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From Cultural to Commercial: Cocoa’s Geopolitical Transformation

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

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

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

Genetic and Cultural Beginnings

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

Cacao’s Role in Society and Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploration and Migration: Changes in Cultivation and Consumption

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

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

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

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

New Formulations and Complementary Ingredients

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

Media Cited

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

Lectures Cited

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

Drinking Money: Cacao as Currency in Mesoamerica

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

Cacao Beans

European encounters

The first European encounter with cacao as currency happened in 1502 when Columbus and his son Ferdinand, during his fourth voyage to the Americas, captured a Maya trading canoe (Coe and Coe 107-108).  This vessel contained a number of goods valuable to the Maya, including what Ferdinand Columbus called “almonds”, he noticed their value but didn’t understand their importance (Leissle 32). He wrote, “They seemed to hold these almonds at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen” (Coe and Coe 108-109). Cortes on the other hand, was quick to realize cacao’s importance and use it to his advantage “to buy things, and to pay the wages of their native laborers” (Coe and Coe 93).

Aztec man carrying a cacao pod

From Drink to Currency

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

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

Cacao as Currency

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

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

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

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

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

Pochtecas with their freight,
Illustration from the Florentine Codex


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

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

Works Cited:

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

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

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

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

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

Multimedia Sources

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

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

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

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

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

Chocolate: A devolution or evolution?

It can be hard to look back on the thousands of years that chocolate has evolved from a simple Mesoamerican beverage into what it is today, and say that chocolate has devolved in a downward spiral. Today in some forms it is simultaneously a rare and expensive delicacy, and a ubiquitous cheap candy that is readily available at a degraded quality available to even in the most poverty-stricken economies around the world. When chocolate was confined to the Mesoamerica region, it was considered to be food of the gods and was regarded so highly that is was ceremoniously attributed to good health and well-being.


Figure 1: $250 Each. Stuffed with a French Perigord truffle and crafted from 71-percent single-bean Ecuadorean dark-chocolate. Follow link for additional expensive chocolates. Fox News

Has chocolate evolved over time from simple watery cacao drink enjoyed by the historical Olmec culture, into sought after delicacies such as the $250 Knipschildt Chocolatier’s Madeline truffle? (figure 1) Or, has chocolate devolved from a glorious beverage with positive health properties, to an adulterated cacao bi-product lacking purity, and is ever distant from its original roots such as the Hershey’s White Chocolate (figure 2) that contains 0% cacao (Bratskeir)?  While the recipes have changed over time, it has remained true that chocolate has been sought after as a comfort food, a medicine, a gift, an offering, or consumed with a greater purpose that to satisfy hunger.


Figure 2: White chocolate: often used as an ingredient for baking in cookies, shown here as Hershey’s Cookies & Crème white chocolate bar.  Hershey’s Chocolate bars

Glorified chocolate

Originating in Mesoamerica, the Olmec culture cultivated the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) and declared it “a gift of the gods” (Bruinsma and Taren). Appropriately, the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus (1707-78) gave the scientific name Theobroma cacao. Cacao is Greek and means food of the gods (Coe and Coe, 18). This godly association isn’t too difficult to understand when studying their perceptions of the effects that cacao had on them. This gift from the gods was considered an aphrodisiac and was often associated with medicinal values (Bruinsma and Taren). This belief has more recently been verified by means of Mayan archeology that has proved they were in better health and lived longer than their chocolate deprived subjects (Coe and Coe, 32).  There is more recent science published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association that shows chocolate can even satisfy magnesium deficiencies (Bruinsma and Taren). The cacao plant from which chocolate is derived has foliage that is also valuable to many for other products. The leaves of the cacao plant can be used to create a tea used in the treatment of altitude sickness. The leaves are even used in the production of cocaine (Coe and Coe, 19).

