Tag Archives: mesoamerica

Let Us Raise a Vessel to Cacao… Mayan Style!

Do you remember the last time you had a cup of hot chocolate? Was it served in a mug, topped with whipped cream? Or maybe you sipped it from a to-go cup from your favorite drive-thru restaurant. Most of the time we don’t fuss with what we’re drinking our hot chocolate from because we’re too busy enjoying the aroma and experience this time honored beverage provides us. Yet, ancient cultures, alike the Mayans, respected their cacao drinking methods and admired the cup they drank from just as much as they prized the drink itself. In many cases, cacao wouldn’t have been drunk if it wasn’t out of an artistically treasured and symbolized vessel… a far cry from how we view and present our version of hot chocolate today. Nevertheless, this customary beverage and the material in which it was once presented in was systematically ritualized throughout the ancient Classic Maya culture, proving a frothy cup of cacao was more than just something to cheers with.

The Classic Maya period (250 A.D. to 900 A.D.) was considered to be the most influential and profound stage of the ancient Mayan civilization. Fabulous accomplishments, such as towering pyramids and vast palaces throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, beautifully decorated ceramics, and a distinguishable writing system flourished during this time. This was also a time when the Maya elite prospered, and their admiration for the finer things in life influenced their daily lives and dietary intake, ritualizing items such as cacao and the vessels they were ingested from. David Stuart, an archaeologist and epigrapher who specializes in Mesoamerican cultures, describes in a chapter within the book, Chocolate in Mesoamerica, the ways in which the Maya civilization upheld the role of cacao within their society. Stuart suggests, “The importance of cacao in Classic Maya society was not widely appreciated until the decipherment of glyphic texts on ceramics in the 1980s, when it became clear that seemingly countless ceramic vessels were inscribed with a dedicatory formula identifying them as drinking vessels for chocolate” (Stuart 184).

Around the same time those descriptive discoveries were uncovered, much excitement arose when two vessels were found in Guatemala containing chemical remains of cacao (Theobromine), a study that was performed by W. Jeffery Hurst, a chemist at the Hershey Foods Technical Center (Carla D. Martin, Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods,” January 31, 2018). By identifying the Maya word and glyph for cacao (ka-ka-wa), including the remains of Theobromine, archaeologists soon realized the extensive amount of Maya vessels which were artistically depicted with the kakaw glyph, symbolizing the importance of cacao within their culture, alongside the vessels in which they were consumed from (Stuart 184). In most early cases, a vessel that depicted the kakaw glyph was considered to be apart of a Maya elites collection, illustrating the consumption of cacao was reserved for those of importance within the community.

The Kakaw Glyph
Figure 1. The kakaw glyph (ka-ka-wa) in the Dresden Codex. a. The individual syllables of ka-ka-wa. b. The representation of the God of Death holding an offering of a bowl of cacao. Drawings by Carlos Villacorta from the Dresden Codex (1976).

Maricel E. Presilla, a cultural historian, chef, and author of the book, The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes, reviews the ways in which the kakaw glyph was depicted on Maya pots and drinking vessels, and goes on to say, “Dozens of Classic Maya pots and jars, included along with other furnishings in burial chambers, depict chocolate as a crucial, central element of opulent feasts” (Presilla 12). Archaeologists have also come to believe that the vessel in which the cacao drink was drunk from had different levels of significance and cultural value, through the means of the artwork depicted on the cup and the individuals utilizing this piece of material culture (Presilla 12). Realizations as such have contributed to many other professionals from a plethora of academic fields, such as anthropologists and art curators, into the mix, creating a vast amount of research conducted around this specific topic. Dr. Dorie Reents-Budet, an Art Curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, describes the functionality of these impressive vessels in a chapter within the book, Chocolate in Mesoamerica, and considers these vessels, “Function as containers for edibles and also as portable props whose myths-political imagery lent power and prestige to their owners and the event during which they were used” (Reents-Budet 210).

As a result, these elaborate cacao drinking vessels served up a frothy-drink of dualism between the vessel itself and the individual enjoying this influential beverage. Illustrations of exclusive banquets held by the Maya elite were plentiful, and according to Reents-Budet, these elite banquets which included fantastic kakaw serving vessels, “Transcended their primary function as food service wares and were transformed into indispensable status markers and essential gifts; that is, they became social currency” (Reents-Budet 213). The aftereffect of these frequent banquets lead to those creative kakaw drinking vessels to be perceived as social currency and a higher status, and soon after, production of cacao drinking vessels by “highly trained artisans and renewed painters” (Reents-Budet 214) was off and running.

