Tag Archives: Maya

Epic Chocolate: Chocolate in Mythology, Rites, and Reality

            Cacao was an almost divine substance to the Classical Maya, often venerated as the “food of the gods.”[1] This was not without reason as cacao doesn’t only taste good, it also provides a myriad of medicinal benefits. Many Mayan myths and rituals were based off the existence of cacao, from the myth of creation to rites of death. Like all myths, Mayan myths involving chocolate have some basis in fact. In this post, I will explore two Mayan myths –the myth of the Hero Twins and the revival of the Maize God– and explain their relationship to Mayan rites and the real-world benefits of cacao.

            All three myths and rites discussed in this post are part of the greater creation myth of the Maya. This Smithsonian video sums up the creation myth, and briefly describes some of the mythology behind the stories in this post:

Smithsonian video about the Mayan myth of creation

The Hero Twins

            The video from the Smithsonian somewhat describes the Hero Twins’ relationship with cacao – they were born from it. The Popul Vuh narrates the divine origin of cacao, with the cacao tree as the embodiment of the Maize God and cacao as the seed with which he impregnates an Underworld maiden, who then gives birth to Hunahpu and Xbalanque, the Hero Twins.[2] The Hero Twins were, quite literally, born from cacao. Their lives are subsequently chronicled in the Popul Vuh, in which they are described as, among other things, great ball players,[3] and strong and witty warriors.[4]

The Mayans likely believed that those traits of the Hero Twins could be transferred to themselves when they used cacao, the fruit responsible for the life of the Hero Twins. Warriors who consumed cacao before battle were energized and considered invincible, and cacao pods were often worn as a form of spiritual protection, or as a costume for ball games.[5] This is consistent with the reality of cacao – cacao contains methylxanthines like caffeine and theobromine, and methylxanthines are shown to have stimulant effects.[6] Therefore, it is quite likely that the consumption of cacao was beneficial to warriors and ball players, and thus easily connected with the customs of the Mayans and their myths.

The Revival of the Maize God

            After getting killed by the gods of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, the Maize God was decapitated, and his head was placed into a barren tree. The tree, which had never borne fruit until that point, flourished and became covered in round fruit indistinguishable from the head of the Maize God, turning into the calabash tree.[7] It is likely that the “calabash tree” in which the head of the Maize God was placed was a general cauliflory tree, as the Maize God was able to produce cacao for birthing the Hero Twins. The resurrection of the Maize God was the success of the Hero Twins. This late-Classical codex-style plate depicts the Hero Twins aiding the Maize God in his escape from Xibalba:

Codex-style plate depicting the escape of the Maize God

The athletically gifted Hero Twins defeated the gods of Xibalba in a ball game, enraging the gods so much that they slew the twins. Yet, this was part of the twins’ ingenious plan, as they enlisted the aid of men stuck in Xibalba to grind up their bones and throw them in one of the rivers running through Xibalba. Once the twins’ bone dust settled in the river, they were reborn with godly powers, that they used to outwit, overpower, and slay the gods of Xibalba, opening up a path for their father, the Maize God, to come back to life.[8] The Hero Twins were not only able to travel into and out of Xibalba safely, but were also able to defeat the evil gods.

It is quite likely that the Mayans believed that the Hero Twins, those born of cacao, would provide some protection for when the Mayans died and traveled to Xibalba. Thus, cacao was an important part of funeral rites – people, particularly royals, were buried with chocolate drinking vessels filled with beverages derived from cacao, meant to spiritually ease their transition into Xibalba.[9]

Rio Azul Vessel

The famous Rio Azul vessels pictured above, found in the grave of a dead lord and believed to have contained several types of chocolate drinks, are a great example of this.[10] They were the first physical, chemical evidences of Mayans being buried with chocolate beverage, and, along with other codex depictions, show the importance of chocolate in funerary rites. This connection between funerary rites and myth is once again consistent with the reality of the benefits of cacao. Cacao contains epicatechin, a compound whose effects are similar to a mild anesthetic,[11] and can serve to create normal blood flow in humans, especially those with high blood pressure.[12] For those close to death, cacao would provide some amount of relief, and would help ease them into their deaths, and thus into Xibalba.

[1] Coe & Coe, 17.

[2] S. Martin, 164.

[3] Popul Vuh, Chapter 9.

[4] Popul Vuh, Chapter 13.

[5] C. Martin, Lecture 2, Slide 52.

[6] Franco et al.

[7] S. Martin, 164.

[8] Popul Vuh, Chapter 12-14. 

[9] C. Martin, Lecture 2, Slide 41; Coe & Coe, 41.

[10] Coe & Coe, 41.

[11] C. Martin, Lecture 2, Slide 53.

[12] Hooper et al.

Text Sources

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

Franco, Rafael, et al. “Health Benefits of Methylxanthines in Cacao and Chocolate.” Nutrients, vol. 5, no. 10, 2013, pp. 4159–4173., doi:10.3390/nu5104159.

Goetz, Delia, and Sylvanus G. Morley. Popul Vuh. Plantin Press, 1954.

Hooper, Lee, et al. “Effects of Chocolate, Cocoa, and Flavan-3-Ols on Cardiovascular Health: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Trials.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 95, no. 3, 2012, pp. 740–751., doi:10.3945/ajcn.111.023457.

Martin, Carla. Lecture 2: Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”. Lecture, February 5, 2020.

Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica a Cultural History of Cacao, by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2006, pp. 154–183.

Multimedia Sources

Hall, Grant D., et al. “Cacao Residues in Ancient Maya Vessels from Rio Azul, Guatemala.” American Antiquity, vol. 55, no. 1, 1990. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/281499.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “Codex-Style Plate.” Codex-Style Plate – Works – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, collections.mfa.org/objects/36320.

Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, The Creation Story of the Maya. YouTube, 14 June 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jb5GKmEcJcw.

The Princeton Vase as a Clue to the Significance of Cacao in Mayan Society

Art reflects the values and mores of a society. By analyzing ancient artworks, we can learn much about a culture. Art from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, for example, reflect the important role of wine in ceremonial life. These ancient artworks depict wine gods, royal feasts, wedding celebrations, and funeral rites with wine vessels prominently displayed. An analysis of artwork from ancient Mayan society reveals that, rather than wine, the Mayan people prized chocolate. Indeed, chocolate appears to function in an almost identical role as wine did in those other ancient societies, taking on significant roles in religion, celebrations, court life, and even funeral processions. Dating from 670 to 750 CE, the Princeton Vase subtly communicates the sacred and all-encompassing nature of cacao in the Maya civilization.

The Princeton Vase

The Princeton Vase, depicting a woman making the prized foam of a chocolate beverage by pouring the liquid back and forth between two vessels (Courtesy of the Princeton University Art Museum)

The Princeton Vase features several scenes, including a representation of royal life, one of chocolate beverage-making, and one mythological proportions. On one side of the vase, an elderly god without any teeth sits on a throne within a palace, which is represented by the cornice above him and the pier behind him. Curtains, which were used as doors in the ancient Mayan society, are pulled up to display the scene. Known as God L among scholars, this figure wears a shawl and a hat ornamented with owl feathers and an owl. God L ruled the underworld and was also a patron god of tobacco and merchants (Princeton). Five female figures, who may be concubines, surround him, and a rabbit scribe sits below him, writing in a book.