A plant with such medicinal value was naturally monetarily valuable as well in the 16th century and therefore associated with social and economic classes, and elite rulers. It was prepared for and consumed at banquets, weddings, and other ceremonies (Coe and Coe, 97). As a valuable commodity, it was often exchanged as currency (figure 3) (Coe and Coe, 99). Despite being a currency that did in fact grow on trees, the beans were even counterfeit by the Aztecs. Such careful attention was given by the Mayan people to this highly regarded commodity that Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus noted when “the [cacao] fell, they all stopped to pick up, as if an eye had fallen” (Coe and Coe, 109). Was Columbus’s fascination with cacao the beginning the degradation of a high regard for chocolate?


Figure 3: A visual depiction of the exchange values cacao beans had in 1541. Photo from Cornell University.

Adulterated chocolate

It was with Christopher Columbus’s voyages that chocolate was introduced to European culture.  It was at this point, chocolate took a drastic European turn and became more like the chocolate we know today. Would the Olmec people and others from the Mesoamerican era consider our modern chocolate blaspheme as a disgrace to their original food of the gods? (figure 4) Chocolate was originally drunk as a beverage by the Mesoamerican cultures (Coe and Coe, 33). We actually have learned that the transformation began before Columbus.  Sophie and Michael Coe demonstrate in the True History of Chocolate that the Spaniards had stripped chocolate of the spiritual meaning and “imbued it with qualities altogether absent among the Aztecs and Maya. It was nothing more than a drug, a medicine in humoral system” (Coe and Coe, 126).

Figure 4: Maya cacao god- Cornell University

The transformations of the former cacao beverage into what we know today as chocolate continued over the course of the centuries after Columbus introduced cacao to Europe. One of the most historical was the first chocolate bar invented in 1847 by the Fry Brothers in Bristol, England (Coe and Coe, 241). Milk chocolate was first made successfully in 1879, after Daniel Peter, a Swiss chocolate manufacturer, thought to try making it with the powdered milk invented by his neighbor, Henri Nestlé, 30 years earlier (Coe and Coe 247). In his book, The New Taste of Chocolate, Presilla explains that “the practice of adding dried milk to the chocolate mass to make milk chocolate put another layer of distance between the consumer and the direct flavor of good and bad cacao” (Hansen; Presilla, 43). Now under the cheap guise of milk flavor, it was from this point we began to see the adulteration of chocolate, many of which have not improved much.

One such adulteration starts at the source of the cacao. Lead contamination in chocolate was brought to attention when the Food and Drug Administration identified unacceptable levels of lead (Coe and Coe, 32). Although the lead contamination was thought to be related to negligence or accidental contamination, other adulterations have been intentional. The Cadbury company became known in the 19th century for being the reason the government had to implement the Adulteration of Food Act of 1872. At the time, they mixed flour and starch into their product, red ocher (crushed red brick), red lead, and vermilion (Coe and Coe, 244). With the exception of the ocher, and toxic lead and vermilion, the flour and other adulterations have become an acceptable and common pairing with chocolate today. Chocolate is often times paired with nuts, fruits, caramel, and other less expensive fillers to aid in the reduction of cacao necessary to provide a sizable chocolate bar. These cheapened products are consumed in mass quantities by even the most struggling economies. A far progression from the exclusive food of the gods enjoyed by the most elite.


Even with the addition of ingredients, as the quality and recipes have changed over time, one constant about chocolate has remained true throughout the course of history. Chocolate isn’t consumed for nourishment or in admiration of the gift from the gods. It is consumed to alter a spiritual, emotional, or mental state of being. It has been sought after as a comfort food, medicine, a gift, an offering, or consumed with greater purpose than to satisfy hunger. This has been a recorded purpose as earlier on as 3,000 BC and is still true today. Chocolate has not only remained highly regarded by more people than ever before, but the cheap and adulterated chocolate that seeks to imitate the food of the gods is flattery to the delicacy that is high quality chocolate.

Works Cited:

Bratskeir, Kate. “What Exactly Is White Chocolate.” Huffington Post 10/28/14. Web.

