Tag Archives: Maya

Innovating the Culture Away: The Evolution of Cacao’s Preparation

For the many Mesoamerican peoples with access to cacao, traditional preparation methods contributed largely to the plant’s known cultural significance. The customary techniques of chocolate production represented a cornerstone of cultural and political gatherings (Coe and Coe 45-47). Additionally, the presence of ritualistic cacao preparations at momentous occasions, and the product’s spiritual connotations and economic utility (Leissle 30), maintained an intimate connection between the sacred plant and Mesoamerican life. The reach of cacao expanded following encounters with Western colonizers, and gradually Mesoamerican preparation practices were hybridized through a European lens. Furthermore, an industrializing Europe introduced numerous innovations in the preparation of chocolate products (Leissle 38-39). Hence, by the 19th century, a large factor in cacao’s original cultural significance—its preparation—had been separated from the plant itself.

Mesoamerican Preparation

On account of the plant’s particular environmental preferences, there were just several epicenters of intensive Theobroma cacao production in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Nevertheless, cacao was among the most prevalent products in Mesoamerican life, serving numerous cultural and economic purposes (Sampeck and Thayn 75). The nature of the T. cacao plant influenced many of the processing steps required prior to the preparation of cacao beverages. The pods cannot be opened to unveil the prized seeds (“beans”) without the aid of an animal (Leissle 27); moreover, much of the sought-after aroma and flavor profile of the beans must be brought out through production processes such as fermentation and roasting (Coe and Coe 22-24). These arduous procedures are essential to produce cacao nibs, the starting point for deeper exploration of Mesoamerican preparation techniques and recipes (Coe and Coe 22).

From its nib state, the cacao was ground into small granules which, with enough grinding, could become a paste-like substance now known as cacao liquor (Coe and Coe 24). Mesoamerican societies like the Aztecs employed a metate, or curved grinding stone, during this process (Coe and Coe 115).

A metate, used to grind cacao nibs in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

Importantly, once the cacao was ground, Mesoamerican preparations diverged based on ingredients, the terroir of the cacao used, and the target consumers—elites, common people, or gods (Coe and Coe 61-63; Sampeck and Thayn 77). Cacao beverage recipes distinguished Mesoamerican regions from their neighbors, as common supplemental ingredients included vanilla, chilis, various flowers, and the corn-based atole (Sampeck and Thayn 81-82). One widely desired element in cacao beverages across Mesoamerica was a frothy texture, often created in pre-Columbian times by repeatedly pouring a cacao beverage from one vessel into another from a height (Coe and Coe 48, 62; Leissle 31). The below scene from the Princeton Vase, while quite dramatic and busy, includes on the right-hand side a woman pouring a cacao beverage from one vessel to another in pursuit of the foamy texture cherished in pre-colonial Mesoamerica (Coe and Coe 48). This calligraphic painting supports the presence of ritualistic cacao preparations in cultural settings, such as the mythological scene unfolding below.

A mythological scene from the Princeton Vase (670-750 A.D.) depicting the deity known as “God L,” who was associated with trade. On the right-hand side of the scene, a woman is frothing a cacao beverage by pouring it from one vessel to another from a height.

Cultural Significance and Ubiquity of Cacao

The traditional preparations of cacao in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica—both the techniques used and the recipes followed—were meticulous and even ritualistic. Martin and Sampeck note, “The distinctive tools and preparation of cacao beverages…created a highly distinctive sensorial experience of cacao beverages in Mesoamerican foodways” (41). This cultural experience was especially present in Mesoamerican life due to the social, spiritual, and economic pervasiveness of cacao.

The T. cacao plant itself was intimately linked to Maya culture. The Dresden Codex frequently depicts gods as cacao trees or holding cacao pods and beans (Coe and Coe 42-43). In addition, cacao was offered during healing rituals, marriage arrangements, and burials (Coe and Coe 45-47; Martin and Sampeck 39). In both the Maya and Aztec civilizations, rituals of preparing and drinking cacao were instrumental in political and economic affairs (Leissle 30). In short, cacao was undeniably embedded in Mesoamerican society. Plus, the techniques and recipes used to make cacao beverages were relatively familiar to the people of a given region (Sampeck and Thayn 82). Thus, each instance of cacao in religious, cultural, or economic life represented an opportunity for Mesoamerican people to stay in touch with their local traditions of taste and preparation. The ritualistic preparations of cacao in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica served to reinforce the connection between the people and the plant.

Beginnings of Western Influence

In the 16th century, European explorers encountered Mesoamerican peoples and their cacao-based traditions. Europeans initially appreciated the beans’ utility as currency (Martin and Sampeck 41). As for the comestible side of cacao, European adoption was more gradual (Norton 660); in fact, Europeans took up the newly coined chocolate “in a generally Mesoamerican way, both in flavorings and in manner of preparation” (Sampeck and Thayn 80). These early encounters marked the beginning of Western influence on the preparation of cacao and chocolate products—a multi-century trend that steadily eroded the sociocultural significance of the plant and its bounty.

To bridge the unique tastes of Mesoamerica and Western Europe, cacao experienced a process of hybridization: Europeans drank their chocolate hot, rather than cold as in the Aztec tradition; they sweetened the product with cane sugar; and they introduced Old World spices, such as cinnamon, anise, and black pepper, into their chocolate recipes (Coe and Coe 114-115). Some preparation methods, such as grinding the nibs over a heated metate, carried over in early European recipes. Other techniques changed, such as the introduction of the molinillo, a swizzle-stick that replaced the pouring-between-vessels method of frothing the beverage (Coe and Coe 115). Europeans further translated cacao-making tools into new materials, such as metal and porcelain (Martin and Sampeck 43).

A Still Life of Peaches, Fish, Chestnuts, a Tin Plate and Sweet Box and
Two Mexican Lacquer Cups, by Spanish painter Antonio Ponce (1608–1677). A molinillo is pictured next to a container of ground cacao—evidence that Europeans initially engaged in the textural and flavor experiences of Mesoamerican cacao.

In 1556, the so-called “Anonymous Conqueror,” a companion of Hernán Cortés, described the preparation of an Aztec cacao beverage (Frydenborg 58). The author’s awed descriptions of the instruments used, the novel foam texture, and cacao’s health benefits display a Western curiosity toward Mesoamerican cacao preparation. Through encounters like these, cacao preparation began to be filtered through a Western lens—one which eventually rendered cacao a global commodity (Leissle 34). Increasingly, the preparation of a once-sacred product became detached from its sociocultural significance, as Kristy Leissle summarizes superbly:

“For all its history prior to European colonization, cacao as a fruit on a tree, as currency, and as a drink had been deeply connected, within civilizational traditions that barely distinguished between its economic, social, cultural, and food values. Now, those values diverged”

Leissle 34

Innovating the Culture Away

Over the next two centuries, the global taste for chocolate expanded, and a broader socioeconomic base gained access to the product (Leissle 36-38). In the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution unlocked new preparation methods for chocolate that drastically separated the modern conception of cacao from its traditional Mesoamerican roots. For one, the burgeoning industrial manufacture of chocolate nullified the notion of cacao’s terroir, once so important to the localization of recipes and preparation techniques. The goal of creating uniform products was achieved by blending cacao beans, yielding a new consumption experience in “stark contrast to historical chocolate flavor experiences” (Martin and Sampeck 49). Today’s most renowned names in chocolate—Cadbury, Nestlé, Lindt, Hershey, and the like—were behind these industrial shifts in preparation (Martin and Sampeck 49). Rudolphe Lindt’s 1879 invention of the conche, a device that employed rollers to reduce the size of ground cacao particles, attained a smoother chocolate for confections (Coe and Coe 247-248; Leissle 39).

An example of an industrial conche, a more modern manifestation of Lindt’s 19th-century invention. Begin at 1:25.

Innovations like the conche supported the chocolate industry’s ability to scale globally (Martin and Sampeck 49). Yet, they also contributed to a striking shift from local production—settings in which “people knew who made the tools they used and the foods they ate”—to factory production (Leissle 38). The impersonal preparation methods of 19th-century chocolate were wholly disparate from the socioculturally relevant, ritualistic Mesoamerican preparations from the days of the Maya and Aztecs.