To the right of the king, a woman stands bent over with a vessel like the Princeton Vase in both size and shape, pouring a liquid down into what is probably another vessel – unfortunately, that part of the vase has been eroded. This scene likely depicts the common method of preparing the chocolate beverage that this vessel served at the time. This is the first known picture of a chocolate beverage being made, showing the pouring back and forth between vessels that was used to create a prized foam (Coe).

The next scene is that of two men wearing detailed masks and holding axes decapitating an unclothed bound figure, who has a serpent coming out of him to bite one of the executioners. This scene resembles a section of the Popol Vuh, a Mayan mythological text written in the 1500s about the Hero Twins who trick the gods of the underworld into requesting their own decapitations (Princeton). The text at the upper edge of the vessel consecrated it and specified that the vase was intended for drinking “maize tree” chocolate, in addition to naming its owner (a lord called MuWaan K’uk’). The vase would have been used in “courtly feasts” like the one displayed on it (Princeton).

The significance of cacao

As depicted on the vase, chocolate served a social function in Mayan society. Converting the cacao pod to a chocolate beverage was a time-consuming and laborious process that brought people together. While co-directing an archeological project in Mexico, anthropologist Joel Palka, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, still meets people who create chocolate as a family tradition and cultural practice. This custom, he says, is “part of their identity” (qtd. in Garthwaite). Cacao drinks in Mayan society were associated with high status and special events, including many rituals (Garthwaite). These beverages were even involved in marriage, both in dowries and the ceremony itself (Martin). In Guatemala, early records of Mayan marriages show that sometimes a woman would have to make a cacao beverage to prove that she was capable of making it with the proper froth (Garthwaite). Cacao also became integrated into religion and law, with recovered paintings from the time showcasing its use in mythological scenes and court proceedings (Garthwaite). The beans were also used as a form of currency, based on archaeologist Joanne Baron’s analysis of Mayan artwork from about 691 CE to 900 CE (Learn). Lastly, cacao was considered important enough that it even traveled to the underworld, with the deceased’s body surrounded by pottery dishes, vases, and bowls, of which the latter two often contained several different types of chocolate beverages (Coe). Cacao was a constant in Mayan society, present for all major milestones, special occasions, and transactions, even in death.

A man pays his taxes with cacao beans (Courtesy of Open Culture)

The revealing nature of the Princeton Vase

The Princeton Vase informs us of the centrality of chocolate to Mayan life. By including a woman making a chocolate beverage with a tall cylindrical vessel just like the Princeton Vase alongside scenes of death, heroism, godliness, and court life, the vase’s creator emphasizes the lofty level at which Mayans regarded chocolate. Moreover, a post-Conquest source attributes the invention of the processing of cacao to someone named Hunahpú (Coe), which just so happens to be the name of one of the Hero Twins from the Popol Vuh who is thought to be depicted on the vase. In a subtle, understated fashion, this vase pays homage to the mythological creation of chocolate, and tells of the earthly ways chocolate presented itself in the life and death of royals and gods.


Modern chocolate shaped like Mayan glyphs, displaying the convergence of modern and ancient (Courtesy of Science Magazine)

Today, cacao is prominent in Western society, but it is an everyday treat for all, from children to adults and the poor to the wealthy. While enjoyed by many, it is not elevated in contemporary society. For the Mayans, however, it was sacrosanct and vital to religious rituals, feasts for royalty, weddings, funeral offerings, and economic currency. This crucial role of cacao is depicted in Mayan art, which reflects the values and customs of Mayan society. The Princeton Vase exemplifies this phenomenon by linking the act of creating a chocolate beverage to gods, heroes, feasting, and death, showcasing the enormous cultural significance of cacao.

Works Cited

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

Garthwaite, Josie. “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Feb. 2015, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/.

Learn, Joshua Rapp. “The Maya Civilization Used Chocolate as Money.” Science Magazine, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 27 June 2018, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/06/maya-civilization-used-chocolate-money#.

Marshall, Colin. “How the Ancient Mayans Used Chocolate as Money.” Open Culture, 8 Oct. 2018, http://www.openculture.com/2018/10/ancient-mayans-used-chocolate-money.html.“The Princeton Vase.” Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University, artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/objects/32221.

Hate Hershey’s? The Changing Taste of Chocolate Throughout History

As both an international student and self-professed chocolate lover, I simply cannot stand the taste of Hershey’s. In a nutshell, I would rather eat no chocolate at all than consume a Hershey’s product; quite the statement for a big chocolate fan. Throughout history, events which may have seemed insignificant at the time have had drastic impacts on the ways in which we perceive chocolate around the world today. We often talk about the different types of chocolate which exist, but we rarely discuss (and explain) the differences in tastes of chocolates both today and how these have evolved throughout history. Our society seems to understand that chocolate today is much sweeter than it was in the past, but the true narrative is much more nuanced than that. Furthermore, given chocolate’s incredible presence in our generation, a question we can ask ourselves is: did the recipe for chocolate adapt to changing taste preferences, or did these preferences change as a result of chocolate’s intense popularity? Upon research, it seems as though the answer is likely a combination of the two, with different time periods presenting different directions of causality. In this blog post, we can briefly examine events from the first tasting of chocolate thousands of years ago to the giant manufacturers we see in the world today; discussing what contributed to such a changing taste and its unexpected effects on the rest of the world.

The first Mesoamerican cultivation of cacao was thought to be as long ago as 1500 BC by the Olmec (likely Mayan ancestors). During the classical period of 150-900 AD, the Mayans were documented for using cacao (or, “kakaw”) in many of their practices, including marriage rituals, funerals and other sacred gatherings. It appears as though cacao was used for more spiritual and practical purposes rather than the primary purpose of taste it is used for today. However, even centuries ago there are instances where it seems as though cacao was indeed exploited for its unique taste. Despite much of the literature stating that cacao was consumed solely as a drink in Mayan society, it was also used as a flavoring in food; considered a spice rather than simply a food in its own right.

Many of us understand that chocolate was not always sweet. In fact, sugar was only introduced into chocolate in the 16th century by the Spaniards, after their conquest of the Aztecs. The addition of sugar allowed the unfamiliar bitterness that Europeans did not enjoy to be counteracted and thus minimized. Chocolate would likely not have been accepted as a normal beverage by the Spanish had it remained cold, bitter, and unsweetened. It became heated, sweetened with cane sugar, and spiced with more familiar substances such as cinnamon. (Coe & Coe 250).

% of Colonial European Chocolate Recipe with Specific Ingredients: Carla Martin 2020

Britain commonly used cinnamon as an addition to chocolate in early colonial times; even more so than the more common vanilla (and in some cases, sugar) that we associate chocolate with today. This was, in part, due to Britain’s proximity and colonial ties to Asia, where cinnamon was endemic. It is clear that chocolate has geographically distinctive tastes, but why is this not the case for many other foods? Sampeck & Thayn suggest that this is primarily as a result of the fact that cacao has an unusual transformational ability, where it can be liquid, solid, scent and flavor (73). They argue that this made cacao a “colonial superingestible,” allowing for divergent (yet often connected) tastes.

