Tag Archives: Maya

CHC: The Medicinal and Social Perception of Cannabis and Cacao Consumption

Cacao and Cannabis

Today, we tend to think of cannabis and cacao consumption as a treat or indulgence.  Yet, the use and cultivation of these two plants date back through antiquity. Back then, the beliefs about the purpose of cannabis and cacao consumption was much different and far less restrained by negative social or biological implications.  

While much of the eurocentric understanding of cacao is extrapolated from studying the Aztecs, the Mesoamerican origins of cacao can be traced back even further to the Olmec civilization.  The Olmecs, possible ancestors of the Mayans, created a flourishing society in the humid lowlands of the Mexican Gulf Coast around 1500 BC. The humid, tropical rainforest climate created ideal conditions for growing the Theobroma Cacao Tree, but terrible conditions for archeological preservation.  That being said, linguistics experts have deduced the origins of the word “cacao” to the Mixe-Zoquean language used by the Olmecs in 1000 BC. Further, excavators discovered a stone bowl with chemical remnants of cacao (theobromine) at the Olmec capital city (San Lorenzo) and reasonably conclude they were among the first to discover the chocolate process (Coe & Coe, 84).    

Postdating the Olmecs, The Maya existed from 250 AD until its collapse in the ninth century.  The Maya thoroughly advanced wisdom and is remembered particularly for its contributions to agriculture, food, and spirituality.  Cacao, then pronounced “kakaw,” played an important social role for Mayans, even earning its own hieroglyph. Archaeologists find cacao heavily present in the primary source database, especially in connection with the gods.  In visual and written documents, cacao is presented in a sacred light—something consumed by the gods to support supernatural vitality. Specifically, this is evidenced in the Dresden Codex and Popul Vuh, which both feature cacao in direct connection with the gods.  For this reason, many historians refer to cacao as “the food of the gods.” Drinking chocolate was the premier means of cacao consumption in Mayan society, serving a certain symbolic importance in marriage and fertility rituals. Beyond its connection with the gods, cacao was also considered to be of medicinal value in Mayan society; the Maya used cacao for its digestive, anaesthetic, anti-inflammatory, and energy related benefits (Martin).   

The Aztecs, from 1300-1521 AD, also believed cocoa had a religious significance.  The Theobroma cacao tree was considered divine—a bridge between earth and heaven.  Beyond the ritualistic significance of cacao consumption to connect the Aztecs with the supernatural world, they also used chocolate for medical purposes.  Archaeologists have uncovered Aztec documentation of healing rites including cacao in ancient codices. Two manuscripts specifically, Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams, describe the proper medicinal applications of cacao for physical ailments and spiritual afflictions (Martin).  Cacao was administered in a variety of different ways to treat a range of illnesses, including skin eruptions, fevers and seizures.  Above all, chocolate was believed to foster vitality and improve love.

Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams

The use and cultivation of cannabis dates back through antiquity as well.  In ancient China, 2700 BC, Emperor Shen Neng prescribed tea with cannabis dissolved in it to treat a number of illnesses.  Marijuana was popular as a medicine, not a delicacy. Its effectiveness led to the proliferation of cannabis as medicine throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Africa (Stack).  Primarily, cannabis was used as a stress and pain relief medication—especially effective during childbirth (Prioreschi). Ancient documents reveal a caveat to the overconsumption of marijuana, marking its negative side effects as impotence, blindness and seeing demons.  By the late 18th century, cannabis as medicine made its way to the occidental world as a remedy for inflamed skin, incontinence and venereal disease. Specifically, one Irish doctor named William O’Shaughnessy praised the medicinal benefits of marijuana and preached about its ability to effectively alleviate pain and nausea (Stack).

While cacao played a sacred role in their society, there is ample evidence the Maya used cannabis to understand the universe as well.  Mayan hieroglyphs and art also depict the act of smoking, whether it be tobacco or marijuana. Archaeologists contend the Maya cultivated marijuana in farms and ground cannabis to create psychoactive beverages.  As alluded to earlier, drinking was also the preferred method for cacao consumption in their ancient society. The psychoactive effects of cannabis allowed the Mayans to communicate with the gods and pray off demons.  Similar to the medicinal uses of cacao, cannabis was used to treat bug bites, snake bites, and alleviate other physical ailments (Civilized).

Today, just as our perception of these ancient civilizations, our realms of knowledge surrounding cacao and cannabis are quite different.  As we move forward from ancient times through history, we begin to see the understanding of cannabis and cacao develop alongside disciplines of knowledge.  For example, the further development of scientific methods and documentation of natural phenomena continues to help society understand these plants with a more robust fact base.  While it has been treated as an illicit drug in America for hundreds of years, cannabis has recently been proven to remedy severe medical impairments, such as epilepsy, and alleviate chronic pain, especially for chemotherapy patients (Zurer).

Scientists have found many similarities between chocolate and marijuana.  In 1996, researchers found cacao consumption to activate cannabinoid receptors in the human brain providing users a subtle “high” similar to the effects of marijuana.  While three substances in cacao were proven to activate cannabinoid receptors, the most prevalent finding was an increase in anandamide levels. The paper explains, “anandamide is a lipid that binds to cannabinoid receptors and mimics the psychoactive effects of the drug” (James).  Because chocolate is believed to enhance the effects of cannabis consumption, these findings imply that medical marijuana can be cushioned and moderated by combining the dose with cacao (Zurer).

