Tag Archives: Maya

Ethnography on Chocolate: Socioeconomic Visual Culture, Mesoamerican Origins, & Contemporary Perspectives

The purpose of this small-scale ethnography is to examine the social significance of chocolate from a cross-cultural perspective. Through interviewing various members of my local community that were born in different regions of Mexico and Central America, I document here their experiences and observances of chocolate.

Experienced through consumption or non-consumption, and observed through their emic perspective, there are underscoring themes exposed amongst the roles in which chocolate has played throughout each of their own lives. Within the context of those personal relationships with chocolate, an interaction between social and economic functions of their state and country may be contemporaneous to their outlook. Although this simultaneity is not always the circumstance, motifs emerge as their uniqueness transpires. Effectually, their contributed insight has actualized a microcosm of chocolates’ socio-cultural diversity and likenesses.

While conducting the interviews with members of my community, the aim was to first listen to their observances, and to then ask questions of clarification to assist in their thought process. The framework of my Q&A was designed this way to acquire a qualitative study, so that this retelling would reflect the individual perspectives of each subject, synchronously providing a glimpse into the societal experience. To depict those experiences through a cultural historical lens, that of which illustrated itself during most of the interviews already, I asked questions about their culture as a whole and how they thought chocolate was generally regarded in their own communities.

This study is not meant to define those relationships, but to highlight multiplicities within these individual cross- cultural accounts. Over reflections of my own and of the human subjects in this ethnographic study, I hope to provide sufficient ­imagery of historic milieu within the functional roles chocolate has played in personal experience and in society.


Theobroma Cacao, or the Food-of-the-God’s Cacao, is widely accepted by botanists and scholars as indigenous to Mesoamerica. Evidence of its cultivation is indicative of the role it played in ancient civilizations like the Mixe-Zoquean-speaking Olmecs (1500 BCE – 400 BCE). At the famed Olmec archaeological site in San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, evidence has been found of the term “Kakawa” used by the Olmec as early as 1000 BCE (Coe & Coe, 1996). See on the map below, San Lorenzo is west of present day Guatemala, and north of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.


San Lorenzo on the map 2
San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán is a famed archaeological site, well known for the massive Olmec stone heads excavated there


We find in the archaeological record, the ways in which early civilizations illustrated cacao, or “Kakawa” on their pottery. This being a significant attribute to understand the role chocolate played in their livelihoods and rituals. According to Maricel Presilla in her book, The New Taste of Chocolate, “it was the Maya who brought chocolate making to a high art… building on the foundation left behind by other Mesoamerican cultures”, like that of the Olmecs and other sibling tribes (2009).


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Buenavista vase, Buenavista del Cayo, Belize


See this Classic Maya vase from the seventh century portraying the Maize God in an “unending dance, symbolizing both the creation of the universe and also his cycle of death and rebirth” (Takushi, Pioneer Press).

Maya Classic period (250 – 900 CE) vessels show quite literally the function of cacao as it was for drinking, as well as the relative role it played in Mayan life though various representations of the divine.

This is one of the many Classic period vessels that was found to contain cacao residues inside. We know it was used to hold chocolate because cacao is the only plant in the region with both the compounds Theobromine and Caffeine, “a unique marker for the presence of cacao in pre-Columbian artifacts” (Cheong, 2011). To verify the vessels were used to hold chocolate was an important piece to the archaeological record. It provided contextual knowledge when deciphering the imagery or glyphs depicted on the vessels.

Affirmed in the glyphs of drinking vessels from this period, there is evidence of “well established cacao-chocolate terminology”. On the Buenavista vase shown above, we see “tree-fresh cacao” inscribed.  From the Primary Standard Sequence (PSS) of the glyphs you see banded around the top of the vessel, the characters that make the Maya name for cacao, “Ka-Ka-Wa” were deciphered. What strikes me the most about this piece is the seemingly relative “tree-fresh cacao” to the Maize God’s cyclical existence. (Presilla, 2009)

Buenavista vase closeup: Maya glyphs depicted translate to “tree-fresh cacao”, “Ta-Tsih-Te’el Kakawa” (Prescilla)

I particularly find this vessel so interesting when we look at the role of chocolate in culture because it reflects a cyclical ideology of their ecological relationship to their land; in the sustenance it provides, the concept of time through death and rebirth, and their Gods all-encompassing role within those cycles.

Field Study

A few years ago in 2013 I came to know a few young men and women from the northern Mexican state of Sonora – (follow the link to read a brief history of Seri Indians of Sonora). They were working and studying here on visa’s while we were employed at a busy restaurant in the heart of downtown Boston. What better place than behind the bar to nose around and pick into people’s lives for cultural insights! Just kidding on the nose-picking… but seriously, even minute conversations with guests created thought-provoking observations. During their multiple terms of residency in Boston over the years, these talented intellectual Sonoran natives and I connected on Mexican – American culture alike, and apart. Upon reaching out to ask if anyone would be interested in participating in this modest ethnographic study, my request was received most graciously. They have all elected to omit fully identifying information, so for the purposes of this study, I will refer to them by their first name only. Below I have included their perspectives on the role chocolate has played throughout their lives.

Andrés began by explaining Mexico as a large country where the culture is full of diversity. “Every state has their own culture about everything – food, traditional parties, our dialect and slang”. With that being said, in the state of Sonora where he lives he doesn’t use chocolate and cacao the way he knows it is used in the southern states of the country like Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas, and Tabasco. Andrés has observed the influence of cacao beans in southern Mexico because the cacao growing region produces a lot of recipes that involve cacao and chocolate.

When I asked what he knows about Mesoamerican uses for cacao, he remembers learning from childhood that they used it as currency, and he understood they sometimes would use it in beauty treatments. On that note, I recollect a fortuitous conversation about skin care had between myself and a female of Mexican ancestry I met while servicing wedding hair and makeup to her cousin’s bridal party, circa summer 2015 in East Boston – Indeed, I am not only an aspiring Anthropologist, also a Cosmetologist. My thoughts are usually occupied by anthropological inquiry on a daily basis, which inevitably grants unique opportunity for cultural discussions with the people I meet. Although not a part of this ethnography, she let me know back then about her family recipe for a skin care regimen that contains cacao. Her grandmother and her aunts would grind down cacao beans into a powder, “cocoa powder” minus the hydraulic press. They would mix the antioxidant rich powder with other grinded down local herbs, add water to create a paste-like texture and apply generously to the skin.

“Lather. Dry. Rinse. Repeat.” – she persisted. Yum.

The Spa At Hotel Hershey seems to know just how to indulge all the senses with chocolate


For the purposes of this study, I was curious about chocolate in spa treatments, as I have heard echoes of the luxury before. Take a look at The Spa At The Hotel Hershey or examples of just a few contemporary accommodations created for chocolate in the beauty industry.

Andrés expressed to me that Sonora being just below Arizona, his culture is more- so “American” than the way Mexicans live in the south. It is in his experience and observation the misconception of Mexican culture as being one. I think any educated person understands culture, language, economy, etc. vary across spaces of human population. Yet, for those who generalize a nation’s people by its borders, Andrés and his community experience the bias. He grew up with a collection of influences “by the things Americans do”. For example, one of his earliest memories of eating chocolate was during Halloween. They’re also heavily influenced by “spring break madness”, as he defined the season. He grew up consuming chocolate predominantly made by the big corporations, like Mars. His notable favorites being the Snicker and M&Ms. “In the south they don’t have that influence, they don’t experience American Halloween as we do”.

Carlos V chocolate bars are the Nestlé- proclaimed “# 1 chocolate brand in Mexico with over 70 years in the market!… Because of its unique and mild flavor, it is considered the reference of chocolate for Mexicans.” The Aztec stylized imagery first designed to brand the chocolate before it was bought by Nestlé sometime in the 1980’s was created by Fabrica de Chocolates La Azteca, S.A. de C.V. Jason Liebig on his blog, Collecting Candy chronicles his findings in the L.M. Kallok Confectioners Collection of antique packaging. Most notable about the evolution of the branding is first the Aztec styling alongside the “Imperial Coat of Arms” for “by the grace of God, Carolus V Imperator (emporer)”. Then with the English labeling introduced we see a change in the ingredients as well (which was apparent of each label seen in Leibig’s compilation from the beginning to the end. “A tie-in with the film Toy Story, which tells us La Azteca was still the brand’s sole owner as late as 1995″ is interesting where we see Quaker Oats leaving its insignia on the label by the late 1990’s.

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Not one of the Sonoran’s I interviewed has tried a Carlos V chocolate bar but they have all heard of it at some point in their life through advertisements. Eduardo attests to Andrés’ personal account of diversity from the southern regions in Mexico. Dia de los Muertos is “not celebrated as much as the south, but we do things like going to the cemetery”, Andrés says. Eduardo told me that they celebrate Dia de los Muertos on November 2. “We celebrate in memory of the people who are no longer with us and usually at the tombstones we put special things they liked when they were alive. Chocolates is usually one of them”. Both Andrés and Eduardo did not have a definitive sense of the historical reason for chocolate being placed on gravesites, but they both know it as a long- standing tradition and ritual in celebrating their deceased ancestors. Fernanda, another Sonoran native, added some insight to this practice of memorial. She told me that usually the graveyards are managed by local churches or publicly owned so in contrast to the majority of graveyards that are privately owned in the US, the families play a greater role in gravesite maintenance of their deceased. In this way, chocolate serves a social function in their celebrations.


Shown below, Dr. Martin presented in class this semester some of the ways Maya and Mixtec society visually depicted the functions that cacao played within their cultural practices and belief systems. Royal marriages necessitated the use of currency in the negotiation, so we see in the Codex Nuttall how cacao was a part of the price for the bride. Eduardo remembers learning in school that Mayans used to used the cacao “as a coin to buy everything, from goods to wives”. A relative topic for further study would be in the ways chocolate was introduced to the elite. Diffused out of Mesoamerica first by the Spanish, the Europeans assimilated to its royal regard and used chocolate in the women’s dowry through royal inter-marriages – that of which played a great role in spreading chocolate throughout Europe.