This is just an example of how a change in consumer taste demographics can result in a fundamental changing of the chocolate recipe; presenting a case for causality in this direction. As another example, in the US, annual sugar consumption per person rose drastically from 2lbs in 1800, to 123lbs in 1970, to its current peak of 152lbs today. In all the societies to which it was introduced, sugar started out as a glamorous luxury for the rich – then worked its way down to the middle class, before becoming a staple for even the poor (Mintz 122). As these transitions occurred, its production increased; and so did its inclusion into chocolate recipes.

US Sugar Consumption Over Time: Stephan Guyenet and Jeremy Landen, Whole Health Source 2012

But this still begs the question: why do I (and my other international friends) have such a visceral distaste for North American chocolate? The answer lies in the history of Hershey’s, and how its creation shaped the taste buds of Americans today. In 1903, Milton S. Hershey and John Schmalbach discovered a method to create chocolate quicker – and therefore cheaper – than the Europeans were able to do so during the same time period (D’Antonio 108). However, one noticeable difference came to fruition as a result: the taste. D’Antonio states: “From the very beginning, Hershey’s milk chocolate has had a distinctive flavor. It is sweet, like the others, but it also carries a single, faintly sour note” (108). The added acidity that D’Antonio describes began as the result of the fermentation of milk fat; an unanticipated byproduct of Schmalbach’s process of slow and low-heat evaporation. D’Antonio adds: “Anyone who knew Swiss milk chocolate would have detected the unusual taste and may have found Hershey’s candy unpleasant. But in the mouths of people who had never tried the stuff made in Europe, Hershey’s milk chocolate would be a revelation” (108). The process of scaling-up chocolate for North American production is ultimately what gave Hershey’s its distinct flavor. The mass-production giant that it is, Hershey’s has come to define the taste of chocolate for Americans today. It’s incredible that an entire nation’s perception of chocolate was decided at the exact moment Milton S. Hershey decided to enlist the help of John Schmalbach on a whim; disregarding the chemists who had previously failed him. Had that process not been discovered in their random experimentation, it is likely Americans would have a vastly different taste of chocolate today. This is just an example of how the causality between changing tastes and changing recipes of chocolate can be reversed; the recipe/preparation techniques helped shape the taste of an entire nation.

The Chocolate Wars: American vs British Cadbury, Vanity Fair 2015


  1. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2007[1996].
  2. Sampeck, Kathryn E., and Jonathan Thayn. Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica. University of Texas Press, 2017.
  3. Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Viking, 1985.
  4. D’Antonio, Michael. Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams. Simon & Schuster Paperback, 2006.
  5. Spices: Exotic Flavors and Medicines (Chocolate), UCLA, 2002, https://unitproj.library.ucla.edu/biomed/spice/index.cfm?displayID=4
  6. CHART OF THE DAY: American Per-Capita Sugar Consumption Hits 100 Pounds Per Year, Business Insider, 2012, https://www.businessinsider.com/chart-american-sugar-consumption-2012-2?r=US&IR=T
  7. Martin, Carla. Colonial European Chocolate Recipe Ingredients, Chocolate Expansion, Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. Lecture Slide 30. Spring Academic Year, 2020.
  8. The Chocolate Wars: American vs British Cadbury, Vanity Fair, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lUkZH2pIYM

Putting Chocolate Into an Historical Context

When you bite into a chocolate bar, you are probably thinking something along the lines of “Yum, this bar of sugar is delicious” or “I’m on period, I deserve this”. Well, I’m sorry to say, but I am here to ruin chocolate for you. As you bite into that chocolatey sweetness, have you ever paused to think about where chocolate comes from? The origin of what we now call chocolate are racist, violent, and complex. Chocolate as we know it today would not exist without slavery and the forced servitude of entire groups of people around the world.

Chocolate is made from cacao beans and, as far as we can tell, originated with the Olmec in what is now southern Mexico some three thousand years ago. It is theorized that they were the first civilization to make chocolate from cacao (Coe, 37). Cacao was incredibly important in both Maya and Aztec cultures. In ancient Maya society, cacao was consumed as a beverage and used as a flavoring for food. It was usually drunk from tall, cylindrical vase and these jars were often buried with their owners.

Vase for drinking chocolate

Meanwhile, the Aztecs inhabited an area that was not conducive to growing cacao trees, so they mainly imported cacao beans through merchants and used it as currency as well as food. When the Spanish arrived, they found consuming cacao beverages to be a sensory experience unlike anything they had been exposed to before (Sampeck, 77). Columbus himself first came across cacao beans when his ship passed by a canoe full of traders. Though he didn’t know what the beans were at the time, it was clear they held some sort of value based on how the traders treated the beans. Today, people (especially chocolate-aficionados) tend to romanticize that moment, claiming that it was the moment “chocolate was discovered”, while ignoring the centuries of colonization, exploitation, and violence – also just because a white man sees something does not mean he discovered it. 

Eventually, the Spanish developed what most textbooks call the encomienda system (it was slavery) so that indigenous people could grow cacao and the Spanish could take it for themselves. In these “systems”, the Spanish owned the land, a percentage of the crops, and the lives of the indigenous laborers toiling in the fields. Indigenous laborers faced serious abuses and violence in these encomiendas, despite the fact that the purpose of this system was to protect indigenous people and bring them into the Christian faith. It doesn’t get much better from here. Cacao beans eventually made their way to Europe, where chocolate drinks became increasingly popular and as Coe writes, it “conquered Europe” (Coe, 125). Thus began the process of enslaving millions of Africans around the world to work on sugar cane plantations and cacao farms to feed the growing hunger for chocolate in Europe and the Americas.

Even today, you would be hard pressed to find chocolate untouched by child labor at some point in the supply chain. Around two-thirds of the world’s cacao supply comes from the former Gold Coast in West Africa. Over 2 million children work in this region on cacao farms, in harsh conditions, away from their families, often unable to attend school. This is chocolate’s dark side. Though it is often advertised as a guilty pleasure, a sultry indulgence, next time you feel the craving for some sweetness, think about where your chocolate has come from and try supporting businesses that ethically grow cacao.


Sampeck, Kathryn, and Jonathan Thayn. 2017. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.”

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 2007[1996]. The True History of Chocolate







Cocoa played a role in Mayan mythology, and certainly this religious role helps explain why Cocoa was involved in Mayan death rituals (Schwartzkopf & Sampeck, 2017). However, this does not entirely account for the plant’s seemingly outsized inclusion in funeral rites. Rather, a historical review of mayan society and spiritual beliefs reveals that cocoa’s myriad functional uses in Mayan society as a currency, status symbol, comestible, and energizer uniquely positioned it to serve as a provision and aid for the soul’s journey into and existence in the afterlife (Coe, 1996; Schwartzkopf & Sampeck, 2017). 

A long record of cocoa and death 

In Europe and America Chocolate is often associated with vitality. It’s seen as an energizer, as an aphrodisiac, as a symbol of indulgence (Coe, 1996). However, today, chocolate can also often be found in rituals surrounding death. For example, chocolate decorations, treats, and beverages are ubiquitous in Dia de los Muertos (Brandes, 1998). And this involvement of cocoa in rituals of death is by no means new. 

(Martin, 2020) 

Thanks to chemical tracing of cocoa compounds such as theobromine and translations of hieroglyphics for words related to coca on burial vessels such as the one pictured above, scientists have been able to establish that cocoa has been used in Mayan burials, funerals, and memorials for well over a thousand years (Hall, Tarka, Hurst, Stuart, & Adams, 1990). 