These findings have affected not only the medical realm, but the legal realm as well; one lawyer sought to recuse his client by arguing the client tested positive for cannabis due to high levels of chocolate consumption (Tytgat, J., Van Boven, M. & Daenens, P.).  While this bogus argument was refuted, it still goes to show the sociopolitical landscape is changing as science elucidates more and more botanical similarities between these two plants.  Perhaps it is time we retreated from our perception of chocolate and marijuana consumption as gluttonous indulgences back to the ancient purpose of fostering wellness.


“Cacao vs Cannabis.” Digital image. Pics for You Evety Day. http://hulufree.top/When-Im-traveling-morning-cacao-and-yoga-is-an-essential-ritual.html.

Civilized. “5 Facts About How Cannabis Was Used by the Mayan People.” YouTube. October 16, 2017. Accessed March 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xHwa3NH6pG4.

Coe, Sophie D. “The True History of Chocolate.” iBooks.

Harvard University. “Marijuana: The Latest Scientific Findings and Legalization.” YouTube. April 04, 2017. Accessed March 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvRf_3Bil0A&t=1943s.

James, J S. “Marijuana and Chocolate.” AIDS Treatment News, 1996.

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, And The Politics Of Food”. Lecture slides. February 6, 2019.

Peake, Allen. “CNN Documentary on Charlotte’s Web, Medical Marijuana Treating Seizure Disorders.” YouTube. February 09, 2014. Accessed March 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxrKyjeClTk&.

Plinio Prioreschi, and Donald Babin. “Ancient Use of Cannabis.” Nature 364, no. 6439 (1993): 680.

Stack, Patrick, and Claire Suddath. “Medical Marijuana.” Time. October 21, 2009. Accessed March 2019. http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1931247,00.html.

Tytgat, J., Van Boven, M. & Daenens, P. Int J Leg Med (2000) 113: 137. https://doi-org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/10.1007/s004140050284

Zurer, Pamela. “Chocolate May Mimic Marijuana in Brain.” Chemical & Engineering News 74, no. 36 (1996): 31-32.

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.

The Humble Origins of Chocolate: Conquest and Complicity

What images does the word “chocolate” call up for you? Many would imagine a perfectly portioned bar of milk chocolate in the fashion of Hershey or Cadbury, other a mousse, yet others a steaming cup of hot cocoa– “chocolate” is absolutely an overdetermined word. It describes a flavor, various pastries and food goods, a scent, sometimes colors, and even specific products, like chocolate bonbons or bars. English borrows the word from Spanish, and Spanish borrows the word from either Maya (chokola’j) and, supposedly, Nahuatl (the mysterious xocoatl)—its exact origins are unclear. (Martin, Lecture, 6 February 2019; Lara, pp. 238; Coe & Coe, pp. 33, 118-19) The etymological history of chocolate, the very first thing one might look at when glancing at a dictionary entry for the word, is from the beginning inextricable from its bloody cultural roots in the conquest of the “New” World by the Spaniards and, later, slavery and colonization in South America, the Caribbean, and Africa.

Figure 1. The history of chocolate
Deanna Pucciarelli
sponsored by TED Ed

This transfiguration of indigenous words for cacao was instigated by a series of early encounters between indigenous peoples in Latin America and European colonizers. Cultural exchanges of this kind occurred in the arenas of trade, food, and religion. Because of the language barrier, many things were based on observations and experiences of, at first, Spaniards, then other Europeans, leading to many misunderstandings that go beyond the confusion of the origins of the word “chocolate.” Europeans did not initially understand the appeal of the bean, finding it bitter, strange, and even “obnoxious.” (Coe & Coe, pp. 109-10).

As more settlers came from Spain to the Americas, creolization1 – occurred not only in terms of race and language, but also in terms of chocolate. The Spaniards acquired a taste for cacao only after sweetening it, heating it, and adding flavors such as cinnamon and anise. This was a departure from the Maya and Aztec ways of consuming cacao, as a cold, frothy, and usually unsweetened beverage commonly flavored with corn, chili peppers, or achiote. (Coe & Coe, pp. 115) While creolization created the rich blend of cultures still present today in Latin America, the more the Spanish desired cacao the further it was distanced from its original cultural position in the area, until it became the commodity it is today.

Cacao was deeply entrenched in the sociocultural fabric of Mayan society, specifically, and, through trade and agriculture, became important to other Mesoamerican societies, like the Aztecs, as well. The plant is thought to have been cultivated by Mesoamerican peoples as early as 1400 BCE. (Leissle, pp. 30) Its consumption indicated high social and political status, and was often a feature of important negotiations and ceremonies. The beans were also used as currency— the money that grew on trees. The cacao tree had strong ties to the Underworld and to death, showing up in both funeral rites and sacrifices.

Figure 2. Map of Mesoamerica

Early European interactions with the indigenous peoples of the Americas resulted in the exotification of indigenous peoples and cultures which extends in many ways to modern, Western perceptions of chocolate. As cacao made it to Europe, Catholics questioned whether the drink made by the Mesoamericans would be a “violation of pre-Communion or Lenten fasts.” (Leissle, pp. 35) It was also consumed in coffee and chocolate houses, important sites for the dissemination of Enlightenment ideas in the 17th century. Then came bar chocolate, a massively popular commodity even today. And, now, with megacorporations controlling chocolate production, the origins of cacao as a revered plant in Mesoamerica could not seem further away. Yet, the Western attraction to the mysterious “other” persists.

Though the modern consumer may not even recognize chocolate as is was originally consumed by Mesoamericans, the way that the industry sells chocolate inadvertently perpetuates the legacy of colonialism. This occurs not only in terms of continued exploitation of the peoples in previously colonized regions through labor practices and control of the market, but also in terms of the language we use to sell and describe chocolate.