Another example (seen below) comes from the Madrid Codex where we see cacao being exchanged, portraying a give-and-take linkage between their concepts of cyclical time (lunar goddess) and their environment (rain god). I find this imagery especially expressive to their belief of the divine relationship to their human existence and sustenance on earth. Lastly, from the Codex Nuttall we see a royal funerary procession in “Twelve Movements”. Within the tomb depicted at the bottom right of the artwork lies a “vessel of foaming cacao beverage… to ease the soul’s journey to the underworld”. (Martin)

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Eduardo recounts drinking cups of hot chocolate since he can remember. While traveling south to Puebla state he tried their “typical meal, mole, and it’s made of cacao”. What he knows about the Maya and cacao is how they used to prepare beverages and meals like the Puebla “mole”. “We have different tribes and culture but we learned about it in school and I experiences it myself while traveling south. Cacao is still a huge deal in south Mexico.”


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“Mole” Ingredients. Presilla, 2009


See the dozen or more ingredients to make the traditional “thick, baroque sauce, mole” from Xalapa, Veracruz (Presilla), north of Puebla state in Mexico. Presilla notes that each ingredient is “processed in sequence, each at its own time” (2009).

As the mole is diverse in ingredients, and rich in unique Mesoamerican culture, so too – as these contemporary perspectives have illustrated, are the people of the region diversely interwoven with it’s history and unique place on Earth’s sphere.




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

Johnston, Bernice. 1997. The Seri Indians of Sonora Mexico. The University of Arizona Press http://www.uapress.arizona.edu/onlinebks/SERIS/HISTORY.HTM

Liebig, Jason. 2012. Carlos V – Building a history for the King of Chocolate Bars http://www.collectingcandy.com/wordpress/?p=2958

Martin, Carla. 2017 AAAS E-119 Lecture Slides. February 1st, pp.23, 47, 53, 57

Mintz, Sidney. 1986 [1985] Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books

Morton, Marcia and Frederic. 1986 Chocolate, An Illustrated History Crown Publishers, Inc. New York, NY

Nestlé. 2017. https://www.nestle.com.mx/brands/carlos-v

Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology: Harvard University. 2017. https://www.peabody.harvard.edu/node/287

Presilla, Maricel. 2009 The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Smithsonian Institute. 2017. Olmec Stone Heads photo: http://anthropology.si.edu/olmec/english/sites/sanLorenzo.htm

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/

Unknown photographer; featured image. 2016, October – November. Nexos. https://americanwaymagazine.com/cacao-route

Unknown photographer; chocolate as beauty regimen image. 2017. The Spa At The Hotel Hershey. http://www.chocolatespa.com/treatments/signature/chocolate.php

The Evolution of Cacao-Based Drinks in Mexico

Millions of tons of chocolate are produced each year, yet few today would guess that this sugary treat had its origins in frothy, semi-sweet cacao drinks prepared for Maya and Aztec royalty. Chocolate bars, candies, cakes, and pastries are the most popular forms of the food in most of the US and Europe today. Chocolate milk and hot chocolate retain some basic similarity with the cacao drinks of thousands of years ago, yet they combine the chocolate with milk, sugar, and other ingredients that would have been foreign to the Maya and Aztecs. Yet, in Mexico, a tradition of cacao beverages has been preserved from the fall of the Aztec empire to the present day. In this paper, I investigate modern cacao drinks and argue that though they are often marketed with references to the Maya and Aztecs, modern drinks represent a unique hybridity of ancient traditions and European ingredients and styles of preparation.

Chemical analysis has shown that cacao beverages were produced in Mesoamerica as early as 1100 BCE.[1] Cacao beverages were prepared by both the Maya and Aztec, and were considered very precious because cacao beans were used as a form of currency.[2] Maya drinks, especially those produced in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, were known for being prepared hot, while Aztec cacao drinks were generally cold.[3] In Aztec times, cacao beverages were often prepared in different ways depending on the quality of the cacao. High quality cacao was combined with water and frothed, while lower-quality cacao was often combined with other ingredients, including corn, seeds, chili peppers, vanilla, and other flowers.[4] By the time the Spanish arrived in the 1600’s, cacao beverages were sold in markets across Mexico, though cacao remained expensive and had high social significance.[5] Because of the wide range of different flavorings combined with cacao drinks, different regions of present-day Mexico each had unique interpretations of cacao beverages during Aztec times.[6]

Today, Mexico still has a wide range of cacao-based drinks available in different regions of the country. During lecture on February 1st, we watched a video detailing the preparation of Champurrado, a popular chocolate beverage in Mexico today.[7] In this video, the drink is prepared using pre-processed bars of dark chocolate, rather than the raw cacao that would have been used in ancient beverages. Additionally, the Champurrado is mixed with sugar, milk, cinnamon, and star anise – additions that are distinctively European. However, Champurrado also contains masa harina (a form of corn flour) and water, and makes use of a traditional molinillo (an item introduced to Mesoamerica by the Spanish[8]) to mix the ingredients and create a froth. Though the mixture of cacao and water is distinctively Mesoamerican, the additional ingredients and use of a molinillo reflect the influence of Spanish colonialism.

However, Champurrado is just one of many popular cacao drinks in Mexico today – and just one of many unique combinations of ancient recipes and European influences. Today there are a variety of different cacao drinks made in different regions of Mexico, for example bu’pu in Tehuantepec, chorote in Tabasco, tascalate in Chiapas, and tejate in Oaxaca.[9]

Tejate is perhaps the most authentic, as archaeological research has shown that many of its ingredients, as well as the vessels it is served in, reflect the style of cacao beverages produced in Oaxaca for thousands of years.[10] According to a 2009 article from The Atlantic, in tejate’s recipe “you’ll almost always find a blend of nixtamal corn, cacao beans, mamey seed, and rosita de cacao–the secret ingredient that makes tejate truly special. Rosita de cacao is the flower of the funeral tree (Quararibea funebris).”[11] Once the ingredients are combined, tejate is served combined with water and topped with a pile of frothy foam.[12] Similar cacao-foam-based drinks can be found passed-down from generation to generation in Cholula, Puebla, and other regions of Mexico.[13] Though tejate combines cacao, corn, flowers, and abundant foam, much like ancient drinks, it also includes modern influences. Today, tejate is served with a sugar-based syrup, and some have experimented with serving tejate paste “in cookies, cake, ice, powder,” and other forms that stray away from the traditional liquid.[14] Though tejate recipes have been passed down for generations and represent a unique cultural inheritance, they have not been immune to the ingredients and new tastes imported by Spanish colonizers.

The video below describes a drink that can be found in Mexico City, Espuma de Cacao[15] – a beverage very similar to the tejate prepared across Oaxaca. However, it is notable that this version of the drink specifically calls it “El elixir de los Dioses” – the elixir of the Gods – a direct reference to the elite pedigree of cacao beverages in Maya and Aztec times. The video does not reference the influence of Spanish colonialism, yet the inclusion of sugar in the recipe reflects the changes to traditional recipes that occurred under Spanish rule.

Video is from OZY travel blog article.[16]

Besides the recipes for cacao-foam drinks passed down in communities across Mexico, there are also recipes that have been created specifically to recreate the cacao-drinking experience of the Aztecs and Mayans. Munchies documents some such recipes made by Fernando Rodriguez, a businessman in Teotihuacan.[17] Rodriguez uses recipes for ancient drinks, found in such sources as the Popul Vuh and Florentine Codex, to design modern drinks that rely on the same key spices, flavors, flowers, and production methods.[18] Though Rodriguez bases most of his drinks on the historical clues he finds from ancient writings, he still makes some blends that introduce cinnamon, ginger, and other spices that were first introduced to Mesoamerica by Spanish colonizers.[19]

Though different areas of Mexico each have their own variations on how to prepare and serve cacao-based drinks, there are common threads that connect all these beverages. In all areas, modern Mexicans are proud of their unique cultural heritage stemming from Aztec and Maya civilization, and market modern cacao drinks for the ancient wisdom and tradition that they perpetuate. Many of the ancient drink-making customs remain the same – corn, flowers, and water are often added, and foam is still often considered a desirable element to top the beverage. Yet, Spanish and European taste and colonial influence can also be seen in many variations of these drinks. The most common manifestation of this is the addition of sugar, though cinnamon, ginger, star anise, other spices, and milk also reflect the influx of European ingredients and taste preferences. The cacao beverages produced across Mexico today are unique, with no clear counterpart in most other countries, yet they represent both the heritage of ancient civilizations and, more subtly, the complex and difficult legacy of Spanish colonialism.


[1] John S. Henderson, Rosemary A. Joyce, Gretchen R. Hall, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Patrick E. Mcgovern, “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, no. 48 (2007): 18937. http://www.pnas.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/content/104/48/18937.full

[2] Sophie D. Coe, and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 3rd ed. (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013), 81-84.

[3] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 83-84.

[4] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 86-94.

[5] Daniela Soleri, Marcus Winter, Steven R. Bozarth, and W. Jeffrey Hurst, “Archaeological Residues and Recipes: Exploratory Testing for Evidence of Maize and Cacao Beverages in Postclassic Vessels from the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico,” Latin American Antiquity 24, no. 03 (2013): 345-62, 345-347, accessed via Hollis, http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/23645680?seq=3#page_scan_tab_contents

[6] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 94.

[7] Dr. Carla Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods,’” February 1, 2017, slide 82, https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1FzrAQvjXJZnu7lTixblZ1FsyfDjnXtQ-8JyXd2uq5ZM/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_4_279

[8] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 83-85.

[9] Soleri, et al, “Archaeological Residues and Recipes,” 347.