Mayan spiritual beliefs 

This long standing tradition begs what may seem like an obvious question: why would Mayans choose to use cocoa in particular in rituals of death? The answer to this question requires an understanding of Mayan beliefs surrounding the fate and journey of the soul after death. Records make it clear that their society considered provisioning the dead to be important, and that doing so served a number of purposes. Provisions sustained the dead in the afterlife, serving as a commestible (Prufer & Hurst, 2007). They also served as symbols of status and wealth for the deceased (Prufer & Hurst, 2007). Finally, some provisions served as currency that allowed souls to pay off various spirits that might hinder them on their long journey from the body to the other side (Prufer & Hurst, 2007). Recognizing this might help illuminate why cocoa, which served so many roles in Mayan society, would be a critical such provision. 

Cocoa as sustenance 

Cocoa was both treasured and ubiquitous in mayan society as a comestible. As evidence of this, archaeological findings show that Mayan nobles throughout their history had different names for different cocoa preparations, and it appeared as an ingredient in an enormous variety of drinks and foods (Schwartzkopf & Sampeck, 2017). Moreover, cocoa consumption was seen as a rich sensory experience that was refreshing, invigorating, and highly adaptable to the needs of different moments and locations (Schwartzkopf & Sampeck, 2017). 

In short, cocoa was a highly prized comestible, the consumption of which was celebrated in mayan society. Therefore, when seeking to provision the dead with a source of food, selecting an ingredient that is highly valued across time and region for its rich flavor, myriad uses, and energizing effects would make sense. 

Cocoa as luxury possession 

Numerous accounts of Mayan society as well as archaeological findings indicate that Cocoa was treasured as a luxury good and an indicator of power, wealth, and social standing (Coe, 1996). Indeed, Mayan records indicate that in some cases Cocoa beans were treated as a non-tradeable, non-comestible, and even non-heritable good (Prufer & Hurst, 2007). In such cases its role was clearly to serve as a possession rather than a food or even a currency (Prufer & Hurst, 2007). 

(Martin, 2020)

In addition, cocoa was not just treated as a trivial possession, but rather as a signifier of nobility. For example, in the image above, a Mayan king’s mother emerges as a cocoa tree in order to signify the veracity of his royal lineage and therefore support his claim to power (Martin, 2020). 

Therefore, as a status symbol and one that in some cases could not be passed on to heirs, cocoa was a perfect choice when selecting what possessions would accompany and assert the standing of a soul in the afterlife. 

Cocoa as currency 

Cocoa beans were also used as a currency in Mayan society (Coe, 1996). These beans weren’t simply used as a comestible to barter for other goods, but rather were circulated in society as a form of money with an agreed upon value that would give the holder a set purchasing power (Coe, 1996). Once again, Mayans believed that along the passage to the afterlife the soul would encounter certain spirits that would try to hinder the journey, and would require payment to let the soul continue on unmolested (Prufer & Hurst, 2007). So, it only makes sense that Mayans would bury their dead with money – money which came in the form of cocoa beans. 

Cocoa as stimulant 

Finally, Cocoa was also seen as a stimulant, likely due to the effects of caffeine (Coe, 1996). Indeed, it was even used by Mayan athletes. The image below illustrates a participant in a ceremonial Mayan sport wearing cocoa beans in order to heighten his abilities and improve his performance (Martin, 2020).  

(Martin, 2020). 

Given Mayan faith in the invigorating effects of cocoa, Prufer and Hurst argue that it only makes sense that cocoa would accompany the dead and even be consumed during the funeral ritual (Prufer & Hurst, 2007). Both, they say would help energize the soul  for the difficult journey to the afterlife (Prufer & Hurst, 2007). 


In summation, cocoa was used and prized in Mayan society for a variety of reasons.  Given these important and myriad functional uses for cocoa, as well as Mayan beliefs surrounding the afterlife, it makes sense that the Mayans would include the bean extensively in their funeral rituals. 


Brandes, S. (1998). Iconography in Mexico’s Day of the dead: Origins and meanings. Ethnohistory, 45(2), 181-218.

Coe, S. (1996). The True History of Chocolate

Hall, G., Tarka, S., Hurst, W., Stuart, D., & Adams, R. (1990). Cacao Residues in Ancient Maya Vessels from Rio Azul, Guatemala. American Antiquity, 55(1), 138-143.

Martin, C. (2020). Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food Lecture 2: Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”. Cambridge, MA. 

Prufer, Keith M., & Hurst, W. Jeffrey. (2007). Chocolate in the Underworld Space of Death: Cacao Seeds from an Early Classic Mortuary Cave. Ethnohistory, 54(2), 273-301.

Schwartzkopf, S., & Sampeck, K. (2017). Substance and seduction : Ingested commodities in early modern Mesoamerica (First ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Historical Mesoamerican Chocolate Recipes

Diassa Diakité

Ms. Carla Martin

AFRAMER 119X: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food

25 March 2020

In historical Mesoamerican culture, the commodity of chocolate played a very big role. Used to eat, drink, and even as a form of currency, without chocolate the Mesoamerican region would never be the same. Despite this extreme importance of the chocolate commodity in Mesoamerican culture, there was a difference between its use in Mayan and Aztec civilizations.

According to Hayes Lavis, a curator of cultural arts at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, “The Olmecs of southern Mexico were probably the first to ferment, roast, and grind cacao beans for drinks and gruels, possibly as early as 1500 B.C. (smithsonianmag.com)”. He followed this with saying that, “there is no written history for the Olmecs… but pots and vessels uncovered from this ancient civilization show traces of the cacao chemical theobromine” (smithsonianmag.com). By studying the process of making chocolate, it becomes visible that the Olmecs were indeed making chocolate. 

The traditional way of getting the chocolate ready to be served is usually not used anymore, as there is better technology for the job. “In traditional preparation methods…  farmers take seeds out of the pods, ferment them in a leaf-covered pile” (smithsonianmag.com). To go even more in depth, “The beans, plus surrounding white pulp, have to be left in the warm open air – but turned from time to time – to ferment over nearly a week – by which time the seeds are starting to germinate briefly, and the pulp to evaporate. This is important: no fermentation/germination, no chocolate flavour! They are then cleaned, spread in the sun to dry for up to two weeks, and then roasted for 1-2 hours” (mexicolore.co.uk). Fermentation was the first step in historical Mesoamerican chocolate recipes. After this, “the shells were peeled off one by one (a process called ‘winnowing’), leaving the ‘nibs’ ready to be ground to a paste on a stone metate (pic 3, left). At this point, the paste could be allowed to solidify into a block or tablet (pic 3, right), for easy storage, transport and subsequent use” (mexicolore.co.uk). It is even said that ancient Mesoamerican warriors would carry their chocolate supply like this during war campaigns. This is the default process of grinding the cacao beans. After this, flavors and textures would be added to their liking.