A Late Classic Maya Vase
Figure 2. A Late Classic Maya period polychrome vase for serving chocolate beverages and giving as gifts during elite feasts. Collections of the New Orleans Museum of Art. Photograph copyright Justin Kerr (K2800).

As a result of this newfound kakaw drinking vessel popularity, the Maya civilization never looked back, and the ideals around this foamy, ritualized beverage flourished for the rest of their reign. Through mysterious circumstances, the decline of the Maya culture happened sometime between the late eighth and ninth century, creating a sense of wonder around this distinguished ancient civilization. While we may never know what truly happened to the Mayans and their artistic culture, the remnants of their treasured vessels and love for cacao has overcome their deterioration, and continues to thrive in our modern day society through academic means and pure curiosity for what was once a fascinating and complex society.

Depiction of a Cacao Beverage Being Frothed
Figure 3. Classic Maya period depicting the aerating of a kakaw beverage by pouring the liquid from one jar to another placed on the floor. Collections from the Princeton Art Museum (acc. no. 75-17, the Hans and Dorthy Widenmann Foundation). Photograph copyright Justin Kerr (K511).

References Cited:

Martin, Carla D. Mesoamerica and the “food gods.” Harvard University, Jan. 2018, https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1XF-lM9Z9iks0cVhUFRJ1QWBokKTRrdvZISwAJVSe_Ag/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_2_18

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

Reents-Budet, Dorie. “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking among the Ancient Maya.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. 202-223.

Stuart, David. “The Language of Chocolate References to Cacao on Classic Maya Drinking Vessels.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. 184-201.

Dumbledore Loves Chocolate
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Dir. Chris Columbus. Warner Bros., 2001. DVD.



The Then and Now of Cacao: Contrasting the Cacao of Mesoamerica with Today’s Chocolate

From simple Hershey Kisses, to rich Swiss chocolates, to wacky Japanese Kit-Kats, few foods have become as wildly and internationally popular as chocolate. Chocolate has a long and rich history, with the first confirmed cacao container being dated to approximately 1400 BCE (Coe and Coe 36). While many are aware that Mesoamericans were the first to cultivate and consume cacao, there are many misconceptions about the ‘chocolate’  they ate. The ingredients, preparation, and traditions surrounding cacao in pre-Columbian civilizations is very different from the chocolate many of us enjoy today. While modern western-style chocolate has its roots in Mesoamerica, it is almost alien to the cacao that the Mayans and Aztecs consumed.

One of the differences between modern chocolate and Mesoamerican cacao is the state in which it was consumed. While some might imagine the Mayans eating a chocolate bar or chocolate-covered ice-cream, in actuality cacao was very rarely consumed in a solid form. It was usually served as a drink or a thin maze-gruel.

This Magnum ice cream commercial perpetuates the misconception that the Mayans produced solid chocolate

Mesoamerican cacao tasted very different from the chocolate we know today. Original cacao was not a sweet treat. Mesoamericans tended to use more spicy and savory ingredients to flavor their cacao drinks, such as chillies, (Coe and Coe 49) peppery ‘ear flower’ (62), ground achiote, and herbs (Presilla 9). There was no sugarcane in the pre-Colombian Americas, so if the drink was sweetened it was with honey, maguey sap, or mamey sapote pits (9). This gave cacao a much wider spectrum of flavors than modern chocolate. Some flavors of Mesoamerican cacao might not be reproducible; two plants, the itsim-te and yu-tal (Coe and Coe 49) were common Mayan cacao ingredients, but the translation of what these items were has been lost. Contrary to popular belief, cinnamon was not an ingredient used in Mesoamerican cacao. This is because cinnamon is not a New World spice; it was only introduced to the Aztecs once the Spanish invaded. The misguided belief that ‘Old-World’ flavors like cinnamon were used in Mesoamerican cacao can likely be attributed to modern companies. Haagen-Dazs used cinnamon in their ‘Mayan chocolate’ flavor, and created interactive ads in which one can use a ‘Mayan stone tool’ to peel the bark off of a cinnamon tree.



This Haagen Dazs ice cream looks tasty, but is historically inaccurate

The preparation of chocolate today is highly mechanized and produces a solid product. The preparation of cacao in Mesoamerica was quite different. To create the cacao, beans were first laid out to dry in the sun. They were then roasted on a clay griddle called a comale. The shells were removed, and the roasted cacao was ground into paste on

A traditional Metate grinding stone

stone slabs called metates.  Water and the other ingredients were then mixed into the cacao paste. Once the paste had reached a liquid state, it was poured between two containers to achieve a foamy texture.  The cacao was then served, either warm by the Mayans or cool by the Aztecs, in clay goblets.

