Tag Archives: mesoamerica

The Mancerina and Chocolate Consumption in 17th-Century Spain

In 1544, Kekchi Maya nobles traveled to Spain and presented Prince Philip with a variety of gifts from Mesoamerica (Coe, 1996). Among these gifts were quetzal feathers, chillis, maize, and chocolate. Scholars believe this interaction between Kekchi and Spanish nobility is the first example of chocolate in Europe (Coe, 1996). Following this exchange, Spain began importing cacao from Mesoamerica. By 1600, the Spanish royal court was regularly consuming chocolate in the form of a hot beverage (Coe, 1996). The introduction of chocolate to Europe spurred the development of a unique, European culture of chocolate production and consumption. This culture included the invention of special materials used to consume chocolate, including the Spanish mancerina (Coe, 1996).

A mancerina is a small plate with a raised ring in the center. The raised ring holds a small chocolate-filled cup in place and prevents it from sliding off of the plate (Moore, 2003). The mancerina was developed to prevent Spanish nobles from spilling chocolate beverages on themselves. In the 17th century, chocolate in Spain was associated with royalty and indulgence. Wealthy, high-ranking members of society consumed the exotic and decadent drink at parties, often while dancing (Coe, 1996). The mancerina thus allowed people to consume their beverage while they danced, without fear of spilling it. The mancerina, therefore, was integral to the culture of chocolate consumption in Spain, marked by nobility and excess.

Although the mancerina is a symbol of 17th-century Spanish chocolate consumption, it was not invented in Spain. Rather, it was invented by Don Pedro Alvarez de Toledo, the Marquis of Mancera, in Peru (Coe, 1996). Don Alvarez was serving as the Spanish Viceroy of Peru when he witnessed a woman at a royal gathering spill chocolate on herself (Coe, 1996). As a result, he commissioned a silversmith in Lima to craft a saucer with a raised center capable of balancing a cup to prevent spills: the mancerina (Coe, 1996). The mancerina was eventually brought to Europe and crafted using porcelain instead of silver (Coe, 1996).

Likewise, despite the mancerina’s association with Spanish nobility and chocolate consumption, the cup that the mancerina holds, called a jicara, is modeled off of pre-Columbian drinking vessels (Moore, 2003). The design of the jicara is based off of bowl-like cups made of gourds used in Mesoamerica before the Spanish arrival (Moore, 2003). As such, the mancerina, central to Spanish chocolate consumption culture, was heavily influenced by pre-Columbian Mesoamerican traditions and inventions.  

The invention of the mancerina reinforced chocolate’s association with royalty and indulgence in Spain. Not only was the mancerina used to serve chocolate, a beverage that was considered exotic and luxurious, but the mancerina itself was made of porcelain, another exotic and luxurious material. Additionally, it was invented in order to facilitate the consumption of chocolate at royal parties. “The mancerina lent a certain protocol to the act of taking chocolate and heightened the status of those who could afford the product and all of its accoutrements” (Forrest and Najjaj, 2007). In addition to symbolizing the lavishness of chocolate, the mancerina was itself a lavish item that contributed to the indulgent culture of chocolate consumption in 17th-century Spain.

Furthermore, the invention of materials like the mancerina contributed to the Europeanization of chocolate and the development of a culture of chocolate consumption marked by wealth, indulgence, and colonial power. The mancerina was created to accommodate a mode of chocolate consumption that Europeans considered unique from and superior to chocolate consumption in Mesoamerica (Forrest and Najjaj, 2007). In order to remake chocolate in their own image, Europeans forwent the chillis and maize that indigenous people often added to their chocolate beverages, and instead added sugar, bread, and other materials they considered their own. In the same way, Europeans developed their own drinking vessels, like the mancerina, in order to enjoy chocolate in a uniquely European way. The appropriation of chocolate and modes of chocolate consumption in Europe represented feelings of “nationalism and cultural superiority” (Forrest and Najjaj, 2007). The mancerina served to reinforce the notion that chocolate belonged to Europe. In addition to the invention of new chocolate beverage recipes, the development of materials like the mancerina, designed specifically for chocolate consumption in Europe, contributed to the appropriation of chocolate and the development of a European culture of chocolate consumption denoted by wealth, indulgence, and colonial power.

Following the introduction of chocolate to Europe by Kekchi Maya nobles in 1544, a culture of chocolate consumption developed in Spain. Chocolate came to be identified with royalty, decadence, and power. Central to the development of this culture was the invention of materials designed to accommodate modes of chocolate consumption specific to royal European society. One such material was the mancerina, a porcelain saucer designed to securely balance a chocolate-filled cup, which exemplified and contributed to the lavish culture surrounding chocolate in 17th-century Spain.

A drawing of 17th-century Spanish nobles sipping chocolate from mancerinas (Coe, 1996).

A porcelain mancerina, crafted sometime between 1735 and 1760 (Torrecid).

A porcelain mancerina, crafted sometime between 1770 and 1798, designed to look like a dove (Torrecid).


“Ceramic Art Collection.” Torrecid, http://www.torrecid.com/museum/index.php/ceramic-art-collection/.

Coe, Sophie D, and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Forrest, Beth Marie, and April L Najjaj. “Is Sipping Sin Breaking Fast? The Catholic Chocolate Controversy and the Changing World of Early Modern Spain.” Food and Foodways: Chocolate: Case Studies in History and Culture, vol. 15, no. 1-2, 2007, pp. 31–52.

Moore, Janet H. “Culture and Thought—Arts: Peking on the Rio Grande—An Art Form that Mixes Cranes, Cacti and Cultures.” Asian Wall Street Journal, Feb 07, 2003, ProQuest, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/315498543?accountid=11311.

European Appropriation of Chocolate Recipes and Presentation

Today, chocolate is often seen as a frivolous treat to enjoy in passing throughout the day. At times, it is thought of as a luxury good, marketed to have been crafted by a world class chocolatier from some general European country. Historically though, as we have discussed in lecture, ancient Mesoamericans not only utilized cacao as a food and beverage, but it also acted as an important means of currency in many societies and held spiritual and religious significance. It was such a well-rounded and well-integrated part of life. In this blog post, I will expand on how chocolate recipes were observed by Europeans only to be appropriated and used as a means to claim European superiority over Mesoamerican people.