In early Mayan civilization, chocolate rapidly became one of the most important items, however, “despite chocolate’s importance in Mayan culture, it wasn’t reserved for the wealthy and powerful but readily available to almost everyone. In many Mayan households, chocolate was enjoyed with every meal” (history.com). Chocolate, something that is viewed as a candy or dessert in our American culture, was eaten at almost every meal for the Mayans. While chocolate as we know it is enjoyed as a savory treat, “the simplest mix was cacao with ground maize (corn) and water, providing a healthy, ‘cheap-and-cheerful’ gruel, that 16th century Spanish friar Toribio Motolinía described as ‘a very common drink’. Frequently combined with ground chilli, this ‘poor man’s chocolate’ was consumed throughout Mesoamerica” (mexicolore.co.uk). Not only did Mesoamericans drink their chocolate, but they had recipes in which it was considered something healthy. As historical Mesoamericans did not have the technology or services available to us now, “The naturally bitter flavor of cacao came through at full strength in early Maya recipes. ‘This was before they had really good roasting techniques, before they had conching, which is a step that mellows out the flavors, before they started looking at genetics,’ says Dandelion co-founder Todd Masonis” (smithsonianmag.com). Over time, as it got towards the end of Mayan civilization, the idea of chocolate evolved, and “cacao drinks in Mesoamerica became associated with high status and special occasions, Palka said, like a fine French wine or a craft beer today. Special occasions might include initiation rites for young men or celebrations marking the end of the Maya calendar year” (smithsonianmag.com).

In Aztec civilization, the idea of chocolate mirrored the later version of Mayan civilization, taking it to an even farther extent. “The Aztecs took chocolate admiration to another level. They believed cacao was given to them by their gods. Like the Mayans, they enjoyed the caffeinated kick of hot or cold, spiced chocolate beverages in ornate containers, but they also used cacao beans as currency to buy food and other goods. In Aztec culture, cacao beans were considered more valuable than gold” (history.com). The value of chocolate rose over time, and people were even using emptied out cacao beans as counterfeit currency! Today, “there are some 20 different species of cultivated Theobrama Cacao tree, each producing its own unique fruit,” however, “most botanists today believe that the Aztecs imported all their cacao from the same criollosubspecies, the most common Mesoamerican variety. The fruit grows directly from the trunk, each ‘pod’ containing some 25-40 ‘beans’, seeds or kernels” (mexicolore.co.uk). With this tree producing a high volume of cacao beans, the use of chocolate increased in Mesoamerica and many new recipes were used to make chocolate beverages. For example, “vanilla vines and annatto trees growing nearby were used to flavor cacao beverages” (smithsonianmag.com). In order to widen the gap between wealthy and poor, royalty and other fortunate people would make their own version of chocolate drinks. “Elite cacao drinks contained pure cacao, to which were added several subtle – and often highly prized – ground and roasted flavourings and spices, rendering them fit for nobles and the very rich. For the Aztecs, the premier flavouring was hueinacaztli, identified by the Coes as ‘the thick, ear-shaped petal of the flower of the Cymbopetalum penduliflorum, a tree of the Annonaceae or custard-apple family, which grows in the tropical lowland forests of Veracruz, Oaxcaca, and Chiapas’ ” (mexicolore.co.uk).

All in all, in historical Mesoamerican times, chocolate played a huge role in society. By being used as food and drink, a marker of one’s status, and even a form of currency, chocolate became known as a top commodity, and one of value. Now, chocolate is enjoyed all over the world and brings people together in difficult times.

Works Cited

Garthwaite, Josie. “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Feb. 2015, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/.

History.com Editors. “History of Chocolate.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 14 Dec. 2017, www.history.com/topics/ancient-americas/history-of-chocolate.

“How Aztec and Maya Chocolate Was Prepared.” How Aztec and Maya Chocolate Was Prepared, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/aztec-and-maya-chocolate.

Till Death Do Us Part- Cacao in Religion, Marriage, and Death in Maya Civilization

Cacao served as an important element in many different rituals and customs in Maya civilization. Cacao can be found in Maya religious imagery, but also cacao held importance at many of the social milestones of an individual’s life like a wedding or funeral. Much in this way, Cacao has both symbolic and practical significance in the Maya civilization as it served as an indicator of an individual’s power and wealth. In this blog post, I will further explore the cultural significance of Cacao in Maya civilization in religious, social and political contexts. This cultural significance allows us to better conceptualize the long history of Cacao in the Americas that existed before the arrival of Columbus. 

Historical texts provide insight into the religious sphere of the Maya civilization. 

File:Empiezan las historias(Popol vuh).jpg

The Popol Vuh, otherwise known as the “Book of Counsel,” is a text written shortly after the Spanish Conquest regarding the Maya civilization. It is important to note that some of the stories can be linked back to the Izapans of the Late Pre-Classic, who had ties to the Olmec civilization. In The True History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael Doe write about the first set of twins who face a painful death, “The severed head of one of that unlucky pair (now known to be the Maize God) is hung up in a tree-said to be a calabash tree in the story, but pictured as a cacao tree on a class Maya vase.” (Coe, and Coe; pg. 39) The choice of the cacao tree is an intentional choice as the Maize God protects the Maize crops, which is a lifeline for their civilization. 

The Dresden Codex offers many Classic Maya characteristics like calligraphy and astronomical information but it dates back to the end of the Pre-Conquest era. 

File:Dresden Codex pp.58-62 78.jpg The imagery in the Dresden Codex shows deities holding onto cacao pods. Sophie and Michael Doe write about a Dresden page from the Post-Classic Yucatán that shows the Opossum God and an, “associated text tells us that “cacao is his food [kakaw u hanal]. “” (Coe, and Coe; pg. 42) These two examples in the Dresden Codex demonstrate the long-lasting significance of cacao within a religious context. 

File:Codex Tro-Cortesianus.jpg

The Madrid Codex contains a large amount of ritual imagery and text with regards to cacao. Sophie and Michael Doe highlight a striking example in the Madrid Codex that contains four deities piercing their ears and letting the blood flow over cacao pods, “This is especially interesting since our ethnohistoric sources tell us that there were strong symbolic associations between chocolate and human blood among both the late Post-Classic Maya and the Aztecs.” (Coe, and Coe; pg. 42) These two civilizations had strong systems of religious sacrifice and offerings. This emphasizes the power of cacao within their society and the place that it holds within the hierarchy of value. 

Cacao was immensely popular for social settings as well. It was frequently served at expensive banquets, baptisms, weddings, and burials.  Cacao beverages were consumed in many of these different celebrations, as it was known in the Maya civilization to have many health benefits including digestive, anti-inflammatory, and energy-related benefits. It was common for merchants and nobles to throw these huge banquets. Sophie and Michael Coe note that the baptisms performed in the Maya civilizations typically included a type of liquid that included flowers and cacao powder. (Coe, and Coe; pg. 60) The Madrid Codex displays images in relation to Maya marriage rituals. Just as cacao held a special place within the role of religion, cacao held practice and symbolic power within marriage. One of the rituals included tac haa (“to serve chocolate”) which generally meant inviting the girl’s father over to discuss marriage prospects and drinking a cacao beverage. The cacao drink also symbolized the phrase for royal marriage. Cacao was a type of social capital that indicated that someone was worthy of a marriage. Later on, the cacao seeds were used as a currency for marriage dowry in the 1500s. Cacao was not only used for joyous occasions either. In the Codex Nuttall, there is a Mixtec scene with a funeral procession showing a foaming cacao beverage. Cacao was thought to energize and help the soul’s journey through the underworld. This still has bearings on today’s celebration of Dia de Los Muertos, which includes chocolate beverages today. 

