Tag Archives: mesoamerica

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).

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(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.

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(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.

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(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).

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.


Chocolate the Aphrodisiac and its Love Affair with Valentine’s Day

Chocolate has held an allure as an aphrodisiac for about as long as modern conceptions of chocolate have existed; The True History of Chocolate states that people have believed chocolate is an aphrodisiac since at least the European conquest of Mexico (Coe and Coe 29). Chocolate has a reputation as a sensual, even sinful, food, and not only is it supposed to actually increase sexual potency and desire when consumed, but its reputation has preceded it so that simply the idea of eating chocolate has become erotic. Over time, chocolate’s reputation as an aphrodisiac and its conflation with romance has resulted in the necessity of the chocolate actually being consumed for this effect to be negated; now, one only needs to give or receive chocolate in order to inspire romantic and sensual feelings. Thus is the case in our celebrations and gift-giving traditions of Valentine’s Day. But Valentine’s Day and chocolate were not always synonymous. How did this relatively new holiday and this revered food become so impossibly intertwined?

Chocolate, of course, has its roots in Mesoamerica, where it was it was considered to be a valuable food both in terms of its value as a currency and its cultural value; it was an important part of social gatherings, religious practices and was considered ‘the food of the gods’ (Martin) (“Chocolate and Holidays- a Long History”). Chocolate had an almost mystical reputation, and was believed to have many properties, including curing ailments and having an effect as an aphrodisiac. A recipe for chocolate that was supposedly known for its aphrodisiacal properties survives to us from Francisco Hernández; it contains several other ingredients that were popular flavorings for chocolate amongst the Aztecs, including vanilla (Coe and Coe 87-88, 93). Together, these ingredients made for an aphrodisiacal chocolate, according to Hernández; however, there is “not a hint that the Aztecs considered it to be an erotic stimulant” (Coe and Coe 93). The idea that chocolate was an aphrodisiac would capture the European mind. As Coe & Coe write, “the probably baseless claim that chocolate has aphrodisiac properties was one that was to arise again and again in Europe, and obviously also appeals to modern authors” (Coe and Coe 87).

In Europe, by the 1600s, chocolate had become an increasingly popular food: “By the early 1600s, the vogue for chocolate had swept across Europe. In London, chocolate houses began to rival coffee houses as social gathering spots. One shop opened on Gracechurch Street in 1657 advertising chocolate as “a West Indian drink (which) cures and preserves the body of many diseases.” In France, Madame de Sevigne wrote about enormous chocolate consumption throughout the court at Versailles in 1671; Louis IV drank it daily and Madame du Barry was said to use chocolate mixed with amber to stimulate her lovers” (Henderson). The use of chocolate to stimulate sexual appetite had seized ahold of the European imagination, and it was only a matter of time before aphrodisiacal chocolate would find its perfect mate in the romantic holiday, Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day was not always a popular holiday, but following Chaucer’s mention of the romantic holiday in his poem Parlement of Foules, the holiday’s popularity began to rise as a way and day to celebrate romantic love and that special someone in your life (Henderson).The tradition of gift-giving and romantic gestures on Valentine’s Day was quickly cemented, but the tradition of giving candy (and later chocolate) was slower on the uptake, as “sugar was still a precious commodity in Europe” (Henderson). However, eventually it was “no longer considered a sign of elevated rank to stuff one’s guests with sugar” and writing in and molding sugar was a special treat reserved for occasions such as weddings, birthdays, Christmas, and, yes, Valentine’s Day (Mintz 94).

It wasn’t until sugar and chocolate had been more economized and popularized that

Cadbury’s ingenious marketing of beautiful boxes of chocolate that could be repurposed as mementos firmly entrenched chocolate in the celebration of Valentine’s Day.

the ultimate marriage would happen on Valentine’s Day. Richard Cadbury, attempting to expand the reaches of chocolate into the hands of more people and on more occasions, came up with the brilliant idea of ‘eating chocolates’, which he packaged in beautiful boxes that he had designed himself (Henderson). In 1861, he used his marketing genius to marry chocolate and Valentine’s Day forever: “Cadbury began putting the Cupids and rosebuds on heart-shaped boxes in 1861: even when the chocolates had been eaten, people could use the beautiful boxes to save such mementos as love letters” (Henderson). The association between chocolate and Valentine’s Day has been everlasting since Cadbury’s special Valentine’s boxes emerged.

Fascination with chocolate and the romantic and erotic has persisted into the modern era.

Russell Stover’s Secret Lace Heart is easily accessible at just $12.99 and marketed as “sultry” and “tantalizing.” Its easy accessibility further entrenches chocolate in the celebration of Valentine’s Day, and its marketing enhances the idea that chocolate is an aphrodisiac.

Valentine’s Day officially became commercialized in the early 1900’s when chocolate itself became commercialized and mass-produced; Hershey began mass-producing chocolate in 1907, and Russell Stover quickly followed them by selling their Valentine’s chocolates in department stores (Henderson). According to Smithsonian, one of Russell Stover’s biggest sellers is “the ‘Secret Lace Heart,’ a chocolate box covered in satin and black lace. The so-called ‘lingerie box’ is affordable and easily-accessible stocked on store shelves for easy grab-and-go sales” (Henderson).

Modern science has also perpetuated the idea that chocolate is an aphrodisiac. According to Coe and Coe, the most extensive medical study of chocolate is by a French doctor, Hervé Robert, who published a book in 1990 called Les vertus therapeutiques du chocolat. He finds that the caffeine, theobromine, serotonin, and phenylethylamine that chocolate contains make it a tonic, and an antidepressive and antistress agent, enhancing pleasurable activities, including making love” (Coe and Coe 29). The people of the modern age take this science as a confirmation that chocolate is an aphrodisiac, even going so far, in my personal observations, as to use these scientific findings as an excuse to eat chocolate.