Conclusion: Food for Thought

The historical narrative of chocolate preparation, featuring a glaring dislocation of cacao’s cultural connotations from its purely comestible properties, represents a critical step in the formation of the modern conception of chocolate. Compared to cacao’s Mesoamerican roots, most chocolate is mass-produced with little sociocultural attachment; in the absence of traditional preparation practices, there are fewer reminders of the cacao plant’s original societal significance. Thus, cacao has been reduced to a mere commodity in the eyes of most global chocolate producers. This shift in the world’s conception of cacao allowed the product to be “absorbed into expanding overseas…capitalism” (Mintz 69), which arguably set the stage for the well-documented exploitation and inequity underlying chocolate production to this day.

Works Cited

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

Frydenborg, Kay. Chocolate: Sweet Science & Dark Secrets of the World’s Favorite Treat. 2015.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.Hu, no. special issue 3, 2015, pp. 37–60.

Mintz, Sidney W. (Sidney Wilfred). Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review, vol. 111, no. 3, 2006, pp. 660–91.

Sampeck, Kathryn E., and Jonathan Thayn. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” Substance and Seduction : Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, First edition., University of Texas Press, 2017, pp. 72–99.

Chocolate, Religion and Hierarchy: Chocolate’s Religious Symbolism in Pre-Columbian Mayan Culture and its Evolution under Colonialism

The widespread availability of chocolate today hardly hints any relation to hierarchical systems. The mass production of it as a confection and how it readily available for consumption at different quality levels reveals little about its rich history. Long before the European settlement in the Americas, chocolate, or rather the fruit it is borne from, symbolized wealth, and social and religious status in Mesoamerica societies. Here, I will briefly discuss how its hierarchical symbolism with respect to religion evolved in Mayan societies before and during colonialism.

The hierarchical symbolism of chocolate in Mayan culture can be traced through an ethnographical study of Mayan celebratory rituals. In his essay “The Language of Chocolate”, David Stuarts writes about how such ethnographical studies from Central Mexico reveal that chocolate was enjoyed by the elites (Stuart 184). Feasting rites among the elite, in particular, in Mayan Yucatan were heavily documented in chocolate vessels, which describe chocolate’s involvement in extravagant gift-giving formalities in its cacao bean form (Reents-Budet 207). This was viewed as a method for forging sociopolitical alliances among the elite (Reents-Budet 209). In its drink form, cacao was consumed during “ceremonies to seal important social contracts and confirm the legitimacy of dynasties” (Martin et al. 39). Moreover, the use of cacao beverages did not only exist in worldly rituals. Mayan glyphs and art show that the Gods also used cacao beverages to honor guests in divine rituals such as seen in figure 1. Thus, it is apparent that the use of cacao in Mayan rituals reflects how chocolate itself was a symbol of extravagance and hierarchy. 

Figure 1: Mayan God L with Hero Twins, servant behind the God pouring a chocolate beverage.

However, cacao beans and chocolate also possessed religious symbolism that contributed to their hierarchical symbolism. Evidence from Mayan vessels reveal in their hieroglyphs that the Maize God is often embodied as a cacao tree (McNeil 155). Gods in the Mayan tradition are portrayed as trees to show a celestial cycle of death. The roots are in the underworld, the trunk in the middle world and the branches in the heavens. The Maize God is highly regarded in that maize is a staple Mayan crop, thus the association between the Maize God and the cacao tree shows a highly esteemed religious connection and divinity that is possessed by cacao. Beyond representation in religious glyphs, the religious symbolism of cacao can be extended to the notion of “court dwarfs” in Mayan culture. Christian Prager writes that dwarf figurines were placed in Mayan courts to symbolize social power and religious authority (Prager 279). This is rooted in the pre-Mayan Olmec belief that four dwarfs were tasked with propping up heaven. Moreover, dwarfs were seen as companions of the Sun and Maize Gods, thus further solidifying their divine symbolism. Hence, these dwarfs were placed in Mayan courts to further this symbolism. However, it is important to note that these dwarfs would sometimes be sculpted as carrying cacao pods, as seen in figure 2. This further displays that cacao possessed divine value and reflected a type of religious symbolism so that it can be manifested in Mayan society as a hierarchical instrument. 

Figure 2: A Mayan figurine of court dwarf bearing a cacao pod.

This religious symbolism of cacao did not end with colonialism but only transformed under it. The initial European interaction with cacao upon their settlement in Mesoamerica was through the introduction of the cacao bean as a form of currency (Martin et al. 40). However, with the spread of Catholicism by the European settlers in Mayan territory, specifically Mexico, cacao beans soon crossed over into the realm of religiosity. The conversion of indigenous Mexicans led them to create offerings to Jesus. These offerings were often in the form of cacao beans, as was done to indigenous God (Aguilar-Moreno 276). A prominent example is the statue of “Christ of the Cacao” in Mexico City as shown in figure 3. While these offerings were not consumed by Christ, but by the priests of the cathedral, they were converted into wealth, such as in the case of seventeenth century friar in Mexico and Guatemala Thomas Gage (Aguilar-Moreno 276). Here, we see that the symbolism of cacao is multifaceted: it showed a relationship to Jesus and also remained a symbol for wealth. 

Figure 3: Christ of the Cacao: A 16th century colonial Mexican sculpture in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City.

However, does the link between colonial Catholicism and symbolism in cacao extend beyond the borders of the colony? In 1577, Dominican friar in Chiapas did write to the Pope asking for some guidance as to whether chocolate could be appropriately consumed on days when oen is fasting. The Pope never offered a written reply but it is told that he simply laughed with his cardinals. The link to Catholicism in Europe extended beyond this lone interaction, the status of chocolate has long been debated by Catholic scholars in the 1620s and 1630s, with reservations appearing on how to incorporate this seemingly pagan product into the Catholic Church. While here there is a recognition of religious value, it is hard to determine whether or not this religious value was accepted by the Catholic Church in Europe. Nevertheless, the role of chocolate and cacao as a status symbol did cross over into the European continent: it is told that Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI were prescribed chocolate by their physician to consume daily during breakfast, seemingly due to chocolate’s energizing benefits. The heavy royal consumption of chocolate and its high regard within the royal court deemed it a luxury item, showing that it did remain a status symbol beyond the Mesoamerican realm. 

Nevertheless, it is important to note that beyond colonialism, Mesoamerican cultures still regarded chocolate highly. Their reverence of cacao beans and their products shifted and adapted to the colonial influences that were introduced into their territory. While it failed to have the same religious symbolism in Europe, chocolate did enter the continent as an item symbolizing social hierarchy. Thus, one can say that the evolution of chocolate as a religious symbol remained within Mesoamerica but its hierarchical symbolism was able to cross the Atlantic into the European continent. 


  1. “Dwarf Figurine.” Wikimedia Commons, Baltimore, MD, 25 Mar. 2012, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mayan_-_Dwarf_Figurine_-_Walters_20092036_-_Three_Quarter_Right.jpg.
  2. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, by Stacey Schwartzkopf and Kathryn E. Sampeck, University of Texas Press, 2017, pp. 72-95.
  3. Anagoria. “ El Señor Del Cacao.” Wikimedia Commons, Mexico City, 22 Dec. 2013, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2013-12-22_El_Señor_del_cacao_anagoria.JPG.
  4. Lacambalam. “Tonsured Maize God and Spotted Hero Twin.” Wikimedia Commons, 25 Sept. 2014, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hero_Twins.JPG.
  5. Manuel, Aguilar-moreno. “The Good and Evil of Chocolate in Colonial Mexico.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chapter 13.
  6. Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, no. special issue 3, 2015, pp. 37-60., doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.
  7. Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chapter 8.
  8. Prager, Christian. “Court Dwarfs – The Companions of Rulers and Envoys of the Underworld.” Maya: Divine Kings of the Rain Forest, by Nikolai Grube, Konemann, 2001, pp. 278–279.
  9. Reents-Budet, Dorie. “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking Among of the Ancient Maya.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chapter 10.
  10. Robicsek, Francis. “God L with the Hero Twins.” Wikimedia Commons, Princeton, NJ, 31 Oct. 2009, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:God_L_with_the_Hero_Twins.jpg.
  11. Stuart, David. “The Language of Chocolate: References to Cacao on Classic Maya Drinking Vessels.”Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chapter 9.