To begin, ancient Mesoamerican civilizations used cacao as an important and integrative part of their daily lives. In saying this, it is important to not generalize the “Mesoamerica” as one people. Certain themes do permeate different civilizations in modern day North and Central America to a degree, but that is not to treat Mesoamerica as one large group. That being said, we can look to sources to give us a picture of how Mesoamerican civilizations used cacao and chocolate.

Map of Mesoamerica, different civilizations were spread geographically and naturally differed culturally in treatment and preparation of cacao and chocolate

According to foodtimeline.org, ancient Mayan and Aztecs “consumed it, in beverage form, for religious ceremonies and medicinal purposes. Cocoa beans were sometimes used as money” (Olver n.pag.). One thing that was more universal in Mesoamerica was the addition of chili to chocolate drink, but due to the varying degrees of flavors and spiciness of these chilis that the preparation and tastes of these recipes varied greatly regionally (Olver n.pag.). This is a great example of a theme that applies to Mesoamerica at large, the adding of chili to chocolate recipes, but how this surface level application of a theme to the region is far too oversimplified.

Ancient Olmec vessels with traces of cacao, dating back to as far as 1,800 BCE (Concise n.pag.)

Also similar throughout Mesoamerica, particularly between the Maya and the Aztec was the method of preparing the frothy, foamy chocolate beverage. An anonymous Spanish conqueror said to be among the ranks of Hernan Cortez described the process of “cacao are ground and made into powder, and other small seeds are ground, and this powder is put into certain basins with a point… and then they put water on it and mix it with a spoon. And after having mixed it very well, they change it from one basin to another, so that a foam is raised which they put in a vessel made for the purpose” (Olver n.pag.). This serves as another example of a broad preparation theme that does differ between groups. While many groups consumed this beverage hot, it has been shown that the Maya of Yucatan drank this beverage cold (Olver n.pag.). This description is also important as it highlights a period before the European adoption of chocolate preparation from ancient Mesoamerican groups. At this point, all that is mentioned as a stirring device is a wooden or silver spoon, not the Spanish swizzle stick so often associated with this method of preparation (Olver n.pag.). This additional comment in this source led me as a student to become intrigued about what parts of preparation Europeans went on to adopt, what they authentically carried forward, or what preparation techniques they modified over time.

Spanish molinillo, this is from the 18th century, used probably by middle class Europeans to emulate practices of high class counterparts (Molinillo n.pag.)

The introduction of the swizzle stick, or molinillo, by Spaniards was only one part of the appropriation of chocolate to become suitable for Spanish royalty. We know that royal Spaniards rejected the Mesoamerican styles of serving chocolate, sipping it from a gourd or clay pot, and looked to alternatives. ““The solution came from overseas, in the form of the mancerina, which became a standard part of the Spanish chocolate service by the mid-17th century … Marques de Mancera … horrified at seeing one of the ladies present at a vice regal reception accidentally spill a jícara of chocolate on her dress…had a Lima silversmith make a plate or saucer with a collar like ring in the middle, into which a small cup would sit without being able to slip” (Coe 271). This is one way in which the actual Mesoamerican origins and cultural importance of cacao was veiled in order to appropriate it to European society. A “proper” silverware had to be invented to facilitate the neglect of chocolates Mesoamerican origin so that way Spanish royalty could enjoy it while not associating themselves with those that they conquered.

On top of this appropriated presentation of chocolate in royal circles, the recipes of chocolate preparation were then modified by Europeans. The way they discussed Mesoamerican styles of preparation and almost horrifying to read: “The Spanish, more industrious than the Savages, procured to correct the bad flavor of this liquor, adding to this cacao paste different fragrances of the East and many spices of this country [Spain]” (Norton 1). This 18th century account of the modification of chocolate recipes describes the Mesoamericans as “savages” and deems them inferior while hoisting up Spanish people as superior because they modified chocolate to their tastes.

From this history, we see that the adoption of chocolate from Mesoamerica to Europe was not a process of respect and cultural exchange but instead was closer to theft, appropriation, and neglect of Mesoamerican people. Although extracting cacao, chocolate recipes, and inspiration for preparation, they took their modifications of chocolate and its rituals as superior and used it as yet another tool to claim superiority over the indigenous people of the Americas.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate with 99 Illustrations, 14 in Colour. Thames & Hudson, 2013.

“A CONCISE HISTORY OF CHOCOLATE.” c-Spot, http://www.c-spot.com/atlas/historical-timeline/.

“Map of Mesoamerica – Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.” FAMSI, http://www.famsi.org/maps/.

“Molinillo or Chocolate Whisk.” National Museum of American History, americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1460190.

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review, vol. 111, no. 3, 2006, pp. 660–691., doi:10.1086/ahr.111.3.660.

Olver, Lynne. “Food Timeline FAQs: Aztec, Maya, & Inca Foods and Recipes.” The Food Timeline–Aztec, Maya & Inca Foods, http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodmaya.html#aztec.

Chocolate-Coated Sacrifices: A History of Cacao and Blood in Mesoamerica

His feet stomped on the ground to the rhythm of the beating drums. Jewels of the great god Quetzalcoatl swung about his body, glinting in the sun as he swayed. His smile slowly slipped off his face as his eyes fell upon the obsidian knife meant to carve out his heart the very next day. The temple elders brought a gourd to his lips, and he obliged (Coe and Coe).

This sacrificial ritual took place annually in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. A slave, chosen to represent Quetzalcoatl, would perform a sacrificial dance on the eve of his sacrifice. If he did not dance joyously, the temple elders would prepare a potion of human blood washed off of sacrificial knives mixed with chocolate in order to make the slave forget about his impending sacrifice and continue to dance cheerfully (Coe and Coe). 

From Mesoamerican archaeological records, chocolate is typically known for its economic role as currency or social restriction as a beverage exclusive to the upper class (Prufer and Hurst). So how did its association with human sacrifices originate? In tracing back through Mesoamerican traditions incorporating cacao and blood, it can be theorized that such rituals evolved from beliefs derived from the Olmecs thousands of years before.

Sacrificial Symbolism

During the Aztec slave’s sacrifice, his heart would be extracted and presented to the gods. Chocolate was likely used in the sacrificial ritual due to cacao pods’ symbolism of the human heart torn out in sacrifice (Coe and Coe). Evidence of this is recorded in the Song to Otontecuhtli, in which the verse cuauhinochitla, cacahuatla associates a cacao pod with the heart of a sacrificial victim (Mazariegos). Although this symbolism may be due to the vague similarities between the shapes of human hearts and cacao pods, historian Eric Thompson argues that the association is more likely because “both were the repositories of precious liquids—blood and chocolate” (qtd. in Coe and Coe 85). 