This is a very blatant example of the use of the suggestivity of chocolate in advertising. It is supposed to excite the woman- as this woman is very happy- and suggest to the man that if the woman eats this chocolate, she will also want him.

Lastly, the association between chocolate and romantic or erotic love has dominated culture in advertisements and television/film. A gift of chocolate from a man to a woman on screen is at once suggestive and also romantic. Advertisements make strategic use of women seductively eaten chocolate to both excite the men and tantalize women with the feeling of sexual bliss that eating chocolate will supposedly make them feel. These advertisements are even more blatant on Valentine’s Day—when the association between chocolate and romantic and erotic love is at its strongest.













Butler, Stephanie. “Celebrating Valentine’s Day With a Box of Chocolates.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 08 Feb. 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
“Chocolate and Holidays- a Long History.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 29 Mar. 2002. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.
Henderson, Amy. “How Chocolate and Valentine’s Day Mated for Life.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 12 Feb. 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
Martin, Carla. “Lectures 1-2.” Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. Cambridge, MA. Lecture.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.

Chocolate and Beer: how the ancient use of Theobroma spp. inspired the creation of a new “ancient brew”

Dogfish Head Theobroma
Image 1: Dogfish Head – Theobroma “Ancient Ale”

Chocolate is a favorite treat for many in modern times, but it was also a favorite for the people in ancient Mesoamerica. Today, in the U.S.A., we can easily purchase chocolate from establishments ranging from grocery stores to gas stations, and chocolate is a popular ingredient in foods such as candy and many beverages. We are able to easily purchase our chocolate treats, in all forms, without ever seeing, touching, processing, or preparing our treats from the plant itself. In ancient times the fruit of Theobroma spp. was collected and processed by the inhabitants of many ancient civilizations. When scholars investigate the origins of the use of Theobroma spp. many questions arise such as, “How was this plant used by ancient cultures?” and “Which parts of the plant were consumed?” These questions are answered through the use of many scientific facets such as analyses of ancient writings and the examination of ancient artifacts through chemical analyses. Through these efforts, scientists are able to piece together a timeline detailing the earliest known use of this plant by ancient societies. This post will examine how the discovery of ancient pottery demonstrated that ancient civilizations used the fruits of Theobroma spp. to produce alcoholic beverages, and how this discovery allowed for the incorporation of chocolate into a modern day beer “Theobroma” developed and produced by the company Dogfish Head.


Image 2: A statue of a man holding a cacao bean

What is Theobroma spp? The genus Theobroma is located in the family Malvaceae and contains ~20 species (“Theobroma” n.d.). The most familiar species within the genus is Theobroma cacao which translates to “food of the gods”. The seeds from this plant are used to make chocolate. This evergreen, shade grown, amazing tree is unique in that the flowers and fruit grow directly on the trunk (cauliflory). The fruit, once ripe, contains the prized seeds which are used for the modern day production of chocolate. It is truly a beautiful plant which has had a tremendous impact on human culture as described by many researchers who have searched for, recorded, and shared their finding detailing the use of this plant ancient times.

Image 3: Theobroma tree and fruit (showing pulp and seeds)

When researchers uncovered shards of pottery at the northern Honduran site of Puerto Escondido they were about to redefine the history of chocolate and inspire the creation of a “new to the modern world” chocolate drink. Archeologist identified these vessel shards at the site as having a “long neck” (think “long neck” beer bottles). The presence of the “neck” was an indicator that foam was not a component of the liquid stored within this container (Henderson 3). The process of pouring the cacao mixture between two containers to create foam was previously believed to be the way in which cacao drinks were first consumed (Henderson 3). The sample of a spouted (“long neck”) vessel (4DK-136 – Type name: Barraca Brown), based on radiocarbon dating, showed that the process of consumption involved fermentation to produce an alcoholic beverage (beer). This would now be the earliest known use of cacao from anywhere in the world, and via radiocarbon dating, scientists could now date this vessel to the Ocotillo phase (1400-1100 B.C.) (Henderson 2). Further chemical analysis of this vessel, using chromatographic and mass spectrometric analyses showed the presence if theobromine and caffeine (Henderson 3). These two compounds are found in Theobroma spp. and proved that these vessels once held a drink made from the plant Theobroma. The research conducted by John S. Henderson, Rosemary A. Joyce, Gretchen R. Hall, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Patrick McGovern not only shifted the date for first cacao consumption (by humans) back 500 years, but they also established that, in all likelihood, that the method for the consumption of cacao began with the fermentation of the pulp to create an alcoholic beverage, and that the use of the cacao seeds, and the method for producing “foam”, did not occur until hundreds of years later.

Image 4: (Re)drawing of the Barraca Brown bottle from northern Honduras by Florance Richardson 2017 (original drawing by Yolanda Tovar)

The invention of a new “ancient beer” could not have happened without the collaboration between Dr. Patrick McGovern (the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Anthropology) and the folks from Dogfish Head Brewery. Dr. McGovern is not only an incredible archeologist, but he is also reproducing drinks of the past for modern day consumption. The collaboration between Dr. McGovern and the brewers from Dogfish Head demonstrates how science and intuition, blended together, can have amazing results.