The Maya Civilization is one of many Pre-Columbian groups that has history tied together with cacao. In Cocoa, Kristy Leissle notes that, “From the earliest records of its uses among the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations, cocoa has always been politicized.” (Leissle; pg. 17) The politics of cacao goes hand in hand with the way in which it was used to shape society. Just like the Maize God and the connection to the cacao tree, cacao was used in many political ways to determine power and wealth. It is essential to remember this as many times history has been told from a white, Eurocentric point of view. In Chocolate, women, and empire, Emma Robertson highlights that focusing on over-looked history can allow for reparations of this imperial acts of colonization that have happened throughout time, “The imperial history of cocoa thus becomes stabilized, not to be disrupted by the violence of imperial conquest.”  (Robertson; pg. 65) 

Cacao was not only the food of the gods, but also the demonstration of love and power.


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

Dresden Codex. 2020, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dresden_Codex_pp.58-62_78.jpg. Accessed 25 Mar 2020.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Madrid Codex. 2020, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Codex_Tro-Cortesianus.jpg. Accessed 25 Mar 2020.

Popol Vuh. 2020, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Empiezan_las_historias(Popol_vuh).jpg. Accessed 25 Mar 2020.

Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women And Empire. Manchester University Press, 2009.

Mesoamerican Cacao Artifacts

Without the work of epigrapher, David Stuart, we would not know as much about the early Mesoamerican civilization as we do today. Thanks to the discovery and deciphering of Mesoamerican Cacao Artifacts, we are able to trace evidence and the use of cacao in the early Aztec and Mayan civilizations. There were many beliefs associated with cacao and many of the vessels (chocolate pots) were recognized within the Aztec and Mayan civilizations as powerful social objects that depict the traditions and accustoms within the Mesoamerican communities. 

Image of the word “Kakau”, as deciphered on Mesoamerican cacao artifacts

            David Stuart is an epigrapher who was responsible for deciphering the hieroglyphic for cacao on Mesoamerican artifacts. His discovery was significant because it led to more evidence of the use of cacao within these civilizations. After the symbol for cacao was confirmed, it was easier and faster for people to become aware that a particular artifact once contained cacao. As time went on and the understanding and uses of cacao within the Mesoamerican civilizations became more known, this hieroglyphic, along with many other symbols and images on these artifacts revealed the high status of cacao within these civilization. I find it amazing that thanks to science, Stuart was able to decipher this hieroglyphic that does not exactly make it evident that it means “kakau”. In the early Olmec civilizations “ka-ka-w” was their word for currency, and the uses of cacao and evolution of the word lead to the consumption of chocolate today. Stuart’s small discovery is part of the reason we are able to understand the traditions and beliefs of Mesoamerican civilizations. 

Image of a Classic Mayan vase from the seventh century portraying the Maize God

The image on the artifact above is a portrayal of the Maize God who represents the agricultural cycle of planting, harvesting and replanting, and the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. At the top of the vessel, one can see the hieroglyph for cacao as mentioned earlier. Vessels often showed the relationship between cacao and divine entities that were worshiped in Mesoamerica. These vessels were also used to drink and store cacao, which is the reason for the findings of cacao residue within them. Theobromine and Caffeine are two compounds found in cacao, the only plant in the region to contain both compounds, which lead to the concluding evidence of cacao residue contained in the vessels.

This piece is interesting and significant to me because it shows really how highly worshipped cacao was. In the early Mesoamerican civilizations the liquid form of cacao was thought of to be a divine drink. The consumption of cacao was believed to bring the people closer to the divine and a way to please the Gods. This is also intriguing because Religion was believed to be orientation in the ultimate sense, and how one becomes terms with the ultimate significance with one’s place in the world. If this is correct, because cacao was seen a divine, it means that in the early Mesoamerican civilizations cacao was very crucial to an individuals place in the world. Not only was the drinking cacao thought of to be a divine action, but also there were many health benefits associated with the drinking of cacao. In the early Mesoamerican civilizations, the drinking of cacao was believed to be beneficial to the body and soul. The consumption of cacao was believed to boost energy, increase hydration, heal skin eruptions, reduce fevers, and many other heal issues within the body. 

Image of Aztec individual holding a cacao pod

The image to the left, of an individual holding a cacao pod reminds me of how cacao was also used for social reasoning. My interpretation of the artifact is that it appears to be a boy/man offering a cacao seed. In the Mesoamerican civilizations cacao was used as a form of currency and exchange. What made cacao so useful and significant in terms of currency, was that it could be eaten and used as coin. Cacao seeds could also be traded. For example, one turkey was worth 100 full cacao beans (shrunken cacao beans were not fermented and were thought to be no good and hold less value). Cacao was also used during ceremonies and rituals. The consumption of cacao using the vessels was performed during a wedding as the cacao symbolized a royal wedding. 

Image Above: early Mesoamericans making beverages out of cacao

Mesoamerican cacao artifacts show us how the cacao contributed to wealth, religion, social events, and social status. Artifacts that show royal individuals around cacao trees/seeds show us that owning cacao seeds was vital for ones own self-ego and social status. The evolution of what was known as cacao into chocolate today has more significance than modern people know. Thanks to Stuart, and the discovery of many early Mesoamerican cacao artifacts, we are able to trace the history of chocolate and learn about the traditions of an ancient civilization. 


“A CONCISE HISTORY OF CHOCOLATE.” Edited by Mark Christian, C-Spot,  www.c-spot.com/atlas/historical-timeline/. Accessed 22 Mar. 2020. (Multimedia source)

Admin. “Ancient Chocolate Discovery Dates Back to Mayans.” FriendsEAT, FriendsEAT, 7 Aug. 2012, friendseat.com/blog/cacao-may-be-older-than-we-thought?utm_source=Opt-in%2BGroup&utm_campaign=7df3778ac0-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email.

Campbell, Lyle & Kaufman, Terrence. 1976. A Linguistic Look at the Olmecs: American Antiquity, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 80-89 Published by: Society for American Archaeology http://www2.hawaii.edu/~lylecamp/LC%20Lx%20look%20at%20Olmecs%20JSTOR.pdf

Cheong, Kong (Powis, T.; Cyphers, A.; Gaikwad, T.W.; Grivetti, L.) 2011. Cacao use and the San Lorenzo Olmec: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). 108(21):8595-600 · May 2011 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51110764_Cacao_Use_and_the_San_Lorenzo_Olmec

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013 [1996] The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson

Festa, Jessica. “Sweet Guatemala: A Look At The Country’s Mayan Chocolate History And Modern Experiences.” Impact Travel Media Network. Epicure & Culture, February 12, 2014. https://epicureandculture.com/history-of-chocolate-guatemala/.

MacCurdy, Charles. “More Than a Drink: Chocolate in the Pre-Columbian World.” YouTube, Berkeley Graduate Division Videos, 30 July 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPjQ82-MlSs.