[10] Soleri, et al, “Archaeological Residues and Recipes.”

[11] Alex Whitmore, “Cacao Tejate: Ancient Chocolate Drink,” The Atlantic, April 28, 2009, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/04/cacao-tejate-ancient-chocolate-drink/16609/

[12] Whitmore, “Cacao Tejate.”

[13] Margot Castaneda, “How Mexico Is Rediscovering (and Reinventing) Ancient Cacao Drinks,” Munchies (a branch of Vice News), January 7, 2017, https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/how-mexico-is-rediscovering-ancient-cacao-drinks

[14] Castaneda, “How Mexico Is Rediscovering (and Reinventing) Ancient Cacao Drinks.”

[15] Libby Coleman, “This Chocolatey Mexican Drink Will Get You Foaming at the Mouth,” OZY, January 24, 2017, http://www.ozy.com/good-sht/this-chocolatey-mexican-drink-will-get-you-foaming-at-the-mouth/75134

[16] Coleman, “This Chocolatey Mexican Drink.”

[17] Castaneda, “How Mexico Is Rediscovering (and Reinventing) Ancient Cacao Drinks.”

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.



Multimedia Sources 

Castaneda, Margot. “How Mexico Is Rediscovering (and Reinventing) Ancient Cacao Drinks.” Munchies (a branch of Vice News). January 7, 2017. https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/how-mexico-is-rediscovering-ancient-cacao-drinks

Coleman, Libby. “This Chocolatey Mexican Drink Will Get You Foaming at the Mouth.” OZY. January 24, 2017. http://www.ozy.com/good-sht/this-chocolatey-mexican-drink-will-get-you-foaming-at-the-mouth/75134

Whitmore, Alex. “Cacao Tejate: Ancient Chocolate Drink.” The Atlantic. April 28, 2009. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/04/cacao-tejate-ancient-chocolate-drink/16609/


Academic Sources 

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

Henderson, John S., Rosemary A. Joyce, Gretchen R. Hall, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Patrick E. Mcgovern. “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, no. 48 (2007): 18937. Accessed via Hollis. http://www.pnas.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/content/104/48/18937.full

Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” February 1, 2017. https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1FzrAQvjXJZnu7lTixblZ1FsyfDjnXtQ-8JyXd2uq5ZM/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_4_279

Soleri, Daniela, Marcus Winter, Steven R. Bozarth, and W. Jeffrey Hurst. “Archaeological Residues and Recipes: Exploratory Testing for Evidence of Maize and Cacao Beverages in Postclassic Vessels from the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico.” Latin American Antiquity 24, no. 03 (2013): 345-62. accessed via Hollis. http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/23645680?seq=3#page_scan_tab_contents

Chocolatey Perceptions: The Simulacra of Cacao

“… the human body is basically an ambulatory colony of trillions of benevolent bacteria of many species, and their complex activity in metabolism and absorption of specific compounds is just becoming known to medical science.” (Coe, p. 31)[1]

A principal perceptive conceit innate to the human condition is the tendency to obscure staggeringly complex phenomena with simulacra[2], which applies so pertinently to our own self-perception as it does to any exogenous phenomenon. This, stemming from the exigences of adaptive prudence, or evolutionary imperative, nonetheless sullies our capacity for holistic and objective appraisal of phenomena and our interactions therewith. By conceptualisation, sociocultural, biopsychological, and linguistic construction, what might simply be labelled and categorised as ‘cacao’ or ‘chocolate’ is to humans a functional simulacrum, with all manner of narratives relative to time and place projected thereon; which, in turn, entail little comprehension of the complex chemistry, economics, industry, and so forth, existential to the product consumed. This article is not intended as a dissection of contemporary conceptions and misconceptions of cacao, but rather as an exploration of the semiotics that surrounded it in Maya, Mexica, and related indigenous Mesoamerican cultures, to offer elucidation of our own perceptions of the ‘food of the gods’ and indeed our predilection for simulacra more widely.


Factors monetary

            There are few starker examples of the simulacrum than money. Money is something into which we divest value – divest in the sense that value is displaced from the material objects or practicable services that the metric represents, and for which it is a means of exchange, to the point that, so often in monetary economies of all kinds and not simply in advanced consumerist marketocracies, it becomes an object in and of itself; our conception of value becomes invested in that symbol thereof: money. One of the key particularities of cacao is that it was, for centuries, used by the peoples of Mesoamerica, and later European colonists, as currency (Coe, p. 59). Cacao is a cultigen indigenous to the New World (Mintz, p. 36), specifically to the Amazonian basin towards the Ecuadorian coast, but, while radiocarbon dating has placed the consumption of cacao, in a semi-refined form, in the ancient Barra civilisation through the Olmecs and Izapa (Coe, pp. 36-38), it is the Maya and Mexica for whom we have a wealth of evidence that cacao beans were used as a means of exchange.

Ironically, it may be that one of the first examples of cacao as currency comes from the troves of counterfeit, clay cacao beans found at Balberta, a Classic Maya settlement near to Izapa in the south of modern-day Guatemala (p. 50). The crafting of delicate, ‘almond-like’ cacao beans would have been painstaking and the absurdity of such an endeavour highlights the marked subjective value, psychologically constructed upon its economic usage as tender, and thus indulgence of the simulacrum. When Christopher Columbus made contact with the Maya, believed to be the Putún Maya, near the island Guajana, he and his son, Ferdinand, made mention of the outwardly peculiar inclination of the natives to these beans – ‘those almonds which in New Spain are used for money’ (Weinberg et al., pp. 53-55). In perspicacity, we might similarly substitute the symbolic value placed on paper or digital money in our own cultures to cacao beans, as our own simulacrum is, superficially, of similar arbitrariness – as indeed the Spanish would learn to in their new colonies (Weinberg et al., p. 254). Yet, this would be to make little interrogation into the nature of that particular cultigen and its specificity.


Factors otherwise economic


Map of Aztec and Maya Regions, latinamericanstudies.org

Central to cacao’s trade were the waterway networks of the aforementioned Chontal or Putún Maya, who rose to great prominence in the twilight of the Classic Maya period, 250-900 AD, judging by the dress of those depicted on stelae as far and wide as Seibal, in Petén, and Cacaxtla in Tlaxcala (Coe, pp. 52-53) – which may well be demonstrative of the reach and penetration of the cacao-based economy in Mesoamerica even prior to the collapse of Classic Maya ca. 900 AD. Their descendants in the Maya heartlands – see map above – would never be subjugated by the Mexica given their shrewd and peaceful management of trade eastward and onwards into South America (p. 73). Indeed, the Mexica would attribute some degree of prestige to the role of their own guild-like merchants, the pachteca, who would venture across a territory spanning the map of Mesoamerica. The Mexica, as the Spanish, would assimilate into the extant economic order and adopt the incumbent social construction of value, maintaining the norms at play even to the point of collaboration with the gatekeepers of that economic order. This memetic transmission of the symbolic value of cacao between cultures may offer some insight into the processes by which our own perceptions of phenomena, not only that of chocolate, are reproduced.


Factors theological


Gods blood-letting over cacao, Madrid Codex (Public Domain)

            The symbolic value of cacao is omnipresent in the theology of Mesoamerican cultures. Mayan documents were typically written on bark paper and were thus perishable, placing extra importance on the few that survive (Coe, p. 43). In the Late Mayan Madrid Codex gods are depicted letting their own blood onto cacao, part of a persistent metaphorical link between divinity, blood, and cacao (p. 43; see image above). One key factor in the sanguine element of this symbolism was that chocolate was, at the time, often prepared by mixture of ground cocoa powder with achiote[3]. One might view this as predication for symbolism that came about post hoc, as conscious and perfunctory development of the recipe to fit theological and ceremonial purpose, or as some sort of coalescence of the two, but it is the development of that visceral, aesthetic, and ultimately semiotic function to the chocolate that is chiefly of pertinence here – not causality. Another text, the Popul Vuh, was codified by Spanish colonists in an attempt to detail the theology of the Quiché Maya, but it would appear to corroborate beliefs held somewhat consistently, or at least developed dialectically, in Mesoamerica – as attested by Izapa era stone stelae (Coe, pp. 37-40). The sacrosanctity of trees, often anthropomorphised and in the form of a cacao tree, was a consistent feature and the fact that the divine twins and mortal realm were born of the axis mundi[4] can be thought of as another major element in cacao’s rich symbolism[5]. If one were in need of any further proof of chocolate as a simulacrum, its very presence in grave goods[6] shows conceptions extending far beyond the intrinsic value its consumption holds in the mortal realm.


Factors psychological

(Please follow hyperlink for video)


Chocolate: Benefits vs. Dangers | Is Theobromine Safe?

The complex chemistry of chocolate, and specifically that of cacao, has certainly played a role in the psychology of its perception, be that specious or otherwise. Hervé Robert’s Les vertus thérapeutiques du chocolat is, to date, the most comprehensive medical study of the effects of chocolate, in which he indicated the psychoactive and stimulant effects of methylxanthines[7] theobromine (named for the genus Theobroma) and caffeine and β-phenylethylamine[8], as well as the production of serotonin[9] (Smith, p. 1). Both the Maya and Mexica appear to have used chocolate drinks for stimulant purposes, supplying them to soldiers before combat and athletes before competitions (Weinberg et al., p. 55) – much as we might today drink cups of strong coffee before writing an article. Since there is widespread evidence of cacao consumption in spite of its status as tender[10] there must have been some degree of pleasure associated therewith. One can see how differential food preference across vast cultures and thousands of years may have led to the selective elevation of this particular crop, an affinity therefor. The video above offers an introduction to the debate over the psychological effects of theobromine and caffeine on the brain and body; in modern debates surrounding nutritional and psychological effects of certain substances there tends to be a degree of moral hazard due to the vested economic interests of companies or government agencies that fund research, inertia in food preferences, and the conscious search for foodstuffs with unbalanced value[11]. Stalemate maintains the simulacrum as the technical or highly specialised nature of debates, be they on economics, psychology, chemistry, or any other avenue for debate, often so wholly obfuscate nuances in approach to the phenomenon, ie. chocolate, as to nullify it and so strengthen superficial, expedient categorisation much in the way that ethnobotany, theology, or even the Hippocratic-Galenic humoural system did before.