“Since it proved impossible to transport the fresh fruit without spoilage from Honduras, we did the next best thing. We were able to obtain chocolate nibs and powder from the premier area of Aztec chocolate production, Soconusco, the first such dark chocolate to be imported into the States in centuries (Askinosie Chocolate in Missouri). As you drink this luscious beverage–almost like a fine Scotch or Port–you will pick up the aroma of the cacao and hints of the ancho chili in the aftertaste. Any bitterness of the chocolate is offset by the honey and corn. Achiote colors it red. It was fermented with an American ale yeast.” (Dr. Patrick E. McGovern, “Theobroma”).

Do we now have in our possession the ancient recipe used to brew beer with cacao? The recipe used to create “Theobroma” beer uses the wealth of knowledge gained by understanding and studying ancient artifacts, writings, and through chemical analyses conducted on the pottery uncovered during archeological excavations and historical studies, but even with this wealth of knowledge, we will never know for sure how the drinks prepared by the ancients tasted or the precise measurements and ingredients used to create them. However, with the use of science and craftsmanship we can certainly come close to tasting these “ancient brews”.

Theobroma was a limited release from Dogfish Head, but please enjoy the following video in which Dogfish Head brewer Sam Calagione describes how lovely this ancient brew tastes.

Video 1: Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione on the brewery’s Ancient Ale Theobroma.


Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.

Henderson, John S., et al. “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Acad Sciences, 16 Nov. 2007 http://www.pnas.org/content/104/48/18937 Accessed on 8 March 2017

 McGovern, Patrick E., “Biomolecular Archaeology Project” https://www.penn.museum/sites/biomoleculararchaeology/ Accessed on 8 March 2017

 McGovern, Patrick E., “Theobroma”, https://www.penn.museum/sites/biomoleculararchaeology1/re-created-beverages/theobroma/ Accessed on 8 March 2017

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

 Trivedi, Bijal P., “Ancient Chocolate Found in Maya “Teapot””, National Geographic, July 17, 2002,  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/07/0717_020717_TVchocolate.html Accessed on 8 March 2017

Wikipedia, “Theobroma”, n.d. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theobroma Accessed on 10 March 2017

 Wikipedia, “Theobroma cacao”, n.d. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theobroma_cacao Accessed on 8 March 2017

 Multimedia Sources:

 Image 1: Dogfish Head Theobroma https://www.flickr.com/photos/julishannon/3006530318/in/photolist-5zFfHC-5eg55n-a4nn57-6tkSc5-6T39ix-6tXNV9-6GT3Tw-6NZdi1-5trpAn-5eksFw-5eg2Di-Drdr2g-7K5CQH-9Ni1br-6FT3ub

 Image 2: Wikimedia Commons, Cacao Aztec Sculpture, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cacao_Aztec_Sculpture.jpg Accessed 10 March 2017

 Image 3: Wikimedia Commons, Theobroma tree and fruit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chocolate_in_its_Rawest_Form_(27583224425).jpg

 Image 4: Author owned, (Re)drawing of the Barraca Brown bottle from northern Honduras by Florance Richardson 2017 (original drawing by Yolanda Tovar)

 Video: Quick Sip Clips by Dogfish Head: Theobromahttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtXCJjJz6sI Accessed on 10 March 2017



Cacao Moves Across the World

What catalyzed the relocation of the world’s cacao cultivation from Central America to the West African coast?


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(Source: Nicolas Rapp via Fortune, 2016)

Although cacao and chocolate are native to Central America, 70 percent of the world’s cacao is produced in Africa. According to a 2012 cacao market report, the majority of cacao is specifically produced in West Africa, with the Ivory Coast and Ghana as the leading producers of cacao, respectively (Presilla, 2009:123). The Ivory Coast and Ghana are followed by Indonesia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Brazil, and Ecuador, respectively (Coe and Coe, 2013:196-197). The relocation of the world’s cacao cultivation from Central America to the West African coast was catalyzed by 1) the transformation of cacao cultivation into a for-profit venture by European colonial powers and 2) the Portuguese transportation of Forastero cacao to West Africa.

Cacao’s Journey Across the Equator

(Source: Google Maps, 2017)
Cacao trees thrive in the climate conditions existing near the equator, between 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south (Presilla, 2009:44). Because the cacao trees need a hot climate, rainfall, and little fluctuation in temperature, only a select number of countries are capable of producing cacao.


Genetic origins of cacao:

Modern scientists locate the genetic origins of the cacao tree in South America, specifically in the Amazon River basin and in modern-day Venezuela (Presilla,2009:8).

Cultural origin of cacao cultivation:

By the second millennium BC, the seeds of cacao trees native to South America were brought northward to Mesoamerica, or the modern-day area between Mexico and Honduras, including Guatemala, Belize, and El Salvador (Presilla, 2009:8). From the Olmec to the Maya and the Aztecs, the chocolate mixtures were used to prepare hot and cold beverages (Presilla, 2009:8). Initially, natives had cultivated cacao trees to consume cacao as a fruit, but over time, natives discovered that the seeds could be dried, fermented, and ground to create chocolate mixtures.

Europeans encounter chocolate, and like it (A LOT):

Until Christopher Columbus arrived in Mesoamerica in the sixteenth century, no European had encountered cacao. Although Columbus returned to Spain from the New World with cacao beans, the Spanish would not taste chocolate until 1544 when the beverage was presented to the future Phillip II by a delegation of Kekchi Maya.