Figure 3. Screenshot of Godiva Chocolatiers website
Figure 4. Mayan glyph for cacao – kakaw or kakau

Here, Godiva, a Belgian chocolate company puts its spin on the origins of chocolate. “The Mayans of Central America are believed to be the first to discover cocoa as early as 900 AD,” they say. Note the use of the word cocoa, an Anglicization of cacao which comes from the Mayan kakau. (see Figure 3) There is no mention of the Olmecs, thought to be the first to cultivate cacao, or other Mesoamerican cultures to whom the cacao tree was so important. “They learned that the beans inside the cocoa pods could be harvested and made into a liquid that would become a treasured Mayan treat,” it continues— all of the uses of cacao in Mayan society and its associations with life, death, and the gods, glossed over as consumers are introduced to cacao as a “treasured Mayan treat.”

Godiva is only one of many companies which capitalize on the exotification of the indigeneity of chocolate. These misrepresentations are dangerous to extant cultures in Latin America as well as being caricatures of the ancient Aztec and Maya peoples. While it would be difficult if not impossible to imagine a world without chocolate as we know it today, in all its pre-packaged and artisan forms, complicity with the systems of domination that gave the modern consumer access to it as a product is, however easy a trap to fall into, inexcusable.

1 an effect of colonization involving the cultural mixture of people of Indigenous American, West African and European descent

Works Cited

Maya and Aztec Chocolate Recipes: Authenticity and Origins

A quick search online for “Mesoamerican chocolate recipe” yields a plethora of interesting search results. Recipes range from “Mayan Chocolate Pudding,” a dark chocolate pudding flavored with habanero pepper, allspice, and cinnamon, to “Spicy Aztec Hot Chocolate” which starts off with a typical recipe for hot chocolate but then calls for the fiery addition of chili, cinnamon, and the Mexican spirit Mezcal. A recipe for “Mayan Chocolate Truffles,” described as “dark chocolate truffles with some kick,” contains vanilla, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and coffee liqueur, and are then coated with everything from toasted coconut to ground almonds and even candy melts. Digging deeper, one can even find a video tutorial for Montezuma’s own recipe, which instructs the viewer to mix all the ingredients for hot chocolate together using a blender.


Pictured: Mayan Chocolate Truffles. Would the Maya have prepared similar confections?

While we can appreciate that these modern recipes acknowledge the historical origins of cacao, how closely do they actually resemble the cacao preparations from the Maya and Aztec cultures?

Cacao in the Classic Maya civilization

Cacao was a beverage enjoyed mostly by the nobility during this time. Believed to have been consumed by the gods, it was considered to be a sacred product and played a valuable role in almost every aspect of elite Maya culture. Events such as fertility rites, marriage rituals, and rituals of burial and death were toasted or celebrated with a ceremony of cacao drinking. Serving cacao beverages at feasts were displays of wealth and power, and it was used in negotiations and even political pacts (Leissle 30). It was also believed to have medicinal and healing effects so was often incorporated in healing rituals. Warriors consumed it as a stimulant as it was believed to imbue the warrior with invincible, protective powers. Cacao beans were so valuable that they were used as currency across Mesoamerica, often harvested by commoners who would pay tribute to rulers in beans (Leissle 30). Commoners were also the ones who prepared the cacao beverages for the elite, so there was certainly a class difference between those who produced cacao and those who consumed and enjoyed it.

While many recipes may have existed, customized by the flair of the individual preparing it, cacao was consumed solely as a beverage. Methods of processing the cacao pods were entirely manual and without the tools and machinery that would arrive centuries later with the Industrial Revolution, cacao could not be transformed into the bars or confections that we recognize as chocolate today. Instead, the cacao beans were roasted and ground into a paste and combined with ground maize and hot water. Then the concoction was poured from above from one vessel into another in order to create a foam, which was considered to be the most sacred part of the drink (Coe 48). This drink was typically flavored with ingredients native to the region such as vanilla and achiote, a native spice that imparts a red or orange color (Coe 61-62).

Cacao in the Aztec civilization

In Aztec culture, the cacao beverage was consumed similarly but usually served cold rather than hot (Coe 84). The cacao beans were ground into a powder and mixed with water, then poured from one vessel to another in order to achieve the prized foam. The Aztecs took many more liberties than the Maya when it came to flavoring this drink. Like the Maya, the Aztecs often mixed in ground maize, vanilla, “ear flower,” and achiote, but other flavorings included dried chili powder, allspice, and honey (Coe 86-87). “Ear flower,” a flower that was dried and ground into a powder was a very popular chocolate flavoring that tasted of black pepper possibly with notes of nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon (Coe 88). Another plant that was used was “string flower,” a plant related to black pepper that may have imparted a tarragon or anise flavor to chocolate. Other plants include magnolia flowers and the rose-scented “popcorn flower” (Coe 93-94).

Similar to the customs of the Maya culture, this elite drink was reserved solely for the nobility in the highly stratified Aztec society. As cacao beans were valuable currency, money that literally grew on trees, the drink was strictly consumed by the elite class. Interestingly, warriors were permitted cacao and were even given military rations of cacao ground and pressed into pellets or wafers (perhaps a precursor to the modern-day chocolate bar), signifying their importance and prominence in the Aztec culture (Coe 98).

So how accurate are the modern recipes?

Revisiting the modern recipes found online today, it is highly unlikely that Montezuma himself prepared his own cacao beverage (much less with the use of a electric blender!) as it was usually the commoners who prepared the sacred drink for the nobility.