Cacao being poured back and forth to create a foam.

One of the most stark differences between modern chocolate and Mesoamerican cacao is the ritual and association surrounding its consumption. If you were to ask a modern a chocolate-eater about the occasions they consume chocolate, they might recall a casual snack, a fancy gift box, or a Valentine’s Day treat. Most modern chocolate ‘rituals’ usually have positive associations and its consumption is fairly unexceptional. In contrast, Mesoamerican societies viewed the consumption of cacao to be a semi-sacred event. In Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, Cameron McNeil noted that “In later Mesoamerican societies for which we have data on social alliances, cacao was a primary object of exchanges between social groups, marking betrothal, marriage, and children’s life cycle rituals. In the Codex Nuttall, scenes showing vessels containing a brown foamy beverage are found in contexts of marriage, betrothal, children’s life-cycle rituals, funerary, and ancestor veneration ceremonies.” (McNeil) The ritual surrounding Mesoamerican cacao can be paralleled to how wine might be held sacred in many modern religious ceremonies.  One can see how highly cacao was venerated by looking at its use in death rituals. When examining the Hunal and Magarita royal tombs, eleven of the sixty-three containers found tested positive for Theobromine, a chemical indicator of cacao. Aside from lack of sacred rituals associated with eating chocolate today, there is also another significant difference between cacao then and now; attainability. While in modern times anyone can walk into a candy store and buy a bar of chocolate for a reasonable price, the majority of Mesoamericans never had the chance to consume cacao. The True History of Chocolate states that “among the Aztecs and other Mesoamericans… the drinking of chocolate was confined to the elite, to the royal house, to the lords and nobility, to the long distance merchants, and to the warriors.” (Coe and Coe 95)

This video illustrates the evolving nature of cacao and chocolate. 

Modern chocolate and Mesoamerican cacao are undeniably different from each other. While they both are products of the cacao bean, the other ingredients, the preparation, and the cultural attitude surrounding Mesoamerican cacao drinks are far removed from today’s average chocolate bar.

Text Sources:

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

“HAAGEN-DAZS: MAYAN CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM.” Creativity Online, 7 June 2006, creativity-online.com/work/haagendazs-mayan-chocolate-ice-cream/6611.

McNeil, Cameron L. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao (Maya Studies). University Press of Florida, 2006. University Scholarship Press Online, florida.universitypressscholarship.com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/view/10.5744/florida/9780813029535.001.0001/upso-9780813029535.

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

“The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and the Aztecs.” Godiva Chocolates.co.uk, www.godivachocolates.co.uk/the-history-of-chocolate-mayans-aztecs.html.

“The History of Chocolate Part 2: European.” Godiva Chocolates.co.uk, www.godivachocolates.co.uk/the-history-of-chocolate-europe.html

Photo and Video sources, in order of appearance (starting with featured image):

“Two Mixtec Kings Drinking and Giving Teh Cacao Licour.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ans_21_06_2.jpg#/media/File:Ans_21_06_2.jpg.

rockerboydaniel. “Magnum Mayan Mystica.” YouTube, YouTube, 24 June 2008, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ltHkoisXNmg.

“HAAGEN-DAZS: MAYAN CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM.” Creativity Online, 7 June 2006, creativity-online.com/work/haagendazs-mayan-chocolate-ice-cream/6611.

“A Mexican Metate or Grinding Stone.” Wikipedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fotg_cocoa_d195_a_mexican_metate_or_grinding_stone.png.

“Mujer Vertiendo Chocolate – Codex Tudela.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Cocoa#/media/File:Mujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_Tudela.jpg.

TEDEducation. “The History of Chocolate – Deanna Pucciarelli.” YouTube, YouTube, 16 Mar. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibjUpk9Iagk


Chocolate in Mesoamerican and Western traditions: A Social and Ceremonial Treat

In our American culture, there is no sweet flavor that enjoys the popularity of chocolate. From its use in cakes to ice cream, the sweet and creamy nature of chocolate has become a massive cultural and entrepreneurial phenomenon that is central to our eating habits and socialization. However, the origins of chocolate date back to thousands of years in the Amazonian rainforest where the Cacao plant was first domesticated. Most people are accustomed to its sweet flavor and mildly roasted aftertaste, however, for the Maya and Aztecs, chocolate encompassed a variety of drinks with different flavors that were enjoyed by everyone from commoners to elite rulers like Aztec emperor Moctezuma, who was said to consume more than ten cups of chocolate a day (How Chocolate Works, 25:21). The perception around chocolate in pre-Columbian times included religious, social and medicinal elements that survive to this day in our modern times.