Upon taking up the drinking of chocolate, the Spanish made cacao cultivation a for-profit venture in its colonies. (Presilla, 2009:24). Hence, cacao was transformed from a barter item into a cash crop in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador (Presilla, 2009:28). The cultivation of cacao as a cash crop required an immense amount of labor. In the beginning, indigenous peoples worked the cacao plantations, but their populations would be decimated by disease introduced by the Europeans (Presilla, 2009:28). Cacao production could not keep up with a rising demand for chocolate, especially as chocolate-drinking spread through Europe. Within 50-60 years, the practice of drinking chocolate had spread to France, Italy, and England (Presilla, 2009:24).

The Search for New Markets for Cacao Cultivation:

To meet demand, the Spanish relocated primary cacao cultivation from Mesoamerica back to Venezuela by the seventeenth century (Presilla, 2009:28). Here still, the challenge of insufficient labor to work the cacao plantations in Venezuela and South America persisted. As a result, slave labor from Africa was imported to keep cacao cultivation profitable in the colonies.

To further increase the production of cacao, the Spanish brought cacao to its eastern colonies, including the Philippines, Java, Indonesia (Presilla, 2009:43).

Other European colonial powers desired to similarly profit from cacao cultivation in their colonies. In the New World, the Portuguese ruled over Bahia, or modern-day Brazil. The Portuguese took Lower Amazon cacao seeds from Bahia to West Africa in the nineteenth century (Presilla, 2009:43). Cacao cultivation continued to spread from Portuguese West Africa to modern-day Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, and the Ivory Coast by 1905 (Presilla, 2009:43; Coe and Coe, 2013:197). The British spread cacao to modern-day Sri Lanka, and the Dutch spread cacao to Java and Sumatra. By the 20th century, Europeans brought cacao to the New Hebrides, New Guinea, and Samoa in Oceania (Coe and Coe, 2013:197).

The Rise of West African Cacao

Colonialism spread cacao seeds across the equator, but West Africa, in particular, became the largest producer of cacao because it is the primary region where Forastero cacao grows. Crucially, the Portuguese had brought Forastero cacao from Brazil to Sao Tome (Coe and Coe, 2013: 197). Although Brazil also grows Forastero cacao, cacao production declined in the 1950s following the devastation of cacao-producing regions by witches’ boom and black pod rot (Presilla, 2009:123). Modern-day chocolate corporations favor Forastero cacao because its disease-resistance makes it the more dependable, cost-effective cacao to source relative to the other two major breeds of cacao: Criollo and Trinitarto. As reflected in the 2012 cacao market, the business practices of modern-day chocolate corporations who source cacao from West Africa, where Forastero cacao thrives, reinforce the profit-driven cacao cultivation established during the colonial period: 80 percent of the world’s cacao is of the disease-resistant Forastero variety (Coe and Coe, 2013:197).


(© Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons, 2009)

Because Forastero cacao (green) is absent in non-West African regions–Criollo cacao (red) grows in Central America and Trinitario cacao (brown) grows in South and Southeast Asia, profit-driven chocolate corporations source less cacao from these regions.


Profit Above All: The Case of Cadbury

 In Great Britain, three firms dominated the cocoa and chocolate market: Cadbury, Fry, and Rowntree (Satre, 2005:14). By 1900, nearly half of the cocoa beans purchased by Cadbury were from the Portuguese colony of Sao Tome (Satre, 2005:19) when it was brought to Cadbury’s attention that the cacao plantations in Sao Tome were being worked by Angolans against their will (Satre, 2005:7). Under the guise of state-supported contact-labor system that could be renewed every five years, around four thousand Angolans were being captured and shipped Sao Tome and Principe to work on the cacao plantation (Satre, 2005:2-7). Although Portugal formally abolished slavery in its colonies in 1879 (Satre, 2005:2), a new slave labor arose on the cacao plantations in the twentieth century.

Nearly a decade after first learning of the inhumane labor conditions on the islands passed before Cadbury would officially boycott cacao from Sao Tome and Principe in 1909 (Higgs, 2012:148). Notably, his decision was preceded by his acquisition of fourteen acres in the Gold Coast, or modern-day Ghana, to be used for a Cadbury factory (Higgs, 2012:148). Despite having sufficient evidence for the inhuman labor conditions years before, Cadbury waited to boycott cacao from Sao Tome until he secured an alternate source of cacao for his company.

Although American chocolate corporations immediately filled the void left by the British boycott of Sao Tomean cacao, cacao production in Sao Tome eventually fell. The island’s cacao-producing regions were affected by swollen shoot disease in 1918 (Higgs, 2012:160). Since, Sao Tome and Principe have been unable to compete with the Ivory Coast and Ghana, chocolate corporations’ primary suppliers of cacao (Higgs, 2012:164). Ultimately, the profit venture begun by European colonial and the Portuguese transportation of disease-resistant Forastero cacao to West Africa primed the West African coast’s economies to flourish through cacao cultivation.




Works Cited

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

Higgs, Catherine. 2012. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. pp. 133-165.

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

Satre, Lowell. 2005. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. pp. 1-32, 73-99.


Sacred Cenotes: Cacao in the Yucatán

There is no doubt that cacao was highly valued in Mayan culture, intertwined with economics, culture, religion, and ritual.  Cacao was abundant and valuable, and the numerous cacao-producing regions on the coast were hubs for trade.  The Yucatán, on the other hand, does not have an environment suitable for cacao trees.  Yet despite this, the Yucatec Maya revered cacao so much that they found a way to overcome their climate’s cacao-growing challenges and cultivate it in sinkholes called cenotes (Coe and Coe 46).   These sinkholes could sustain a small number of trees, but not nearly as many as the large plantations to the south, which suggests that profit was not a motivating factor.  The motivation for cultivation of cacao in cenotes in the Yucatán stems from prestige and status as well as the sacred importance of cacao.