Understanding Life and Death: Cacao and Ancient Maya Rituals

Mesoamerican culture is perhaps most well known for its religious rituals. Celebrating baptisms, comings of age, marriages, and deaths, the Maya recognized cyclical patterns, and valued the circle of life. Many of their religious beliefs revolved around nature—the Maya worshipped gods of maize, rain, moon, and other earthly entities which granted them life and prosperity (Martin, 2020). Though rituals for various occasions differed in structure and setting, each almost always incorporated cacao into their festivities. Served as a decadent drink or traded as currency, cacao held a prominent and sacred place in Maya culture. In this essay, I examine various ancient rituals and show the ways that the Maya used cacao to celebrate and understand three core aspects of their religion: life, death, and rebirth. Weaving cacao into their religious ceremonies, the Mayans strove to connect the ethereal and the earthly.

One of the most prominent entities in Maya rituals was the Theobroma cacao, or the cacao tree, which was viewed as the connection between earth and the afterlife (Martin, 2020). Requiring high humidity, luscious soil, and thick shade, the cacao tree was cultivated riverside, and its abundant, colorful pods, shown in the picture below, served as a paradigm of natural prosperity (Garthwaite, 2015). The Mayans believed that the plumed serpent Kukulkan gifted the cacao tree to the earth, and celebrated this event by worshipping their god of cacao, Ek Chuah, annually (Hunt, 2013). This idea of a sacred “World Tree” was a recurring motif in Maya culture—they believed that the roots, trunk and branches of a tree created a link between the underworld, the earth, and the sky (Miller & Taube, 1993). Additionally, gods were often depicted as emerging from trees upon birth; Mayan monarchs, such as Lady Zac-Kuk, also embodied trees, which symbolized royal bloodlines (Martin, 2020). Through these images and myths, we can see the incorporation of cacao into ancient rituals as a way to connect with the surrounding natural life. Primarily worshipping nature, the Maya deeply appreciated the gifts of the earth, and used cacao to show this reverence.

Theobroma cacao, or cacao tree.

Cacao was also a prominent feature in burial rites among the Maya; its purpose as an aid in the afterlife indicates the way that the Mayans used cacao to come to terms with and conceptualize death. During life on earth, cacao was often taken as a stimulus—whether used for war or pleasure, cacao provided energy to those who consumed it (Martin, 2020). The Maya incorporated this concept into their burial rituals. Popular and extravagant ceremonies most commonly practiced for the wealthy elite, burial rituals aimed to prepare souls for the afterlife and equip them with tools they might need to get there (Coe & Coe, 1996). Along with special garments, jewelry, and pottery, the dead often received a cacao beverage, held in a vase like the one shown below. The vase, often decorated with beautiful colors and designs, was meant to provide energy in the afterlife to the soul (Martin, 2020). Life after death is a complex idea, and the Maya deeply believed in the existence of an afterlife. We can view the employment of earthly uses of cacao (such as its stimulating properties) to aid the dead in their quest for eternal life as a Maya attempt to understand the meaning of death.

Rio Azul vessel.

The idea of rebirth was also central to Mayan ritual, and was rooted in their reliance on the earth for sustenance. The fertility of the earth was essential for survival, as the Mayans were an agriculture-based society. Many myths and legends centered on deities, such as moon goddess IxChel or rain goddess Chac, working together to maintain Earth’s prosperity, and cacao was often involved (Martin, 2020). For example, the image shown below depicts Ixchel and Chac trading cacao beans to ensure the fruitfulness of the earth. This idea of fertility in nature was also mirrored in Mayan females. Coming of age rituals, particularly for women, celebrated the beginning of a woman’s the fertile years, and involved the presentation of two cacao beans and a sacrificed chicken to the deities (Faust, 1998). Additionally, cacao beverages were often served at ceremonies associated with fertility; ancient marriage rituals centered around the drinking of a chocolate beverage and exchange of cacao beans. According to historians, cacao-inspired beverages made up part of the dowry, and the preparation of the ceremonial cacao drink by the bride “sealed the marriage” (Garthwaite, 2015). Overall, the Mayans’ use of cacao as a way to celebrate fertility indicates their reverence for the earth and natural reproductive processes.

Fertility ceremony– IxChel and Chac promote fertility of the earth by trading cacao beans.

Mesoamerican expression of culture and worship was largely based in their rituals; worshipping nature, its gifts, and the circle of life, the Mayans celebrated life, death, and reproduction. As we examine a select few of these ceremonies, we can see that cacao was heavily involved in the festivities; offering it up to the gods and worshipping it as a symbol of prosperity, the Mayans held cacao as a sacred entity in their society.

Works Cited:

Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (1996). A True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson.

Faust, B. (1998). Cacao Beans and Chili Peppers: Gender Socialization in the Cosmology of a Yucatec Maya Curing Ceremony. Sex Roles, 39. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1018895714833

Garthwaite, J. (2015). What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/

Hunt, P. (2013). Maya and Aztec Chocolate History and Antecedents – Electrum Magazine. http://www.electrummagazine.com/2013/04/maya-and-aztec-chocolate-history-and-antecedents/

Martin, C. (2020, March 5). 02 Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods.” AAAX 119x: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, Emerson Hall. https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1c6fZMj2cW7A-bByTKzaP-YS7pLdm0dmVPidneg4T4XU/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_2_25

Miller, M. E., & Taube, K. A. (1993). The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. Thames and Hudson.


The Maya rain god Chac and the moon goddess IxChel exchange cacao. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://blogs.uoregon.edu/mesoinstitute/about/curriculum-unit-development/stem/ethnobotany/cacao-chocolate/

Rio Azul jar. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/maya-screwtop-vessels.htm

Cacao tree. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://animals.sandiegozoo.org/plants/cacao

Cacao in Mayan Religious Stories and Rituals and Community Celebrations

While chocolate may just seem like a dessert food to most people today, its main ingredient, cacao, and the tree from which the fruit stems played essential roles in the lives of the people in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. It was associated with fertility rites, marriage rituals, and even rites of death for the Maya people. As illustrated through their mythology, the cacao tree connected generations. Cacao brought people together by being a part of their religion illustrated through vases and by bringing together communities during feasts and celebrations. It established the Mayan hierarchy, and during the feasts of the elite, the people in the local community were able to exchange goods with others outside of the community. The cacao tree and the fruit it bears played a significant role in the religious and community life of the Maya people in the Pre-Columbian era.

The religious significance of the cacao tree for the Mayan people is illustrated through their creation myth. In this myth, the twin sons of the couple who created the universe are beheaded in the Maya underworld, Xibalba, by the lords of the underworld. One of the severed heads, which is now known as the Maize God, is hung up in a cacao tree, like the figure depicted by the lidded vessel below. As the daughter of an Xibalban ruler holds her hand up to the tree one day, the severed head is able to impregnate her. This woman then gives birth to the Hero Twins named Hunahpu and Xbalanque. These twins go on to accomplish a number of exploits and eventually defeat the underworld. They then resurrect their father, the Maize God, as their final task. With their final task completed, they become the sun and the moon (Coe). The cacao tree in this story allows the Maize God to “pass on his procreative seed and to eventually triumph through the heroic deeds of his offspring” (Martin 178). The importance of the cacao tree and its fruit were also passed between communities and generations.

This Mayan Lidded vessel depicts the Maize God as a Cacao Tree. The cacao pods surround the vessel, and the lid’s nob is a cacao tree with a bird that is now broken (Wikimedia Commons contributors).

