In Mesoamerica chocolate was one of the most desired and sought after products, it was consumed by the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations. The consumption of chocolate early one was primarily spread through trade. This led to chocolate making it all the way to the Americas. One of the earliest and most common uses of chocolate was for consumption, whether this was in the form or a drink or as a solid. The Olmec tribe was one of the first civilizations to use chocolate as a drink, dating all the way back to 1900 BCE, this chocolate beverage was drunk from a special round jar known as a tecomate. Similar to the Olmec tribe, the Mayans also drank their chocolate out of a certain instrument. They used tall beakers, with an intricate design and text along the rim which described the intended use of the beaker. It is said that they made the design of the vessels so unique so that those who were looking would be impressed, proving that they had the status and means to enjoy such a prized and rich drink. This was significant, because it proved that cacao was a way to show social status. Drinking out of one of those tall beakers back then is equivalent to driving a very high end car like a Maserati or a Bugatti today. You don’t have em if you aren’t of a wealthy status.
( Mayan Beaker) ( Olmec Tecomate)
Rio Azul Vessels: The Discovery
It is very important to understand the importance of cacao not just socially, but its value in certain cultural groups. The Rio Azul vessel is an important artifact that helps bring insight to the impact of cacao throughout the Mayan culture. These vessels were discovered inside the tomb located in the Rio Azul region of Guatemala. These vessels are very rare, from the hieroglyphics depicted on the outside to the physical design. The lid of the pot can be screwed on that way you can hold the pot by the arch handle and maintain what you are keeping inside without the risk of spilling what’s inside. Within the vessel there was some sort of dark residue left behind. Eventually it was determined that what the vessel had contained was in fact cacao. They came to this conclusion by having the vessel analyzed. Mayanist David Stuart discovered the hieroglyphics on the outside of the vessel represented the work “kakaw” which is the Mayan word for cacao. They specifically think this leader was buried with some sort of chocolate beverage concealed within the vessels. The leader being buried with these vessels speaks to the Mayan burial rituals, the dead were usually surrounded by many items like the Rio Azul vessels that contained food and drink that they were meant to enjoy in the after life.
(Rio Azul Vessel
The Molinillo: An Overview
The Molinillo is a whisk that is made out of wood, its main purpose is to stir hot drinks like hot chocolate, or champurrado. This whisk was made by the Mexicans, and is still made today by hand for the same purpose that it served back then. The tool was invented by the Spanish Colonists in the 1700s to help assist with the frothing of chocolate, this came to be because they thought that pouring the chocolate back and forth wasn’t the best way to do it. The Chocolate produced by the Aztecs was made from roasted beans that were grounded on a metate along with seeds and flavoring. The earliest version of the Molinillo had a ball or square end with a very long handle, over time the designs got more and more intricate with things like rings and movable parts, all to help with the stirring process. These instruments were meant to fir into a pot with the handling extending out of the top. To use to molinillo you were to put both hands palms facing in on the staff, and then proceed to use your hands to rotate it, thus frothing the chocolate.
When archaeologists find remnants of cups, bowls, and plates, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that these items were used for eating and drinking. However, this is not always the case. In today’s culture, one might reserve certain silverware for only the most important dinner guests or have some plates that are meant to be displayed instead of eaten off. Archaeologists are learning that similar cultural practices may have been implemented by the ancient Mayans in regard to their pottery. The difference between today’s fancy china and decorative vases from ancient Mesoamerica, though, is that ancient Mayans are no longer alive to verbally explain the specific purpose and use of each piece in their ceramics collection. This job falls onto the shoulders of archaeologists are anthropologists, and they can assure us it’s a trickier job than first meets the eye. Some vessels were once thought to hold liquid cacao because they were labeled as such. However, analysis that goes beyond the words on the vessel leads experts to believe that the uncovering the uses of such containers is not as simple as reading a label (Loughmiller-Cardinal, 2018). It turns out that the Mayans were similar to us in that they had different uses for different shapes, grades, and qualities of ceramic containers. Below is a detailed differentiation of these types of vessels and their uses.
Archaeologists have discovered that the Mayans used different vessels to drink from than the ones they used as decoration (Loughmiller-Cardinal, 2018). This is analogous to a modern-day drinking cup vs. a modern-day vase. You could drink out of a vase if you wanted to, but it would be largely inefficient. Mayan drinking vessels were often much smaller than vases and vessels used for decorative celebrative purposes. Additionally, the drinking vessels would have fewer engravings and carving adorned on the exterior. The drinking vessels were most commonly small cylinders or bowls. Below is an image from the Rufino Tamayo museum in Oaxaca. Figure 1 depicts a bowl that was most likely used for the consumption of liquids. While there are some carvings on this bowl, these decorations are minimal compared to those on vases that were put on display or set out at special events. This bowl would be the equivalent of a coffee mug with a simple pattern on it while the decorative vessels would be the equivalent of artistic and elaborate vases or jars.
