Tag Archives: hieroglyphs

Pre Columbian customs and beliefs involving cacao and chocolate

In today’s society, chocolate is a well known commodity that many people associate with sweetness and romance. A key ingredient in the making of chocolate is cacao. When people think about chocolate, they think of a sweet treat with European origins from places such as Switzerland. However, many people are often unaware that cacao was believed to be discovered in early Mesoamerican civilizations. These civilizations also had quite a different view of cacao and chocolate than the modern view. They viewed these items as luxury goods given to them by the gods and used them for more than simply eating. Cacao and chocolate were used in religious rituals, marriage rituals, and even used to cure illness. The Mayans viewed chocolate so fondly that they would have a yearly festival to honor the cacao god, Ek Chuah.

Cacao can be traced all the way back to the Mesoamerican civilizations. According to Magnus Pharao Hansen, cacao was seen as luxury crop during this time period and it provided theobromine for the nervous system after a labor process of cultivation and processing. This evidence allows us to understand that Mesoamerica was becoming a civilization, moving past the stages of just necessities and creating class division and hierarchy. The image to the right shows vessels with residue of pasted image 0theobromine, which is an ingredient in cacao. This shows us that chocolate was becoming a big attraction in civilizations such as the Olmecs. Other civilizations such as Mayans and Aztecs have records that show a strong presence of cacao and chocolate.Documents such as the Dresden Codex, Madrid Codex, and ParisCodex (shown on the right) were in hieroglyphics and have cacao featured throughout, often being consumed by gods in ritual activities. Evidently, cacao was viewed by the MesoamDresden_codex_page_2erican people as more than just a food item, but rather a sacred item given to them by the gods. According to historian Marcy Norton, cacao was viewed in a religious setting as essential to one’s physical, social, and spiritual well- being. During this time as well, many marriage customs involved the presence of cacao. The Mayan marriage rituals had the husband serve chocolate to the father of the girl he wanted to marry and discuss the marriage. Cacao was also used in customs involved death. The rites of death referred to cacao that was dyed red and helped ease the soul’s journey to the underworld. Cacao was used in beverages, as well, during the time of the Mayans. Chocolate beverages were viewed as sacred drinks with the foam being the most important part of the beverage. The beverages were able to boost energy for people due to the caffeine in the chocolate. Usually, it was men of royalty and elite status who consumed chocolate through beverages, while women and children were not allowed to drink the cacao. This is because they viewed it as an intoxicating food. Eventually, cacao and chocolate were being used for medicinal purposes. In the Mayan civilization, cacao was used for digestion and as an anti- inflammatory. In the Aztec civilization, cacao was used to cure infections and illnesses. As Teresa L. Dillinger states, “Childhood diarrhea was treated with a prescription that used five cacao beans. These were ground and blended with the root of tlayapoloni xiuitl (unknown plant) and then drunk. To relieve fever and faintness the prescription called for 8–10 cacao beans to be ground with dried maize kernels and blended with tlacoxochitl.” (Dillinger et al, 2060S) While the uses for chocolate expanded far beyond social use and pleasure, cacao still had an effect on the social landscape of the Mesoamerican civilizations. The Mayans had words such as “chokola’j”, which is translated to “to drink chocolate together”. Cacao had quite a special effect on people and played an important role in society and still does to this day.

Clearly, there were many customs and beliefs that the Pre Columbian civilizations had involving chocolate and cacao. The influence chocolate was able to have on these civilizations was immense and impacted their everyday lives. Many aspects of life were changed socially, religiously, and physically. Cacao and chocolate were able to change social interactions and physical treatments of people. People in the Mesoamerican civilizations used chocolate during many marriage, death, and religious rituals. As shown in lecture, foods and beverages such as the one shown on the right, still use the influence of earlresizey civilizations in order to sell products. The description of this beverage states, “Recommended served warm (106°), this delicious and relaxing beverage was blended to revive the delicacies and keen insights of the ancient Aztec tribes of Central America. Passed from generation to generation, our take on this blessed drink brings you the sensational benefits of anti-oxidant rich cacao and the powerful digestion aid blend of spices to create a tasty healthful experience.” With this description, we can clearly see how the Mayans and Aztecs views on chocolate still influence the modern global chocolate market. Due to the significance of cacao in the Mesoamerican society, chocolate has played a major role in the lives of many people and continues to have a major influence all over the world.

Hansen, Magnus Pharao. “Cacao: How a Single Word Holds the Key to Understanding the Mesoamerican Past.” Nawatl Scholar, 1 Jan. 1970, nahuatlstudies.blogspot.com/2015/01/cacao-how-contested-history-of-single.html?spref=tw.

Dillinger, Teresa L., et al. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 130, no. 8, 2000, doi:10.1093/jn/130.8.2057s.

St Jean, Julie. “Medicinal and Ritualistic Uses for Chocolate in Mesoamerica.” Medicinal and Ritualistic Uses For Chocolate in Mesoamercia, 9 Feb. 2018, http://www.heritagedaily.com/2018/02/medicinal-and-ritualistic-uses-for-chocolate-in-mesoamerica-2/98809.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods,’”

Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion.”

