritius, and the Ivory Coast, as seen in the video. In this shift, “many small farmers [became] dependent for their livelihood on cocoa, and it is this smallholder production that accounts for most of the large increase in production and export from the Ivory Coast in the 1990s” (Manzo, 529). This is significant because it demonstrates how when colonial powers “abolished” slavery they just created a vacancy for multinational companies to exploit deprived workers who were already suffering from the consequences of the slave trade. The parallels between the old slave trade and modern day child slavery are substantial. The modern day-version still sees the power struggle between powerful landowners who offer an exchange for laborers. This turns Africans against each other. You can see this situation play out in the video where the boy was brought to the cacao farm when his father died. Another parallel is the forced labor in extreme conditions with unsatisfactory clothing. Modern day laborers are being “paid” in the form of room and board but this prevents them from accumulating any considerable amount of money that would allow them to leave, just like colonial powers used to enslave entire families based on who was living on their property.

Even though the slave trade has developed and adapted over the past hundreds of years—even after it has been “abolished”—there is no question that slavery still exists today. Furthermore, it implicates everyone (just as it did back then) because it is the chocolate industry that is exploiting people. It follows that because we all consume chocolate, we all are culpable in its prolonging. This means that it is up to the consumers to stop distancing themselves from the origins of their chocolate and learn about the production of cacao.

Works Cited

 

Manzo, Kate. “Modern Slavery, Global Capitalism & Deproletarianisation in West Africa.” Review of African Political Economy, vol. 32, no. 106, 2005, pp. 521–534.

Martin, Carla. “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor.” AFRAMER 119X. Harvard University. CGIS South, Cambridge. March 1. 2017. Lecture.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.

Rodney, Walter. “African Slavery and Other Forms of Social Oppression on the Upper Guinea Coast in the Context of the Atlantic Slave-Trade” Journal of African History, vn, 3 (1966), pp. 431-443

TED-Ed. “The Atlantic slave trade: What too few textbooks told you – Anthony Hazard” December 22, 2014. Web. March 6 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NXC4Q_4JVg&t=1s&gt;.

BreakingNews56. “Chocolate Child Slaves-CNN.” Jan 16, 2012. Web. March 6, 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHDxy04QPqM>.

Cruikshank, Isaac. The Gradual Abolition of the Slave Trade: Or Leaving of Sugar by Degrees in 1792. Digital image. Website: <http://activehistory.ca/2010/06/%E2%80%9Cwhen-people-eat-chocolate-they-are-eating-my-flesh%E2%80%9D-slavery-and-the-dark-side-of-chocolate/&gt; N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Mar. 2017. <http://activehistory.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/The-Gradual-Abolition1.jpg&gt;.

Chocolate and Beer: how the ancient use of Theobroma spp. inspired the creation of a new “ancient brew”

Dogfish Head Theobroma
Image 1: Dogfish Head – Theobroma “Ancient Ale”

Chocolate is a favorite treat for many in modern times, but it was also a favorite for the people in ancient Mesoamerica. Today, in the U.S.A., we can easily purchase chocolate from establishments ranging from grocery stores to gas stations, and chocolate is a popular ingredient in foods such as candy and many beverages. We are able to easily purchase our chocolate treats, in all forms, without ever seeing, touching, processing, or preparing our treats from the plant itself. In ancient times the fruit of Theobroma spp. was collected and processed by the inhabitants of many ancient civilizations. When scholars investigate the origins of the use of Theobroma spp. many questions arise such as, “How was this plant used by ancient cultures?” and “Which parts of the plant were consumed?” These questions are answered through the use of many scientific facets such as analyses of ancient writings and the examination of ancient artifacts through chemical analyses. Through these efforts, scientists are able to piece together a timeline detailing the earliest known use of this plant by ancient societies. This post will examine how the discovery of ancient pottery demonstrated that ancient civilizations used the fruits of Theobroma spp. to produce alcoholic beverages, and how this discovery allowed for the incorporation of chocolate into a modern day beer “Theobroma” developed and produced by the company Dogfish Head.

 

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Image 2: A statue of a man holding a cacao bean

What is Theobroma spp? The genus Theobroma is located in the family Malvaceae and contains ~20 species (“Theobroma” n.d.). The most familiar species within the genus is Theobroma cacao which translates to “food of the gods”. The seeds from this plant are used to make chocolate. This evergreen, shade grown, amazing tree is unique in that the flowers and fruit grow directly on the trunk (cauliflory). The fruit, once ripe, contains the prized seeds which are used for the modern day production of chocolate. It is truly a beautiful plant which has had a tremendous impact on human culture as described by many researchers who have searched for, recorded, and shared their finding detailing the use of this plant ancient times.