Martin, Carla. 2017 AAAS E-119 Lecture Slides. February 1st, pp.23- 57

Takushi, Scott (Pioneer Press). 2013, December 17. Museum of Belize and House of Culture: NEWSEUM Blog Spot: Belize’s Maya Collection on Displayhttps://mobnmoc.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/belizes-maya-collection-on-display/mayaex1/

Tlatollotl. “Archeologists, Mayanists, and Hershey’s Collaborated to Reveal This Ancient Vessel’s Secrets.” Tlatollotl, 22 Feb. 2019, tlatollotl.tumblr.com/post/182971919056/archeologists-mayanists-and-hersheys.

Candied Ceramics: The Relationship Between Ancient Mayan Pottery and Cacao Storage

When archaeologists find remnants of cups, bowls, and plates, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that these items were used for eating and drinking. However, this is not always the case. In today’s culture, one might reserve certain silverware for only the most important dinner guests or have some plates that are meant to be displayed instead of eaten off. Archaeologists are learning that similar cultural practices may have been implemented by the ancient Mayans in regard to their pottery. The difference between today’s fancy china and decorative vases from ancient Mesoamerica, though, is that ancient Mayans are no longer alive to verbally explain the specific purpose and use of each piece in their ceramics collection. This job falls onto the shoulders of archaeologists are anthropologists, and they can assure us it’s a trickier job than first meets the eye. Some vessels were once thought to hold liquid cacao because they were labeled as such. However, analysis that goes beyond the words on the vessel leads experts to believe that the uncovering the uses of such containers is not as simple as reading a label (Loughmiller-Cardinal, 2018). It turns out that the Mayans were similar to us in that they had different uses for different shapes, grades, and qualities of ceramic containers. Below is a detailed differentiation of these types of vessels and their uses.

Drinking Vessels

Archaeologists have discovered that the Mayans used different vessels to drink from than the ones they used as decoration (Loughmiller-Cardinal, 2018). This is analogous to a modern-day drinking cup vs. a modern-day vase. You could drink out of a vase if you wanted to, but it would be largely inefficient. Mayan drinking vessels were often much smaller than vases and vessels used for decorative celebrative purposes. Additionally, the drinking vessels would have fewer engravings and carving adorned on the exterior. The drinking vessels were most commonly small cylinders or bowls. Below is an image from the Rufino Tamayo museum in Oaxaca. Figure 1 depicts a bowl that was most likely used for the consumption of liquids. While there are some carvings on this bowl, these decorations are minimal compared to those on vases that were put on display or set out at special events. This bowl would be the equivalent of a coffee mug with a simple pattern on it while the decorative vessels would be the equivalent of artistic and elaborate vases or jars. 

Figure 1: A small, minimally-decorated bowl that was likely used for the consumption of beverages. Source: Museo de Rufino Tamayo Oaxaca

Decorative Vessels

Many Classic Mayan vessels are adorned with similar strings of characters that seem to identify to whom the vessel belongs and what is inside of it (Macri, 2005). This syntactical pattern is known as the Primary Standard Sequence, or PSS. Figure 2 details the pattern of the PSS and gives a few examples of what this may have looked like on Mayan ceramics. 

Figure 2: The Primary Standard Sequence broken down with examples. Source: Artstor

While many Mayan vessels adorned with a PSS include the glyph for cacao, it can be argued that these decorative vessels were not used to store liquid cacao. The PSS on these specific vessels may have been referring to raw cacao ingredients, such as seeds, that could have been stored in the containers (Loughmiller-Cardinal, 2018). Another theory is that the PSS is referring to a scene drawn or etched onto the vessel. For example, if the scene depicts a king sipping from a jar, then the PSS might refer to the king and his cacao beverage in the scene, regardless of what was inside the vessel itself. Figure 3 shows a decorative vessel with a PSS around the top rim and a battle scene on the exterior. The battle could have been a reason for celebration and cacao libation.

Figure 3: A decorative vessel with a PSS across the top rim. The battle scene depicted might have been a reason for celebration. Source: Cleveland Museum of Art

In comparison to the drinking vessels, the decorative vessels were larger, bulkier, and ostensibly harder to drink from. In addition to the inconvenient size and shape, chemical and visual analysis supports the idea that these larger decorative vessels were not used to hold liquid, including liquid cacao (Loughmiller-Cardinal, 2018). Residue analysis run on decorative vessels with a PSS, for the most part, return a negative result for theobromine as well as other alkaline chemicals found in liquid cacao. Additionally, a visual scan of these vessels will find no traces of liquid being held inside the vessels. What it will find, however, is small chips and divots on the interior of the decorative vessels. This suggests that dry goods, such as raw cacao beans or seeds, may have been stored in these vessels. Dried goods would not leave behind a chemical residue like liquid would because the porous ceramic would not absorb particles from the dried goods. An exception to this rule of thumb is the Río Azul cacao pot. This elaborately designed piece of pottery both features a PSS and tested positive for cacao residue (Stuart, 1988). Figure 4 shows the Río Azul pot. It might look recognizable, as it is one of the more famous pieces in the field.

Figure 4: The Río Azul cacao pot that contained chemical residue of cacao and features a PSS across the top. Source: Carla Martin, Lecture 2: Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”


Glyphs: various kakaw (cacao) drinks recorded in the Primary Standard Sequence: Ref.: drawing. Retrieved from https://library-artstor-org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/asset/ARTSTOR_103_41822003733423

Loughmiller-Cardinal, J. (2018). Distinguishing the uses, functions, and purposes of Classic Maya “chocolate” containers: Not all cups are for drinking. Ancient Mesoamerica, 30(2019), 13-30.

Macri, M. J. (2005). Nahua loan words from the Early Classic period: Words for cacao preparation on a Río Azul ceramic vessel. Ancient Mesoamerica, 16(2005), 321-326.

Martin, C. (2020). Lecture 2: Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods.” [Google Docs Slides]. Retrieved from URL: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1c6fZMj2cW7A-bByTKzaP-YS7pLdm0dmVPidneg4T4XU/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_2_25

Stuart, D. (1988). The Río Azul cacao pot: Epigraphic observations on the function of a Maya ceramic vessel. Antiquity, 62(234), 153-157.

Pre-Columbian Cacao: The Great Societal Stabilizer

In life and in death. In books and on bowls. In the Pre-Columbian Era, cacao was everywhere, and it characterized many of the most fundamental components of survival and society. Whether it was a medicinal remedy, Mesoamerican currency, or a burial ritual, cacao always remained within the scope of visibility. In the modern day, cacao is often simplified to being the principal ingredient in processed chocolate; however, in the Pre-Columbian era, cacao acted as a grounding and stabilizing entity that made up the functional premise of Mesoamerican society and way of life. The stability imparted by cacao onto Mesoamerican society can be most strongly articulated via an analysis of Mesoamerican religious artifacts, socioeconomic practices and the physical uses of cacao.

To explain the omnipresence and consequential significance of cacao in Mesoamerican society, we first must understand the idea of the World Tree (Martin, 2020). A World Tree is believed to “embody the most essential powers of fertility, stability, and the renewal of life on Earth” (Castillo, 2012). World Trees were believed to reach from the Earthly world to both the sky and the underworld – effectively connecting the Maya with their past ancestors in death, and sky-based, life-supporting elements such as rain (Castillo, 2012). In regions that contained the cacao tree, the cacao tree acted as the World Tree (Martin, 2020). Henceforth, amongst Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican natives, the cacao tree was viewed as the center of life and was a guiding symbol in their society.