The tree and its fruit connected each generation of the Maya people and permeated Mayan religion in rites like baptism and funerals. During the baptismal ritual, the noble giving the ceremony would dip a bone in a vessel filled with water, flowers, and cacao. With this mixture, “he anointed the children on their foreheads, faces, and in the spaces between the fingers and toes, in complete silence” (Coe). Like the tree that the Maize God manifested himself in allowed him to have children and reconnect with the world, the Maya people would bury people with vases that were used to drink cacao with inscriptions of cacao on them. As the dead traveled to the underworld, the cacao would continue to provide for the Maya as it did when they were alive and would ensure their safe travel (Martin). In addition to rituals, the cacao tree and its fruit played an essential role in the celebrations and community interactions of the Maya people.

During religious ceremonies and celebrations, the Maya would drink from vases that had inscriptions of cacao and the cacao tree. These inscriptions and drawings “made even a sip of chocolate a sacramental act” (Martin 179). The cacao was celebrated by all in the community, but the inscriptions reinforced the Maya rulership as many portrayed Mayan rulers among the deities. The cacao vases demonstrated the order within the community by establishing the power of the elite as they were compared to supernatural deities as shown in the image of a Maya vessel below. They would be exchanged among elites during feasts that “created a forum for sociopolitical alliance formation” (Reents-Budet 209). These feasts then extended to the local community where people from different socioeconomic backgrounds were able to exchange goods which extended their relations beyond the local community. The vases were still present in the lower tier society, although they were not as elaborate as the elite vessels. While the people would offer cacao to the gods for gifts like fertility and rain, it also reinforced “their sense of community by way of a fabric of overlapping rights and obligations developed between sponsors and participants” (Reents-Budet 209). Cacao and the practice of drinking from and giving vases were a central part of the lives of the Mayan people.

The inscription around the rim of the this Maya vessel refers to its function as a chocolate-drinking cup and also states that it was owned by a Namaan king. The drawing portrays a king on a throne and a supernatural being in front of him, illustrating the connection between the elite and religion.

Overall, the cacao tree and fruit were central aspects to the religious, social, and economic lives of the Maya people in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. In their creation story, his manifestation in tree enabled the Maize God to give way to the next generation which then resurrected him from the underworld. The importance of the cacao tree and its fruit permeated the Mayan religion and played essential roles in the religious rituals of the people. Cacao was present in the baptismal rites and in the tombs of people, illustrating a connection between cacao and religion. The drinking of cacao and exchange of vases that held cacao and also had inscriptions of the elite and cacao during feasts and celebrations demonstrated order within the Maya community. From these feasts, different people were able to connect and extend relations beyond their local community. Cacao connected people in the community through its role in religious stories and rituals and celebrations among elites.

Works Cited:

Chocolate Cup (2002-9). https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/objects/40908. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Coe, Sophie D. The True History of Chocolate. 2019. Garthwaite, Josie. “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Martin, Simon. Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld. University Press of Florida, 2009, doi:10.5744/florida/9780813029535.003.0008.

Reents-Budet, Dorie. The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking Among of the Ancient Maya. University Press of Florida, 2009, doi:10.5744/florida/9780813029535.003.0010.

Wikimedia Commons contributors. File:Mayan – Lidded Vessel – Walters 20092039 – Side D.Jpg. Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository., https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/37/Mayan_-_Lidded_Vessel_-_Walters_20092039_-_Side_D.jpg.

The Role of Cacao in the Religion, Economy, and Culture of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

Today, if you ask the average American to describe the use of chocolate in their society, they will likely regale you with happy stories of enjoying chocolate rabbits on Easter morning or giving heart-shaped boxes of chocolate to a loved one on Valentine’s Day. Chocolate is beloved for the role that it plays in many western rituals, including Halloween, Christmas, and others, but few would venture that chocolate holds a deeply important place in American society. Similarly, while chocolate is a multi-billion-dollar industry in the United States, few would advance that the chocolate industry is a pillar upon which the economy rests (Professor Martin, “Introduction”). Chocolate is considered a sweet treat or an indulgence, but not an object of tremendous religious or economic significance in modern American society.

However, in the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica, where the cultivation and consumption of cacao originated, cacao was of the utmost religious, economic, and cultural importance. To prove this point, I will describe in detail many of the uses of cacao in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica to illustrate the important role that cacao played in the religion, economy, and culture of these magnificent societies.

The importance of cacao to the religion of the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica is exemplified by the Dresden Codex of the Maya civilization. The Dresden Codex, the oldest surviving book from the Americas, is believed to be dated to the 13th or 14th century and describes the association between cacao and religion. Cacao is featured throughout the document, which even describes the Mayan gods consuming cacao. The gods are portrayed as seated and enjoying delicious dishes of cacao beans, above which is written the label “his cacao.” Furthermore, the below image from the Dresden Codex presents the Opossum God carrying the Rain God on his back and reads: “Cacao is his food” (Coe and Coe, 2013). In this way, cacao is represented as a food of the Gods and is therefore very closely associated with the religion of the Maya civilization.

Below: An illustration from the Dresden Codex (Professor Martin).


Similarly, in the Aztec civilization, cacao and the cacao tree form an important part of religious understanding and the civilization’s relationship with the divine. This is revealed by the Codex Féjévary-Mayer, a document believed to depict the Aztec civilization in the 14th through 16th centuries. The Codex Féjévary-Mayer depicts four trees dividing the world up by the cardinal directions (“The Codex Féjévary-Mayer”). As can be seen in the image below, the tree on the right side of the codex, the Tree of the South, is a cacao tree emerging from the jaws of the Underworld serpent. The tree is flanked by the Cinteotl, the Aztec god of maize, on one side, and Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of death, on the other (Coe and Coe, 2013). The cacao tree is closely associated with the Underworld, Cinteotl, and Mictlantecuhtli in the Codex Féjévary-Mayer, displaying the religious importance of cacao in the Aztec society. These examples, from both the Maya and Aztec civilizations, illustrate the important role that cacao played in the religious thought of the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica.

Below: An illustration from the Codex Féjévary-Mayer (Wikipedia Commons).

Cacao was also tremendously important to the economic functioning of the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica. The Maya civilization never used fiat currency, opting instead to rely on systems of bartering and trading. The work of archaeologist Joanne Baron has revealed that by the 8th century, the Maya civilization developed beyond one-off bartering and began using cacao beans as a form of currency. As part of her research, Baron documented over 150 different scenes on Maya ceramics and murals, dating from between 700-600 C.E. These scenes depict goods being delivered to Mayan leaders as a form of tax. The most frequently-occurring such good is cacao beans, delivered in bulk in woven bags (Learn, 2018). Literature reveals that in the Aztec civilization, like the Maya, collected cacao as a form of tax from the population (“Chocolate Use in Early Aztec Cultures”).

Additionally, in The True History of Chocolate, it is revealed how in both the Maya and Aztec civilizations, many different types of laborers working for the state would be paid cacao beans as their daily wage (Coe and Coe, 2013). In this way, the use of cacao as a currency was tremendously important to the functioning of the state in both the Maya and Aztec civilizations, as cacao beans were used to levy taxes to fund the state and to pay laborers working for the state. Therefore, cacao was deeply important to the economy and state-functioning of the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica.

Cacao was also used in the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica in various cultural rituals, making it an integral element of the cultural cohesion and unity of these remarkable civilizations. For the Maya civilization, cacao was both a sign of social prestige and a social centerpiece. Anthropologist Joel Palka describes how the process of preparing cacao was grounded in social relations in the Maya civilization, as it brought many people together. Palka argues that cacao production was more than the mere production of a good, rather, it was an important tradition and cultural practice, making cacao deeply significant to the cultural identity of the Maya civilization (Garthwaite, 2015). Cacao, because it was difficult to grow and produce, became associated with high status and special occasions. For example, cacao was tremendously important in Mayan marriage rituals, known as “tac haa,” which translates to “the serving of chocolate.” Cacao was commonly given by a suitor to the father of a potential-bride in order to begin the marriage negotiations. Furthermore, cacao was used in Mayan funerary rituals, as it was believed that the stimulant properties of cacao would aid the soul on its journey to the underworld (Professor Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods’”).