This explanation concurs with the Aztecs’ association of cacao as a symbol of the heart and blood. Their priests, poets, and philosophers used yollotl, eztli, or “heart, blood,” as a figure of speech referring to chocolate. Although Spanish informants observing the Aztecs believed the phrase to represent how precious cacao was (Coe and Coe), it is likely that the metaphor had more literal symbolism.

The Codex Féjévary-Mayer

The Codex Féjévary-Mayer
Photo credit: FAMSI

The Codex Féjévary-Mayer, an Aztec manuscript depicting the tonalpohualli, their 260-day calendar (“Fejérváry-Mayer Codex”), serves as further archaeological evidence of the association between cacao and blood. The painting above portrays a god surrounded by four T-shaped trees–the 4 World Trees of cardinal directions (Martin).

Tree of the South
Photo credit: Martin

Taking a closer look, the tree pointing downwards may seem to have ritually stained knives hanging off of it. In actuality, this depicts a cacao tree (Martin). The cacao tree represents the Tree of the South, which is associated with the Land of the Dead, the color red, and blood (Coe and Coe). This codex provides an artistic record of cacao’s association with both death and blood.

Symbolism Universality

The Madrid Codex
Photo Credit: Blissful Cacao

The association between cacao and blood was not exclusive to the Aztecs–rather, it was universal throughout Mesoamerica. For example, the Madrid Codex illustrates four Mayan gods piercing their earlobes and showering cacao pods with their own blood. This is evidence for how the Mayans, who existed over 3000 years before the Aztecs, also equated liquid chocolate with blood, although there is no record that the Mayans used cacao in human sacrificial rituals. Because the symbolism of cacao as blood is so strong, surviving through thousands of years and multiple civilizations, it presumably originated from the robust beliefs of an ancestral culture (Seawright).

Historic Origins

The most likely origin of the association between cacao and blood may be traced to the Olmecs. The Olmec civilization, which thrived from 1500 BCE – 400 BCE, is thought to be a possible ancestor of the Mayans (Martin). They were one of the first powerful civilizations to use chocolate, as evidenced by both chemical and linguistic analysis. With their immense prominence, the Olmec were able to spread the use of chocolate to emerging cultures around Mesoamerica (Coe and Coe). 

Like the Mayans and Aztecs, the Olmecs placed great ritual significance on chocolate. Although we have no decipherable written record, cacao has been found amongst burial remains of sacrificial victims (Powis), suggesting that the Olmecs associated cacao with death and sacrifice. It is likely that this association, as well as other cultural, religious, and social practices, were spread alongside the diffusion of chocolate itself (Seawright).

Thus, it is reasonable to attribute the origins of the use of chocolate in human sacrifices to the spread of Olmec culture. As the Olmecs’ beliefs spread alongside the use of chocolate, cacao’s association with sacrifice and death remained strong. As this association was adopted by different civilizations, like the Mayans and the Aztecs, it was modified to fit their own cultural practices. Consequently, the Aztecs integrated chocolate into their rituals of human sacrifice.

Works Cited

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

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

Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, 05 Feb 2020, Harvard University, Lecture.

Mazariegos, Oswaldo Chinchilla. “Human Sacrifice And Divine Nourishment In Mesoamerica: The Iconography Of Cacao On The Pacific Coast Of Guatemala.” Ancient Mesoamerica, vol. 27, no. 2, 2016, pp. 361–375., doi:10.1017/s0956536116000201.

Powis, T. G., et al. “Cacao Use and the San Lorenzo Olmec.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 108, no. 21, Sept. 2011, pp. 8595–8600., doi:10.1073/pnas.1100620108.

Prufer, K. M., and W. J. Hurst. “Chocolate in the Underworld Space of Death: Cacao Seeds from an Early Classic Mortuary Cave.” Ethnohistory, vol. 54, no. 2, Jan. 2007, pp. 273–301., doi:10.1215/00141801-2006-063.

Seawright, Caroline. “ARC2AZT Essay: Life, Death and Chocolate in Mesoamerica: The Aztecs and the Maya; Where Did the Ritual Use of Cacao Originate?” N.p., 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

Chocolate Estranged; Mesoamerica and Mars, Inc.


Being allergic to chocolate is more socially isolating than one would immediately assume. So many birthday cake slices go uneaten, Valentine’s Day candies shamefully chucked into the trashcan when no one is looking, so much time spent wistfully staring at the chocolate-lined shelves of Walgreens and CVS check-out line. Being excluded from such a significant aspect of consumption and food culture affects one’s life in small, unexpected, and sometimes frustrating ways, such as discovering your chocolate allergy at a birthday party and going home with hives. I was four when that happened. That was not, however, the last time I ate chocolate. I have braved the storm of hives induced by my allergies more than a few times simply because I really wanted to partake in the experience of eating chocolate and trying out different brands, such as Twix or Mars Bars. And that is the power of marketing. The question of how European companies, such as Cadbury, Lindt, and Hershey, became the guiding hand in framing chocolate as a product in the west involves historical questions of ownership, appropriation, and colonization. By controlling the historical narrative of chocolate and redefining food culture, the mass-marketing practices of industrial-era European companies continue to influence how chocolate is perceived and consumed today. 

History of Cocoa

Cacao trees produce pods, and those pods contain small almond-shaped seeds that go on to be processed into what we recognize as chocolate. Cacao trees are native to the Amazon basin and they were first domesticated and commodified by Central American natives, namely the Mayans and Aztecs as early as 900 AD. In Mesoamerican culture, chocolate was the frothy beverage of the gods, embodying strength, divinity, and denoting wealth. In other words, if you were not a priest, an elite, or a warrior, you were not getting your hands on any sacred “xocolatl”, one of the many words for chocolate in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs (Coe and Coe 96). The seeds encased in cacao pods were not only the drink of the gods and their few human favorites, they also functioned as currency and demarcated sites of intense geopolitical warfare in the competition for control over fertile cacao-producing lands, such as the Soconusco in present-day Mexico, amongst native Mesoamerican populations (Coe and Coe 97). Whether obtained through means of trading, conflict, or planting, cacao seeds inevitably went into the stockpile of royals and the elite or the production of chocolate.