As alluded by the quotation that begun this essay, we have a tendency to reduce the individual human unit to one of uniformity, and consistency of narrative purpose and action, and we take comfort in the somewhat fallacious notion that the trillions of bacteria and cells, even their organelles, that compose us are altogether singular in their congruence. We construct flattened, reductive, two-dimensional avatars that allow us to obscure that complexity with the simulacra ‘Matthew’ or ‘Elliott’, et cetera. This expedient form of categorisation extends from self-perception to all exogenous phenomena, amongst which cacao is no different.




[1] This article is greatly indebted to the scholarship of Jonathan D. Coe and his late wife Sophie D. Coe, whose book The True History of Chocolate provides the backbone of the historical knowledge here discussed and, in this initial quotation, the genesis for exploration of simulacra in cacao.

[2] “A simulacrum refers to something that replaces reality with its representation”; Dino Franco Felluga, discussing Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (Felluga, p. 281).

[3] Bixa orellana, a red colouring agent

[4] The ‘world’s axis’, a tree that spans the underworld, Xibalba in Mayan mythology, from whence the divine twins originate, the mortal, and the celestial realms – an element common to numerous world theologies.

[5] The 7th century Palenque Maya king Pakal the Great claimed divine legitimacy for his rule by claiming to have descended from a cacao tree.

[6] Incidentally of major import to the ‘cracking’ of Mayan script given the propensity to analyse contents of containers by microspectroscopy and cross-reference this to labels and historical linguistics.

[7] Methylxanthines (ie. caffeine and theobromine) are a class of chemical often sought out with vigour by humanity; they tend to arise in plants as response to injury and can offer neural shock to small pests but in humans an effect found to be in some way pleasing, and that pleasure may be considered psychologically addictive.

[8] The neuro-regulatory effect of phenylethylamine approximates a shallow increase in serotonin. Indeed, there is ongoing discussion in the scientific community as to whether the trans-resveratrol, the bio-active quotient of the anti-oxidant resveratrol that is present in cacao, stimulates actual release of serotonin (cf. NCBI links).

[9] A biochemical process typically associated with softer mood transitions and thus pleasantness or contentedness.

[10] There are of course elements of social stratification not touched on here, and indeed the direct relationship of consumption to the monetary value of the product gives it an air of decadence still played on in chocolate marketing to this day (cf. Godiva link below); though intrinsically it is no different to the consumption of any other product of economic value it is compared to lighting cigars with $50 bills.

[11] As in the current taste for antioxidants, specifically quercetin in chocolate (cf. Life Enhancement link).


Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2006 (3rd Ed).

Felluga, Dino F.. Critical Theory: The Key Concepts. London: Routledge, 2005.

Mintz, Sidney W.. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1985.

Smith, Lucie. “Les vertus du chocolat.” Review of Les vertus thérapeutiques du chocolat by Hervé Robert. Paris: Éditions Artulen, 1990.

Weinberg, Bennett A. and Bonnie K. Bealer. The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug. London: Routledge, 2002.


Web Sources

‘6 pc. Dark Decadence Truffle Flight, $17’ (containing ‘Aztec Spice Truffles’), Godiva


‘Metabolism and bioavailability of trans-resveratrol’, PubMed.gov


‘Antidepressant-like effect of trans-resveratrol: Involvement of serotonin and noradrenaline system’, PubMed.gov


‘Effects of resveratrol on memory performance, hippocampal functional connectivity, and glucose metabolism in healthy older adults’, PubMed.gov


‘Trace Amines and the Trace Amine-Associated Receptor 1: Pharmacology, Neurochemistry, and Clinical Implications’, PubMed.gov


‘Reservatrol and Quercetin – Puzzling Gifts of Nature’, Life Enhancement


‘Rival Candy Projects Both Parse Cocoa’s DNA’, New York Times; September 15th 2010



Further Reading

‘7 Facts You Should Know About Trans-Resveratrol’, Global Healing Center


‘The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and Aztecs’, Godiva


Pre-Columbian cacao usage: more than a delicious snack


In contemporary society, the primary role of chocolate is as something to consume. Although some types of chocolate are more expensive or valued than others, it is generally easy to obtain, not necessarily precious, and available to just about anyone who desires it. In pre-Columbian cultures, however, although chocolate was used as a food, it also had other kinds of significance. It was a precious item, not necessarily available to those who were not elite, and had much symbolic and religious significance, playing an important role at various occasions.

Although evidence of cacao has been found on Olmec pottery shards from as early as 1650 B.C., not much is known about the cacao related customs or beliefs of the Olmec people. More is known about the role of cacao in the Mayan and Aztec civilizations that followed them, thanks to the depictions of cacao in Mayan books (codices) and ceramics and the recollections of the Spanish priests and conquerors, who observed Aztec society before it fell. Indeed, the decoding of the Mayan symbol for cacao (see below) was one of the keys to translating the Mayan hieroglyphic language. (Carla Martin, chocolate class).


Mayan script for the word ‘kakaw’. The drawing is based on Kettunen, Harri; Helmke, Christophe (2008).  “Introduction to Maya Hieroglyphs: Workshop Handbook'”. p. 73.  To learn more about Mayan hieroglyphs, visit: http://www.mesoweb.com/resources/handbook/WH2008.pdf.

The Mayan and Aztec civilizations shared similarities in their use of cacao. It’s preparation was far more varied than it is today. Presilla tells us that the idea of how to prepare cacao may have come from other foodstuffs such as maize that were dried, roasted and ground. The beverage made of ground cacao beans and water was typically bitter and savory –  often flavored with chilis and other botanicals – and only sometimes sweetened. Coe tells us that it was often mixed with maize (mature or young) was a way to make a nutritious gruel with more caloric value. Presilla mentions the use of cacao as a seasoning in other dishes as well. The froth was particularly desirable and was created by pouring the liquid from one container into another, sometimes at great height.

Aztec woman pouring

Picture of Aztec woman, from the Codex Tudela, pouring chocolate from one container to another to raise the foam.

Although cacao may have been available to various strata of Mayan society, in Aztec society it could only be used by the elite: nobles, the merchant class (long distance traders), and warriors. The Aztecs felt that bad luck would come if a commoner drank cacao – and the penalty for a commoner who did so was death. According to Coe, the Aztecs also did not care for drunkenness (the penalty was death) and chocolate was viewed as an alternative beverage to alcoholic beverages.  Warm cacao generally seems to have been preferred by Mayans, and it was typically served in tall vessels. When it was served cool, they served it in shallow bowls. The Aztecs liked their cacao cool and served it in small round gourd bowls. The Aztec warrior class also had cacao as part of their rations – the ground cacao was pressed into wafers for portability on their treks. (Coe)

Cacao vessels could be quite elaborate. The ornate ceramic jar depicted below is an example of a Mayan cacao drinking cup. According to the Walters art gallery, the hieroglyphs describe it as a cacao drinking cup, and include the name of the owner. It is covered with a variety of cacao imagery and decorated with molded cacao pods, which also indicate that it is intended for cacao. It’s fine construction indicates that it is for the use of the upper classes. It may have been intended for use in a special feast or as a special gift.


Mayan lidded cacao vessel, decorated with molded cacao pods and cacao imagery and glyphs

Festive and ceremonial use of cacao was a feature for both the Aztecs and the Mayans. At Mayan marriages, the couple exchanged 5 cacao beans with each other. Mayans also had a baptism-like ritual in which children who reached puberty were anointed with a cacao mixture. (Coe, Mexilore). Aztec traders (the pocheta) hosted large banquets as a means of climbing the ladder to higher ranks within the guild, and cacao was an important aspect of the banquet. (Coe) The word “chokolaj” means “to drink chocolate together”, thus referring to the communal aspect of consuming chocolate. (Coe)

Although important as a foodstuff, cacao was also used as money. It was a precious item, as it was fussy to grow and could only be cultivated in a narrow range of temperatures. It would not grow in Aztec lands and had to be acquired through long distance trade or as tribute paid by conquered peoples. Cacao beans were used to pay laborers and Coe tells us of price lists which show the value of various commodities (tomato, rabbit, avocado, etc.) in cacao beans. As Coe points out, drinking cacao was equivalent to actually drinking actual money.

Cacao was also a feature of the symbolic and spiritual universe of the pre-Columbians. Many pictures depict gods with cacao trees, pods, and seeds, including a portrait of the opossum god bearing the legend, “cacao is his food.” (Coe) Cacao was among the offerings placed in graves for the dead to take to the after life. (Presilla) In Aztec cosmic imagery a cacao tree stands at the south, in the land of the dead. (Coe)

The Mayans and the Aztecs also associated blood and cacao.  According to Coe, cacao could metaphorically be referred to by the words for heart and blood, and cacao was sometimes colored with achiote to become red like blood. Some scholars believe that this could be because of the resemblance of the cacao pod to the heart. Or, perhaps as Coe suggests, it was because both the heart and the cacao pod “were the repositories of precious liquids.” Coe also refers to an image in the Mayan Madrid Codex in which gods pierce their ears with obsidian blades. The blood drops down and sprinkles on cacao pods. Finally, as Coe and Mexilore tell us, in the annual Aztec ritual to ensure the continuation of the world, the sacrificial victim was supposed to dance happily before his death and the removal of his heart. To enchant him and keep him happy as he danced, he was made to drink cacao made with the water used to wash the blood from the obsidian blades that were used on the previous sacrificial victim. (Coe)

Cacao played a large and significant role in pre-Columbian society. As a foodstuff, it was prepared in a myriad of ways. It marked important occasions and was typically consumed by the elite. It’s preciousness is shown in that it could be used as money. Indeed, cacao was a significant aspect of the pre-columbian view of the cosmos. One has to wonder what they would think of today’s easy availability, low cost, and casual use.