Similarly, in the Aztec civilization, cacao was associated with high status and special occasions, and therefore held a position of great cultural significance. Most interestingly, many uses of cacao in the Aztec society are revealed in the Florentine Codex, an ethnographic study conducted by Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún in the 16th century. Sahagún interviewed hundreds of individuals in the Aztec civilization and gathered a wealth of information about the lives of Aztec royals, the customs of the Aztec society, and the cultural and ritual significance of cacao (Professor Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods’”). The document includes an exhaustive list of medical uses for cacao, revealing the important role that cacao played in Aztec healing rituals. Cacao was believed to help reduce fever, relieve respiratory issues, and improve energy and sexual appetite (Jean, 2020). These examples, from both the Maya and Aztec Civilizations, illustrate the important role that cacao played in the culture of the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica.

Below: The Florentine Codex depicting the production of cacao (Cacaosophy).


In conclusion, in the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica, where the cultivation and consumption of cacao originated, cacao was of the utmost religious, economic, and cultural importance. Cacao was closely associated with the Gods in both the Maya and Aztec civilizations, as revealed by the Dresden Codex and the Codex Féjévary-Mayer. Cacao was also tremendously important to the economic functioning of the Maya and Aztec states, as cacao was paid to the state as a form of taxes, and in turn, used to pay state workers. Lastly, cacao was an integral element of the cultural cohesion of these civilizations. For the Maya and Aztec, cacao was associated with high status and special occasions and rituals, and therefore held a position of great cultural significance.


Works Cited

Scholarly Sources:

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

Garthwaite, Josie. “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Feb. 2015.

Jean, Julie. “Medicinal and Ritualistic Uses for Chocolate in Mesoamerica .” HeritageDaily Journal, HeritageDaily, 6 Jan. 2020.

Learn, Joshua Rapp. “The Maya Civilization Used Chocolate as Money.” Science Magazine, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 28 June 2018.

Additional Sources:

“Chocolate Use in Early Aztec Cultures.” International Cocoa Organization, International Cocoa Organization, 8 Jan. 2011, http://www.icco.org/faq/54-cocoa-origins/133-chocolate-use-in-early-aztec-cultures.html.

Martin, Carla. “Introduction.” 29 Jan. 2021, Cambridge, MA, Emerson Hall 201.

Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” 5 Feb. 2021, Cambridge, MA, Emerson Hall 201.

“The Codex Féjévary-Mayer.” Exploring the Early Americas | Exhibitions, Library of Congress, 12 Dec. 2007, http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/exploring-the-early-americas/interactives/heavens-and-earth/earth/index.html.

Multimedia Sources:

Image 1: The Dresden Codex. Image is from Professor Martin’s lecture “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods,’” Slide 34. Link to lecture slides.

Image 2: The Codex Féjévary-Mayer. Image is from Wikipedia Commons. Link here.

Image 3: The Florentine Codex. Image is from Cacaosophy, a website in the public domain. Link here.

Cacao at the Center of Creation

When people today think about cacao, they most likely think of the chocolate used in their favorite desserts and snacks. To the Maya, however, cacao served as an integral part of both their history and worldview. In Unit 1 of this class, we discussed the existence of the Popol Vuh, the creation narrative according to the Quiche Maya of present-day Guatemala (Mark). In the epic, Hun Hunahpu and his twin brother were tricked into losing a ball game and killed by the Lords of Xibalbá, the Maya Underworld. Hun Hunahpu’s head was hung up on what is depicted as a cacao tree. When he spits into the hand of the princess Ixkik’, she conceives the two Hero Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué. These twins eventually become skilled ball players and challenge the Lords of Xibalbá to a game in order to bring their father back to life. The Lords agree to the game only if the twins successfully complete a set of dangerous trials in the Underworld. Through their skill and cunning, they are able to complete the trials, defeat the Lords, and resurrect their father as the Maize God. Having finished this task, they then climb up into the sky to become the sun and moon (“Creation Story of the Maya”).

Although we do not have the complete, original version of the epic, the repeated appearance of cacao throughout the story shows its significance to Maya beliefs (Coe and Sophie 36). Image depictions on artifacts of scenes in the epic show cacao pods as human faces, like Hun Hunahpu’s decapitated head. Ixkik’ is drawn to the cacao tree, which leads to her meeting with Hun Hunahpu and the birth of the Hero Twins. This holds historical significance because it both explains the presence of the sun and moon to the Maya, as well as the origin of the twins who would ultimately help create human beings.

K5615: A depiction of Hun Hunahpu’s head hanging on the cacao tree after his beheading by the Lords of the Underworld. http://research.mayavase.com/kerrmaya_hires.php?vase=5615

Another story in the Popol Vuh discusses the gods’ first attempt to create humans using mud and wood. Despite their efforts, they fail both times as their weak creations are destroyed. Only when the twins raise their father, the Maize God, from the dead are the gods able to combine maize and cacao together to finally create humans successfully (Mark). Here, cacao once again serves as a symbol for life, not only bringing forth the existence of the Hero Twins, but all of humanity.

To properly understand the importance of cacao in the Maya creation narrative, we must also examine the role of maize. The resurrection and eternal life cycle of Hun Hunahpu demonstrates their belief in “recycling” the material of which all humans are made. The Maya believed that rather than going to something akin to heaven after death, the elderly and sick would reincarnate as grandchildren (Martin). As a result, the maize tree was a sacred symbol to the Maya representing death, life, and rebirth. It lives again despite dying by the hands of the Lords of the Underworld, flourishing into the cosmos and heavens. In the epic, this sacred maize tree produces cacao as a divine fruit which in itself is the origin of future generations. Not only is it a divine fruit, it is also the first among the fruit trees (Martin). This affirms their belief in cacao’s role as a symbol of fertility and the origin of all humans.

K1892: Resurrection Plate. Depiction of the Maize God being resurrected by his two sons. http://research.mayavase.com/uploads/mayavase/hires/1892.jpg

We see then, through the stories of the Popol Vuh, that cacao held a significant position to the people of Quiche. It continually shows up symbolically, which helps to explain the creation of life, the triumphs of the hero twins, the attempts and eventual success of the deities to create humans, and the basis for their genealogies. For the ancient Maya, enjoying cacao was much more than enjoying the taste. It was a way for them to celebrate the rise of the Maize God from Xibalba, to commemorate the journey of death, life, and complete union with all of existence.

K4331*: Maize God as a cacao tree in human form. Drawings by Simon Martin.

Works Cited

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

“Creation Story of the Maya.” Living Maya Time, Smithsonian: National Museum of the American Indian, maya.nmai.si.edu/the-maya/creation-story-maya.

Mark, Joshua J. “Popol Vuh.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 21 Mar 2014. Web. 24 Mar 2020.

Martin, Simon. “Tales from the Underworld.” Edited by Cameron L. McNeil, Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion, Mexicolore, 26 Jan. 2014, www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/cacao-in-ancient-maya-religion.

Changing Opinions of Cacao and Chocolate Through History

The crackdown on sugar and high-calorie foods garnered a lot of media attention in 2010 with the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and the proposed ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks in New York and it brought a public health crisis into the spotlight. Chocolate as we know it today is itself an example of a sugary food with high caloric content common in the diets of many Americans. Dark chocolate, which often tastes bitter because it has higher cacao content and less sugar, contains an average of 14 grams of sugar per ounce (USDA). That said, most candy bars that contain chocolate far exceed that amount. Although a number of research studies conducted in the last two decades have highlighted potential health benefits of chocolate consumption (specifically dark chocolate), chocolate is often referred to as a “guilty pleasure” and it is seen in the public eye as something unhealthy associated with weight gain. We know that this was not the case throughout much of history, when cacao and chocolate were considered healthy and, in a few societies, as medicine. I find this shift in public opinion interesting and believe it to be a direct result of the democratization of chocolate and its high sugar content. By winding back the clock and analyzing changing perceptions of cacao and chocolate in different areas of the world with a focus on health, we can better understand when and why this transition happened.

Mesoamerican attitudes towards cacao (c. 600 C.E. – 1500 C.E.)