How Chocolate is Made

Mesoamerican xocolatl— the original chocolate– was produced through a lengthy process that transformed harvested cacao pods into a foamy drink. Cacao seeds were dried, roasted, removed from their shells, and ground into a paste (Coe and 25). A metate stone, a tool that functions as a giant mortar and pestle, was used to grind the beans into a paste. The resulting bitter-tasting paste, which looked like melted chocolate, was often flavored with spicy chili peppers, vanilla, and other natural flavors found in the region (Coe and Coe 90). The chocolate paste resulting from grinding cacao beans on the metate stone, however, was not the end goal. Drinkable chocolate, or xocolatl, meaning ”bitter water” in Mayan, was what many Mesoamerican natives made.

A video detailing the chocolate-making process used by Mayans and other Mesoamericans

Making xocolatl involved the additional step of pouring a mixture of cacao bean paste and water back and forth between two jars to produce the chocolatey foam that was so prized by the Maya, Aztecs, and other Mesoamerican groups. Little has changed in the process of chocolate-making since 900 AD, but the face of chocolate was forever changed by colonization. 

Takalik Abaj metate 1.jpg
Traditional metate stone used to grind cacao beans into paste by Mesoamericans

Chocolate Colonized

When European colonization began in Central and South America in the 1500s, everything was swept up into the current of goods being stolen and extracted from the New World and sold in Europe. Under this economic climate, indigenous Mesoamericans were enslaved and the artifacts of their world and culture erased and rewritten. A pillar in the architecture of European colonialism was the demonization of indigenous identity and customs. Oftentimes, such demonization was achieved by positioning indigeneity as monstrous and anti-Christian. Thus, it is unsurprising that 16th-century conquistadors, colonists, and priests opposed chocolate in the Spanish colonies of Central and South America. Voyager Girolmo Benzoni, for example, claimed that chocolate “seemed more a drink for pigs” (Coe and Coe 109). Such demonization of Mesoamerican cultures was common throughout European colonial rule and presence in the region. Whether classified as a food, drink, or medicine, the xocolatl brought to Europe by conquistadors quickly gained popularity throughout the continent, giving way to a new industry. Despite their enthusiastic conquest of foreign lands and populations, the European attitude towards the products brought from these regions was ironically cautious and skeptical. 

Many European elites who were among the first to receive items from the New World, scrutinized those very goods because of their proximity to indigeneity. European attitudes towards the New World goods “supplanting more familiar items” were not immediately welcoming despite the excitement surrounding their novelty (Mintz 151). Pseudoscientific theories cautioning against chocolate were widespread. For instance, Doctor Giovanni Batista Felici, physician to the Tuscan court, held that chocolate caused “palpitations, thickened blood, lack of appetite, and so on” (Coe and Coe 209). Convincing Europe’s elite to embrace cacao as a delicacy and, later, a staple and medical phenomenon was key to establishing chocolate as an industry in Europe. Spanish colonists’ usage of quick-dissolving tablets to make instant hot chocolate “mixed with spices” in the 1600s, for example, reveals the early chocolate craze that swept Europe’s colonial elite and nobles (Coe and Coe 184). The chocolate-drinking craze which later began to “spread through all classes” of Baroque Europe further demonstrates how the delicacy of the aristocracy became a socioeconomic phenomenon that crossed class lines (Coe and Coe 181). Ultimately, the technological advances and increased production rates of the Industrial era allowed chocolate to become a household staple. In other words, the repackaging of Mesoamerican cacao into a sweet, everyday dessert and medicinal commodity amongst the elite helped set the stage for an expanded market that would eventually reach the general public– the larger and more reliable engine of industry.

How Chocolate was Changed by European Enterprise

The startups of the Industrial period are the tycoons of today, and their marketing influence is historically rooted in the industrial revolution and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. While chocolate had been primarily consumed as a beverage or dessert for the elite, the 1800s industrial boom saw chocolate become accessible to the general public (Coe and Coe 211). Chocolate-making companies, such as Cadbury, Lindt, and Hershey, were launched during the industrial revolution of the 1800s. Continuing the precedents set by Europe’s elite consumers, such as Cosimo III de Medici, these companies departed from the original Mesoamerican chocolate recipes (Coe and Coe 145). Chili peppers were replaced with sugar, vanilla replaced with milk and cream (Coe and Coe 115). Joël Glenn Brenner’s observation notes the westernization of chocolate-making in “The Emperors of Chocolate”:

“Each process produced it’s own unique chocolate flavor, and over time, these differences translated into distinct national tastes. The British, for example, prefer their milk chocolate very sweet and caramel-like, while Americans identify with the harsher, grittier flavor popularized by Hershey. German chocolate generally ranks as the richest because of it’s traditionally high fat content, while Italian chocolate is drier, more bittersweet. Swiss chocolate, considered the finest by connoisseurs, is characterized by a strong, aromatic, almost perfumey flavor and the smoothest, silkiest texture.” (Brenner)

Industrial era companies, such as Nestle, created products that contained little to no actual cacao. Milk Chocolate, a mixture of powdered milk and cacao butter that uses little to no actual cacao, and other similarly faux chocolate products, like nougat, relied more on sweetness and chocolate coating than authentic cacao (Coe and Coe 250). Products from the Western Hemisphere, like cacao and sugar, flowed into Europe through Trans-Atlantic colonialism while the later Industrial Revolution allowed for production on a massive scale. This allowed for a fusion of Mesoamerican cacao with imported goods from the New World brought from Europe (Mintz 151).

Chocolate Moves to the Factory

Industrial-era companies focused heavily on marketing chocolate which had previously been reserved for the elite to the general public– “everything had to be faster, cheaper, bigger, better” (Brenner 8). Milton Hershey, for instance, constructed a town-sized complex to house and facilitate workers in his chocolate factory (D’Antonio 108). This was a sharp contrast to the way chocolate was hoarded in royal courts, like that of Cosimo III, in the seventeenth-century. Given the new technology of the era, the philosophy of chocolate companies transitioned to massive operation and marketing.