References Cited

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

Maricel E. Presilla, The New Taste of Chocolate, revised. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009.

Mexicolore, The food of the Gods: Cacao use among the prehispanic Maya, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/cacao-use-among-the-prehispanic-maya.

Mexicolore, Chocolate: the blood of the Gods?, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/blood-of-the-gods. 

Walters Art Gallery, lidded vessel description                    http://art.thewalters.org/detail/80194/lidded-vessel/

Wikipedia Commons, Mayan glyph for cacao, public domain.


Wikipedia Commons, Aztec woman in Codex Tudela.


Wikipedia Commons, Mayan lidded vessel, owned by Walters Art Gallery, public domain. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/37/Mayan_-_Lidded_Vessel_-_Walters_20092039_-_Side_D.jpg/423px-Mayan_-_Lidded_Vessel_-_Walters_20092039_-_Side_D.jpg







The Spread of Cacao and Cultural Appropriation

Cacao is a staple of the western culinary tradition and is enjoyed in nearly every region of the world. Why has cacao become so popular? The answer to this question is not simply “because it tastes good.” Some will turn to biology to answer this question. The presence of theobromine, caffeine, and sugar in chocolate releases feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine to the frontal lobe, hippocampus and hypothalamus (1). While this helps explain why so many different cultures throughout history enjoy chocolate, this biological explanation is not sufficient. Cacao in its natural form has very different chemical properties than a bar of chocolate. Cacao is difficult to cultivate and requires complex processes to go from bean to chocolate bar. It is true that people crave chocolate– but the stimulant properties in chocolate are not strong enough to justify the amount of effort and expertise required to bring chocolate on the market.

Tracing the spread of cacao from Central America requires us to examine how culture, economics, and biology interact.For most of history, the world has borrowed the process of cacao production without paying homage to the cultures that discovered the process. This Food must be understood from a holistic point of view where we are not only examining the final product, but the entire system of production bringing that product into existence (2). The processes used to cultivate cacao are intrinsically intertwined with the cultures that discovered the process of cultivation.

Understanding the spread of cacao requires us to examine its origins and the cultural practices surrounding it. Examining this migration offers important lessons about cultural appropriation and economic development and can help us be more mindful, compassionate consumers.

The first people to cultivate cacao were the Olmec civilization (1500 BCE – 400 BCE). The genetic origin of cacao can be traced to the amazon river bed area in what is modern day ecuador (3).

Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 8.59.27 PM.png

(Source: Martin, Carla. 01 FEB 2017, Chocolate Culture and the Politics of Food. Lecture Slide, Harvard Extension School)

Cacao developed humid lowlands of Yucatan Peninsula, generally the domain of the Maya. However, much of the culture surrounding cacao did not develop in that area. We find evidence of cacao culture in the Aztec region which was much hotter and drier. The Aztec relied on Maya labor to produce the cacao products which were central to their religious and cultural practices.

Much of what we know about the early culture surrounding cacao development comes from Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590), who spent many years learning about the way of life of the Aztec. Sahagún is credited as being the world’s first anthropologist and strived to understand the Aztec civilization outside of western biases. The culmination of Sahagún’s work was Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España, in which he chronicled the significance of cacao in Aztec rituals, as an indicator of social class for the wealthy, and as a conduit of trade. Sahagún also detailed the crucial network of roads that enabled interregional trade. The reason why we know cacao moved from the Maya zone of influence to the Aztec zone of influence is from Sahagún’s writings.

Beyond this, there is further evidence that cacao trade extended beyond the Aztec-Maya empire as far north as present day Southwestern United States. A cylindrical vessel from 900 CE found in this area tested positive for evidence of cacao and it is believed that the residents of southwest pueblo bartered turquoise in exchange for cacao. This suggests that cacao was central to interregional trade in early Mesoamerica.

Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 10.00.12 PM.png

(Source: Martin, Carla. 01 FEB 2017, Chocolate Culture and the Politics of Food. Lecture Slide, Harvard Extension School)

Development of cacao remained confined to this region of the world until Christopher Columbus arrived in Guanaja Bay Island off the coast of present-day Honduras in the Caribbean. Cacao was of particular interest to the Spanish colonists who were suffering malnutrition from their long voyage across the ocean. Cacao was seen as an advantageous export and as a medicinal supplement. The first exports of cacao from the Izalcos port of Acajutla saw rapid growth between the 1500s to 1600s. The price of cacao skyrocketed as chocolate became a popular luxury among European nobility.

Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 10.11.25 PM.png

(Source: Martin, Carla. 01 FEB 2017, Chocolate Culture and the Politics of Food. Lecture Slide, Harvard Extension School)

The rise in popularity of cacao occurred alongside the rise of sugar exports. As colonies grew to develop the production of sugar and cacao, so grew the rise of racism and the international slave trade. The industrial revolution ushered in a new age of economic prosperity built on innovation and also exploited labor and resources. Much like the Aztecs to the Maya, Europeans and North Americans relied on slave labor to produce their goods, especially chocolate.

Presently, the systems of exploitation and inequality on cacao production still persist. Chocolate is a $100 billion dollar per year industry and 75% of the world’s chocolate is consumed in North America and Europe. However, 75% of cacao comes from West and Central Africa. The average cacao farmer makes 0.50-0.80 cents per day– well below the Work Bank’s global poverty line of $1.10. Looking at these figures and statistics, it is incumbent upon us to be conscious consumers so we don’t continue the system of oppression and exploitation that has persisted throughout the past.


(1) Albers, Susan. 11 FEB 2014, Psychology Today. Retrieved 05 MAR 2017. Link: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/comfort-cravings/201402/why-do-we-crave-chocolate-so-much

(2) Mintz, Sidney W. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power. pp. 74-150.

(3) Proposed by Cheeseman in 1994. Motomayor et all (2002).

Chocolate and Romance: A Historical Exploration of Chocolate’s Association with Love

Chocolate in modern society is deeply intertwined with ideas of romance, love, and lust. From our celebration of Valentine’s Day, a holiday in which the exchange of chocolate and love notes is foundational, to advertisements from chocolate companies filled with sexual innuendos, we are constantly bombarded with ideas and images depicting chocolate’s association with romance. While many consider chocolate’s relationship with love to be a tactic manufactured by large chocolate companies to increase sales, there has been a long-standing association between chocolate and budding romance that began in pre-Columbian times. Chocolate’s affiliation with love and romance today is both rooted in tradition and influenced by capitalistic endeavors to sell more chocolate.

One of the earliest examples of chocolate’s role in romantic relationships is an ancient Mayan marriage ritual called tac haa. The ritual involved the potential groom’s family serving a chocolate drink to the father of the woman he wanted to marry. The men, including the father of the potential groom, father of the potential bride, and the admirer himself would sit together and discuss the marriage, while women remained removed from the negotiations. The women, such as the potential groom’s mother, would be involved in making the chocolate drink that was served to the guests (Martin, Lecture 2).  Another Mayan marriage ritual involving chocolate took place at the actual wedding ceremony. The Mayan bride and groom would exchange five cacao beans with each other, and wedding guests would drink chocolate together (Coe and Coe 61). Ancient rituals such as tac haa and the exchange of cacao beans do not directly resemble modern traditions surrounding chocolate and romance (i.e. heart-shaped chocolate boxes that are presented to significant others), but both ancient Mayan marriage rituals and heart-shaped chocolate boxes share the common thread of lovers being united through chocolate. It could be that rituals like tac haa serve as prototypes for modern traditions involving chocolate and courtship.

An example of a contemporary courting ritual involving chocolate is depicted in the following advertisement for Edible Arrangements: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1I1FW1ffSc. The advertisement showcases a man setting up a romantic evening on Valentine’s Day. It is clear to any viewer that this is a romantic evening because of the cultural connotations of the objects presented in the ad. For example, the man lights candles, there is a rose and box of chocolates set on the table, and slow music plays in the background. Roses, candles, and chocolate are all objects American society associates with romance, specifically with courting women. As the advertisement progresses, the heart-shaped box of chocolates begins to speak, saying that he is the “ultimate wing-man,” reiterating the idea of chocolate being used to woo women in our society. The object of the advertisement is to demonstrate how Edible Arrangements is superior to the box of chocolates in wooing the woman. However, including the box of chocolates as something to compete with further emphasizes the notion of offering chocolate as an established method of courtship in our society.

Presenting chocolate to a significant other is not only used as a method of courtship in modern society, but has evolved into becoming fundamentally associated with the definition of “romantic” altogether. For example, AskMen, a popular website that offers life advice to men, contains an article entitled “9 Simple Romantic Ideas for Every Man” linked here http://www.askmen.com/dating/heidi_60/77b_dating_girl.html.  One of the romantic ideas listed is to “Be More Thoughtful,” and a suggestion on how to do so is to “leave [your significant other] a chocolate ‘kiss’ on her pillow before bedtime.” It is apparent that giving your partner chocolate should be viewed as a thoughtful gesture, and by doing so one can be described as “romantic.” Thousands of men visit AskMen for daily advice and likely follow it, indicating how chocolate has become an extremely conventional method of showcasing a man’s thoughtfulness and affection for a woman. Similarly, the way chocolate is presented in this article suggests that women too have been conditioned to feel loved and appreciated when their partner gives them chocolate.

