American diplomat and amateur explorer John Lloyd Stevens, recently commissioned Special Ambassador to Central America, would establish a legacy of archaeological expeditions into the beginnings of the Mayan Empire when, in 1939, he stumbled upon Cópan, a royal city of the Mayan Empire located in present-day Honduras (Ferguson 2010). Stevens and co-explorer English architect-artist Frederick Catherwood would spend weeks investigating (and eventually purchasing for $50) this city, but it be several more exhibitions before the Hunal tomb of Yax K’uk Mo’, buried several layers under the state temple, was unearthed. Yax K’uk Mo’, himself a foreign king, was the founder of a five century-long Mayan dynasty, and among his burial possessions laid a ceramic deer effigy container. Its contents: chocolate (Coe and Coe, 1996).
The container, approximately 16’’ by 18’’ by 10’’, is wide-bodied and modeled after a deer. Several holes can be observed on one side, perhaps the points of attachment for a now-decayed handle (Coe and Coe 1996). Resting in the center of this bowl lies a hand-shaped scoop, fashioned from the shell of a spiny oyster. The reddish-brown stains and delicateness of the implement suggest that this tool was likely a ladle, used to remove cocoa powder from the bowl for preparing pinole—a popular gruel-like delicacy made from maize, cacao, and other spices mixed with water. The vessel itself is also stained reddish brown, likely a mixture of cacao with cinnabar pigment used to differentiate cacao products meant for the deceased from the consumables of the living. Liquid chromatography, the only method capable of detecting cacao residues on this pottery given the lack of glyph engravings, confirms this theory by identifying traces of theobromine and caffeine—two compounds only found together in the Old World in the form of cacao. Finally, the artistic style and similarity to other vessels found in Central America suggest that it was imported from Highland Guatemala (Staller and Carrasco 2010).
While many funerary vessels containing cacao have been recorded, the vessel at Yax K’uk Mo’s tomb remains unique in its animal shape. The deer is often associated with the Sun or the hunt, and more glamorous or predatory animals are often tied to royalty (Yax K’uk Mo’ himself is named after two symbolically Mayan birds, k’uk—the quetzal, and mo’—the scarlet macaw). The deer, however, as a product of the hunt and a regular source of food, has also been tied to the maize harvest, so much so that at times, scholars note “deer, maize and peyote are fused into a single symbol complex” (Furst 1971). Maize and cacao’s significance as sources of sustenance were also intertwined, and in this case, it could be speculated that the significance of both the deer and cacao as nourishment were conflated into a vessel meant to sustain the deceased into the afterlife. Indeed, cacao was prevalent in many Mesoamerican mortuary rituals: Mayans were known to be buried with personalized cacao cups and cacao beans, while the living could have consumed cacao during funeral preparations. In this way, symbolism of cacao are present both in the vessel and the contents of this artifact, informing of us of the ritualistic significance of cacao as sustenance provided both to the living and in the afterlife (Seawright 2012).
However, the significance of cacao in Mayan cultures is not exclusively tied to death; cacao connected the Mayans to the gods since the creation itself. Cacao is present in both Mayan and Aztec creation mythology, symbolic representing the beginning of life. In Mayan literature, the gods created man from maize, cacao, or another sustaining plant food and subsequently nourished mankind by providing these foods from the mythical Mountain of Sustenance (Prufer and Hurst, 2007). After the Spanish Conquest, Mayan children were at times baptized with a mixture of crushed flowers, virgin water, and cacao, while Friar Bernandino de Sahagún records Aztec children entering religious school offering cacao drinks to God. Furthermore, cacao was thought of, as Marcy Norton describes, as “essential to… physical, social, and spiritual well-being”; to that end, cacao played a prominent role Mayan social custom, from chokola’j, the act of drinking chocolate together, and tac haa, in which an eligible bachelor invited a potential father-in-law to discuss marriage and drink chocolate (Seawright 2012).
But why does this all matter? From an archaeological perspective, any relic of a past society holds great value. In particular, this deer-shaped vessel is unique in design, and its location in a Cópan burial site bears insights not only into Mayan rituals and culture but also royalty and early Mayan history. But to the everyday, twenty-first century denizen, this vessel has significance as an admonition and a memento. In a society where cacao’s significance has been usurped by commodification, cacao’s history has dragged into the bloodiness of slavery and child labor, and cacao’s taste is often overly diluted with sugar, we as consumers should seek to be more cognizant of our food, both for the sake of sustaining the cultures of our past and for the well-being of producers and consumers alike.
Coe, Sophie, and Michael Coe. 1996. “The True History of Chocolate.” 1996. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=9v86CwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT8&dq=true+history+of+chocolate&ots=-aYamQx9_F&sig=hgJoc7IJ3I1CYqszug4FbsEMZkc#v=onepage&q=true%20history%20of%20chocolate&f=false.
Ferguson, Niall. 2010. “Complexity and Collapse: Empires on the Edge of Chaos.” Foreign Affairs 89 (2): 18–32.
Furst, Peter T. 1971. “Ariocarpus Retusus, the ‘False Peyote’ of Huichol Tradition.” Economic Botany 25 (2): 182–87. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02860078.
Prufer, Keith, and William Hurst. n.d. “Chocolate in the Underworld Space of Death: Cacao Seeds from an Early Classic Mortuary Cave.” ResearchGate. Accessed March 15, 2019. http://dx.doi.org/10.1215/00141801-2006-063.
Seawright, Caroline. 2012. “The Aztecs and the Maya; Where Did the Ritual Use of Cacao Originate?,” 23.
Staller, John, and Michael Carrasco, eds. 2010. Pre-Columbian Foodways. New York, NY: Springer New York. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-0471-3.
Images Cited (in order of appearance):