Our obsession with chocolate (Cacao) can be said to be quite extreme, however, for ancient Mesoamerican civilization it encompassed a much broader category of food and rituals. For the Aztecs and Maya, chocolate became central for their relationship with others and fulfilled a religious purpose within its mythology: “ […]the ethnohistorical sources from Central Mexico make clear that many types of chocolate drinks were enjoyed by elites of the Highlands. The Florentine Codex describes the rich variety of chocolate offered to Mexica Aztec rulers, including “green cacao-pods, honeyed chocolate, flowered chocolate, flavored with green vanilla, bright red chocolate, huitztecolli-flavored chocolate, flower-colored chocolate, black chocolate, white chocolate” (McNeil, 184). Chocolate, or its original fruit name Cacao, was treated not only as a comfort sweet drink as we perceive it in our society; they also attributed medicinal, aphrodisiac and even ceremonial purposes to the fruit itself which has a citrus-like flavor.

Initially, South American tribes created a variety of fermented drinks with the Cacao pulp or “chicha” which later evolved into including its bitter seeds or “almendras”. Such drinks became central for socialization and are still enjoyed by most adults in celebratory and everyday settings (depending on the drink). For example, non-alcoholic recipes: “ [they] are made by fermenting the cacao seeds, drying them, optionally toasting them, grinding them, and mixing them with water in a thick, bitter suspension” (McNeil, 140). This drink can be considered the equivalent of our current understanding of coffee; it is often described as refreshing, gives you energy and does not inebriate. The slightly roasted and bitter flavor of chocolate we are accustomed to came to be after years of experimentation with the fruit. Archeological evidence shows that the Maya applied roasting and drying techniques to peppers, squashes and achiote, and such practice was later applied to cacao seeds that eventually developed the roasted and bitter flavor of chocolate as we know it today. “[…] the Classic Maya took their chocolate very seriously and that it was a drink of pleasure as well as political and social importance” (McNeil, 201). Scientists were are able to find the alkaloids Theobromine and Feine which are found cacao products. Such presence in ancient vessels along Maya writings describing “Kakaw” made it possible to infer that Mesoamerican civilizations attributed significant importance to cacao-made drinks and even attributed aphrodisiac properties (Sophie & Michael D. Coe, 31). In addition, ceremonial varieties were also used by the Maya who even had a cacao deity. In her book, The New Taste of Chocolate, Maricel Presilla writes: “We know that chocolate colored with Achiote had the symbolic meaning of a sacrificial victim’s blood, the sacred fluid that was the fuel of the Maya ritual universe” (Presilla, 13). As cacao was sacredly mentioned in the creation story of the Popol Vuh, in which the cacao god ascends from the underworld, it was given sacred properties and therefore used in religious ceremonies.

Maya rise and Fall; Princeton Museum; Ancient Cultures; Maya; Mayan; ; Princeton Vase; Cacao

In modern western tradition, chocolate is socialized slightly different than its Mesoamerican counterparts: chocolate is treated as a comfort food (or a treat) of a rewarding nature without ceremonial purposes. As a result, aggressive marketing campaigns are developed in which chocolate becomes a commodity to show affection or endearment such as Valentine’s Day. In this way, chocolate still plays a role in developing a highly social interaction between members of such societies around the food. In the western world, cacao seeds are usually roasted, milk is added, and sweetened with sugar and the byproduct is not alcoholic. Some Europeans chocolate producers like the Belgian company Godiva Chocolatier make high profits by marketing all varieties of chocolate products (from milk and dark chocolate bars to smoothies and seasonal strawberries that are covered in melted chocolate). Sweet chocolate has become an accessible delicacy that is enjoyed by most members of our society and shows no sigs of slowing down. The cacao plant has become so influential in our society that it has been adapted all over the world to suit each market’s needs. For example, in Mexico, some varieties of spicy chocolate still exist, and in South America, some varieties of sweet chocolate make use of the pulp to add some flavor.

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 Coe, Sophie D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

“Princeton Vase, from Nakbe Region.” Princeton Vase, from Nakbe Region.

 The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and Aztecs, http://www.godivachocolates.co.uk/the-history-of-chocolate-mayans-aztecs.html.

Marshall Brain & Shanna Freeman “How Chocolate Works” 1 April 2000.
HowStuffWorks.com. <https://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/edible-innovations/chocolate.htm&gt; 8 March

McNeil, Cameron L. Chocolate in Mesoamerica : a Cultural History of Cacao. University Press of Florida, 2006. Print.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate : a Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. 1st rev. ed., Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.