However, our modern interpretations of these ancient recipes may not have been entirely inaccurate. Of course, the Maya and the Aztecs were not concocting puddings and truffles with their prized cacao. And since sugar only arrived post-Columbian conquest, if the cacao beverages were sweetened it was primarily with honey. The spices in these modern recipes such as chili pepper, allspice, vanilla are not inaccurate as they were all native ingredients utilized during that time period.


Pictured: A modern recipe for Spicy Aztec Hot Chocolate with Mezcal and garnished with a cinnamon stick 

The only curious ingredient that seems to be included in every modern recipe is cinnamon. Cinnamon was not native to the Mesoamerican region and therefore perhaps never encountered by the Maya or the Aztecs. Its inclusion then, while inaccurate, speaks more to our imagination of these ancient beverages. After all, “ear flower” reportedly hinted at notes of nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon. So while we may not be able to easily achieve the exact flavors of this ancient sacred beverage, at least in the United States, we can at least use our imagination.


Works Cited

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

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Lopez-Alt, Kenji J. “Spicy Aztec Hot Chocolate with Chili, Cinnamon, and Mezcal Recipe.” Serious Eats, http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2012/02/spicy-aztec-hot-chocolate-with-chili-cinnamon-mezcal-recipe.html. Accessed 17 March 2019.

“Mayan Chocolate Pudding.” Food & Wine, January 2013, http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/mayan-chocolate-pudding. Accessed 17 March 2019.

“Mayan Chocolate Truffles.” Tasty Kitchen, 9 March 2012, tastykitchen.com/blog/2012/03/mayan-chocolate-truffles. Accessed 17 March 2019.

“Montezuma’s Chocolate Drink, Recipe Rewind, S1E5.” Youtube, uploaded by Recipe Rewind, 28 Sept. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWhorrHUItE.

Comparing culture surrounding cacao in Mayan and Aztec Civilizations

The history of chocolate is something that countless people tend to take for granted in today’s world.  It is very rare to find someone eating a chocolate bar to stop and think, “what elements of this food have had significant historical influence? are the ingredients found in present day chocolate similar to those used millenniums ago? what types of techniques were involved in making chocolate hundreds, if not thousands of years ago?” A large percentage of people do not understand how influential chocolate, more specifically cacao, was during the earliest time periods is production. Furthermore, an awareness of the true history of the culture surrounding cacao.

Mayan and Aztec Production of Chocolate:

Some of the earliest civilizations to implement cacao as a main element of daily diet were the Maya and Aztec people.   It is believed that the first civilization to use cacao was the Olmec people dating back to 1500 BCE. However, it was not until the Maya and Aztec civilizations that the production of cacao was recorded. They would “harvest the beans from cacao trees… ferment and dry them, roast them, remove their shells, and ground them into paste. They often combined this paste with water, cornmeal, chili peppers, and other spices, then poured the spicy, bitter mixture back and forth between two containers to create a frothy head” (Howstuffworks). The “frothy head” was considered the most desirable aspect of the drink to the Maya and Aztec people (Coe & Coe, 2013). The final product had a very bitter taste, but cacao was looked upon in such high regard that the Mayans called it the “food of the gods” (Godiva).

Cacao Uses in Mayan Culture:

Cacao was available to people of all classes, which resulted in the bean making a large presence in the Maya culture. Cacao was consumed, used in marriage rituals, sacrificed to gods, implemented as a currency, placed in graves, and given as medicine.  The Maya consumed the cacao beverage warm.   Royal elites of the Maya would consume the cacao beverage at the end of meals with different spices such as vanilla and flowers. While the middle and lower class would enjoy cacao with less expensive ingredients (Howstuffworks).

In marriage, “the bride would give the bridegroom a small stool painted in colors, and also gives him five grains of cacao” (Coe & Coe, 2013).  Here we see that the exchange of cacao between bridge and groom was used to seal marriage ceremonies. It also important to note cacao was served while the father of the bride and the groom would sit to discuss the marriage (Martin, 2019).

Cacao was often called the “food of the gods”. Furthermore, the Maya worshiped the God, Ek Chuaj (seen below), who was the patron of cacao and had a festival each April.  The sacrifices during the holiday included offerings of cacao (ricochetscience).

            As a currency, cacao beans were used as a bargaining tool to exchange for everyday items like cloths and food. The True History of Chocolate gives insight into the varying prices for different goods. The example, “a rabbit was worth about ten of these “almonds,” eight chicosapote fruits were worth four “almonds,” a slave about a hundred of them, and the services of a prostitute, eight to ten “according to how they agree,” provides a clear value of cacao bean within the Mayan rule (Coe &Coe 2013).

            The final use of cacao was medicine. Cacao was prescribed as a cure for digestive problems, anesthetic, and anti-inflammatory purposes (Martin, 2019).

Cacao Uses in Aztec Culture:

When comparing the Maya and Aztec uses of cacao, we see that there are many overlaps in cultural aspects. Similar to the Maya, Aztec peoples used cacao as a food, currency, divine sacrifice, and for medicinal purposes (Chocolate.org). The main differences between the two cultures is found with in the minor details of the categories mentioned above.  

Unlike the Maya, the Aztec people would consume the cacao beverage cold. Additionally, the cacao drink was not widely spread throughout social classes of the Aztecs. The drink was more expensive to make, due to the importance cacao beans as a main form of currency, so only upper-class citizens would enjoy it frequently. The lower-class citizens would only enjoy cacao on very special occasions (Godiva).

            The Aztec took cacao as currency to different levels compared to the Maya.  As it was the main form of currency and more valuable than gold. The cacao beans were taxed and held a strict price level for trade (Chocolate.org). The cacao was used as a form of “ready cash” which was used to buy anything from small household items to farm animals (Coe & Coe, 2013).