Chocolate’s affiliation with romance extends further than simple courtship and gift-giving. In fact, people have long used chocolate as an aphrodisiac, or in combination with believed aphrodisiacs, to heighten sexual desire in themselves and in others.  A chocolate beverage called Atextli consumed by the Aztecs was believed to be healthy due to its supposed aphrodisiac qualities (Elferink 27). Chocolate beverages have also been documented as being used in love potions to seduce and control men. Margarita Orellana writes, “Because of its dark color and grainy texture, chocolate provided an ideal cover for items associated with sexual witchcraft. These included various powders and herbs, as well as female body parts and fluids, which women then mixed into a chocolate beverage and fed to men to control their sexuality” (81). Whether chocolate truly possesses aphrodisiac qualities or not, modern chocolate companies often use chocolate’s historical association with sexuality as the basis of their marketing. Linked here is an example of a typical chocolate advertisement from Lindt, a company known for their chocolate truffles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgGz2oNk0Pg. Although not overt, once can see how Lindt is sexualizing chocolate in this advertisement. Terms like “irresistible,” “passion,” and “luscious” have carnal connotations, and the image of the woman removing her scarf suggests that the idea of consuming chocolate has heightened her sexual desires.

The affiliation between chocolate and romance, beginning with Aztec and Mayan traditions, perseveres in modern times. Something else that has remained in tact is the idea of men using chocolate to court women, and women having sexualized responses to chocolate. There seems to be a stark difference between men and women’s interactions with chocolate that have become engrained into contemporary society.

Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., Michael D. Coe, and Ryan J. Huxtable. The true history of chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

De Orellana, Margarita, et al. “Chocolate III: RITUAL, ART AND MEMORY.” Artes De México, no. 110, 2013, pp. 72–96., http://www.jstor.org/stable/24318995.

“Edible Arrangements Advertisement.” YouTube, uploaded by MBR616, http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=b1I1FW1ffSc. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.

“Lindt Chocolate Commercial.” YouTube, uploaded by LindtChocolateUSA, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgGz2oNk0Pg. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.

Jan G. R. Elferink. “Aphrodisiac Use in Pre-Columbian Aztec and Inca Cultures.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 9, no. 1/2, 2000, pp. 25–36., http://www.jstor.org/stable/3704630.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and ‘The Food of the Gods’.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard College: Cambridge, MA. 1 Feb. 2017. Class Lecture.

“9 Simple Romantic Ideas for Every Man.” AskMen, http://www.askmen.com/dating/heidi_60/ 77b_dating_girl.html. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.






Containing Chocolate and Culture

The instruments used to hold chocolate reveal more about the history and culture of the time period than one might first assume. Chocolate consumption began with the Olmecs, a civilization who lived along the Gulf Coast of Mexico between 1500 BC and 400 BC (Presilla, 46). Around 500 AD, the Mayan people also embraced chocolate as a drink and as part of traditional rituals like marriage, funerals, and religious ceremonies. Over 1000 years later, chocolate had made its way to Europe as a luxury enjoyed by the elite members of society (Coe and Coe, 158). The transformation of chocolate from a religious food to an indulgence for the wealthy is reflected through the vessels used to contain cacao. The culture and beliefs surrounding chocolate are reflected by a vessel found in a Mayan tomb discovery and the French silver chocolatière.



In 1984, archeologists uncovered a Mayan tomb from the late 5th century containing 14 decorated vessels. This tomb was found at Rio Azul, a Maya city located in Guatemala (Presilla, 46). Specifically, one artifact found in this tomb helped researchers to discover Cacao’s importance in Mayan funeral traditions. In their book, Michael D. Coe and Sophie D. Coe describe the artifact:


“There was a single example of an extremely rare form, a stirrup-handled pot with a screw-on lid. This strange object had been surfaced with stucco and brilliantly painted with six large hieroglyphs, including two which read ‘cacao.’” (Coe and Coe, 46)

Kakaw_(Mayan_word).pngFigure 1:  A close up of the glyph that helped identify this vessel. This symbol meant “cacao” in the Classic Maya period. 

Figure 2 (on left): The pot found at Rio Azul that Coe describes.


For the Mayans, chocolate was more than just a substance to consume. Chocolate held spiritual power. This connection between religion and chocolate is clear when we take into consideration the location of this pot. This artifact was found in a tomb, surrounding the body of the deceased ruler. When tested in a lab, this screw-top jar had traces of caffeine and theobromine—the two trace compounds found together only in chocolate (Martin.) This discovery confirmed that the ruler was buried with chocolate. For further proof that the vessel contained chocolate, researcher David Stuart decoded the glyphs along the outside to read “a drinking vessel for witik cacao, for kox caco” (Coe and Coe, 46).

Funerals and chocolate were also linked in Mayan scripture.  The Mayans believed that chocolate eased the journey to the underworld. Chocolate is mentioned in conjunction with different religious rituals in the Dresden Codex, a Maya text that still exists today (Martin).

Not only does the Rio Azul discovery reveal the connection between religion and chocolate, it also clues us into the consumption process. Some of the other vases are tall and narrow. They were picked up and poured into other pots to increase the foam.
Figure 3: This image is found on the Princeton Vase, and it depicts the process in which people made the chocolate drink. The chocolate was poured from one jug to the other to add froth, as the foam was considered the most important part. 



Luxury in the 18th century France

In France in the 17th and 18th centuries, the vessels used to contain chocolate also reflect the attitudes towards chocolate and the way it was imbibed. Chocolate was heralded as a beneficial delicacy with many health benefits. The French “are usually credited with the invention of the chocolatière, the chocolate pot ”(Coe and Coe, 156). Many of the elite took chocolate daily to cure a number of ailments (Coe and Coe, 156). The vessels from which hot chocolate was poured reflect the extravagance of the segment of society who embraced chocolate.


Figure 4 and 5: This chocolatière, currently on display in the Metropolitan museum of art, was made in the 1760s and  is typical for the time period.





“The French innovation seems to have been fix a straight wooden handle to the metal pot at right angles to the spout; this handle was usually unscrewed clockwise so that it would remain tight while pouring from the pot in a counter-clockwise motion. At the top was a hinged lid, with a central hole under the swiveling (or hinged) finial to take the handle of the moussoir (“froth maker”), as they called the molinillo.… Of course, this would have been in silver, as would the chocolatiers of all the nobility.” – Coe 


The extravagance of this pot highlights how only the wealthy had access to chocolate at the time. The average citizen would have never been able to afford such an intricate piece of silverware (Righthand). Chocolatières were also used as gifts between royalty. Coe cites the first appearance of a silver chocolatières in France as a gift from a Siamese mission. “It was not that the Thai had suddenly turned into chocolate drinkers (they never did so), but [the minister to the King of Siam] had obviously instructed the royal metalsmiths to turn out something that would appeal to the French court.” And the metalsmith’s idea of what would appeal to the French court was an extravagant set of chocolatières. The chocolatières given to the French court incuded “two chocolatières in silver, one with golden flowers and the other Japenned” as well as another “entirely in gold” (Coe and Coe, 158). Chocolatières were brought as a gift and to signify diplomacy. This incident establishes the way chocolate was viewed in society—something for only the elite to enjoy for pleasure.



Figure 6:  “La Famille du duc de Penthièvre en 1768” a painting by Jean-Baptiste Charpentier illustrates how chocolate was for the wealthy.


Same food, different cultures

For the Europeans of the 17th century, chocolate was a status symbol. As the price was still expensive, only the wealthy could afford to take chocolate. The intricacies of the chocolatières highlight their function in society. For the most part, chocolate no longer held any spiritual affiliation. While the Mayan pots were decorated with glyphs and drawings depicting what was inside and religious rituals, the chocolatières were ornately decorated illustrating the wealth and class of those who used them. Although both pots hold chocolate, their uses and sociological function were very different, illustrating the adaptation of chocolate as it spread to Europe as a secular delicacy, rather than a religious artifact.


Works cited:

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

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 1 Feb. 2017. Class Lecture.

Righthand, Jess. “A Brief History of the Chocolate Pot.” Smithsonian.com. February 13, 2015. Accessed March 10, 2017. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/brief-history-chocolate-pot-180954241/.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 2009 Print.







When Chocolate Was Young

1. Into the Garden
Born on the slopes of the Amazon Basin, the first chocolate trees (Theobroma cacao) shed their fruit pods to the ground and could barely capture the attention of a passing squirrel or macaw. The Amazon by this time was a paradise of intertwined plant and animal life in greens, browns, all colors, in a quantity and variety not seen anywhere else on earth. Immense ceiba and laurel trees rose to protect the cacao from the burning rays of the sun, and grasses and leaves provided a moist and fertile blanket below. It would be an unknown many thousands of years but eventually the first man and woman walked barefoot down the slopes of the Andes and found the cacao tree, broke open a pod on a rock, and ate and drank of the sweet pulp inside. This was the beginning of the end of cacao in its truly pure and natural state; so began thousands of years of history as men became inextricably linked to the bitter seeds of the plant and made the first chocolate, and the seeds helped fuel war campaigns of the Olmec, Maya, Aztec and others, and meanwhile the seeds became the engine of trade, and literally the money that made the ancient Mesoamerican economies go round. Later they were the seeds of enslavement and the forced relocation of many millions of African men and women to cacao plantations in the Americas. In this article we will focus on the first cultivation of the cacao tree and the first making of chocolate; we are interested in who made chocolate, when, where, and for what purpose. We concentrate on the very beginning of the story. It is a story we know from the chemists and archaeologists whose artifact testing is writing the history of the earliest chocolate in the world.