Bruinsma, Kristen, and Douglas L. Taren. “Chocolate: Food or Drug?” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 99.10 (1999): 1249-56. Print.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third edition. ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.

Hansen, Kristine. “6 of the World’s Most Expensive Chocolates.”  Fox News. 2/6/15. Web.

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

Cacao Makes its Route to Europe

Many would agree that chocolate plays an integral role in our lives today, but how did chocolate evolve into such a loved treat in the modern world? The history of chocolate is rich and unique in its kind and being able to understand how cacao was introduced, spread and hybridized in Europe, may ultimately enhance our appreciation of the godly good.

The Genesis of Chocolate

The Olmec are believed to be the first Mesoamerican group to cultivate cacao. Writings and8646216390_a8a1b11a31_o copy artifacts also suggest that the cacao had a major ritual and ceremonial significance in the Maya society (Martin). The cacao was further consumed and traded among elite individuals, traders and soldiers in the Aztec society. The cacao was primarily consumed as a beverage, carefully prepared with maize, chili peppers, and other domestic spices (Martin). More information and Mesoamerican recipes of chocolate beverages can be found here!

The First European Encounter

Christopher Columbus encountered cacao beans during one of his early voyages but he did not realize the value of these “almonds” nor did he taste them (Coe and Coe, 109). It was not until in 1544 that chocolate made its way across the Atlantic to Europe when a group of Maya nobles brought it as a gift for the Spanish court (Coe and Coe, 130-131). Chocolate became particularly popular during the Baroque Age and spread quickly among royalties and aristocratic families in Europe (Coe and Coe 125; Priscilla, 24). Chocolate houses were eventually introduced in Britain and became natural meeting places for affluent males who enjoyed discussing politics (Martin).

Cacao spread quickly among European courts and palaces during the Baroque Age. Pictured is the family of the Duke of Penthièvre drinking chocolate.


The cacao was initially considered a luxury good and was solely consumed by elite individuals in Europe, similarly to the Aztec society. The spiritual meaning of the cacao however was almost entirely stripped down and the cacao was first introduced for medicinal use in Europe (Coe and Coe, 126). Europeans adopted the tradition of consuming the cacao as a beverage but sweetened the

An aztec woman frothing a cacao beverage.

drink with sugar and substituted spices such as chili pepper and ear flower with commonly used spices such as vanilla and cinnamon (Coe and Coe, 146). Moreover, the Europeans also adopted the tradition of foaming the chocolate. Instead of pouring the drinks back and forth between vessels, they used molinillo whisks (Coe and Coe, 156-157). The French later introduced the Chocolatière among many other posh dining ware that facilitated consumption of cacao beverages among the aristocracy in Europe (Coe and Coe, 156-157). Similar frothers and dining ware were found in other parts of Europe during the Baroque Age and this marks an interesting point of material culture.

French chocolate pots introduced during the Baroque Age had built-in sticks that enabled frothing.



The Europeans initially adopted somewhat similar methods of consumption of chocolate as the Mesoamericans. They initially consumed it as a frothed beverage and added spices. The hybridization of the original drink was vital to facilitate the dissemination and appreciation of cacao. Similarly, to Aztec society, cacao was considered a luxury good and it was not until later that industrial progress and mechanization enabled chocolate to became available to members of all social classes. These industrial progresses facilitated the emergence of bulk chocolate and it seems worthwhile to reflect on how the chocolate that we consume today greatly differs from the chocolate that was initially consumed by the Mesoamericans.



Works Cited

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

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”.” Harvard University. Cambridge, MA. 3 Feb. 2016. Lecture.