            Lastly, the Aztec would use cacao for a variety of medical treatments, like the Maya, which included fevers, skin eruptions, and seizures (Martin, 2019).

            In the image above we see an Aztec glyphic of two individuals worshiping a cacao tree and its produce. The Maya and Aztec had similar ideologies on the cacao bean as something of divine nature.

            The two Mesoamerican civilizations are the reason chocolate is so popular today. If it wasn’t for the European invasion, the chocolate we eat so much of today could have played an extremely different role in our everyday lives. 

Works Cited:

Source 1

 Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames &

            Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

Source 2

Contributors, HowStuffWorks.com. “The History of Chocolate.” HowStuffWorks,

            HowStuffWorks, 18 Nov. 2007, recipes.howstuffworks.com/food-facts/history-of-


Source 3

The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and Aztecs, www.godivachocolates.co.uk/the-history-of-


Source 4

 “Cacao: The Mayan ‘Food of the Gods’ • Ricochet Science.” Ricochet Science, 14 Apr. 2016,


Source 5

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, And The Politics Of Food”. 2019. Lecture slides.



Khan, Gulnaz, director. Ancient Art of Chocolate Making National Geographic, 11 Sept. 2017,



Picture 1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ek_Chuaj

Picture 2 https://tonantzinchocolate.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/simbolismo.jpg

Cacao and Religion in Ancient Mesoamerica

The presence of cacao in ancient Mesoamerica dates back to the Pre-Classic civilization of the Olmec. Archeologists have been able to study the presence of cacao in ancient Mesoamerica by debunking hieroglyphs, discovering artifacts, and chemically testing for cacao residue. From their studies, they have been able to discern that cacao played an intimate role in ritualistic religious practices. Evidence shows cacao being incorporated in a myriad of ancient ceremonies like marriage, burial, sacrifice, and shaman initiation, dating from the Pre-Classic age through Post-Classic Mesoamerica. The focus of this piece is to explore, further, the connection between cacao and religious practices in ancient Mesoamerica by way of artifacts found by archeologists. Religion played a massive role in the everyday of people in Mesoamerica, as I have come to find out, cacao did too. The first step is understanding what cacao meant to religion is to better understand what exactly the people of the time believed in.

It is important to clarify that,“cacao” for the purpose of this paper is starkly dissimilar to chocolate. The processes ancient Mesoamericans used to consume their cacao were very simple, not many ingredients whatsoever, compared to the cacao to chocolate processes of today. We use it as a decadent treat, whereas they used it primarily as a stimulant (McNiel 82). There was a focused purpose when someone consumed cacao, purposes stated in the preceding section. The ancient Mesoamericans, in particular the Mayans, held cacao in such a high-regard that the importance of cacao of the time was akin to maize (Mahony). It is well understood that maize was more integral in the everyday diet of the Mayan people, however, maize was not integral in the ceremonial processes of the time. Cacao represented much more than sustenance, there was a sacred component to it which is why I became interested in discovering its relationship with cacao in Mesoamerica.

Religion throughout ancient Mesoamerica has remained fairly consistent beginning with the Olmecs, moving to the Mayans, and ending with the Aztecs. Professor Davíd Carrasco, who studies specifically Mesoamerican anthropology at Harvard, suggested this assertion to me through a book recommendation and I find the thesis of the book very compelling. Professor Carrasco turned me to Peter Berger’s Sacred Canopy which aims to tackle the question, “Why did people believe what they did?” When discussing ancient Mesoamerica his primary contention and explanation was “As above, so below” which basically means that ancient Mesoamericans thought that the happiness or discontent of the gods was directly reflected in their earthly ongoings (Berger). In other words, they believed that life was being played on two different levels simultaneously: one being their autonomous action and the other being the will of the gods in the other world. This is commonly referred to as “duality” in anthropology. They used religion to explain the ongoings of the natural world. As a result we have seen a repetition of ritualistic archetypes from all ancient civilizations in attempt to garner the favor of the gods. Even through the years it is noted that the Nahuas made a cacao sacrifice to an effigy of Jesus Christ that the spaniards brought in (Mahony). This offers even more evidence of their religious practices remaining consistent even through severe transition. All in all,  Berger makes a compelling argument as to why ancient Mesoamerican belief has been rather consistent.

The repeated ritualistic archetypes to appease the needs of the gods is where we find chocolate in ancient Mesoamerica. Burial ceremonies were religious in nature (Prufer). Their understanding of death was that it was more of a beginning than an end. Death embarked one’s journey into the other world. In an ancient burial ground dating back to the 5th to 4th century there was a bowl uncovered that had chemical tracings of cacao, discovered in what would have been ancient Maya. The bowl was thought to have possessed the ritual sustenance for that person’s travel into the other world (Prufer). As the person died and moved on to the next life the cacao was the fuel that allowed them to successfully travel to the other worldly side. Consequently, the people that were still alive would continually make sacrifices in order to gain the favor of the past relatives, cacao deities, and other agricultural deities.

Copán is a famous archeological site located in current day western Honduras, in the 5th to 9th century it is understood that they were a part of the Mayan civilization. This site is one of the most famous locations connecting religion to chocolate by way of physical artifacts and hieroglyphs. In Copán we see diagrams and hieroglyphs of cacao trees and other agricultural deities. An interesting discovery in Copán was that the cacao tree was used to help depict their ancestry. Furthermore, there were artifacts that correlated people whom were still alive putting multiple sacrificial ornaments in their past relatives’ tombs. The connection with their ancestors which played a massive role in their religion (McNeil). They would pay respect to the dead and they looked upon their ancestors as having almost god-like impact in the other world, they Mayans would look to their ancestors alongside deities to help them protect and maintain their cacao storages. As a means of protecting their ability to successfully complete their ritualistic practices both religious and social.