Many Classic Mayan vessels are adorned with similar strings of characters that seem to identify to whom the vessel belongs and what is inside of it (Macri, 2005). This syntactical pattern is known as the Primary Standard Sequence, or PSS. Figure 2 details the pattern of the PSS and gives a few examples of what this may have looked like on Mayan ceramics.
While many Mayan vessels adorned with a PSS include the glyph for cacao, it can be argued that these decorative vessels were not used to store liquid cacao. The PSS on these specific vessels may have been referring to raw cacao ingredients, such as seeds, that could have been stored in the containers (Loughmiller-Cardinal, 2018). Another theory is that the PSS is referring to a scene drawn or etched onto the vessel. For example, if the scene depicts a king sipping from a jar, then the PSS might refer to the king and his cacao beverage in the scene, regardless of what was inside the vessel itself. Figure 3 shows a decorative vessel with a PSS around the top rim and a battle scene on the exterior. The battle could have been a reason for celebration and cacao libation.
In comparison to the drinking vessels, the decorative vessels were larger, bulkier, and ostensibly harder to drink from. In addition to the inconvenient size and shape, chemical and visual analysis supports the idea that these larger decorative vessels were not used to hold liquid, including liquid cacao (Loughmiller-Cardinal, 2018). Residue analysis run on decorative vessels with a PSS, for the most part, return a negative result for theobromine as well as other alkaline chemicals found in liquid cacao. Additionally, a visual scan of these vessels will find no traces of liquid being held inside the vessels. What it will find, however, is small chips and divots on the interior of the decorative vessels. This suggests that dry goods, such as raw cacao beans or seeds, may have been stored in these vessels. Dried goods would not leave behind a chemical residue like liquid would because the porous ceramic would not absorb particles from the dried goods. An exception to this rule of thumb is the Río Azul cacao pot. This elaborately designed piece of pottery both features a PSS and tested positive for cacao residue (Stuart, 1988). Figure 4 shows the Río Azul pot. It might look recognizable, as it is one of the more famous pieces in the field.
The history of chocolate mirrors the history of mestizaje from Mesoamerica to modern-day Mexico and Central America, with the contemporary product serving as the result of both Mesoamerican and Spanish influences. Even the production of authentic, ancient, or traditional Mesoamerican cacao beverages and chocolate are infused with post-colonial influences, from the addition of new ingredients to entirely new techniques for crafting chocolate. Of these, the introduction of the molinillo, now considered a staple component in crafting traditional Mexican chocolate, represents the culmination of indigenous and Spanish techniques.
Pre-Conquest Mesoamerican Chocolate
Cacao was harvested and consumed as early as the Olmec civilization, with cacao originating from their word for currency, ka-ka-w . The Mayans adopted cacao into their respective civilization–for consumption, as legal tender, and for rituals.
Cacao was essential for social, physical, and spiritual well-being, regarded for its medicinal, spiritual, and aphrodisiac qualities. The Mayan would prepare the batidos and other hot chocolate beverages from the ground cacao pulps. They were also used for arranging marriages, with the term tac haa, “to serve chocolate,” commonly used to describe the discussions in which they would determine marriages while drinking chocolate. Mixtec went a step further, using “cacao” as a phrase for royal marriage . For the Aztecs, only the elites and wealthy consumed it because it couldn’t grow in Mexico, so they had to transport it 900 miles on their back .
Early pre-Columbian religious references to cacao are also prevalent in both Mayan and Aztec artifacts, with the Popol Vuh ascribing cacao with godly qualities and the Dresden Codex featuring cacao throughout, including consumption by the gods . Likewise, in the Madrid Codex, Aztecs believed that cacao beans were the physical manifestation of Quetzalcoatl . Other religious depictions included:
Cacao in fertility rites, with Ixchel and the rain god exchanging cacao.
Cacao tree depictions of royal bloodlines, with deities emerging from cacao trees with pods and flowers to symbolize their royal blood .
Figure: Aztec statue holding a cacao pod.
“Chocolate for the body; foam for the soul.”
Meredith Dreiss, Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods 
The foam produced was of special religious importance, with the foam seen as the most sacred part of the drink . With this reverence toward the froth, the molinillo, as the instrument used to facilitate easier production of the froth, would also be revered and would become deeply intertwined in the chocolate-making process.
Molinillo in Mesoamerica? The Spanish Arrive
Many would expect that the Mayans and Aztecs used molinillos, since they are now regarded as crucial instruments when crafting authentic traditional chocolate beverages, but in fact, the molinillo was most likely introduced by the Spanish, possibly during the 16th century. While it is true that pre-Columbian texts mentioned turtle/tortoise shell stirring spoons and stirrers, there were no mentions of molinillos in pre-Columbian texts. Moreover, it was noticeably absent from the first Nahuatl-Spanish dictionary in 1571 .