People in Central America and Mexico during the height of the Mayan and Aztec empires used cacao as an offering in healing rituals, to ensure successful travel, and during social unions such as banquets, baptisms, burials, weddings, and ceremonies to confirm the legitimacy of dynasties (Martin and Sampeck 39). The importance of cacao and its link to the gods can be found in the Dresden Codex, a Mayan book and the oldest surviving from the Americas, where “gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans” (Coe and Coe 42). In addition, cacao had several medicinal uses, including help with indigestion, inflammation, and fertility. Other applications of medicinal cacao used for afflictions can be found in Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams (18th century manuscripts recopied from ancient codices). Cacao was also prepared as a beverage using distinctive tools such as the molinillo, the steep-sided cup, and the spouted pot and ingredients including chile, custard apple, maize, achiote, and more ingredients specific to colonial Mesoamerica (Martin and Sampeck 42). Notably, the amount of sugar was much lower and the list of ingredients is wildly different from that of modern-day chocolate.

This colorized image is a representation of a drawing found in the Dresden Codex. It depicts the Opossum God carrying the Rain God on his back with a caption that reads “cacao is his food.” Interestingly, the scientific name for cacao, Theobroma Cacao, literally means “food of the gods.”

French attitudes towards chocolate (c. 1600 C.E. – 1800 C.E.)

Chocolate was likely introduced in France from Spain as a drug by Alphonse de Richelieu, who, as we learned in class, believed it could be used as a medicine for his spleen. Prevailing theories in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe credited chocolate as being “a generally nutritious, energizing, fortifying beverage” that was also “credited as being an antidepressant, an aphrodisiac, a laxative, an agent to strengthen the heart, liver, and lungs, and a treatment for hemorrhoids” (Cather Studies 285). By 1690, chocolate was a regular offering at Louis XIV’s court at Versailles and was popular among the aristocracy (Coe and Coe 157-60). There were, of course, conflicting opinions about chocolate and its merits, but nonetheless a culture developed around it among the wealthy such that when Thomas Jefferson assumed the role of Minister to France in 1785, he wrote the following in a letter to John Adams from Paris:

Chocolate. [T]his article when ready made, and also the [c]acao becomes so soon rancid, and the difficulties of getting it fresh have been so great in America that it’s use has spread but little … by getting it good in quality, and cheap in price, the superiority of the article both for health and nourishment will soon give it the same preference over tea & coffee in America which it has in Spain.”

RC (MHi: Adams Family Papers). PoC (DLC). Published in PTJ, 9:62–3.
The mancerina, pictured above, originated in Paris and was used to serve chocolate drinks. It is a testament to the chocolate culture that flourished among the nobility in France in the 1690s.

American attitudes towards chocolate (c. 1700 C.E. – 1950 C.E.)

Chocolate, although very rare at the time, had made its way into what would later become the state of Massachusetts, and more specifically onto Judge Samuel Sewall’s breakfast plate, by the year 1697. George Washington was apparently fond of chocolate, and “…connections to the drink have been attributed to patriot luminaries like Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, [and] Thomas Jefferson” (Laiskonis). Notably, however, chocolate was provided to the troops in the French and Indian War. Six pounds of chocolate was offered to each officer by Benjamin Franklin, who “…saw chocolate as a compact, energizing, and tasty food that could be easily carried and boosted morale” (National Geographic Partners 20). By 1800, chocolate was affordable for most colonists (while it was still an expensive drink reserved for the nobility in France) because they (the colonists) imported cacao beans directly from the Caribbean rather than buying them from the British to evade the cost of taxes (National Geographic Partners 18). The cost was further brought down with the rise of mechanization and changes in transportation. Chocolate went from being consumed primarily as a drink to a solid with the development of new techniques, namely pressing and tempering, and became less gritty with the invention of the conch in 1879. Major chocolate companies like Hershey’s, Nestlé, Mars, Cadbury, and Lindt became so successful by standardizing their recipes, scaling up their operations, investing in effective marketing techniques, extending the shelf life of their products, and eventually gaining control of the supply chain. Hershey’s and Nestlé also reaped the benefits of war by providing chocolate for U.S. army rations during WWII (Jacobson). Up until about 1945, therefore, chocolate was still viewed largely the same as it had been by Benjamin Franklin two centuries prior. The idea that chocolate could restore one’s strength, on the other hand, went all the way back to the Maya.

This Nestlé advert from 1942 proclaims that “Chocolate is a fighting food!” It describes specific attributes of the chocolate and plays on American patriotism during wartime. Chocolate has been implicated in the nation’s war efforts since before the American Revolution.


So, what caused the change in public opinion of chocolate after 1950? I believe that it was a combination of wide availability of chocolate back at home after WWII and the heavy advertising that chocolate companies did during the war. Additionally, our lives today are significantly more sedentary, and we consume more food/calories now than before. I would argue that all these factors shifted the focus from the benefits of chocolate to its sugar content as we became more aware of the grip of high calorie foods on our diet. It seems that tide is turning now, with research supporting some potential health benefits of chocolate.  

Works / References Cited

Belluz, Julia. Silhouette eating a bar of chocolate. Vox, 20 August 2018, www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/10/18/15995478/chocolate-health-benefits- heart-disease.

Cather Studies. “Willa Cather: A Writer’s Worlds; Vol. 8 of Cather Studies.” University of Nebraska Press, 2010.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. “The True History of Chocolate.” Thames & Hudson, 28 June 2013.

Jacobson, Sean. “”Chocolate is a Fighting Food!” – Chocolate bars in the Second World War.” National Museum of American History (Behring Center), 24 October 2016, https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/chocolate-bars-second-world-war

Jefferson, Thomas. Extract of letter to John Adams. Massachusetts Historical Society of Boston, 27 Nov. 1785, tjrs.monticello.org/letter/1789

Laiskonis, Michael. “In Search of Chocolate in Old New York City.” Institute of Culinary Education, 19 August 2016, www.ice.edu/blog/search-chocolate-old-new-york

Mancerina dish from the Royal Factory of Alcora. Museo Nacional de Ceramica y Artes, 18th century, artsandculture.google.com/asset/mancerina-dish-from-the-royal-factory-of-alcora/lwF_ttm8ODc2Sg.  

Mars, Inc. and National Geographic Partners. “Great Moments in World History: Global Stories Where Chocolate Sparked Discovery, Innovation, and Imagination.” Mars, 2018, www.nationalgeographic.com/pdf/chocolate-ed-guide.pdf

Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.bu, DoI: 10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37

Opossum God Carrying Rain God. The Possomery, members.peak.org/~jeremy/possomery/

United States Department of Agriculture. “Chocolate, dark, 45- 59% cacao solids.” 1 April 2019, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170271/nutrients

Wilbur, Lawrence. “Nestlé’s advertisement; “Chocolate is a fighting food.”.” World War II Advertisements – 1942. WCSU Archives, 9 July 2019, archives.library.wcsu.edu/omeka/items/show/4576

Chocolate Coins?

Imagine a world that uses chocolate as currency. It is safe to say that this world would quickly run into some economic and sanitation problems. Interestingly, chocolate happens to be made of a former, rather successful method of currency, Cacao seeds. Today, cacao seeds are most often cultivated and consumed as a comestible, namely chocolate, which is a preparation of roasted and smashed Cacao seeds. Chocolate has become an extremely popular delicacy of the modern world; however, for the ancient Maya and Aztecs, cacao was rarely consumed as an edible treat because it had more socially pertinent uses. In these two ancient civilizations, cacao production was perhaps the greatest indicator of wealth, which ultimately contributed heavily to the downfall of one of them.

 For thousands of years in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, Cacao was one of the most treasured and versatile goods. In fact, the ancient Maya, one of the oldest recognized civilizations in the Americas, relied so heavily on the production of Cacao vessels that some historians believe the loss of the valued good led to the downfall of the powerful civilization (Learn 1). Cacao seeds were an effective item choice for currency because they are light, portable, durable, and usually are homogeneous in size and color. In fact, one of the first European accounts of cacao praised the usefulness and practicality of utilizing the good as currency (Martin-Sampeck 4).