I have been very interested in exploring the roots of Mesoamerica because they are my ancestors. Their belief system being so closely tied in with chocolate of all things is fascinating.The implications of rituals has had dramatic effects throughout all ancient Mesoamerican history, it was fruitful finding where cacao finds it place in these repeated archetypes.

Works Cited

Berger, Peter L., 1929-2017. The Sacred Canopy; Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Garden City, N.Y. :Doubleday, 1967. Print.

Rosenswig, R. M. (2008), Cacao in Mesoamerica: A Culture History of Cacao ‐ Edited by Cameron L. McNeil. Bulletin of Latin American Research, 27: 435-437.

Mahony, Mary Ann. “Cacao in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao (review).” Enterprise & Society, vol. 11 no. 1, 2010, pp. 175-177. 

Prufer, Keith M. W. Hurst, Jeffery; Cacao in the Underworld Space of Death: Cacao Seeds from an Early Classic Mortuary Cave. Ethnohistory 1 April 2007; 54 (2): 273–301.



The Worship of Cacao in Pre-Columbian Civilizations

Today we consume chocolate when we crave something sweet, as a warm drink on a cold day, or to acknowledge the ones we love on Valentine’s Day.  Chocolate is a part of our day to day life as an indulgence.  However, the culture of chocolate has developed and changed throughout the centuries.  The first uses and production of cacao can be tracked all the way back to Pre-Columbian civilizations where it was valued greater than a delicious treat.  Chocolate and cacao were staples in Pre-Columbian traditions, religion, status, and health and are portrayed in several artifacts and evidence we use to study the history today.

Thanks to companies such as Hersey’s or Ghirardelli, chocolate is consistently at an easy access and takes just minutes to retrieve from a nearby convenience store.  The process of chocolate making has not always been this simple and to Pre-Columbian civilizations, the making of cacao was a unique experience and the end result was never a bar of milk chocolate.  There were various methods of using cacao beans depending on the outcome these people desired.  In “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe”, it is expressed that cacao could be made into ritual offerings, beverages, and even currency during this time period.  Inscriptions on “monogrammed vases”, such as the one below, strongly reflect how the Mesoamericans “invested meaning in cacao” through their consumption and production (Martin and Sampeck, 39).  Through these and many other inscriptions, we are able to understand the presence of cacao and chocolate through one’s life during marriage rituals, religious practices, and at funerals.  

“Princeton Vase”, a Maya chocolate-drinking cup

At marriages, chocolate beverages were shared between the groom and the bride’s father during a pre-martial discussion.  In contrast, cacao was dried and dyed red during funeral processions and was believed to ease the soul into the afterlife, as portrayed in the image below. These chocolate beverages were prepared in a way very sacred to Mesoamericans.  It was made with a frothy foam that was believed to be for the soul.

“Codex Nuttal”, Mixtec funeral scene with funeral procession

Cacao was highly emphasized in religion with the Mayas as they believed “cacao was discovered by the gods in a mountain and was to be given to the people following their creation,” (St Jean, 1).  Ek Chuah was believed to be the Cacao God and the cacao tree resembled one of the Maya’s most prized possessions.  Other Maya gods, such as the Maize God were often represented as cacao pods and trees in inscriptions revealing the importance of these Pre-Columbian rituals and beliefs. The term “World Tree” is used to describe the center of the universe connecting Gods, Sky, Earth and the Underworld. The World Tree was also essential for maintaining the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.  Often, deities are represented as these World Trees in several artifacts. Different civilizations had trees that they believed was their World Tree and for cacao-growing regions, it was the cacao tree. 

The Maize God as a cacao pod on a Maya vase

As previously mentioned, cacao was also used as currency during this era. An Aztec document, the Nahuatl, contains a list of conversions from cacao beans to other various goods. “A male turkey is worth 200 cacao beans. A hare or forest rabbit is worth 100 cacao beans each.A small rabbit is worth 30.  One turkey egg is worth 3 cacao beans. An avocado newly picked is worth 3 cacao beans; when an avocado is fully ripe it will be equivalent to one cacao bean,” (Nahuatl, 1545).  According to “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe”, this was likely due to a currency crisis and a lack of small denominations (Martin and Sampeck, 41). In fact, cacao was also the target of counterfeiting and Mesoamericans would often empty the beans and fill them with mud of the equivalent weight.  Cacao was so precious to these individuals that it was difficult for those with cacao plants to give up this good in exchange for something else.  For this reason, cacao was a very practical instrument of currency, (A Tasty Currency, 8).

The importance of cacao in the Pre-Columbian era can be examined in artifacts and documents dating back to the 15thcentury. Their beliefs and culture revolved around these trees and pods that they idolized from birth to death and everything in between.  The production meant much more to them than imagining a Hersey’s chocolate factory spitting out wrapped desserts.  The Mayas and Aztecs worshipped their World Tree and chocolate as a beverage, a death rite, a currency, and the representation of their Gods. 

Work Cited

Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘food of the gods’.” February 6 2018.

Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, no. special issue 3, 2015, pp. 37–60., doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.

“Museum of the National Bank of Belgium.” A Tasty Currency: Cocoa – Museum of the National Bank of Belgium, http://www.nbbmuseum.be/en/2013/03/kakao.htm.

St Jean, Julie. “Medicinal and Ritualistic Uses for Chocolate in Mesoamerica – HeritageDaily – Archaeology News.” HeritageDaily, 4 May 2018, http://www.heritagedaily.com/2018/02/medicinal-and-ritualistic-uses-for-chocolate-in-mesoamerica-2/98809.