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Image 3: Theobroma tree and fruit (showing pulp and seeds)

When researchers uncovered shards of pottery at the northern Honduran site of Puerto Escondido they were about to redefine the history of chocolate and inspire the creation of a “new to the modern world” chocolate drink. Archeologist identified these vessel shards at the site as having a “long neck” (think “long neck” beer bottles). The presence of the “neck” was an indicator that foam was not a component of the liquid stored within this container (Henderson 3). The process of pouring the cacao mixture between two containers to create foam was previously believed to be the way in which cacao drinks were first consumed (Henderson 3). The sample of a spouted (“long neck”) vessel (4DK-136 – Type name: Barraca Brown), based on radiocarbon dating, showed that the process of consumption involved fermentation to produce an alcoholic beverage (beer). This would now be the earliest known use of cacao from anywhere in the world, and via radiocarbon dating, scientists could now date this vessel to the Ocotillo phase (1400-1100 B.C.) (Henderson 2). Further chemical analysis of this vessel, using chromatographic and mass spectrometric analyses showed the presence if theobromine and caffeine (Henderson 3). These two compounds are found in Theobroma spp. and proved that these vessels once held a drink made from the plant Theobroma. The research conducted by John S. Henderson, Rosemary A. Joyce, Gretchen R. Hall, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Patrick McGovern not only shifted the date for first cacao consumption (by humans) back 500 years, but they also established that, in all likelihood, that the method for the consumption of cacao began with the fermentation of the pulp to create an alcoholic beverage, and that the use of the cacao seeds, and the method for producing “foam”, did not occur until hundreds of years later.

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Image 4: (Re)drawing of the Barraca Brown bottle from northern Honduras by Florance Richardson 2017 (original drawing by Yolanda Tovar)

The invention of a new “ancient beer” could not have happened without the collaboration between Dr. Patrick McGovern (the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Anthropology) and the folks from Dogfish Head Brewery. Dr. McGovern is not only an incredible archeologist, but he is also reproducing drinks of the past for modern day consumption. The collaboration between Dr. McGovern and the brewers from Dogfish Head demonstrates how science and intuition, blended together, can have amazing results.

“Since it proved impossible to transport the fresh fruit without spoilage from Honduras, we did the next best thing. We were able to obtain chocolate nibs and powder from the premier area of Aztec chocolate production, Soconusco, the first such dark chocolate to be imported into the States in centuries (Askinosie Chocolate in Missouri). As you drink this luscious beverage–almost like a fine Scotch or Port–you will pick up the aroma of the cacao and hints of the ancho chili in the aftertaste. Any bitterness of the chocolate is offset by the honey and corn. Achiote colors it red. It was fermented with an American ale yeast.” (Dr. Patrick E. McGovern, “Theobroma”).

Do we now have in our possession the ancient recipe used to brew beer with cacao? The recipe used to create “Theobroma” beer uses the wealth of knowledge gained by understanding and studying ancient artifacts, writings, and through chemical analyses conducted on the pottery uncovered during archeological excavations and historical studies, but even with this wealth of knowledge, we will never know for sure how the drinks prepared by the ancients tasted or the precise measurements and ingredients used to create them. However, with the use of science and craftsmanship we can certainly come close to tasting these “ancient brews”.

Theobroma was a limited release from Dogfish Head, but please enjoy the following video in which Dogfish Head brewer Sam Calagione describes how lovely this ancient brew tastes.

Video 1: Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione on the brewery’s Ancient Ale Theobroma.

References:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.

Henderson, John S., et al. “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Acad Sciences, 16 Nov. 2007 http://www.pnas.org/content/104/48/18937 Accessed on 8 March 2017

 McGovern, Patrick E., “Biomolecular Archaeology Project” https://www.penn.museum/sites/biomoleculararchaeology/ Accessed on 8 March 2017

 McGovern, Patrick E., “Theobroma”, https://www.penn.museum/sites/biomoleculararchaeology1/re-created-beverages/theobroma/ Accessed on 8 March 2017

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

 Trivedi, Bijal P., “Ancient Chocolate Found in Maya “Teapot””, National Geographic, July 17, 2002,  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/07/0717_020717_TVchocolate.html Accessed on 8 March 2017

Wikipedia, “Theobroma”, n.d. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theobroma Accessed on 10 March 2017

 Wikipedia, “Theobroma cacao”, n.d. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theobroma_cacao Accessed on 8 March 2017

 Multimedia Sources:

 Image 1: Dogfish Head Theobroma https://www.flickr.com/photos/julishannon/3006530318/in/photolist-5zFfHC-5eg55n-a4nn57-6tkSc5-6T39ix-6tXNV9-6GT3Tw-6NZdi1-5trpAn-5eksFw-5eg2Di-Drdr2g-7K5CQH-9Ni1br-6FT3ub

 Image 2: Wikimedia Commons, Cacao Aztec Sculpture, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cacao_Aztec_Sculpture.jpg Accessed 10 March 2017

 Image 3: Wikimedia Commons, Theobroma tree and fruit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chocolate_in_its_Rawest_Form_(27583224425).jpg

 Image 4: Author owned, (Re)drawing of the Barraca Brown bottle from northern Honduras by Florance Richardson 2017 (original drawing by Yolanda Tovar)

 Video: Quick Sip Clips by Dogfish Head: Theobromahttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtXCJjJz6sI Accessed on 10 March 2017