A Royal Indulgence: The Elite Origins and Introductions of Chocolate

Hundreds of years before Cadbury, Hershey and the like transformed chocolate into a mass-produced and affordable dietary staple, chocolate was a royal indulgence. Reserved for the most prestigious social classes in Mesoamerica, sumptuary laws in New World governed who was able to consume it and, according to some accounts, consumption of chocolate without sanction by commoners was punishable by death (Presilla, 18). The value and reverence the Aztecs had for chocolate made a strong impression on early travelers, who readily shared the frothed-beverage with their commissioners in the Old World, making the ruling elite of the 16th century among the first Europeans to regularly imbibe.

Elite Origins in Mesoamerica

Chemical analysis has allowed researchers to place chocolate over 38 centuries back, although not much is known about the drinking habits of early cultures such as the Olmecs and Mayans (Coe, location 464-578). The only surviving written evidence for classic Mayan use of cacao has been found on elegantly painted and carved cylindrical vases and vessels in the tombs and graves of the elite (Coe, location 578). Some of these excavated vases are externally marked with Mayan hieroglyphs denoting cacao, and internally bear chemical traces of alkaloids found in cacao and dark rims on the interior that suggest the contents were once liquid (Coe, location 625). There is not enough evidence to concretely conclude that chocolate was chiefly drunken by the ruling class, but the inclusion of chocolate provisions for the afterlife of the elite suggests Mayans placed a high level importance on the drink.

A Mayan lord sits raised above a servant on a platform next to a frothing pot of chocolate, forbidding the servant from touching the container. (Mayan Civilisation)

Much more is known of the chocolate consumption habits of the Aztecs than the Mayans. Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina (c. 1398-1469 AD) issued a series of laws stating that “he who does not go to war, be he son of a king, may not wear cotton, feathers or flowers, nor may he smoke, or drink cacao” (Coe, location 1372). Only members of the royal house, the lords and nobility, long-distance merchants who endured dangerous lands and battles with foreign groups, and warriors were allowed to drink chocolate in Aztec society (Coe, location 1324). In Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, Sahagún describes how stringently this hierarchical framework for chocolate consumption was followed by the Aztecs; cacao was very valuable and rare, and was proverbially referred to as “Yollotli eztli”, or the “price of blood and of heart”, because if people of the working class drank it without permit, it would cost them their life (“si alguno de los populares lo bebía, costábale la vide si sin licencia lo bebían”) (Moreno, 500).

Chocolate’s link to luxury and power in Aztec culture is further enforced with the cacao bean’s role in the economy. The Aztecs used cacao beans as currency: a rabbit cost about ten beans (Coe, location 832). When the elite drank chocolate, they were quite literally drinking money. This did not go unacknowledged by the Europeans, who quickly realized that cacao was as valuable to this group of people as gold and gems (Presilla, 18). Watch this video to learn a little more about cacao beans in Aztec culture and the introduction of chocolate to Europeans (Youtube).

Royal Introductions in Europe

In 1544, chocolate made its first documented European appearance in Spain. Dominican friars brought Mayan nobles to the courts of Prince Philip, who presented some of the wonders of the New World to the king: quetzal feathers, painted gourds, and containers of beaten chocolate (Presilla, 24). Forty years later in 1585, the first official cacao bean shipment reached Seville from Veracruz (Coe, location 1848).

A Spanish mancerina with a metal tray. Mancerinas were also made with porcelain trays to match the cup. (Tamorlan)

The Spanish altered the chocolate recipe slightly – preferring it hot as opposed to cold, as the Aztecs had taken it. The Aztecs would add ingredients they were familiar with such as vanilla, herbs, flower petals, and honey, and the Spanish did the same with sugar, cinnamon, hazelnut, anise, and almonds (Presilla). The Spanish sipped it out of mancerinas, a plate or saucer with a ring in the middle to hold a small cup and prevent it from slipping, rather than jícaras. One thing that didn’t change, however, was the elite ties of chocolate; making and drinking chocolate “involved special pains and paraphernalia” (Presilla, 25).

During the 17th century, chocolate spread throughout Europe. It was highly valued as an exotic, tasty alternative as well as a health-promoting drug and was treated differently than other foods. During the reign of Charles III of Spain, chocolate was sent directly to the “royal keeper of jewels” rather than the kitchen (Presilla, 32). France mimicked Spain’s royal consumption of chocolate, reserving it strictly for the aristocracy while England allowed it to hit the free market (Coe, location 2412). Any Englishman or woman was able to consume it so long as they had enough money to pay for it.

A woman drinks chocolate. Notice her elegant clothing and the chocolate paraphernalia on the tray next to her. (Raimundo)


Castriocto, Alessandro. “File:João V – Duque de Lafões.Jpg – Wikimedia Commons”. 1720. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

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

Mayan civilisation. “File:Mayan People and Chocolate.Jpg – Wikimedia Commons”. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

Moreno, Wigberto Jiménez and Sahagún, Bernardino de. Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España: Libros I, II, III, y IV. Linkgua digital, 1938. Online.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.

Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta. “File:Raimundo Madrazo – Hot Chocolate.jpg – Wikimedia Commons”. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

Salvor. “File:Chocolate-house-london-c1708.jph – Wikimedia Commons”. 2006. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

Tamorlan. “File:Macerina-Barcelona-03.Jpg – Wikimedia Commons”. 2010. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

YouTube. “This Is México – Cacao”. Royal Channel Cancun, 2009. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.