The Narration on the Molinillo: What it is and why it’s important

When taking a look back at the history of chocolate and chocolate drinks, many different tools were, and still are, relevant to its production and consumption. At the heart of the traditional Mesoamerican method of preparing chocolate drinks and frothing drinks stands the molinillo. Dating back to the 16th century, this tool was

Traditional-style molinillo

used to prepare and create chocolate drinks in traditional Mesoamerican life (Martin, Chocolate Expansion). An example of a traditional Mesoamerican molinillo is shown to the right. As history displays, the consumption and preparation of cho-

colate changed as years went on. Hybridization from Mexico to Europe and beyond brought about a new era for chocolate consumption. One thing that remained consistent, though, was the use of this tool in the actual process of making and frothing the chocolate drinks.

Historically, the molinillo has evolved overtime, as one would certainly expect. It was already used for frothing in Mesoamerica and had existed there for quite some time before eventually being adopted by the Europeans; this adaptation will be discussed more below. In today’s world, we see “modernized versions” of the molinillo in frothing machines and metal and automated whisks. Pictured below are examples of the “modern molinillo”. The idea behind it is that these items are used to achieve the same results that the molinillo did for the Mesoamericans and Europeans during the drink-making process (i.e. creating the froth).

Taking a look at the original molinillo is a good place to start when thinking about its history. The physical aspects of the object are key to its use. Originally made of wood, the molinillo featured a long handle with a ball-like attachment on one end. Traditional molinillos, like the one shown below, were quite simple in design and creativeness. Once adopted by the Europeans, they became much more colorful, detailed, and varied in shape and size. Click here to see an example of a molinillo that can be purchased today.

three molinillos
Simple examples of modern molinillos

The Mayans and Aztecs consumed cacao in the form of cold chocolate drinks that were prepared using items such as corn and vanilla (Martin, Mesoamerica and the Food of the Gods). The Mayans and Aztecs rarely added any sweetener to their chocolate drinks (Garthwaite, “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate”). Once adopted by the Europeans, these chocolate drinks became sweet through the addition of milk and other sweeteners such as sugar. The purpose of adding such ingredients was to counteract what the Europeans saw as “the bitter taste of chocolate” (Mintz). Adding these sweeteners made the consumption of chocolate drinks very popular in European countries and the appeal to new consumers was high (Mintz).

To add to the idea of hybridization, the molinillo in itself is a very accurate presentation of the many things that Europeans adopted many years back. Over time, chocolate drinks evolved into a form of consumption by those who were privileged with money and considered high class; basically, if you were able to consume chocolate drinks, it was because you were wealthy (Martin, Chocolate Expansion). Seen below is an example of a chocolate house, a traditional European gathering place for consumption of chocolate drinks. The Europeans took aspects of chocolate drink-making and the tools used for this process and changed it to their liking so they could benefit from it accordingly. The tale is similar to any other hybridization and adaption of “colonial ideas” to modern day.

European Chocolate House

Today, we continue to use a modernized form of the molinillo. The tools and machines used to froth milk and drinks of the like are just as important to the creation process as the molinillo was so many years ago. The process itself is, of course, different as technology continues to evolve. However, the act of actually frothing the beverage has stayed the same and that consistency has always been present. The molinillo itself is still used in Mexico and around the world – proving that the innovation and use of the instrument has evolved but has also stayed just as essential to the chocolate drink-making process.

When we study artifacts like the molinillo, we can see how hybridization was, and still is, such a relevant process today. Understanding that this tool is important to the history of chocolate is essential to really grasping how chocolate has evolved from Mesoamerican culture to present day. Physically, the molinillo represented and still continues to represent a very important a part of that Mesoamerican culture that evolved to our present day society. It wasn’t just used as a simple tool for drink-making; it was a piece of art that had a purpose and meaning to the Mayans and Aztecs. If I had to draw my own conclusions on the matter, I would say that without the molinillo evolving from what it was in Mesoamerican culture to what it is today in the world that we live in, the frothing process that we are currently familiar with could certainly be different. The evolving of the chocolate drink itself could also be different.

Because the molinillo is still used commonly  throughout Mexico and even around the world, we have evidence that this object has gone through years of innovation and the idea of “crossing cultural borders”. When we look into artifacts like the molinillo, and others traditionally used by the Mesoamericans, we get great insight into hybridization and how it still has an influence today.

Works Cited

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

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

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate Expansion”. Harvard University, AAAS E-119. Cambridge, MA. Lecture.

Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the Food of the Gods”. Harvard University, AAAS E-119. Cambridge, MA. Lecture.

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

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



The Spread of Cacao and Cultural Appropriation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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?


Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 9.09.03 PM

(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.