Image result for town hershey factory town
The original Hershey factory built in 1894, photographed in 1976

The history of chocolate was rewritten with a new origin story that began in Europe, demonstrated by the marketing campaign of companies, like Rowntree which owned one of the largest newspapers in London and used full-page advertisements and billboards to promote their chocolate (Brenner 65). Such marketing campaigns all but erased the Mesoamerican roots of cacao and chocolate consumption by westernizing chocolate’s history and redefining the good as quintessentially European in post-colonial consumer and popular culture. The development of factories allowed for shortened production time and increased volume. Further, the expansion of colonial plantation economies into West Africa and other regions supplied the factory economy developing in Europe. By controlling the historical narrative of chocolate, and redefining food culture, the mass-marketing practices of industrial-era European companies made chocolate a western good. Bolstered by a history of Trans-Atlantic slavery and colonialism, the Industrial Revolution allowed for powerful marketing campaigns that are largely the reason why companies, like Mars, Hershey, Lindt, and others, are among the most popular chocolate-makers today.

Works Cited

Brenner, Joel Glenn. “Chapter Five: To the Milky Way and Beyond.” The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars, Broadway Books, 2000, pp. 49–69.

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

D’Antonio, M. (2006). Hershey. New York, NY. (pp. 121).

File:Hershey Factory.jpg. (2016, November 29). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 20:19, March 25, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Hershey_Factory.jpg&oldid=223766892.

File:Takalik Abaj metate 1.jpg. (2019, March 20). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 20:20, March 25, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Takalik_Abaj_metate_1.jpg&oldid=343320395.

Khan, Gulnaz. “Watch the Ancient Art of Chocolate-Making.” National Geographic, September 11, 2017. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/north-america/guatemala/anitgua-maya-chocolate-making/
Mintz, S. W. (1985). Sweetness and power: the place of sugar in modern history. New York.

Cacao Currency

Currency is the most influential object or idea to ever grace humanity. Wars have been fought, people have been killed, and important decisions have been made all because of money. Whether we realize it or not, money impacts our everyday life, and a lot of the decisions we make are based upon money or the potential to acquire more. The concept of currency hasn’t really changed throughout history, but the medium in which we exchange has. Back in the time of Mesoamerica money quite literally grew on trees, instead of the paper currency we use today, Mesoamericans used cacao beans as currency. Using cacao beans as currency really signified just how important cacao was to the Mesoamericans, and was also an excellent medium of currency for them

Mesoamericans trading cacao beans (Cartwright)

Cacao was a staple for mesoamerican life and was used daily. At the time of the early Mayan’s, cacao beans weren’t exactly used how they are today, instead they were still bitter since the Mayan’s didn’t have the best roasting techniques, but still,  recipes consisted of an abundance of cacao. As time went on though, cacao gained much more of a cultural significance. Cacao became a sign of prestige, gained social importance, used during religious rituals and social gatherings, and much more. And even to this day, some Mayans and Spaniard grow chocolate as a cultural practice or  as a family tradition. (Garthwaite) 

Mayan marriage ceremony based around cacao (Mexicolore)  

Cacao had been thought of by the Mayan’s as a “Food of the gods” and that it was found in the mountains by the gods and passed down to the humans after creation. In the early stages of chocolate, liquid chocolate drinks were only consumed by the elite and rich, and wasn’t like how it is today. Instead, chocolate drinks were spicy and sultry, as they were also mixed with an arrangement of spices (Jean). Other uses of cacao included medicinal uses. With a major ingredient in cacao being caffeine, the mayans used this in many different ways, soldiers would even consume cacao before battle to get more energy. 

All of these factors contributed to the importance of cacao to the Mayans, making it an even better option of currency. Because of the already high cultural significance, it was an easy decision to add even more significance by also making it a currency. 

The interesting part of cacao to me is how it was used as currency. Some may think it to be crazy how something you could grow in your backyard could be used as currency, but for the Aztecs and Mayans, it proved to be a pretty effective system. To be a good currency, there are three big factors: durability, convenience, and distinctiveness. Cacao beans embody all three of these characteristics, and paired with their already highly touted nature, they made for the perfect currency. Cacao beans are relatively small, easy to carry, have a smoothly rounded shape, and are distinguishable from other common beans (Sampek). In order to be used as currency, the object needs to be relatively rare or precious in order for it to be desirable and of want (Maré), which characterizes cacao beans perfectly. Keep in mind, Cacao serves a function moreso as a means of trade rather than a standard value of money.

How a Cacao bean looks and its uses (Lecture slide) 

Although this may have seemed like you could have infinite money by planting an infinite amount of trees, that notion was wrong. In fact, Cacao needs to be grown under the right circumstances in order to grow successfully. Cacao trees are actually pretty picky in that they need the right amount of shade, water, and just the right soil in order to sustain life. And even under all of these conditions, it takes several years until the tree even begins to produce the cacao, which means a lot of labor has to be put in before you can begin to even see any earnings. (Sampek)  

There were some flaws with cacao. Like modern day money, cacao was sometimes counterfeited. People would counterfeit cacao by emptying out the inside contents of the bean, then fill it up with mud to the appropriate weight (Maré). But with some disadvantages came many advantages, and cacao doubled as a currency as well as a staple in mesoamerican culture and cuisine. 

Cacao played many roles in mesoamerican life from food, to medicine, being a social icon, to currency. No matter how you want to look at it, cacao defined mesoamerica and arguably was the biggest contributing factor to the culture back then. The use of cacao as currency showed just how significant it was in mesoamerican life, and also proved to be a great medium of exchange. 

Works Cited 

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

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

Sampek , Kathryn. “Cacao Money.” Cacao Money, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/cacao-money.

Cartwright , Mark. “Chocolate in Mesoamerica.” Brewminate, 18 Sept. 2019, brewminate.com/chocolate-in-mesoamerica/.


When I asked a large internet population for words they associated with chocolate, they delivered a slew of responses: sweet, dark, craving, decadent, happiness, disgusting. Despite over 75 replies, only one included the mention of currency or money. 

Instagram responses to the question “what is a word you associate with chocolate?”

However, for hundreds of years currency was one of the primary uses for cacao beans, the staple from which chocolate is made. From trading cacao for farm animals, services, and street food to representing vast sums of wealth held by those in power, cacao beans were the primary medium of exchange in Mesoamerica—a system that prevailed for centuries after the first European colonizers moved to the Americas. While we certainly don’t use cacao beans directly as money anymore, this lesser-known use of cacao has persisted in society for centuries after the last cacao bean was used as coinage. Indeed, when we broaden our definition of currency, the monetary value of chocolate endures throughout the history of cacao in the post-Columbian world.

