Tag Archives: Honduras

Chocolate for My Deer: Examination of Mayan Culture through a Burial Vessel

The Deer-Shaped Vessel (left) and accompanying ladle (right) found at Cópan.

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).

The remains of the Hunal Tomb and the temples subsequently built on top at Cópan.

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).

Tac Haa-one of the many chocolate-involving Mayan social customs in which an admirer/suitor would invite and serve chocolate to the potential bride’s father to discuss marriage.

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.

Works Cited:

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):

Image Sources:



Cacao: Then and Now

The influence of chocolate in Mesoamerica was seen in many aspects of Mesoamerican life prior to the arrival of the Spanish to the Americas: it was present in cultural, religious, and economic areas of life in Mayan communities. In Mayan culture, it is clear that they believed that the “gods provided recipes for making cocoa drinks, which gave those drinks high status and political significance”. 1 It is true that many aspects of Mesoamerican life changed after the arrival of Hernan Cortes and the Spanish in what is modern day Mexico and parts of Central America. The strong influence in Mesoamerican culture was one of the aspects of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culture that did survive many of the transformations that occurred once the Spanish began to introduce European culture into the way of life of the Mayans. Although chocolate was still a mainstay in Mesoamerican society after the Spanish arrived, there were many aspects of the role of chocolate that did change from the time that chocolate was seen as a sacred item in Mayan society. One clear example is how in “ancient Maya religion cacao was the first food to grow from the body of the maize god.” 2 This shows how cacao was not only used practically in religious rituals, such as during Mayan marriage and baptism rituals 3, but it held a critical role in the sacred texts and stories that served as the foundation of what quotidian Mayan life was like. Similarly, cacao seeds were also seen as important because they were used as currency which you could use to buy food and other items in Mayan society.4 We see traces of the power that had been assigned to chocolate in modern Mesoamerica—which exemplifies the power that the cacao seeds had in Mayan societies since it was able to maintain a role culturally despite the massive cultural changes that were imposed on indigenous people once the colonial period began. The most striking example of how the role of cacao seeds has largely remained unchanged is how it is still used to make chocolate beverages that are still very similar to the recipes that were being used during the colonial period by the indigenous population.5 Although the essence of the chocolate beverage drink has remained the same since the Spanish conquered the Mayan people, there has been a couple of changes to the original chocolate beverage recipe: the indigenous people now use chocolate tablets when they start making the drink instead of starting from scratch with cacao seeds.6 What is most telling of the evolution of this ingredient is the fact that these tablets are usually purchased and they are made in a factory—quite different from the rigorous process of grounding the kernel and beaten with “water, flavorings, and usually maize to make a drink.” 7 Similar to this aforementioned change in chocolate, indigenous people now add sugar to the chocolate beverage recipes—which is different from the classic Maya hot chocolate and a byproduct of the evolution of hot chocolate once there was European influenced involved8, as you can see in the video published by National Geographic (that can be accessed through https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/north-america/guatemala/anitgua-maya-chocolate-making/ ). Yet, if we fast forward to modern day Mesoamerica we do see a more dramatic change in how current-day Mayans use cacao seeds in their culture and in their society. A significant change we can see is that Mayans no longer use cacao seeds as currency as they used to back in Pre-Columbian times since researchers have not been able to find any 20th century ethnographers that have been able to document the use of cacao as money. 9

An explanation for why people may no longer use cacao as currency is because the new generation of indigenous people in Mexico see a tie between chocolate and poverty since it is so laborious to cultivate and not financially sustainable.10 As mentioned in the video below.

Additionally, there are examples of how much more localized the use of cacao has become in modern Mayan societies. Indigenous communities in Guatemala and Honduras have a cacao market where trade is restricted within the “Maya and Ladino communities in which it is produced or between closely associated areas.” This is in contrast to the use of cacao and cacao-based feasts during feasts that were intended to create sociopolitical alliances between different tribes and different Mayan factions.11 All in all, the connection between cacao and Mayan culture has evolved and/or disappeared, but there are also many characteristics of Mayan culture that have remained the same throughout the years and throughout all of the political and cultural changes that started happening during the Colonia Period. However, it is certain that ever since 1900 BCE12 —the earliest record of cacao seeds, cacao has been a critical part of Mesoamerican culture that has transformed and evolved from the chocolate beverages that the Mayans prepared in Pre-Columbian times to the chocolate bars that indigenous people now use to help emulate the chocolate drinks that their ancestors drank. This is eloquently explained in the video below by Ted-ed.

1 Kristy Leissle, Cocoa (Cambridge: Polity, 2018), 21
2 Cameron L. McNeil, “Introduction,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 14.
3 Ibid, 18.
4 Mary Ann Mahony, review of Chocolate in Mesoamerica, by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2009. Review page 175
5 Cameron L. McNeil, “Traditional Cacao Use in Modern Mesoamerica,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 346.
6 Ibid, 348.
7 Terrence Kaufman and Justeson, “The History of the Word for ‘Cacao’ and Related Terms in Ancient Meso-America,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 117.
8 Gulnaz Khan, “Watch the Ancient Art of Chocolate-Making,” National Geographic, September 11, 2017, Accessed March 14, 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/north-america/guatemala/anitgua-maya-chocolate-making/.
9 Cameron L. McNeil, “Traditional Cacao Use in Modern Mesoamerica,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 356.
10 The Perennial Plate, “An Act of Resistance,” Filmed [February 2014], Vimeo video, 04:03. Posted [February 2014], https://vimeo.com/85727477.
11 Dorie Reents-Budet, “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking among the Ancient Maya,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 209.
12 Ted-ed, “The history of chocolate,” Filmed [March 2017], YouTube video, 04:40. Posted [March 2017], https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibjUpk9Iagk.