There were a number of rich cacao growing region in the pre-Conquest era, including the Chontalpa, the Pacific coastal plain of Chiapas and Guatemala, and Boca Costa (Coe and Coe 45).  The regions had sufficient rainfall and nutrient rich soil, enabling them to sustain significant cacao plantations.  The Yucatán, on the other hand, has a dry climate and rocky soils, and as a limestone plain with virtually no rivers, it has typically not been deemed suitable for cacao cultivation (Gomez-Pompa 250).  However, scattered in this region are humid cenotes which the Maya put to their chocolate-growing benefit.  Cenotes are sinkholes filled with water and soil, which create a humid ecosystem where cacao can grow naturally.  Because they are saturated, the typical challenges of the lack of rainfall and the dry season can be overcome (Gomez-Pompa 250-251).  Though these cenotes had the right environment, they were not on the size scale to run plantations.  To put things in perspective, a Kuyul sinkhole where cacao was found has a depth of 40m and a diameter of 240m, which can be visualized in the image below (Gomez-Pompa 251-252).  According to Spanish sources, they were the private property of wealthy lineages (Coe and Coe 46).  Cultivation of these small groves of cacao only produced a little fruit, unlike large plantations, so monetary gain was likely not the motivating factor for this small-scale cultivation.

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The cultivation of cacao in cenotes was motivated by the its representation as a status symbol for the wealthy class.  Cacao had a long history of ties to economics and high social status, given its use as a currency, a noble drink, and a ritualistic offering.  Cacao has been discovered in the tombs of prominent rulers, accompanying other luxurious items in funerary tradition (Coe and Coe 35).  The cacao tree was also used to depict a Mayan ruler’s mother, Lady Zac-Kuk, at the ruler’s burial site, associating the royal lineage with the cacao tree (Lecture 2/1).  Given this history, it makes sense that cacao itself was an important indicator of wealth and power for the Maya.  For the families that owned the cenotes, the cultivation of cacao in their groves represented their upper socioeconomic status.  The prestige that is associated with cacao justifies its use in the cenotes of the Yucatán.

Lady Zac-Kuk depicted with a tree with cacao pods (Lecture 2/1)

Beyond being a status symbol, cultivation of cacao in cenotes also evidences the spiritual importance of cacao.  A painted capstone from the Temple of the Owls in Chichen Itza, which is shown below, depicts the spiritual significance of cacao and the cenote.  In this artifact, the Maya god Kauil, who is the lord of sustenance and of royal descent (Coe and Coe 46), stands on the mouth of a serpent while carrying a plate with offerings.  The presence of the god Kauil, given his connection to royal descent, points to the association between the cacao and cenote and the noble and powerful lineages (Gomez-Pompa 253), supporting the notion that the cenotes were a symbol of wealth and power.  In the capstone, as Simon Martin describes, Kauil emerges from the underworld, which is depicted as a cenote, in pursuit of the heavens above (174).  Cacao pods hang as if naturally growing from both the heavens and the underworld.  The god’s expression of “rescuing” the seeds from the cenote and their “gifting to heaven and earth” in this scene depict the significance of the spiritual value of cacao (Martin 175).  Beyond being a status symbol, cultivation of cacao in cenotes also indicates the spiritual importance of cacao, which is demonstrated by the capstone from the Temple of the Owls.

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The motivation for cultivation of cacao in cenotes in the Yucatán stems from prestige and status as well as the sacred importance of cacao.  Cacao is deeply intertwined with wealth and social status in Maya culture, and the use of cenotes is no exception.  Despite the dry and rocky conditions in the Yucatán, the Maya discovered and practiced a cultivation of cacao in cenotes to demonstrate their wealth and to uphold the sacred importance of cacao.  The effects of these practices are still with us today, as wild cacao trees continue to grow in cenotes, and chocolate beverages are consumed during contemporary celebrations.

Works Cited

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

Gómez-Pompa, Arturo, José Salvador Flores, and Mario Aliphat Fernández. “The sacred cacao groves of the Maya.” Latin american antiquity (1990): 247-257.

Martin, Carla. “Lecture 2/1: Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. 1 February 2017. Lecture.

Martin, Simon. “Cacao in ancient Maya religion: first fruit from the maize tree and other tales from the underworld.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: a cultural history of cacao (2006): 154-183.

Botanical and Natural History of Cacao

               Theobroma Cacao is the botanical name for the Cacao tree and cocoa tree. The genus Theobroma Cacao was named by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, famed for formalizing the binomial nomenclature, in 1753. The Theobroma genus is native to the tropics of Central and South America, going as far North as the lower regions of Mexico. Theobroma encompasses 22 different cocoa species, and typically range from 4 to 8 meters in height. Interestingly, Theobroma are actually classified as evergreens, being related to the Malvaceae family, or mallows.


Cacao producing regions of Colonial Mesoamerica


The most important part of the Cacao tree is Cacao or cocoa. We can distinguish:

  • Cacao pods – the large colorful fruits of the Cacao These pods vary by type and origin. Cacao pods tend to change colors between stages of development; usually starting in deep hues of red, purple, or green, before maturing into shades of orange or yellow.
  • Cacao beans – the seeds of the Cacao pod.

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Cocoa bean

               Cacao and cocoa are both commonly used to describe the raw material from Cacao tree. The origin of the word Cacao comes from Central and South America. The cocoa is an Anglicization of the Spanish form – cacao. The Olmec (1500 BCE- 400 BCE ), predecessors to the Maya and first major civilization in Central America, are the first farmers of the Cacao pods, and the first plantations for the Cacao appeared in Guatemala and Southern Mexico around 400B.C.