In ancient Mesoamerica, cacao held a place of utmost honor. In Aztec and Mayan societies, it had three main uses: as a drink, as a religious symbol, and as currency. In this essay, we will be focusing primarily on its use as a currency. As Sophie and Michael Coe state in their book, The True History of Chocolate, “Cacao beans were employed as ready cash and to buy small items used in housekeeping” (Coe & Coe, 59).

These beans were, literally, used as coins in a definite system of money. 

So ingrained was the use of cacao beans as money, that there were people within these societies who became experts at making counterfeit cacao beans. Overall, this was a complex and well-defined system of currency using cacao beans, rather than metal, as legal tender. It is, in all regards, the first documented case of cacao as currency. 

Before analyzing the use of cacao as currency in the modern world, we must also define exactly what currency is. According to Merriam Webster dictionary, currency is “something (such as coins, treasury notes, and banknotes) that is in circulation as a medium of exchange.” The use of cacao beans in Aztec and Mayan society fits this definition concretely. People used beans as coinage, and for each bean, there was a specific value attached. But in order to investigate the use of cacao as currency in our modern world, we must broaden our definition of currency past physical money. Instead, currency can be more generally defined as anything used transactionally as a medium of exchange.

With this definition in mind, we can now investigate how cacao was used transactionally in recent history. One prevalent case of chocolate as currency occurred not long after cacao was introduced to Europe. As goods increased their flow between Europe and the Americas, Spanish royalty began to serve chocolate as a drink to showcase an exotic good from their land overseas. This tradition quickly spread amongst other royal families in Italy, France, and Britain through marriage and other political and social interactions. Before long, chocolate became the European nobility’s most fashionable drink. In this way, the nobility of 17th century Europe was trading chocolate in exchange for social reputation. This came as a cost to them financially, as cacao needed to be sourced from the Americas in an era when this necessitated a grueling and dangerous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. But to have chocolate gave them social standing, much as a fashionable dress or necklace would. In this way, chocolate was used as a social currency for Europe’s nobility of the 17th century: chocolate in exchange for reputation.

It is impossible to discuss chocolate as a social currency without considering the tradition of Valentine’s Day in modern society. A heart-shaped box of chocolate is considered the quintessential Valentine’s day gift, a declaration of love packaged in a shiny red heart. Countless chocolate ads such as this one, appearing in Times Magazine on Feb. 9th, 1962, broadcast the same message: give chocolate to receive love.

An ad published in Times Magazine, Feb. 9th 1962

So deeply rooted in our society is the notion that chocolate can buy love that in the world, approximately $1.7 billion is spent on chocolate—and the majority is spent by men (Zayas, Pandey, & Tabak, 1) .

By looking at Valentine’s Day chocolate through the lens of social currency, it is evident how the use of chocolate as currency has prevailed through today. 

From the roasted cacao beans of ancient Mesoamerica to the drinking chocolate of European nobility and the heart-shaped chocolate boxes of today’s world, cacao has thoroughly ingrained itself into the fabric of human trade. Whether it be a social or physical currency, there’s no denying that people are willing to trade chocolate for other intangible goods.

Picture Sources

1: From my Instagram page (not cited further to maintain anonymity)

2:  https://www.winton.com/longer-view/cocoas-bittersweet-bounty

3: Page 6, Life magazine Feb. 9th, 1962, https://books.google.com/books?id=gE0EAAAAMBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=twopage&q&f=true

Works Cited

“Currency.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/currency.

“The True History of Chocolate.” The True History of Chocolate, by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, Thames and Hudson, 2019.

Zayas, et al. “Red Roses and Gift Chocolates Are Judged More Positively in the U.S. Near Valentine’s Day: Evidence of Naturally Occurring Cultural Priming.” Frontiers in Psychology, Frontiers, 24 Feb. 2017, doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00355.

Chocolate Consumption and Production: How Mesoamerican Cacao Culture has Faded

The significance of chocolate holds a profound and broad importance in our modern day American society. Chocolate has been incorporated in our everyday life as an indulgence.The commonly found sweet treat melts in one’s mouth, and in American culture, is used to melt one’s heart! However, chocolate is not bound by its asset of sweetness, as that asset was incorporated into chocolate fairly recently; chocolate can be bitter and brittle, and can even be featured as a drink! There are many types of chocolate varying by texture and taste, and the good has evolved over the ages, and so has its pairwise culture as it has moved from society to society, but all types stem from cacao. The original chocolate/cacao and its production can be traced all the way back to Pre-Columbian civilizations where it was valued highly and reserved for nobility and important people. In that time, Cacao was much more than a sweet, refreshing treat: it was a vital and versatile part in Pre-Columbian traditions including religion, status, and health. These traditions are portrayed in several interesting artifacts allowing us to better understand cacao’s significance in the Aztec, Mayan, Olmec and other Mesoamerican societies. Analysis of these artifacts allows us to discern that the culture of cacao has been distorted and watered down over the ages, and this can be seen in a comparison of modern day chocolate related activities to its ancient roots.

Modern day practices with chocolate primarily involve mass production and consumption of chocolate. Because of the bustling chocolate industry, people from all over the world are able to experience and indulge in a version of cacao, thus somewhat honoring the importance of cacao through enjoying its consumption. However, historical companies like Cadbury and others have significantly watered down the original culture of the product in order to capture a larger target market. The process of making chocolate used to be a niche and special thing and rarely resulted in the type of sugar-infused chocolate bars that we love today. There were various unique recipes and methods of production for the cacao beans. In cacao’s historical roots, every part of production was done by hand. Cacao beans were obtained from open cacao pods and were fermented, then dried, then roasted and winnowed, and then finally ground into the “chocolate liquor” paste.

Once this product was created, there were various ways to proceed in the making of the final product. Popular preparations of the time included fresh cacao pulp batidos, cacao and chile balls, and cacao and corn based beverages.

The production of the final cacao product in Mesoamerican tradition is very laborious but feels raw and real. Here, a woman follows traditional practices in making the highly regarded cacao-corn beverage

However, as the world became more interconnected over time, cacao production was adopted and altered primarily by Europeans in the mid to late 1600’s. “Europe is the biggest processor of cacao as well as the largest per-capita consumer of cacao” (Martin & Sampeck 2016, 37). Thus, Europeans altered cacao recipes to better suit their taste and culture. “The industrial chocolate that they produced was higher in sugar and less complex in taste compared to the variety of local chocolate makers” (Martin & Sampeck 2016, 37). So as the primary production center of cacao shifted from Mesoamerica to Europe, variety and quality of the product mattered less to the masses, and cacao’s original tastes were neglected. The driving force for this change in chocolate production was the introduction of chocolate to the world, and the resulting different chocolate consumption.