Cacao’s Importance in the Mythnohistory of Ancient Mesoamerican Society

Cacao has become a relatively ubiquitous commodity today, but it once held a far more important role, as a significant part of Mayan and Aztec culture and history. It could even be said that cacao was became one of the most fundamental motifs in helping Mesoamerican’s understand and orient themselves to the world. Cacao iconography was found throughout the region in pre-Columbian times. It is related to numerous themes found on Mesoamerican vessels and other objects. This includes themes such as fertility and sustenance, sacrifice and regeneration, as well as embodiment and transformation (Martin). The current scientific name of cacao, Theobroma cacao, translates to ‘food of the gods’, a modern hint to its historical importance to religion.

Possibly the most important link that cacao has to religion within Mesoamerican society is the origination story in the Popol Vuh, a history of Mayan origination that was eventually transcribed by a Dominican Friar Francisco Ximénez. The Popol Vuh contains many references to cacao and is commonly translated as ‘the book of the people’, indicating its core connection to the people and through association, the importance of cacao.

Here is an animated narration of the Popol Vuh, including depictions of cacao important to the mythologic history of the Maya

According to a version of the story, Huracan and other deities created a heart of the land, and planted a tall tree connecting the sky and the earth. The roots penetrated into the underworld, the trunk was at the surface, and the branches reached up to the heavens. In some versions of this story the tree is even partially depicted as a cacao tree, suggesting that cacao connects the underworld, the earth, and the heavens. A pair of twins who ended up becoming the sun and the moon were conceived when their father spit on their mother’s hand. Their father in fact is frequently depicted as a cacao tree, and the twins journey is made in order to resurrect their father from the underworld. With the sun and the moon created, the deities were then able to successfully create humans from maize. The story shows how Mayans looked to cacao in order to help define their own creation and existence.

Depicted above is the father of the twins in the form of a cacao tree, who is commonly known as the Maize god

In addition to helping define their place in the world, cacao was also used to help them clarify their relationship to death. Cacao iconography is frequently seen outside the realm of drinking vessels for celebration or in terms of the origination story of the Maya. Many cacao depictions can be found around burial sites. Trees were planted over newly laid graves as tokens of future resurrection (Martin). We can see depictions of cacao trees on the sarcophagus of Pakal, an important Mayan figure. Saplings emerging from cracks in the ground can be identified as cacao. The growth of cacao here is symbolic or resurrection and the cycle of new life after death. Cacao is an important metaphorical symbol of rebirth in Mayan iconography (Grofe). In similar depictions of cacao trees, they are anthropomorphized to represent ancestors. Looking to the lifecycle of cacao, Mayans were able to project meaning into their own death, with cacao used as a primary motif in this understanding.

This is an image of Pakal’s sarcophagus which depicts cacao trees, an important motif in death and resurrection for the maya

Cacao became an integral part of Mayan religion through the way it could orient the people to the world around them. In itself, cacao is not inherently significant, but as a result of its importance in use and ubiquity in Mayan culture, cacao was an easy motif to use in their history and understanding of the world. It became a way for them to look at how they came into existence as well as begin to understand the role of death and new life. As a result of this role, cacao became an important motif in the iconography of Mesoamerica.

Work Cited

Grofe, Michael J. “The Recipe for Rebirth: Cacao as Fish in the Mythology and Symbolism of the Ancient Maya.” Famsi.org, 2007, http://www.famsi.org/research/grofe/GrofeRecipeForRebirth.pdf.

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

Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld.” Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld, 2005, http://www.ecoyuc.com.mx/articles.php?task=detail&aid=30.

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:



The Movement of Cacao and its Contributions to Today’s Contradictory Chocolate Culture

Chocolate. Convenient, but luxurious. Heartwarming, yet harmful to health. Innocently childish, but sinfully sexual. Rich and elite, yet somehow democratized. The cultural impact and social connotations of chocolate are about as diverse and confounding as the chemical makeup of the cacao beans themselves. Metaphorically and physically, it seems as if chocolate can take on any form we impose on it. It has no strict definition, so it either contributes to the confusing complexity of our culture today or is oversimplified through the imposition of a specific but incomplete structure. One might wonder how and why chocolate, specifically, so profoundly developed these odd cultural characteristics in the Western world.

The development of the role of chocolate in society today ties fundamentally back to the effect of the spread of chocolate from its Mesoamerican home to Europe, when the functionality of chocolate shifted and developed into what we know today. Whereas all aspects of chocolate production and consumption were intertwined and fundamentally connected in Mesoamerican society, its spread to Europe caused an irreversible disconnect between all stages of the chocolate experience. Chocolate no longer served as a reflection of or connection to humanity and society. Instead, it took on an exotic quality, able to be molded into the desires of the person.  It became a social construct and developed a standardized, homogenous cultural trap for Westerners, both fulfilling and now defining their own desires rather than reflecting it.

In Mesoamerican society, where cacao was first cultivated and consumed, cacao served as a pillar of the social, cultural, and religious structures and was as a crucial reflection of the state of society as a whole (Coe 17, 39-40). Mesoamerican people, specifically the Aztec and Maya, integrated cacao into every portion of their life and were connected to cacao and chocolate at every stage of its harvesting, consumption, or use otherwise. Cacao served as a currency, a luxury food for the elite, a powerful source of energy for warriors, a symbol of religious significance, and a deep and meaningful connection to the significance and origins of life (Leissle 30-32). All members of society were aware of its role at every stage of development and consumption and felt a personal stake in maintaining and cherishing the importance of the cacao plant. Each person’s life was intrinsically connected to that of the cacao plant (Coe 41-42). Cacao reinforced the social structure, the culture, and the way of life, and consequently also reflected it.