Some of the possible confusion could stem from anachronistic depictions of the molinillo, such as the one below:
“The artist has misunderstood the use of the metate [curved cacao grinding stone], and has mistakenly included the post-Conquest molinillo. (From J. Ogilby, America, London, 1671.)
Instead, they used “small, hemispherical bowls” as drinking and mixing vessels, made with materials ranging from ceramics, to decorated calabash gourds (Crescentia cujete tree), to gold (huei tlatoani). Foam was created by pouring chocolate repeatedly between drinking vessels to produce the foam .
It wasn’t until 1780, when Jesuit Francesco Saverio Clavigero, mentioned the molinillo but not the traditional method of pouring the beverage to produce foam .
Molinillo: The Basics
The molinillo, a kitchen tool used to froth hot chocolate beverages, is a carved, handcrafted wooden stick, with a slender handle at one end and a knob at the other . Its name is derived from its circular shape and its motion when used for producing foam resembling that of a molino (windmill) . Each molinillo is unique and varies in size depending on the amount of beverage to be produced. The first iterations involved a simple ball or square at the end of a long handle. However, these soon were adapted to better facilitate frothing. Modern molinillos are crafted from a single block of wood, forming a slender wooden “whisk” with a long tapered handle and a carved knob with rings and other movable parts on the other end .
Each molinillo is unique, and the basic design can be flourished with details such as colored accents or ivory pieces, as well as square tops instead of rounded .
Using a Molinillo
Frothing hot chocolate beverages with a molinillo is straightforward. Simply put, the slender handle is gripped between the palms, which are then rubbed together to rotate the carved knob back and forth. This motion grinds the chocolate discs used for the beverages against the pestle bottom of the drinking vessel , allowing the beverage to froth within a few minutes.
The motion is so simple, in fact, that the molinillo frothing process is even a popular rhyme among Mexican children and their teachers:
Bate = Stir or whip tu nariz de cacahuate = roughly "your peanut nose" Uno, dos, tres = One, two, three
“Molinillo and chocolate depend on each other–one cannot exist without the other. “
Molinillos are carved from a single piece of wood rotating on an axis. Typically soft wood from trees like the aile mexicano (Alnus acuminata ssp. glabrata) are used for carving because they are odorless and flavorless as to not impact the flavor of the chocolate. The black sections of the molinillo are not painted; rather, the friction from the velocity of the wood spinning on the axis of the machine burns the wood a darker color, which the crafter then polishes. Once the base is completed with all the large grooves, all the smaller notch carvings (helpful for circulating the milk to increase frothiness) are completed by hand .
Each molinillo is unique, and the basic design can be flourished with details such as colored accents or ivory pieces:
Artisanal Molinillo Crafting
For molinillo artisans in areas popular for their chocolate, such as 3rd generation crafter Jesus Torres Gomez, carving molinillos, among other wooden kitchen utensils, is both a skill and an artform, passed down for over 100 years as they continue to modify and perfect their craftsmanship. While he uses a motor to facilitate the rotation of the wood piece, all the carvings are completed by hand. He produces 3 types of molinillos:
Criollo, for making the foam for chocolate atole in the central valleys.
For making the foam for hot chocolate.
More elaborate item to serve as a decorative souvenir for tourists in Oaxaca (not meant to be used).
Similar to the more extravagant uses of chocolate and chocolate-producing equipment in Mesoamerica, these items are often also used for special events, including weddings and quinceañeras (coming of age celebration for 15th birthday) .
Modern-Day Molinillos and “Authentic Recipes”
Contemporary molinillos serve more as a nostalgic artifact than a necessary tool for the average chocolate beverage consumer. For champurrado–traditional Mexican chocolate-based atole– and hot chocolate, recipes available online often include many modifications to traditional recipes, incorporating many ingredients not available to pre-Columbian Mesoamericans. For the thicker champurrado, they are often flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, anise, nutmeg, cloves, and other spices, as well as grated piloncillo (raw, undefined sugar cane).
Likewise, they often include milk instead of water, and they are frothed with whisks or spoons. For “authentic Mexican hot chocolate” recipes, chocolate beverages are not strictly based on traditional Mayan or Aztec chocolate recipes; similar to the effect of molinillos on chocolate crafting, they combine indigenous and Spanish influences. However, molinillos are still incorporated into more traditional recipes, particularly Oaxacan hot chocolate, which uses water instead of milk and is whisked with a molinillo .
 Khan, Gulnaz. “Watch the Ancient Art of Chocolate-Making.”
 Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’”
 Festa, Jessica. “Sweet Guatemala: A Look At The Country’s Mayan Chocolate History And Modern Experiences.”
 Martin, Carla D.