The view that cacao symbolized the center of life can be seen throughout the Mesoamerican region amongst religious artifacts left by the Maya and the Aztecs. With the aid of these Pre-Columbian artifacts, we can see how cacao played into themes of fertility and renewal of life throughout the Pre-Columbian era, and how the presence of life-bearing themes effectively cement the perception of cacao as a symbol of societal stability during this time period.

Figure 1: “The head of the Maize god suspended in a cacao tree” as depicted on a Classic Maya Vase (Image provided by Coe and Coe, 2013).

In this first image taken from a Mayan vase, the head of the Maize god rests among cacao pods (Coe and Coe, 2013). In the image, the Maize god is physically a part of the cacao plant. This physical connection between the cacao plant and the gods symbolically highlights the Mayan association between cacao and the sprouting of life. A similar message can be deduced from a second image of the Maize god amongst cacao pods.

Figure 2: “The Classic Maya Maize god depicted as a cacao tree” as depicted on a bowl from the Dumbarton Oaks Collection in Washington D.C., USA (Image provided by Coe and Coe, 2013).

In this image carved into a bowl, we again see an explicit relationship between fertility, cacao and the gods (Coe and Coe, 2013). In this image, we see an image of the Mayan Maize god as a literal cacao tree with cacao pods sprouting from their sides. This physical relationship between the gods and the cacao plant again demonstrates the Mesoamerican association between the cacao plant, fertility, and the stability of survival conditions.

When the images from the artifacts above are taken in context with other Mesoamerican beliefs, i.e. the Aztec belief that the cacao pod symbolized a human heart, the physiological driver of human life, it is clear that cacao was synonymous with the maintenance of survival in the Pre-Columbian Era (Coe and Coe, 2013). However, note that the view that cacao was synonymous with the concept of life stability was not limited to religious practice and was also observed in rites of passage.

Given the involvement of cacao in social contracts and celebrations, i.e. marriages and funerals, it is clear that cacao was also perceived to symbolize stability of relationships and socially-recognized moments of transition. 

As a part of arranging marriages, Mayan culture included the transaction of a cacao bean dowry to the family of the bride to be (Dreiss and Greenhill, 2008). Acceptance of the cacao bean dowry by the bride was indicative of acceptance of the marriage proposal by the bride’s family such as in the image below (Dreiss and Greenhill, 2008).

Figure 3: “The Mixtec Marriage of Lord Eight Deer and Lady Thirteen Serpent” in 1041 BCE as depicted in the Codex Nuttall  (Provided by Ancient Scripts Mixtec Website).

In this image, we observe Lord Eight Deer and Lady Thirteen Serpent unite over a chocolate beverage (Ancient Scripts Mixtec). Given the ritualistic incorporation of cacao in marriage discussions, we can note the role of cacao in facilitating not only the growth of life, but new relationships as well. Here, cacao is seen to be a social, rather than a societal stabilizer.

On a less lively note, cacao was also incorporated into rituals of death. Amongst both the Maya and the Aztec, it is believed that cacao eased the soul in its journey to the Underworld (Martin, 2020; Dreiss and Greenhill, 2008). Amongst the Aztecs, a last rite consisted of feeding the soon-to-be sacrificed a dyed blood-red cacao drink (Dreiss and Greeenhill, 2008).


Figure 4: “Mixtec funeral scene with funeral procession of Twelve Movement, Lord Eight Deer’s older half brother; bottom vessel of foaming cacao beverage as depicted in the Codex Nuttal (Provided by Martin, 2020).

In this image from the Codex Nuttal, we observe funeral rites that include a foaming cacao beverage in the bottom vessel (Martin, 2020). Here, we witness cacao provided to the deceased in death as well to provide comfort – indicating the Mesoamerican perception that cacao symbolized transitional stability.

As seen in the rites of passage discussed above, cacao not only played a role in maintaining metaphysical stability, but in supporting the stability of momentous life transitions and agreements as well. As we proceed to discuss cacao in economics and medicine, we will see that cacao’s motif of stability extends beyond symbolism to tangible forms of stability.

Amongst Mesoamericans, cacao served as a form of currency; likewise, cacao also brought on societal stability by creating an economic and socioeconomic order. The typical load of cacao with a trade or porter was three xiquipillis, which translates to 24,000 beans, and could be used to trade for various items (Coe and Coe, 2013). However, currency was not the only way cacao created socioeconomic order. Cacao, being a comestible, was also employed to make beverages indicative of one’s elite status (Coe and Coe, 2013). Cacao solidified the social order in terms of finances and in terms of consumption. As a result, Mesoamercian leadership would accrue exorbitant amounts of cacao beans to highlight their own wealth (Coe and Coe, 2013). To observe the socioeconomic relevance of cacao, consider merchant behaviors. In order to ascend the social ladder, merchants needed to hold banquets with a wide variety of food, slaves for sacrifice, hallucinogenic mushrooms and cacao drink to highlight their own status (Coe and Coe, 2013). As can be seen here, cacao created a social hierarchy, and in doing so, stabilized the social order amongst Mesoamericans.

As a form of medicine, cacao beans were believed to improve health. In this context, cacao beans brought on physiological homeostasis – the stability of the body. Amongst Aztec doctors, or ticitl, a combination of magic and plant-based remedies were used to combat ailments (Coe and Coe, 2013). As a part of these treatments, cacao was incorporated to treat diseases such as dysentery (Martin, 2020). To treat dysentery, five cacao beans would be combined with the bark of plants, i.e. an avocado, and provided to an individual following an incantation (Martin, 2020). The medical knowledge of the Aztecs was relatively thorough given their extensive understanding of the plants in their vicinity (Coe and Coe, 2013). The fact that cacao was incorporated into this magical, botanical-based medicinal process speaks volumes to the contributions of cacao as a physiologically stabilizing entity.

All in all, cacao took on multiple roles in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Cacao was not only an object of religious reverence, but also a ritualistic staple, a socioeconomic driver, and a medicinal ingredient. Despite having many explicitly different purposes, cacao plays a singular thematic role: stabilization of life, transitional experiences, and society as a whole. Across its many uses, cacao symbolically grounded the order of all things. Cacao was a notable symbol of multifaceted harmony amongst Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans; therefore, it can be ultimately argued that cacao was indeed the great Pre-Columbian stabilizer.

Excluding In-Text Citations, Sources and Figure Labels, Content Word Count: 1,211

Content Sources

Castillo, Bernal Diaz del. The True History of The Conquest of New Spain. Translated by Janet Burke and Ted Humphrey, UK ed. edition, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2012.

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

Dreiss, Meredith L., and Sharon Greenhill. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. University of Arizona Press, 2008.

Martin, Carla. “02 Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Google Docs, https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1c6fZMj2cW7A-bByTKzaP-YS7pLdm0dmVPidneg4T4XU/edit?usp=drive_web&ouid=104280922214973046242&usp=embed_facebook. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Image Sources: 

Ancient Scripts: Mixtec. http://www.ancientscripts.com/mixtec.html. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

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

Martin, Carla. “02 Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Google Docs, https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1c6fZMj2cW7A-bByTKzaP-YS7pLdm0dmVPidneg4T4XU/edit?usp=drive_web&ouid=104280922214973046242&usp=embed_facebook. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.