Cacao consumption was extremely significant in Mesoamerican culture. There weren’t many who were able to consume it every day, especially because of its cultural importance, not just because of its scarcity. “People in Central America and Mexico linked cacao and vital cosmological forces. These associations made cacao the proper offering in rituals related to fertility, health and travel as well as consecrating social unions such as marriage” (Sampeck & Schwartzkopf 2017, 74). Cacao was held in high regard in its original culture and we can confirm this through the analysis of Mesoamerican artifacts. Inscriptions on “monogrammed vases”, such as the one presented, reflect how the Mesoamericans “invested meaning in cacao” through their consumption and production (Martin & Sampeck 39). Analyzing a variety of inscriptions allows us to further understand the presence of cacao and chocolate in one’s life, and we can discern that cacao was pivotal during major social events such as religious practices, marriage rituals and funerals. In marriage ceremonies, cacao beverages were shared between the groom and the bride’s father during a pre-martial discussion. Cacao was dried and dyed red during funeral procession and was believed to ease the soul into the afterlife.

“Princeton Vase”, a Maya cacao-drinking cup depicting a rite of passage during a marriage ceremony – the presentation of a cacao beverage

These cacao beverages were prepared in a very sacred practice in ancient Mesoamerica. The primary ingredients were corn and cacao. In the making and drinking of the beverage, it was crucial that it had a frothy foam on top as it was believed that it “satisfies the soul.”

Depiction of the preparation of the frothy cacao-corn beverage – a tall pour to create bubbles
“Codex Nuttal”, Mixtec funeral scene with funeral procession

On the contrary, once the primary consumption and production of cacao shifted away from Mesoamerica, chocolate lost a little part of its identity. All of the tangible practices of production and consumption of cacao were stolen – the Europeans even crafted their own chocolate consumption drinking vessels – and barely any of the cultural practices that made cacao so special in its original culture were adopted. Instead, Europeans looked to make cacao production the most efficient. They imposed on Africa and coerced African labor for cacao production. And those historical shifts have had lasting impacts today. The ones on the frontline – the farmers – who wether the hot sun and the excruciating physical labor to harvest cacao beans have almost no power in the supply chain of chocolate. According to the “Cocoa Barometer 2018” smallholder cocoa farmers in Cote d’lvoire, already struggling with poverty, have seen their income from cocoa decline by as much as 30-40% from one year to the next”(Fountain & Huetz-Adams 2018, 10), and this is just on example of the perpetuated injustice that grips the chocolate industry. Although Europeans found a way to globalize chocolate for the taste buds of all, the sacrifice of culture and humanity is too monumental.

In conclusion, traditional ways of producing and consuming cacao have been neglected in exchange for the health of an industry that was built upon the tired backs of Africans and South Americans. The significance of cacao in the Pre-Columbian era can be examined in artifacts and documents dating back to the 15th century, and we can learn a lot from them about this faded culture. We can see through these artifacts that their beliefs and culture revolved around these special Theobroma trees, and it is quite fascinating to see how the ancients interacted with cacao.

Works Cited:

“Toledo Ecotourism Association – making a chocolate drink.” Youtube. May 10, 2008. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vC4dq69rqE&feature=youtu.be

Fountain, Antonie, and Friedel Huetz-Adams. “Cocoa Barometer 2018.” VOICE Network. Accessed March 25, 2020. https://www.voicenetwork.eu/cocoa-barometer/.

Martin, Carla D, and Kathryn E Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, 16 June 2015, socio.hu/uploads/files/2015en_food/chocolate.pdf.

“The Princeton Vase (y1975-17).” Princeton University, The Trustees of Princeton University, artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/objects/32221.

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

Gaddis, Donald. “The Codex Nuttall: Funeral Scene.” Pinterest, http://www.pinterest.com/pin/13581236346174560/. IMG.

Theobroma Cacao: Natural History and Contemporary Sustainability Practices

This post will review the basic botanical timeline of the cacao tree, how it grows from seed to fruiting tree, as well as the differences in sustainability practices in historic Meso-America versus modern West Africa. I will ultimately argue that because cacao production has and will continue to play a large role in economies for decades, and because of the modern challenge of climate change, it would be hugely beneficial for cacao plantations to adapt more sustainable and earth-friendly production practices.

Cacao first originated in Mesoamerica around 1500 B.C. and was cultivated and used for many purposes: drink, food, a form of currency, a symbol of status, a part of social and religious rituals, and more. As it became increasingly valuable, demand for production skyrocketed, and people were forced to optimize their cultivation techniques, (“The History of Chocolate.”). However there were many limitations to their progress. There was little knowledge about processes like pollination and issues like disease, and not enough room for experimentation with things like fertilization.

The most popular variety of cacao plant, scientifically known as Theobroma cacao, is particularly stubborn to cultivate compared to other fruiting trees (think apple or orange trees). It relies on animal or human interference to begin its life cycle, as a new tree cannot grow without the cacao seeds being separated from their tough pod encasing, (Martin, “01 Introduction.”). In order for the seed to sprout and begin growing, temperatures must remain between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, which was generally the natural climate of then-Mesoamerica. The soil must be damp but not wet, as the cacao seedlings are prone to rot, (Stallsmith, “How to Grow Cocoa Beans.”). There must be a moderate amount of sun, however they can be grown either in the shade of the canopy of other trees or in direct sunlight (a topic that will be discussed later). In 1500 B.C. there was no technology to create these conditions artificially, thus making production at that time very difficult, inconsistent, and always subject to climate cycles.

After the cacao seedling has begun growing, it takes between four and five years to bear flowers and then pods. A single tree can have 6,000 flowers yet only naturally produce 20 cacao pods, which is an unfortunate discrepancy in potential yields. The cacao tree has a fruiting habit that produces both the flowers and the pods directly on the trunk, which is called cauliflory. Unlike other fruit trees, cacao is not pollinated by bees. Before artificial pollination was utilized, small flies called midges were the sole pollinators for cacao crops, which partially explains why the cacao tree produced so many flowers yet so few pods – less than 5% of the flowers are actually pollinated. Fallen leaves from the trees insulated the ground when rotting, keeping moisture in while simultaneously providing the perfect environment for midges to reproduce and thus continue to pollinate, (“Life Cycles of Cacao Pollinating Midges (Forcipomyia Spp.) and Some Notes on the Larval Behavior in the Laboratory.”). An image of the cacao flowers can be seen below. Once the cacao pods turn from purple to yellow to green, they are harvested from the tree, and then peeled to reveal the seeds. They are then dried, fermented, and ground, and finally the resulting product can be used for whatever purposes are intended. A single cacao tree lives for about 25 years on average, with 20 of those years being productive, (Martin, “04 Sugar and Cacao.”).