               Theobroma means Food of the Gods in the Mayan language. Of their myths, Mayans believed that the Plumed Serpent gave Cacao to them, after people were created from maize by the divine grandparent deity Xmucane. The Mayans to this time celebrate Cacao because they think that this is a gift from the God. The Aztecs also believe that the Plumed Serpent– Quetzalcoatl – discovered cacao.

In 250 AD the Mayans started to painting Cacao in hieroglyphic. In Dresden and Madrid Mayan wrote the codex in hieroglyphics, but since this time saved only 15 texts. In these images, Cacao was presented like food or drink consumed by the Gods. Mayans also named Cacao on the hieroglyphics Kakaw.


The Mayan and Aztec people used to prepare Cacao in many different ways as a food or drink. One such use was to turn Cacao into drinks for celebrations, and was imbibed by both the civilizations during the marriage ceremonies or religious rituals.

One important sacred document for the Maya is Popol Vuh  or, “Book of Counsel”. Within this story of the creation of the universe, the Cacao is mentioned few times like a godly plant worthy of reverence. People believed that Cacao – as well as tobacco – is an essential to their social, spiritual and physical prosperity. Cacao also was presented in rites of death. Part of their beliefs was that the seeds could help the soul in travel to the underworld.

Cacao tree was also perceived like a connection between earth, underworld and sky, royal bloodline. Mayans thought that plant is integral to keeping cycles of death, life, and rebirth. Cacao was thought to boost energy and made the imbiber stronger.

Cacao for Mayan and Aztec population was something what they could exchange for the goods. For example fish wrapped in maize husks was worth 3 Cacao beans.

             The Mayans and Aztecs used to make some Cacao or chocolate beverages which were stored in ceramic vessel. Archeologists found vessels dating to between 1900-900 BC. Vessels were labor-intensive arts & crafts; among the most important valuables a Mesoamerican owned, stamped with their personal insignia.   The chocolate contained in this way used to be served like a liquid and mixed with spices or wine. A commonly held belief was that this drink could work like an aphrodisiac. Today, this beverage is known as Chilate.

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Ceramic vessels


                   Christopher Columbus in 1502 was the first person from Europe who came into contact with Cacao during his journey to Guanaja. He sent the Cacao to the King Ferdinand. While cocoa was rare for some time, around 20 years after Columbus’ first sample, Prince Philip of Spain received the cocoa drink from a Dominican friar. The reception to this was so positive that France and Portugal didn’t trade cocoa to the rest of Europe for 1000 years.


Cocoa consists of around 700 compounds. Apart from the taste, the most important benefit are antioxidants who helps us to avoid diseases, reduce cholesterol, lower the blood pressure, and is even believed to be a preventative of cancer. Cacao is rich in protein, fat, fiber, iron, magnesium and calcium. Mayan and Aztecs were treating Cacao like a good medicine. They believed that this is a gift from the god who helps them to stay healthy. They also treated Cacao as currency because very often they got something in exchange of cacao. As we can see, Cacao has been known for centuries. Cacao and chocolates are famous on the all world. We can eat and drink it. I think for people this product can be a connection of something really tasty and healthy. It’s good for our heart, mind and mood.







Scholarly sources:

Gockowski & S. Oduwole (2003). Labor practices in the cocoa sector of southwest Nigeria with a focus on the role of children. International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. pp. 11–15. ISBN 978-131-215-7

Olivia Abenyega & James Gockowski (2003). Labor practices in the cocoa sector of Ghana with a special focus on the role of children. International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. pp. 10–11. ISBN 978-131-218-1

Terry G. Powis; W. Jeffrey Hurst; María del Carmen Rodríguez; Ponciano Ortíz C.; Michael Blake; David Cheetham; Michael D. Coe; John G. Hodgson (December 2007). “Oldest chocolate in the New World”. 81 (314). ISSN 0003-598X. Retrieved 2011-02-15.

Watson, Traci (22 January 2013). “Earliest E SPONGEBOBca”. Science. Retrieved 3 March 2014.


Multimedia Sources:








Church, Chocolate & Chattel

The Catholic church has a long history connected to chocolate, as it was introduced to courts in Spain by clergy,  prepared by new world nuns, and settled questions about chocolate’s role in diet and medicine. While the church had no direct involvement in slavery in the chocolate and sugar industry, its indirect involvement, and even forbidding of enslaving Mesoamericans lead directly to African chattel slavery. It is at the intersection of chocolate and church that a church-avoidant industry promoted chocolate as a medicinal; growing its demand that prompted African chattel slavery that was out of the reach of the church.

Chocolate in Europe


chocolate prepared hot with cinnamon and vanilla. Modification of the traditional Mesoamerican drink with spices and sugar made it very pleasing to the European palate when it reached the old world


The earliest documented evidence of cacao reaching Europe was in 1544 when Dominican friars brought Kekchi Mayan nobles from Guatemala with new world gifts such as animals, plants, spices, etc., and of course, a frothy drink made of cacao to Prince Philip of Spain (Coe & Coe, 2013). Unlike cacao’s earlier consumers, Spanish invaders found it unpalatable. It was described by Girolamo Benzoni as a drink “more for pigs than for humanity…(Coe & Coe. 2013)” in his 1575 History of the New World, but this was changing, and Europeans understood its value in the new world as Jose De Acosta writes in his treatise Natural and Moral History published in 1590:

“The main benefit of this cacao is a beverage which they make called Chocolate, which is a crazy thing valued in that country. It disgusts those who are not used to it, for it has a foam on top, or a scum like bubbling… it is a valued drink which the Indians offer to the lords who come or pass through their land. And the Spanish men even more the Spanish women-are addicted to the black chocolate (Coe & Coe, 2013).”