However, cacao’s connection to European societies was intrinsically different. Europeans were introduced to cacao with prejudice, with a mindset already in place that would forever change the way that they interact with the plant. Their goals in traveling to the Americas were to find cures and remedies for all that seemed to be plaguing their own societies. They were looking for sources of wealth, medicine, romance, and more (Coe 96).  And with such a strong, desperate desire to find these things, they ended up fabricating them out of whatever they found, especially cacao. The first Europeans to “discover” cacao already had a destiny planned out for cacao before even setting eyes on it, and this destiny was what they brought back to their home.

What does this mean for the contribution of cacao and chocolate to Europe’s culture? Clearly, since the very beginning, chocolate served as a mode of fabricating a reality that fit the wishes and desires of Europeans. It served as an exotic, luxurious drink of the elite (Leissle 35-36). It served as a medicine, a cure-all for the various ailments that plagued European society (Coe 126-129). It was simultaneously sexualized (Coe 171) for adults and later purified for children. It was politically, religiously, and medically debated (Leissle 35). Chocolate could be anything and everything. Since Europeans felt no historical, traditional, or other connection to cacao, they had complete discretion over the role it played in their own lives. As this power fell into the hands of millions of Europeans, the role of cacao was suddenly no longer well-defined. Chocolate became a little bit of everything, but it thus fell victim to not truly being much of anything. Because of this, it escapes specific categorizations and is associated with general contradicting characteristics (sensuality, wealth, luxury, innocence, etc.). Take, for example, a Ferrero Rocher advertisement, displaying chocolate as a luxury for the wealthy (Ferrero Rocher). Another advertisement, released by Sainsbury, depicts quite the opposite scenario where chocolate is meant to warm the hearts of the jaded common men fighting in WWI (Sainsbury’s).

Ferrero Rocher Commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jld1rpsrtSI

Sainsbury Commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWF2JBb1bvM

Or consider, for instance, a Godiva commercial where chocolate is advertised as a highly gendered, sexualized product (Godiva Chocolates). Yet, we can quickly turn to a Cadbury commercial that ties chocolate to innocent young children and family values (Cadbury):

Godiva Commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfA1iAgPczY  

Cadbury Commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0eEqeizNCA

Curiously, as early Europeans defined cacao and chocolate culture, they were unconsciously setting themselves up to later be dominated by the same product that they once controlled. Besides its enticing flavors, the ability to fit any desire gradually made chocolate extremely popular, which transferred power back to cacao. The Western world trapped itself in a generalizing, homogenifying culture defined by chocolate’s cultural associations. Today, we see that chocolate has grown so powerful that now it defines for us the contradictory culture that we initially created for it.

One of the clearest examples of this is how cacao’s role changed in the reinforcement of class structure. In Mesoamerican society, cacao reinforced strict social dichotomies, mainly through how each class interacted with the substance (Leissle 33) (Martin and Sampeck 39-40). The chocolate drink and cacao cakes were for the nobility and warriors (Coe 33, 76, 95).  Lower classes did not consume it often (Coe 95), but they were fundamentally connected to cacao ecologically, financially (as a currency), and symbolically (Leissle 30). No matter the class, everyone was aware of every step of cacao harvesting, use, and value addition. This universal awareness of cacao’s role in society seemed to create a very transparent social structure.

When cacao moved to Europe, it took on a different way of reinforcing class structure. Cacao production was moved to far away plantations in Sao Tome, Principe, Ghana, Nigeria, Côte D’Ivoire, and more (Martin and Sampeck 49-50). Cacao stopped reflecting society or connecting cacao and humanity. We are no longer familiar with who grows it, how it is made, and how it affects us. We have trapped ourselves in a world of mirrors, where all that is visible is our final personal interaction with the product. All else is hidden behind closed doors. Europeans could define the role that chocolate played; they could show what they wanted, hide what they wanted, cherish some aspects, and spit on others. But, fragmenting cacao’s value and social impact inherently fragmented humanity as well.

It is common in this day and age to believe that ancient societies like those of the Aztec and Maya were incredibly powerful, stable, and knowledgeable. It appears as if these people held the key to life, youth, health, happiness, and more, but this is not necessarily true. The Maya and Aztec appeared successful because their lifestyle was centered around traditions and objects that dated back centuries, possibly even millenia. In contrast, with the diversity of concepts, foods, objects, and more that the Europeans had been introduced to which had no traditional or fundamental connection, they were essentially given the incredible power to decide for themselves how to incorporate each new discovery into their own society. By pure nature of the situation, as we see with cacao specifically, out of a stable and established culture grew a fluid, moldable, and complex one that has trapped Westerners in a contradictory culture that now ironically defines their roles for them.

Works Cited:

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

Cadbury. “Cadbury – Mum’s Birthday TV Advert – 2018 (60 secs).” YouTube, Cadbury, 12 Jan. 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0eEqeizNCA.

Ferrero Rocher. “Ferrero Rocher: Christmas Greetings.” YouTube, Ferrero Rocher, 29 Nov. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jld1rpsrtSI.

Godiva Chocolates UK. “New Godiva Masterpieces Chocolates. Chocolate Never Felt so Good.” YouTube, Godiva Chocolates UK, 3 Oct. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfA1iAgPczY.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, no. Special issue 3, 2015, pp. 37–60., doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.

Sainsbury’s. “1914 | Sainsbury’s Ad | Christmas 2014.” YouTube, Sainsbury’s, 12 Nov. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWF2JBb1bvM.