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


Media Sources

Charpentier le Vieux, Jean-Baptiste. La Famille du duc de Penthièvre en 1768 ou La Tasse de Chocolat. 1768. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons, 2014. Web. 19 Feb 2016. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALa_famille_du_Duc_de_Penthi%C3%A8vre_dit_la_tasse_de_chocolat.jpg

Leone Puno, James. Roasted Cacao Beans. Flickr, 2013. Digital image. Web. 19 Feb.2016. https://flic.kr/p/eb37Uo

Mujer vertiendo chocolate – Codex Tudela. 1553. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons, 2010. Web. 19 Feb 2016. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_Tudela.jpg

Van Cauwenbergh, Joseph-Théodore. Chocolate Pot. 1774. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons, 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2016. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph-Théodore_Van_Cauwenbergh_-_Chocolate_Pot_-_Walters_571802.jpg


Chocolately Junctions Between the Old and New World

Chocolate has a rich history spanning the cultures of civilizations belonging to both the Old and New World. One would expect nothing less from the divine cacao plant Theobroma cacao, roughly translated as “food of the gods.” The attractive properties were widely recognized globally as the food of the gods’ popularity in Europe was translated from the Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec civilizations thousands of miles away (Coe & Coe 110, Presilla 25 ). This was not a fluke. There is a distinct reason behind the rise of Chocolate’s popularity and its significance in history.

Today, chocolate has become one of the most consumed foods in the world. Whether you’re shopping at the mall and pass a Godiva store or buying a box of Crunch at the movie theater, you can clearly see that chocolate has becomes ubiquitous in many countries. In many countries, individuals consume an average of around 10 kilograms Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 1.51.03 PMevery year.  The uses of cacao, however, go farther than just the chocolate you see at the grocery counter. Cacao products have a gamut of uses that range from the cacao nibs, which can be used in cooking or eaten like nuts, to the cocoa butter, which is the waxy and fatty substance extracted from chocolate liquor used medicinally as a skincare product.

How did chocolate become like this? What led to this high level of popularity? Could it be simply the mass marketing and advertising that surrounds chocolate as a commodity? Or is there something deeper? Shakespeare said, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” History proves that if chocolate were a person, he or she would have belonged to the first group, the group born with greatness.

Like many great things usually, Chocolate is shrouded in myths and long painted stories. One of the most widely misunderstood stories associated with the chocolate-dipped junction between the New and Old World is Christopher Columbus’ discovery of chocolate. In fact, when Christopher Columbus first encountered cacao he mistakenly took the plant for almonds. Coe and Coe draw from Columbus’ account of the New World’s obsession with “roots and grains,” specifically the “almonds which in New Spain are used for money” (Coe & Coe 109). Columbus stated that the people of the New World held “hold these almonds at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, [he] observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen” (Coe & Coe 109).

This aura that surrounded cacao and chocolate and made it truly special translated between the New and Old Worlds. With the advent of chocolate, White_s-Chocolate-_2764825bEuropeans started using chocolate as a platform to meet and discuss important ideas, such as politics. It is during this time that “a cluster of super-elite self-styled ‘chocolate houses’ sprouted and flourished” (Green). Chocolate also served as a path for the New and Old World to engage each other with different ideas and perspectives. The Mesoamerican technique of creating froth by repeatedly pouring chocolate liquid between cups led to the invention of the molinillo (Coe & Coe 115).MolinilloThe molinillo was used as an easier way of creating froth by using rings to invigorate the liquid.

Chocolate is more than just a sugary treat. It is a history of the intersection of the Old and New World, a unique way to view the transfer of ideas. From across an ocean, one thing remained the same about chocolate: it stayed divine.

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

Green, Matthew. “The surprising history of London’s lost chocolate houses.” <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/uk/london/10515620/The-surprising-history-of-Londons-lost-chocolate-houses.html&gt;

Nieburg, Oliver. “Interactive Map: Top 20 chocolate consuming nations of 2012.” <http://www.confectionerynews.com/Markets/Interactive-Map-Top-20-chocolate-consuming-nations-of-2012&gt;

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

Keeping it Real

When Columbus and the Spaniards encountered cacao in the New World, it was not at first favorable to their tastes. Mistaking cacao for almonds, the conquistadors initially realized the value that this plant held for the Mesoamericans and appreciated cacao as a form of currency. However, when it came to tasting the food itself, they were “at first baffled and often repelled by the stuff in the form of drink” (Coe and Coe, 1996). As published by the Milanese historian and voyager Girolamo Benzoni, one of the first Europeans to describe cacao: “It [chocolate] seemed more a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity. I was in this country for more than a year, and never wanted to taste it” (Coe and Coe, 1996).