Cacao beans (brittanica)

Many historians falsely credit the Spaniards with the development of cacao as currency because the ancient civilizations of pre-Columbian mesoamerica implemented cacao seeds as coins in their monetary system not long before contact with Spain. We know this is not true because before the first European accounts of cacao as a comestible, there were records of the cacao as money and as an intrical part of the Mesoamerican monetary system (Martin-Sampeck 4). In another source called “Cacao Money”, Karen Sampeck writes that people objects that work well as money are “durable”, “distinctive”, and are a “convenient size” (Sampeck 1). Cacao seeds fit all of these said conditions, which led some people, like Peter Martyr to declare cacao as a superior form of money to any European coinage. This was a bold claim by Martyr because it contradicts the Eurocentric and often racist view held by many at that time that the Europeans were the most advanced, superior group of people.

Cacao became officially recognized by Europe as a form of currency in 1555, when one spanish real was equated to 140 cacao beans (Maré 1). The Aztecs, who viewed cacao as a gift from their god of wisdom, Quetzalcoatl, never adopted cacao into their monetary system, but cacao was almost comparable to gold in the fact that the accumulation of cacao meant guaranteed wealth and prosperity (Sampeck 1). Although cacao production was a vital part of both the ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations, the Aztecs had control over the most prolific cacao growing zones in Mesoamerica (Sampeck 6). Cacao is an exacting plant that needs a perfect combination of shade, rainfall and soil to grow properly, so it is believed that the Maya eventually began to exhaust their limited cacao supply.

Cacao heartlands shaded in dark green (researchgate.net)

As you can see in the map above, the cacao heartlands in the Maya territory were few and relatively small in size. A few bad months of weather had the capability of halting cacao production for the entire civilization, which would cause an economic collapse. The Ancient Maya civilization likely did collapse because of their economic overemphasis on cacao, but the connection between cacao and wealth continues even today. This is because Europeans were enamored by the monetary value of cacao before they fell in love with the taste. After the fall of the Maya civilization, cacao was being exported to every major European nation. Cacao made people rich in ancient times because it was money itself, but cacao’s versatility is continuing to generate wealth in today’s society in the form of cocoa butter products, cocoa powder, cacao bean fertilizer, and of course, chocolate (Singh-Cook 2).

Cacao may not have been the best choice as a form of currency, but there is no doubt that the ancient construct of cacao as an economic necessity in Mesoamerica has a lasting influence today. For example, Belgium relies heavily on their chocolate production to generate wealth for their country through tourism and consumption. Countries like Belgium would not be able to produce cacao products on such a large scale without the emphasis and esteemed value that was placed upon cacao as money by the pre-Columbian Mesoamericans.

Works Cited

Cook, L. Russell, and R. Paul Singh. “Cocoa.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1 Nov. 2018, http://www.britannica.com/topic/cocoa-food.

Learn Jun, Joshua Rapp, et al. “The Maya Civilization Used Chocolate as Money.” Science, 28 June 2018, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/06/maya-civilization-used-chocolate-money.

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

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

Sampeck, Kathryn. “Cacao Money.” Cacao Money, Mexicolore, 30 Nov. 2015, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/cacao-money.

Schwartzkopf, Stacey, and Kathryn E. Sampeck. Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica. University of Texas Press, 2017.

Cacao Currency: Ancient Civilizations Used Chocolate as Cash

In Ancient Mesoamerica, money really did grow on trees. Although people mostly bartered goods, the use of cacao stood out from the others. While cacao beans were consumable commodities, the ways ancient peoples used them exhibited the attributes of the use of currency. The civilizations at the time, such as the Mayans and Aztecs, valued cacao as money. Records remain of societies assigning amounts of cacao beans that could be used to purchase specific items. For example, using 200 cacao beans could secure someone a male turkey.  

Aztec tribute list from the Codex Mendoza (c. 1541). The image depicts the tribute that the Aztecs took twice a year from cacao-growing regions in southern Mexico. Next to the jaguar skins are bags filled with cacao beans. Above each bag are by five flags, each of which equals 20 beans.

Ancient Mayans and Chocolate

The prominence of literature and research of the Aztec use of cacao often overshadows the central place the beans had in Mayan society. Yet the Maya had used cacao as a foundational item in their lives as well. The Maya used the beans in many important ceremonial rituals as it was believed cacao was a gift from the gods. Per this reverence, the Maya participated in sacred ceremonies that celebrated cacao. Archaeologists believe that ancient peoples used these ceremonies to open the mind to the spirit world. Cacao beans and chocolate beverage preparations also played an important role in special occasions throughout a person’s life. Anthropological research has shown that cacao was used as a form of dowry in wedding ceremonies. Cacao was also used to ceremonially introduce a child to the world shortly after birth. The Mayan would anoint the heads of babies with a chocolate mixture made up of cacao, flowers, and water. The Mayans were also convinced of the healing power of cacao and the drinks prepared with them and often used them for medicinal purposes. Finally, as cacao played an essential role throughout people’s lives, it was necessary for the end of their lives as well. Cacao beans played crucial roles in burial rights for the Mayan people. Cacao mixtures were often buried with people to give them a boost of energy to aid them on the journey to the afterlife.

Paintings from the ancient Maya depicting the preparation and drinking of cacao. Image courtesy of National Geographic Image Collection, photograph by Kenneth Garret

From this massive reverence and dependence on cacao, a strong cacao trade emerged. The consistent use of cacao as a source of inherent value contributed to the beans becoming a secure form of currency for the people. A system in which one could pay fixed rates for goods with cacao beans emerged. Additionally, varying scenes on paintings and ceramics from the time show commodities delivered to Maya leaders as a tribute. Often shown in these depictions are woven bags labeled with the number of cacao beans they contain, thus exhibiting that the Mayans may have used cacao as a way to pay their taxes.[1]

Aztecs and their Cacao Use

Aztecs highly valued cacao and used it as a form of currency as well. They used the beans in similar manners compared to the Mayans. They utilized the beans mainly for ceremonial measures and relevant circumstances mentioned above, such as in weddings and death rights. For example, the Aztecs revered the cacao as a gift from their god of wisdom, Quetzalcoatl. They viewed the cacao tree as the joining of the earth to heaven.

Pochteca depicted in the Florentine Codex. The image portrays how pochteca may have carries cacao over vast distances.

Yet beans were much harder to obtain as the ideal climate for growing cacao did not overlap with the regions of the Aztec empire. Therefore, the consumption of the beans was different compared to the Mayans. In Mayan culture, the use of cacao was considered to be for everyone, not just for the Maya elite. Commoners were to indulge in this gift from the gods as well.

Meanwhile, in the Aztec empire, the chocolate beverages were only to be consumed by elite royals, warriors, noblemen, and merchants.[2] The primary source of beans for the Aztecs was through importation. The famed cacao importers in the Aztec empire were the pochteca, who had to travel great distances to acquire cacao. They connected the buyers of cacao, which was mostly made up of Aztec nobility, with the sellers in other regions. In addition to its religious and inherent value, the pochteca added value to the cacao beans as an exchangeable good. 

Cacao beans were so valuable that people began to produce counterfeit seeds to pass as the currency. Sometimes they would hollow out the interior of the beans and re-filled them with substitutes such as rocks or sand.[3] In an account by Bernardino de Sahagun, the counterfeiters would use items such as “amaranth seed dough, wax, (and) avocado pits” to falsify cacao beans. They would also make “fresh cacao beans whitish” to give them a dried look by “stirring them into the ashes”.[4] The value perceived in cacao is evident through these counterfeit activities, as merchants risked their livelihoods and lives to manufacture additional beans.

[1] LearnJun. 27, Joshua Rapp, 2018, and 11:45 Am. 2018. “The Maya Civilization Used Chocolate as Money.” Science | AAAS. June 27, 2018. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/06/maya-civilization-used-chocolate-money.

[2] Coe, Sophie Dobzhansky, and Michael D. Coe. 2007. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson.

[3] Millon, René. 2003. When Money Grew on Trees: A Study of Cacao in Ancient Mesoamerica. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Dissertation Services.