As demonstrated above the cacao tree is exotic in appearance, with colored seed pods ranging from green to red to yellow to brown, and grow from the trunk instead of the branches (“cauliflory”). As the tree will only grow in warm and humid conditions of plus or minus 20 degrees of latitude, the surrounding plants are also exotic. Inside the thick rind of the fruit is a white or purplish pulp that can be made into a beverage–alcoholic or non-alcoholic–and also almond sized seeds which can be dried in the sun, roasted on a heated stone, de-shelled, and finally ground into a semi-liquid paste (raw chocolate). At some point, by man or by nature, the trees spread to upper central America and southern Mexico (the region known as Mesoamerica). From this vast garden setting the early peoples would add maize and water to chocolate to make gruel, and add also relishes like chili peppers, petals of “ear flower,” honey, maguey sap, vanilla, and achiote (Coe, 2013, pp. 62, 87, 94; Presilla, 2009, p. 9). It is important to know that both the pulp of cacao and the seed contain 1-2 % by weight caffeine and related stimulants (Coe, 2013, p. 29; Henderson, 2007). The Aztecs were known to make disks of solid chocolate, and amplified by the equivalent of 10 cups of coffee in 50 grams of chocolate their warriors would take to the trails, hunting for enemies and looking for new sources of slaves.

2. Into the Pot
Most of what we know or can guess about the earliest chocolate use in Mesoamerica is projected backwards from chocolate use today in rural regions, first-hand accounts of the Spanish colonizers, and Mesoamerican texts (codices), languages, and artifacts. As far as prehistoric use of chocolate goes, almost all of what we know has been gleaned from close examination of cooking and serving vessels, which may have illustrations, hieroglyphics, or even ancient residues that can be analyzed in the laboratory. 

Mesoamericans have made and used ceramic cookware for at least 3,500 years (Soleri, 2013). The forms can be remarkably evolved, as for example vessels with handles, double spouts, bridged spouts, lids with locking bayonets, colored illustrations, relief sculptures, or tripod legs (Hall, 1990; Powis, 2002). The vessels were made well enough to last several thousand years in some cases. Illustrations of cacao on prehistoric cookware are not so common and the textbook example is the Princeton Vase, a Mayan vessel from 670-750 AD (Late Classic); this illustration shows an elegantly dressed woman pouring what is undoubtedly a chocolate drink from a height to make a froth, with a wild assortment of other women and Mayan gods in attendance. The scene suggests gender aspects and class aspects of the early Mayan consumption of chocolate. The Maya were interested in the metaphysical aspects of frothy drinks, and the cylindrical jar and method of preparing chocolate shown is also described in Conquest era literature; perhaps this pouring from a height originally resembled the froth from waterfalls in the Yucatan. On another Mayan vessel a smart-looking monkey contemplates a cacao tree; of course monkeys were cracking open cacao pods on the peninsula long before man arrived in the region.

In the case of hieroglyphic writing on vessels, this shows the vivid and imaginative writing system created by the Mayans, the fine detail the artists were capable of, and an interesting Mayan version of the monogram. The various serving vessels, for example, might be labeled to identify the owner (usually male), the function of the vessel, and the recipe of the contents; in fact one of these personalized jars used for chocolate (vessel 15 of Hurst, 1989) was key to begin decoding the Mayan hieroglyphic system. (See David Stuart’s article in McNeil, 2006.)
Of course, careful examination of the excavation site around an artifact is essential to estimate age and function. 90% of Mesoamerican vessels shown to be associated with chocolate consumption are discovered in burial locations (Powis, 2002), and by context these are invariably burials of high-status individuals (see Powis for diagrams of graves containing approximately 20 vessels each, dubbed a “complete table setting”). These vessels are thought to have been filled with chocolate drinks and other foodstuffs for nourishment on the journey to the underworld (Hall, 1990); by the fill lines still visible we know they contained liquids, and sometimes residues remain that can be scraped off and tested. Intact chocolate vessels are likely to be found in burial sites because of the natural protection, however pieces of vessels (“potsherds”) are also found in ancient refuse heaps and ancient construction fill. Intact vessels removed from protected locations are preferred for residue testing because they are thought less likely to be contaminated.

(A detail of a line drawing by John Montgomery of the Princeton Vase is shown below. The original vase can be viewed at the Princeton University website, http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/objects/32221 .)

3. Into the Laboratory

The sections above have hinted at some interesting questions without providing all of the answers. By the end of the 1980s, research into the natural history of chocolate had generated more questions than answers and new methods of attacking problems were needed; in 1989 Jeffrey Hurst, a chemist at the Hershey company, performed for the first time chemical testing on ceramic vessels recovered from digs in Mesoamerica (Hurst, 1989). There was a new expectation of discovery regarding who had made the first chocolate, what were the prehistoric recipes, which social classes consumed chocolate, and so forth.

In that first study Hurst tested an unspecified number of Mayan vessels from the Rio Azul site in Guatemala by High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), the usual laboratory method for separating and identifying compounds (Fig. 1 below). The Hurst paper determined that several vessels dating to 460-480 AD had contained cacao; this pushed the use of cacao back to approximately one millenium before the first Spanish records and was therefore a landmark study. The paper also introduced two important notions that would be used (and sometimes questioned) in subsequent studies: 1. Theobroma cacao is the only Mesoamerican commodity containing theobromine, so theobromine can be used as a marker for cacao, and 2. Unglazed ceramics absorb theobromine, which is stable indefinitely and can be sampled without contamination by removing some of the ceramic (page 279, and see also Soleri, 2013, pages 349 and 357.) We remarked above that cacao contains 1-2% by weight theobromine and caffeine.

In 2002 Terry Powis sampled Mayan spouted pots from the Colha site in Belize on the Gulf Coast and found two of the pots had used for cacao, pushing the use of cacao back to 600-400 BC (Powis, 2002). Powis entertained the notion that the spout itself could be used as a marker for frothing and chocolate consumption (pp. 94, 96), although a spout may just be easier for pouring in general.

In 2007 John Henderson pushed consumption back to 1150 BC when he found 11 of 13 vessels from the Puerto Escondido site, Honduras, had been used for cacao (Henderson, 2007). Recall that pulp of cacao as well as the seeds contains theobromine and caffeine; Henderson concluded that the most ancient cacao drinks were not chocolate but made from the fermented cacao pulp. Unfortunately, both the volatile alcohol in pulp drinks and the lipids in chocolate drinks would disappear quickly from containers (Henderson p. 18939; Hurst, 1989, p. 286), and there is no test to distinguish between chocolate drinks and pulp drinks. Like Powis, Henderson suggested that spouted pots appearing approximately 1000 BC may be associated with frothing and chocolate drinks, versus pulp drinks. The vessels in this study were also tested for beeswax and capsain (markers for honey and chili pepper, respectively); the findings were negative.

In an effort to pin down the prehistoric use of cacao geographically, Powis next sampled over 100 vessels from both the Pacific and Gulf Coast regions (Powis, 2008) and found two very old vessels testing positive, one from each coastal region. It turns out a Mokaya vessel from the Paso de la Amada site in the state of Chiapas, Mexico is the oldest vessel with cacao residue ever found–dated to 1900-1500 BC by the construction fill where it was discovered. It is actually a broken piece from a small brown gourd-shaped pot with vertical ridges. The Mokaya were some of the very earliest settlers in Mesoamerica (1900-1700 BC; p. 36), and the find may settle the question of which coast first spread the cultivation of cacao, unless cultivation arose independently in both regions. Powis concluded that the Mokaya brought chocolate drink consumption to the Gulf Coast; in any case the Mokaya and pre-Olmecs had cacao drinks long before the Maya and the Aztecs had them.

By the time of a study by Daniela Soleri in 2013, researchers had gained confidence in their knowledge of Mesoamerican cacao consumption; in this study vessels from the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico were tested for maize as well as cacao, with the hopes of obtaining information on ancient cacao recipes (Soleri, 2013). As mentioned above, it is known that the Aztecs and Mayas prepared drinks and gruels made from cacao with maize; in fact this practice continues among some of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. The study found 3 of 8 artifact vessels had been used for cacao and 2 of these had also been used for maize; the conclusion was these very old vessels had been used for a recipe containing both cacao and maize. Of course, the positive test for cacao and maize does not prove simultaneous use beyond a doubt; vessels can be used across time for different things. The Soleri study is noteworthy as the first effort to provide any kind of a control: a present-day ceramic vessel used for five years to prepare cacao was also sampled.

Finally we report on a study of Daniela Washburn, which came under immediate fire because of its sampling method and conclusions. The 2014 study is notable for introduction of a proper control and testing for statistical significance. By sampling dust on the shelves at six museums (including the Peabody at Harvard) Washburn showed there is always some background methylxanthine contamination (theobromine and caffeine), but the theobromine levels found in vessels used for cacao are significantly greater and this is easily tested by an analysis of variance. The new non-destructive sampling method involves simply rinsing the ceramic vessel followed by centrifugation of the rinse water. The paper of Washburn was interested in whether cacao from Central America was traded to indigenous peoples of the American Southwest, Midwest, and Southeast; the study found that cacao was being used by populations as far away as Florida (1000 AD).

We caution the reader that we have not summarized here every study on the subject of artifact testing for chocolate/cacao; undoubtedly the number of studies will continue to multiply due to simpler testing procedures, the popularity of chocolate, and interest in the Aztecs and Maya and the history of chocolate. We hope we have given, however, some idea of what the archaeological interest in ancient chocolate consumption is all about.

Figure 1. A typical High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) setup is shown below. A solvent or solvents in (1) that are appropriate to the substance (7) to be separated out and identified are pumped by (5) though a “column” (9) that separates by adsorption. (10) is a detector for the wavelengths of e.g. UV light absorbed by the sample, and this information or “chromatogram” is recorded by the computer (11). The substance (in solution) is collected in (12). 