Figure 1. Columbus receiving the chocolate drink

As seen in the depiction to the left, the exchange does not seem most friendly with Spanish swords at the ready. How then, did this initial aversion towards the taste of cacao, a “drink for pigs”, eventually transform into a booming demand for cacao in Europe?  While some may think that it was only the Europeans actively changing the native food into something of their own desires, this gradual assimilation of chocolate was in fact accomplished by the Mesoamericans playing a heavy role in being the ones to educate and help Europeans along in their adoption of cacao.

As described in The True History of Chocolate, the “invaders would have little to do with the foodstuffs which they found in ‘New Spain’, unless there was no alternative (Coe and Coe, 1996).  Indeed, they began bringing over beef cattle, milk cows, wheat, chickpeas, and other Old World fruit trees such as peaches and oranges to satisfy their existing taste preferences. The Mesoamericans, while accepting some of these new imports into their culture, still did their job of spreading their culture to the Europeans. In Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics, Marcy Norton states how, “Spaniards learned to like chocolate because of their continued dependence on Indians” (Norton, 2006). The keyword that Norton uses here is “dependence”. She points out that “despite their social position at the apex of the social hierarchy, colonists in sixteenth-century Mexico were enveloped within an Indian cultural milieu and were susceptible to native acculturation (Norton, 2006).  Thus, although seemingly in a position of power, the conquistadors were still subject to the powerful cultural force of the Mesoamericans, making them into “unwitting students of native teachers”. Within villages, women played a major role in “acculturating Spanish men to Indian dietary and domestic practices” (Norton, 2006). They were often the ones preparing the cacao and consequently helped their husbands become accustomed to its consumption. The Mesoamerican marketplace was another institution in which the natives were able to effectively pass on their culture of cacao to the Europeans. Looking at lists of goods sold at these marketplaces located in Mexico City, Tlaxcala, and Coyocan, one can find cacao, chocolate, and the gourd containers.

Figure 2. Marketplace at Tlaxcala

By browsing these busy marketplaces, as seen to the left, and communicating with native vendors, the Europeans in the New World came to appreciate and become more knowledgeable of this Mesoamerican product.

By the early 17th century, travel between colonial ‘New Spain’ and the mainland had increased and cacao was beginning to diffuse into Europe. This chocolate, however, was not altogether converted into a European version, devoid of its Mesoamerican roots. Rather, Norton brings out a wealth of evidence to show that the opposite was actually true. In various European legal documents describing chocolate, much of the original Mesoamerican spices were deemed essential to the makeup of chocolate itself.  Other European legislation sheds light on Spanish appreciation for the traditional chocolate flavoring agents such as vanilla (Figure 3) and mecaxochitl.



Figure 3. Vanilla, a traditional Mesoamerican spice for chocolate

Indeed, Norton says it well: “Spaniards assimilated the cacao complexity in its entirety, and tried to maintain the sensory sensations that went with the traditional chocolate even across the ocean divide” (Norton, 2006). Contrary to some beliefs, the evidence shows that Europe did not completely reinvent cacao, at least not at first. Rather, the Mesoamericans played an influential role in making sure that the traditional beauty of their food was lost. While the last several centuries may show otherwise, it is comforting to walk into a chocolate shop and see those chocolates that strive to remain true to its original recipe.


Multimedia Sources


Figure 1.

Figure 2.
(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tlaxcala_-_Palacio_de_Gobierno_ _Indianerh%C3%A4ndler.jpg)

Figure 3. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanilla#mediaviewer/File:Vanilla_florentine_codex.jpg)



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

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review 111.3 (2006): 660-91. Web.