Eventually Europeans adapted the chocolate drink to be more palatable by warming it,adding spices such as cinnamon and vanilla, and most importantly, sugar (Mintz, 1985).

Chocolate as Medicine

There are many reasons Spanish settlers in New Spain adapted the chocolate drink to be

11th century Spanish diagram of Humors and their characteristics inside the body. chocolate was disputed to have many different characteristics making it appealing for all Europeans.

more pleasing, among them were shortage of wine, the aristocratic status bestowed upon drinkers by native culture, and finally, medicinal reasons. Europeans in New Spain had witnessed the use cacao and the chocolate drink among the indigenous population for a variety of healing purposes. Bernadino De Sahagun, a Spanish monk who traveled to New Spain in 1529 wrote extensively on the indigenous flora and of the native people’s knowledge of plants for medicinal purposes including the chocolate drink made from cacao (Lippi, 2013). European medicine was still following the traditions of the Classical Greeks Hippocrates who theorized that the imbalance of humors, blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile, caused disease, and Galen who expanded the theory to include characteristics of hot, cold, dry, and moist to humors, diseases, and their cures. It is within this framework that the chocolate drink became popular medicinally in Europe to keep the humors balanced and diseases at bay (Coe &Coe, 2013).

The Church

While the Catholic church traded in chocolate and even participated in innovating chocolate recipes as Guatemalan nuns had made chocolate in tablet form that could easily be dissolved in hot water (Coe & Coe, 2013) , the church was not always so accepting of the drink, prompting it’s promotion as a medicinal. Pilar Zazueta, a lecturer in the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin states,

 “The Catholic Church worked to eradicate local indigenous beliefs, but it was not entirely successful. The records of the Inquisition authorities in Central America contain numerous stories of indigenous or mestizo women accused of using enchanted chocolate beverages to control men. Women and men of all walks of life visited these “witches” or healers and asked them to prepare chocolate drinks to attract lovers, break up marriages or improve sexual performance. The Church tried to ban chocolate but people in the Americas were too attached to it (2013)”

In her paper “Chocolate in History; Food, Medicine,” Medi-Food, Donnatella Lippi asserts that chocolate’s euphoriant effects invalidated its use during a religious fast. To counter the suspicious nature of the church Lippi states, “doctors hastened to assert that chocolate was a healthy substance and used this argument to promote its pleasurable effects, consequently boosting the lucrative trade in this exotic import (Lippi, 2013). While the church had little to do with the morality of chocolate outside of this question, its suspicious nature was indirectly involved with the increase in popularity in a health obsessed Europe.

The Intersection

While one would not think of the church or chocolate as prompting slavery, African slavery in the Americas was a direct result of their interaction. With Europe’s medical community promoting the health benefits of the chocolate drink, to ease suspicions of Europeans and the clergy, chocolate was becoming popular all over Western Europe as a medicinal drink. Because the European palate found the cacao drink in its original form repugnant, it had been hybridized to be taken hot, with spices and a critical ingredient- sugar. Because of the high demand for sweetened chocolate inspired by a church-avoidant industry, massive labor was needed to meet the new demand for cacao and sugar cane, and with the indigenous populations dwindling from foreign disease and abuse, plantation owners looked to Africa to solve their labor problem.

Chattel Slavery


Pope Benedict XIV issued the “Immensa Pastorum Principis” in 1741 condemning slavery of native people prompting plantation owners to seek free labor in Africa outside of the churches prohibitions.


By the end of the 17th century the Mesoamerican population had been decimated and labor was scarce. Only 10% of the native population survived old-world diseases and abusive labor practices of plantation owners. In their book The True History of Chocolate, Coe & Coe describe it as, “the greatest demographic catastrophe the planet has ever known (2013). After the church condemned slavery of the Mesoamerican population, to avoid the church, the industry looked to where the church had no say – Africa. The Middle Passage across the Atlantic to Africa was out of the grasp of anti-slavery decrees where the majority of western European countries were more than happy to pluck free labor. The labor crisis was over as Coe & Coe state, “it has been estimated that in the period 1650 to 1750, 20,000 slaves arrived annually in Curacas, and after 1750, sometimes up to a 100,000 a year (2013).” Native labor was replaced with imported Africans that I am sure the Catholic church could have never foreseen, it is nevertheless a product of the church and chocolate intersecting.

Works Cited

 Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2013). The True History of Chocolate (3rd ed.) London, ENG. Thames    & Hudson Ltd.

De Montour, A. (Artist). n.d. Pope Benedict XIV [Digital Image]. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons Website https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pope_Benedict_XIV.jpg

De Osma, B. (Artist). 11th C. Humors [Digital Image]. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons Website https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_humors_(11th_c.,_Burgos_de_Osma).jpg

Handorf Chocolates (Owner) 2006. Hot Chocolate [Digital Image]. Hot Chocolate Retreived from Wikimedia Commons Website https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hahndorf_Hot_Chocolate.jpg

Lippi, D. (2013). Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food. Nutrients, 5(5), 1573–        1584. http://doi.org/10.3390/nu5051573

Mintz, S.W. (1986) Sweetness and Power. NY, NY. Penguin Books 1986

Zazueta, P. (Feb. 2013) You Can Thank the Ancient North Americans For Your Valentine’s   Chocolate. Dallas News. Retrieved from           http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2017/02/13/can-thank-ancient-north-americans-valentines-chocolate

The Sacred, Ancient History of Chocolate

Maya Gods Bleeding Over Chocolate
The tremendous amount of importance the Mayas placed on chocolate would be considered silly today, but we are able to see how inscriptions of rituals and ideas that involved chocolate portrayed the true and intense historical importance of chocolate as pictured and explained, “Maya gods shedding blood over cacao, from the Madrid Codex. According to the hieroglyphic text, specific members of incense lumps and cacao beans are offered” (Coe and Coe 43).