Fig 1. Theobroma cacao flowers and maturing pods on the trunk of a cacao tree

In the hundreds of years between 1500 B.C. Mesoamerica and modern-day Africa and South America, a lot has changed in the world. The attitude towards the production of most consumed goods in the world shifted from being solely focused on quantities and output to the acknowledgement that there must be a balance between output and sustainability. There has only been an increase in demand for cacao due to the increase in chocolate production and consumption worldwide, and unlike hundreds of years ago, we now face the problem of rapid climate change. It is critical that cacao farmers around the world shift their farming techniques to both maximize production while minimizing the negative impacts on the cacao laborers as well as the environment, (“A Strategy to Safeguard the Future of Chocolate.”).

Long ago, increasing cacao production meant bringing in more people to work the plantations. Now, we have technology and knowledge about effective pollination, fertilization, and tree growth patterns. In modern-day Ghana, cacao production is a huge part of the economy, as well as an critical source of income for both farmers and young adults who work on the farms. The Ghanian cacao-governing body, called COCOBOD, works to provide their farmers and the cacao workers with the knowledge and tools they need to maximize production, quality, and income while minimizing crop loss and damage to the environment, (“Ghana Cocoa Specification.”). In the video below, young Ghanians artificially pollinate cacao trees to increase the percentage of flowers that yield cacao pods.

Without the work of people like Derick Owusu, the cacao trees would naturally produce only a small fraction of the number of pods they do when they are artificially pollinated by humans, (COCOA HAND POLLINATION.) Although midges do still assist in the process, the flies don’t naturally have the ideal habitat they once did in Mesoamerica. Now, cacao farmers often sweep the dead leaves off of the ground underneath the trees to maintain paths in between the rows of crops. In the process of doing so, the moist, rotting environment that midges typically thrive in is destroyed, so human interference is now critical to the production of cacao pods.

A huge issue that our society deals with today is the excessive emission of carbon into the atmosphere. That, coupled with rapid worldwide deforestation, makes a detrimental combination. However, cacao trees could potentially help turn this rather depressing trend around. Theobroma cacao can be grown successfully in either direct sunlight or partial shade. Timothy Pearson, a carbon-emissions specialist for the non-profit company Winrock International, strongly believes that cacao grown in the partial shade of other trees is not only successful in producing cacao pods, but also helps the environment by storing more carbon, increasing biodiversity, and preventing needless deforestation, (Pearson, “How Chocolate Can Help Save the Planet.”)

Cacao being grown in full sun in Maui HI
Cacao being grown in partial shade in Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa

Pearson claims that older varieties of cacao that were once grown in full sun in places like Mesoamerica are now succumbing to disease and drought. However in West Africa, where nearly 70% of the world’s cocoa is produced, the trees are flourishing. Under the canopies of other trees, they have become more tolerant of dry environments and are less susceptible to disease and weed growth. Pearson also argues that a grove of shade-grown cacao trees can store and process up to three times as much carbon as sun-grown trees.

However, not all cacao farmers abide by these earth-friendly, sustainable practices for cultivating their cacao. It takes money, resources, and labor to make this transition – commodities that many cacao farmers do not have access to. Yet with the help of organizations like COCOBOD in Ghana, it is possible to maximize the positive effect of cacao trees on the world. With the demand for cocoa beans only going up with time, it is critical that cacao plantations around the globe prioritize sustainability as ardently as they do production.


“A Strategy to Safeguard the Future of Chocolate.” Biodiversity International, October 17, 2012. https://archive.is/20130414081745/http://www.bioversityinternational.org/index.php?id=6817.

COCOA HAND POLLINATION. Ghana COCOBOD. Ghana: EMH Global LTD, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXe-xptz2Nk.

“Ghana Cocoa Specification.” Ghana Cocoa Board, COCOBOD. Accessed March 24, 2020. https://cocobod.gh/ghana_cocospesification.php.

Martin, Carla D. “01 Introduction.” University Lecture presented at the Chocolate, Culture, and The Politics of Food, Harvard University, January 29, 2020.

“04 Sugar and Cacao.” University Lecture presented at the Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, Harvard University, February 19, 2020.

O’Connell, Kevin. “Improving the Sustainability of Cocoa Grown in West Africa.” World Cocoa Foundation, April 15, 2019. https://www.worldcocoafoundation.org/blog/improving-the-sustainability-of-cocoa-grown-in-west-africa/.

Pearson, Timothy. “How Chocolate Can Help Save the Planet.” Scientific American (blog), February 12, 2020. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/how-chocolate-can-help-save-the-planet/.

Stallsmith, Audrey. “How to Grow Cocoa Beans.” Blog forum. Hunker (blog), unknown. https://www.hunker.com/12001728/how-to-grow-cocoa-beans. howstuffworks.

Soria, S. de J., and Wirth, W.W. “Life Cycles of Cacao Pollinating Midges (Forcipomyia Spp.) and Some Notes on the Larval Behavior in the Laboratory.” Mosquito News, June, no. 2, 1977, pp. 288–289. Accessed via Hollis.

“The History of Chocolate,” n.d. https://recipes.howstuffworks.com/food-facts/history-of-chocolate1.htm.


Picture: “Farm to Chocolate Factory Program in Hawaii.” ecolechocolat. https://www.ecolechocolat.com/en/hawaii-cacao.html

Eagle, Jenny. Picture: “Ivory Coast and Ghana agree to create Sustainable Cocoa Initiative.” Confectionarynews.com. June 4, 2017. https://www.confectionerynews.com/Article/2017/06/05/Ivory-Coast-and-Ghana-agree-to-create-Sustainable-Cocoa-Initiative. Accessed March 24, 2020.

Cacao in Mayan Religious Stories and Rituals and Community Celebrations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Works Cited

Scholarly Sources:

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

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

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

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

Additional Sources:

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

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

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

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

Multimedia Sources:

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

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

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