Coe, M. (2013). The true history of chocolate. London, England: Thames & Hudson, Ltd.
Hall, G. (1990). Cacao residues in ancient Maya vessels from Rio Azul, Guatemala. American Antiquity, 55(1), 138-143.
Henderson, J. (2007). Chemical and archaeological evidence for the earliest cacao beverages. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(48), 18937-18940.
Hurst, W. (1989). Authentication of cocoa in Maya vessels using High Performance Liquid Chromatographic techniques. Journal of Chromatography, 466, 279-289.
Lo Coco, F. (2007). Determination of theobromine, theophylline, and caffeine in by-products of cupuacu and cacao seeds by High Performance Liquid Chromatography. Journal of Chromatographic Science, 45, 273-275.
Loudon, G. (2016). Organic Chemistry. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman.
McNeil, C. 2006. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: a cultural history of cacao. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Gainesville.
Powis, T. (2002). Spouted vessels and cacao use among the Preclassic Maya. Latin American Antiquity, 13(1), 85-106.
Powis, T. (2008). The origins of cacao use in Mesoamerica. Mexicon [sic], 30, 35-38.
Presilla, M. (2009). The new taste of chocolate. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.
Snyder, L. (2010). Introduction to modern liquid chromatography. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Soleri, D. (2013). Archaeological residues and recipes: exploratory testing for evidence of maize and cacao beverages in Postclassic vessels from the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity, 24(3), 345-362.
Washburn D. (2014). Chemical analysis of cacao residues in archaeological ceramics from North America: considerations of contamination, sample size and systematic controls. Journal of Archaeological Science, 50, 2014.
* The red pod cacao tree illustration is (C) 2013; we obtained kind permission to use it from Lake Champlain Chocolates. The Princeton Vase line drawing is (C) 2000 by John Montgomery. The HPLC schematic drawing is licensed under Creative Commons.

From Elite to Everyday – How Chocolate Became Affordable For All

Chocolate has been consumed for over 4,000 years. Yet, it was consumed much differently at the beginning of its History, when it was actually drank as a bitter liquid beverage. Today, most of the chocolate available on the market takes a solid, edible form. The change through chocolate’s History did not only take place from a form of consumption perspective. Indeed, chocolate, in Mesoamerica and throughout most of its History was consumed as a beverage reserved only for the elite because of its exorbitant price. Globalization and mass production of chocolate products led to the spread of chocolate’s popularity; from being only available for society’s elites to becoming an affordable good accessible to members of all social classes.

(Maya God Grinding Coco – Worldstandards.eu)

From its beginnings to the recent centuries, chocolate was reserved for each community’s elites. Klein writes: “The Mayans worshipped a god of cacao and reserved chocolate for rulers, warriors, priests and nobles at sacred ceremonies.” Simultaneously, during the 16th Century, drinking chocolate remained a Spanish secret. Indeed, through its decades and centuries of colonization, Spain was able to bring cacao and chocolate recipes back to the homeland without raising much interest from its neighboring countries. The high cost of transportation and production made it remain a drink for the wealthy. “Although the Spanish sweetened the bitter drink with cane sugar and cinnamon, one thing remained unchanged: chocolate was still a delectable symbol of luxury, wealth and power. Chocolate was sipped by royal lips, and only Spanish elites could afford the expensive import” (Klein). In 1606, the chocolate craze spread out of Spain, and the beverage made primarily of cacao was first introduced in Italy. The craze within the elite community was instantaneous, as chocolate spread among Europe’s nobility in 1615 when the daughter of Spanish King Philip III married French King Louis XIII.


(King Louis XIII – NNDB)

In 1657, the first ever English chocolate house opened its doors to the public. Much like today’s elite café’s throughout Europe, chocolate houses provided with the community’s elites with an opportunity to enjoy a hot drink, discuss political issues, participate in betting games, and socialize. “Chocolate houses in Florence and Venice gained notoriety in the early 1700s. Europeans preferred to drink their chocolate from ornate dishes made out of precious materials and crafted by artisans. Like the elaborate ceramic vessels of ancient Maya and Aztec rulers, these dishes were more than serving pieces: they were also symbols of wealth.” [1]

chocolate house

(English Chocolate House – Worldstandards.eu)

The second Industrial Revolution started at the beginning of the 19th Century. Through it, much like most industries in Europe and America, the chocolate business was forever changed. Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten invented in 1828 what is, in a quite original manner, called the Van Houten press. “[He] invented the cacao press, which squeezed out cocoa butter from the cocoa mass. It allowed for the improvement of the chocolate’s consistency and also permitted the separate sale of cacao powder”[2]. Following Van Houten’s invention, many revolutionaries came together for improving the chocolate industry and making the products more accessible to all. Rodolphe Lindt furthered the ease of availability of chocolate products through his invention of the conching machine in 1879. It allowed for a more velvety texture and superior taste in the final product. Through the use of these developments and their implementation within factory assembly lines, chocolate was made more affordable, consistent in its production, and accessible internationally.

(Van Houten Press & Chocolate Factory – Worldstandards.eu)

[1] Worldstandards.eu

[2] Worldstandards.eu

Works Cited:

Klein, Christopher. “The Sweet History of Chocolate.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 13 Feb. 2014. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.

“Louis XIII.” NNDB. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.

Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

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

“History of Chocolate.” Worldstandards.eu. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.

Mintz, Sidney. 1986. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.


What are you giving up for Lent this year?


Chocolate ranks amongst the top list of things Christians give up for Lent, according to most recent Twitter data. For Christians, Lent is a period of fasting starting Ash Wednesday (March 1, 2017) and leading up to Easter Sunday (April 16, 2017), relating back to the 40 days Jesus fasted and prayed before he was ultimately crucified. Lent is a period of time in which to give up comfort such as sinful things and take on practices that serve others.

Considering chocolate and the Catholic church, there are two inverses that have evolved over time: Chocolate, once considered appropriate for consumption during Lent, is now amongst the top things people give up during Lent. Once deemed incredibly foreign and valuable, chocolate today is used to build a human-sized replica of the Pope.

Chocolate’s religious roots

Chocolate’s rich religious history stems from the Mayans who deemed chocolate ‘food of the gods’ (Coe, 1996) and prescribed it a high value. Mayans consumed chocolate beverages during rituals ranging from fertility to marriage and death rites. With the colonialization of the Americas, chocolate then made its way to Spain during the 16th century.

The Fasting Controversy

Back when chocolate was a foreign concept, Catholics looked to the Pope for guidance as to how to incorporate this novelty in their lives and particularly their Christian practices. An anecdote involves the Pope who did not deem the question whether or not chocolate was appropriate to be consumed while fasting worthy of any reply (Martin, 2017). The confusion around incorporating chocolate into their diets and its effect on religious practices had Catholic scholars debate this question and Popes beginning with Gregory XIII (1572-1588) stating privately that drinking Chocolate would not break the Catholic fast but there was never an official Papal statement (Squicciarini & Swinnen, 2016).

To understand this controversy, we need two more pieces of information: The nutritional and the geographic context. Chocolate was a new concept and there was no way to ‘ground’ it in older teachings as the bible was written during a time and in a geographic location where Chocolate was not yet a concept as the Cocoa tree just did not naturally grow anywhere but in the Americas and was not cultivated yet.

What the Fasting Controversy ultimately boiled down to and was dependent on was whether to view Chocolate as a drink which would be allowed to be consumed during fasts (Forrest & Najjaj, 2007), or food that would have to be given up due to nutritious benefits such as the added milk.

Tracing Popes’ involvement with chocolate from the 226th Pope to the current 266th Pope

There is a certain irony involved when in 2014 Pope Francis found himself standing in front of his life-sized chocolate replica, epitomizing the long and controversial history between chocolate and the Catholic church. One factor in this change in perception of chocolate is of course an economic evolutionary one: Food industrialization made more affordable the 1.5 tons of chocolate used for the statue.

Chocolate is deeply associated with Christian holidays

Nowadays, chocolate is very much intertwined with Christian holidays: Ranging from St. Valentines’ day heart-shaped chocolates, children searching for hidden chocolate Easter eggs of all colors, fillings and sizes and gifting chocolate Easter bunnies, Saint Nicholas giving out chocolate St. Nick figures to children, children’s advent calendars filled with little pieces of chocolate. It appears the end to a period of fasting is celebrated with consuming chocolate. The ritualistic tradition involved is traceable to the Mayan’s ritualistic chocolate. What has changed though is the way it is consumed: Chocolate nowadays is commonly consumed as food and not any longer as beverage and would thus not be deemed appropriate during Lent.

Social media challenges chocolate’s top-rank

Giving up chocolate seems to be a health-conscious and quick fix to what is meant to be a devout period of introspection by giving up what is hard and usually comforting. What this is, can and does change over time. The Twitter analysis also encompasses increasingly modern ‘sins’ to give up, such as social media consumption. It seems that for many Twitter users nowadays social media has taken chocolate’s sinful place. Maybe because it is seen as equally or even more addicting than chocolate and therefore giving it up is seen to be a difficult and conscious choice.

The contemporary Pope’s message

So, what are you giving up for Lent and how does chocolate’s historic significance inform your decision, if at all? While it ultimately boils down to a personal decision, there is inspiration to be found in turning to the Pope who today reaches us through the medium of Twitter along the lines of reconsidering what Lent is about and how superficial it may have become. Detaching it from only superficial food choices to something deeper and more meaningful, Pope Francis appeals to higher virtues such as reaching out to our fellow humans and neighbors.



Works Cited

Coe, S. D., Coe, M. D., & Huxtable, R. J. (1996). The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson.

Forrest, B. M., & Najjaj, A. L. (2007). Is Sipping Sin Breaking Fast? The Catholic Chocolate Controversy and the Changing World of Early Modern Spain. Food and Foodways15(1-2), 31-52.

Martin, Carla D. (2017). Class Lecture. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Squicciarini, M. P., & Swinnen, J. (2016). The Economics of Chocolate. Oxford University Press.

Multimedia Sources

Image 1: https://www.openbible.info/blog/2017/03/what-twitterers-are-giving-up-for-lent-2017-edition/

Image 2: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/pope-francis-meets-life-sized-chocolate-replica-article-1.1604406

Tweets: https://twitter.com/Pontifex/status/840181704056684545 https://twitter.com/Pontifex/status/837641210583928832