Today, chocolate is widely known as a nice treat to eat, and a delicious beverage. The focus of this essay is on chocolate beverages. The many different modern recipes we know today of how to make and drink chocolate are important to us, because they yield delicious beverages. Usually, no second thought is given as to why we have been able to enjoy such recipes during modern times. The tradition of enjoying chocolate had to have begun somewhere and sometime ago to be able to have carried on into today. As is apparent by the photo and caption above, ancient Mesoamericans (in the case of the photo, the Mayas) greatly adored chocolate. In fact, the ancient Aztec, Mixtec, and Olmec peoples also had opportunities to enjoy chocolate during chocolate’s early history. Perhaps, the meaning behind the term, “food of the gods,” referring to chocolate, was taken more seriously in ancient times, allowing for progression of the custom (qtd by C. Martin “Mesoamerica”). By analyzing the historical accounts of ancient chocolate recipes and their social importance, we can see that the chocolate we know today has important underlying history.

Simply carrying on the tactful, thousands-of-years-old practice of experimenting with chocolate recipes that people often do today has historical importance.

Xocolatl Familiar
As we can see in the picture of this Spanish inscribed, nineteenth century dated notebook, variations of chocolate recipes can occur through inter-cultural contact. In the case of the picture here, the “xocolat familiar” recipe resulted from interaction between Spain and Mesoamerica (Presilla 42).

The discovery of chocolate is thought to be credited to the ancient Olmecs, who lived between 1200 BC and 300 BC along the southern Gulf coast of Mexico. The Olmec society evidently laid the foundation for the barely more recent Maya civilization (Presilla 9). Even though chocolate was discovered by the preexisting Olmecs, many historical traditions and customs surrounding chocolate have been developed by the succeeding Mayans, Mixtecs, and Aztecs. Some of the traditions that were developed by the ancient Mesoamerican groups are still culturally important today. Chocolate was involved in wedding rituals, death rituals, and celebrations. An important celebration in modern times, Dia de los Muertos, is a celebration that can be celebrated with chocolate beverages (C. Martin “Mesoamerica”). The variety of uses for chocolate is what really helps to portray how important chocolate really was to the ancient Mesoamericans.

Mayan Wedding Prep
In the picture, we can see ancient Mayans preparing for and planning a wedding engagement between a woman’s family and her admirer – a woman’s father was traditionally invited by her admirer to drink chocolate and discuss a marriage between the two mutually interested parties (C. Martin “Mesoamerica”).

In past and present cultures, great care is/was taken to make exceptional, authentic chocolate beverages. In modern times, many of us are used to preparing hot chocolate with a simple and quick recipe that includes a mix especially for adding to warm milk or water before being whisked or stirred together. Contrary to our well-known capitalistic version of hot chocolate, we might sometimes find people preparing recipes from scratch, as we can see in the video:


Per authentic Mesoamerican recipes, cacao beans are roasted, shelled, and ground into chocolate liquor. Most authentically, the chocolate liquor is added to warm water, usually along with regional spices. Regional flavors added to chocolate beverages include: “nuoc mam of Southeast Asia, the chili peppers (Capsicum species) of Mexico, West Africa, and parts of India and China, the sofrito of the Hispanic Americans, and so on” (Mintz 11). The care taken to prepare chocolate maintained its popularity, and allowed for continual use in modern times. Depending on the authentic recipe, there are certain ways to ensure that the chocolate drink is enjoyed with foam. For example, a molinillo could be used, or another way to create foam would be to continuously pour the chocolate between containers until foam forms (Cartwright). The “foam” tradition is seemingly unknowingly continued today with the use of marshmallows and whipped cream!

We can see in the picture an authentic molinillo that was used for creating foam in ancient Mesoamerica. The molinillo is still a quite useful tool for making foam in an authentic xocolatl recipe (C. Martin “Chocolate Expansion”).

As it is apparent, there are many ways in which the chocolate we know today has important history behind it. Of course, the original chocolate recipes have all been subject to variation throughout time. What is most important for someone who aspires to learn and appreciate chocolate is to understand its history, and appreciate the reasons behind the uses of such a delicacy. And the next time we decide to consume a chocolate beverage, we will have a better understanding of its historical origin in more technical terms than just thinking that, “such and such company processed this chocolate and distributed it in pouches before I bought it.” Perhaps, our better understanding of chocolate history will allow us to appreciate the chocolate beverages more than we previously have appreciated them.

Works Cited

Cartwright, Mark. “Chocolate.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike, 27 June 2014. Web. 09 Mar. 2017. <http://www.ancient.eu/Chocolate/&gt;.

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

Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 8 Feb. 2017. Class Lecture.

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.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. New York: Viking Penguin, 1985. Print.

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

The Sunday Supper Project. “Preparing Drinking Chocolate near Oaxaca, Mexico.”YouTube.YouTube, 25 Apr. 2010. Web. 09 Mar. 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlAg7zIR57k&gt;.