[4] Carrasco, Davíd, and Scott Sessions. 2011. Daily Life of the Aztecs. ABC-CLIO.

Pre-Columbian Cacao and The Various Applications of Chocolate in Society

Cacao and chocolate had a wide variety of uses and associations in pre-Columbian society, as it was a highly multifunctional good that was respected and coveted. Cacao first originated in Mesoamerica and was used for religious purposes, as a luxurious food item, as currency, and as medicine. These uses were often interconnected and posed a variety of implications, ranging from economic, social, cultural, and/or political. 

Cacao has many origin stories rooted in religion. The Theobroma tree, also known as the World Tree, was believed to be the center of the universe and the source of life (Martin, 2020). It was thought to connect the realm of the sky, earth, and the underworld. In addition, religious gods and figures were often portrayed as trees, transforming into trees, or born from trees (Martin, 2020). Some even believed that by drinking chocolate, one could obtain god-like qualities or wisdom (Dreiss & Greenhill, 2008). For example, the two figures below provide representations of gods portrayed as cacao trees or wearing elements of the tree: 

The Maya Maize god portrayed as a personified cacao tree (Dreiss & Greenhill, 2008)
A Classic Maya stone monument in Guatemala that portrays a cacao deity wearing a headdress of cacao leaves and a cacao pod (Dreiss & Greenhill, 2008)

Cacao was also used in various religious rituals and ceremonies, such as baptisms, marriages, and rites of births and death. The Maya people would often baptize children with a mixture of cacao, virgin water, and crushed flowers (Dreiss & Greenhill, 2008). In addition, Frier Bernardino de Sahagún reported that Aztec fathers would often instruct their sons to offer a cacaoatl drink to God as they entered religious school (Dreiss & Greenhill, 2008). Cacao was also incorporated into marriage ceremonies. According to the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, the groom often offered cacao (beans or a drink) to the woman they were marrying. It is interesting that cacao was often used to signify the significance of a certain ceremony or ritual, almost as if documenting authenticity and serving as a symbol of religious respect. The figure below depicts a Mixtec ceremony where Lady Thirteen Serpent offers a bowl of cacao to Lord Eight Deer to solemnise their marriage (Dreiss & Greenhill, 2008):

The groom pointing a cup of frothy cacao in the hands of his bride during a marriage ceremony (Seawright, 2012)

Moreover, the Maya people were often buried with some form of cacao, whether it cups or vases or bowls. These pottery items were often personalized, containing the Primary Standard Sequence – the name of the deceased and the type of cacao the cup contained (Seawright, 2012). It was thought that chocolate energized and eased the soul’s journey to the underworld (Martin, 2020). It is interesting that chocolate was often viewed to have some sort of “superpower” or healing quality for both the living and the dead. Below is a figure of relatives offering the deceased individual cacao for his journey to the underworld/afterlife (Seawright, 2012):

The relatives of the deceased offering the deceased chocolate for his journey to the afterlife, from the Codex Magliabechiano (Seawright, 2012)

Cacao was also involved in religious sacrifice rituals. Human sacrifices were often made to various gods or deities to show respect and honor, and they were first signaled by offering chocolate (Dillinger et al., 2000). Extracting the cacao beans from the pod was also viewed as symbolically similar to the extraction of the human heart during a sacrifice (Dillinger et al., 2000). This is just another example proving the high regard that chocolate held, especially in a religious sense. It was truly viewed as a sacred item, and using it in a sacrifice showed generosity and reverence.

Besides its religious purposes, cacao had always been widely recognized as a delicious food item to be consumed. In the Pre-Columbian era, it was typically consumed as a beverage and limited only to the very elite or royal. The beans were often used to prepare a drink called Xocoatl, which was a very bitter drink made of roasted and ground beans mixed with water and spices (De Maré, 2013). Maya ruins often depicted cacao as being associated with the god of abundance and wealth, which helps to explain cacao’s restriction to the very elites – priests, royals, distinguished warriors, and military officers (Dillinger et al., 2000). It was also believed that cacao was an intoxicating substance, and thus not appropriate for women and children (Dillinger et al., 2000). This had implications for social structures of the societies that included cacao, as cacao served as a hierarchical catalyst that enforced a disparity between the elites and the commoners.

Moreover, cacao was used as a form of currency. It may be strange to think of a food/beverage as a form of currency, but this helps to explain why only the rich and royal elite were consuming cacao. These people were essentially swallowing money, which lower-class people could not afford to do. When the Aztecs, who at the time were one of the most advanced societies, captured the Maya people and their land, they also seized their economy. This included cacao, as the land in this area was most suitable for growing the pods (De Maré, 2013). The Aztecs entered trade, assisted by cacao beans as a form of commodity money (De Maré, 2013).  Cacao beans soon became one of the most common means of exchange among pre-Columbian people for simple, low-value transactions. In a letter Cortes wrote to Charles V, he stated: “This seed was being used as currency for daily exchanges” (De Maré, 2013). The number of seeds used was proportional to relative worth – for example, one rabbit was 10 cocoa beans, while one slave was 100 cocoa beans (De Maré, 2013). Cacao beans soon became the main currency of the Empire, and its value was officially fixed in 1555 when a decree stated that one Spanish real equaled 140 cacao beans (De Maré, 2013). This currency even spread to countries that are now in present-day South America, and it was in use until the start of the 19th century.  

Lastly, cacao was utilized as a form of medicine. It was believed to have digestive, anti-inflammatory, anesthetic, and energy-related applications that would assist in healing. People often believed illnesses were connected to the gods, and due to the fact that many also believed cacao to be a powerfully divine item, cacao was used as a healing agent. Evidently, these applications of cacao began to become interrelated. In terms of evidence of cacao’s medicinal properties, there were many documents and manuscripts that recorded its uses. The Badianus Codex indicated that cacao flowers may be used to alleviate fatigue, while the Florentine Codex took note of a recipe of cacao beans, maize, and the herb tlacoxochitl to relieve fevers and shortness of breath (Lippi, 2009). It also cautioned against excessive consumption of cocoa from unroasted beans but approved it in moderation to help replenish and invigorate the body (Lippi, 2009). Later, manuscripts like Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams recorded over a hundred uses and instructions for medicinal cacao. There were several themes of cacao’s healing properties found within these records – it was often used to treat emaciated patients to gain weight, to address exhaustion and stimulate patients’ nervous systems, and to aid digestion. Besides these common uses, chocolate had a variety of other health issues it was prescribed to treat, such as poor appetite, anemia, kidney stones, etc. (Dillinger et al., 2000). Likely due to the fact that chocolate was believed to have divine origins and thus god-like properties, it was utilized to treat a large variety of illnesses. This provides support for the idea that the various uses and applications for chocolate were often intertwined and circled back to one another, thus rendering chocolate as one of the most dominating forces in the Pre-Columbian society.

Works Cited

Dillinger, T. L., Barriga, P., Escárcega Sylvia, Jimenez, M., Lowe, D. S., & Grivetti, L. E. (2000). Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate. The Journal of Nutrition, 130(8). doi: 10.1093/jn/130.8.2057s

De Maré, L. (2013, March 4). Museum of the National Bank of Belgium. Retrieved from https://www.nbbmuseum.be/en/2013/03/kakao.htm

Dreiss, M. L., & Greenhill, S. (2008). Chocolate: pathway to the gods. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Lippi, D. (2009). Chocolate and medicine: Dangerous liaisons? Nutrition25(11-12), 1100–1103. doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2009.08.002

Martin, C. (2020). Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”. Retrieved from Canvas.

Seawright, C. (2012). Life, Death and Chocolate in Mesoamerica: The Aztecs and the Maya; Where did the Ritual Use of Cacao Originate? ResearchGate. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Caroline_Seawright/publication/274837640_ARC2AZT_Essay_Life_Death_and_Chocolate_in_Mesoamerica_The_Aztecs_and_the_Maya_Where_did_the_Ritual_Use_of_Cacao_Originate/links/55f8b47908aec948c4864629.pdf