 De la Fuente del Moral, Fatima.
 Martin, Carla D.
 Dreiss, Meredith L., and Sharon Greenhill. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods.
 Martin, Carla D.
 Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate.
 Edwards, Owen. “A Historic Kitchen Utensil Captures What It Takes to Make Hot Chocolate From Scratch.”
 CORTV. Jesús Torres Gómez artesano en molinillos.
Molded by years of exposure to masterfully crafted marketing campaigns, average consumer knowledge of cacao [or cocoa] is limited to its function as an ingredient and source from which their beloved chocolate is derived. There is much more to the birth, rise, and spread of Theobroma cacao.
The following seeks to explain how a culturally significant crop among early civilizations dating back to 1500 BCE (Coe and Coe, 2013) transformed from a highly treasured ingredient and social currency cultivated within a fairly limited zone to a globally produced and traded commodity: a highly reformulated, mass-produced, and readily available confectionery product.
This journey traces cacao back to its genetic and cultural beginnings where it was religious and cultural fixture among early civilizations; how exploration and migration played into the geographical expansion of its cultivation and rise in popularity as a food; role in accelerating industrialization; and transformation from a social currency and treasured ingredient to a heavily traded commodity and mass manufactured consumer product.
Genetic and Cultural Beginnings
From births and burials, recipes and rituals, cacao’s cultural origins are linked to Mesoamerica (present day Mexico through Central America), where its social and religious significance among the Olmec dates back to 1500 to 400 BCE (Coe and Coe, 2013). The rise of Maya and Aztec civilizations gave way for cacao’s evolution utility and proliferation as a consumable.
Cacao’s Role in Society and Religion
Evidenced by archeologic discoveries, translated texts, and scientific testing, several vessels and writings have been unearthed, clarifying and validating cacao’s significance, religious ties, and early application as a currency.
Mayan and Aztec civilization associated cacao with the gods. As such, they were believed to enrich and afford protections during and after life, playing a central role in offerings and rituals (Coe and Coe, 2013).
Ceramic vessels similar to those pictured here which date back to 455 to 465 CE were found in burial tombs at Río Azul (Martin, 2019). Further testing confirmed positive traces of caffeine and theobromine—two of cacao’s alkaloid signatures (Martin, 2019).
Dating back to 455 to 465 CE, “funerary vessels” similar to those pictured here were discovered in tombs at Río Azul. As testing revealed traces of caffeine and theobromine, two of cacao’s signature alkaloids, this further supported evidence of cacao’s religious significance (Martin, 2019).
As a food or drink, cacao took many forms. Popular among the Maya and Aztec, “cacahuatl” was a frothy preparation often transferred from one vessel to another and served cold (Coe and Coe, 2013).
Exploration and Migration: Changes in Cultivation and Consumption
By definition, explorers were bound to make new discoveries and learn from their experience. Capturing the innocent confusion and eye-opening experience (only to be realized years later), the following briefly details just how one explorer mistakenly thought that cacao beans were almonds.”
Mistaken for Almonds: When recounting observations from his 1502 landing at Guanaja, one of many landmasses that make up the Bay Islands archipelago, Ferdinand Columbus, one of Christopher Columbus’ sons wrote about cherished “almonds” that traded hands similarly to how currency would pass between customers and merchants (Coe and Coe, 2013). It was not until years later after multiple interpretations and sources concluded that what he presumed to be almonds were in fact cacao beans.
As it came to be more widely known, not far from where Ferdidnad landed, throughout the Rio Ceniza Valley (present day coast of El Salvador), cacao was an increasingly popular form of currency being produced and traded in record volume—something . In time, this led to further learnings about the “Nahua counting system” and subsequent adoption of cacao as payment for “protection” by Spanish conquistadors.
Generally relegated to tropical climates falling 10-15 degrees north and south of equator, is was inevitable that cacao would make its way around the world. So as people moved, and culture spread, so too did the cacao, as a crop, currency, and curiosity, ultimately leading to its introduction to new geographies, and paving the way for new industries and traditions around the world (Martin, 2019).
New Formulations and Complementary Ingredients
As ingredients such as vanilla, chili, and many others traveled around the world, pairings and formulations rapidly evolved. Marking a major development and informing direction for the confectionery side as we know it today, sugar was introduced to Europe around 1100 CE and chocolate followed shortly thereafter in 1500 CE (Martin, 2019).
Cacao’s Role in Accelerating Industrialization and Expanding its Place in Society
While cacao consumption continued to be reserved for certain classes during its journey around the world, increasingly sophisticated processing methods streamlined productions, regulation eventually brought its price down, and despite medical and religious challenges to its place in society, cacao products were increasingly available to a grander population.
By the 1600 and 1700s, advances in processing continued to align with rising and more diverse consumption habits. Of course, by this time, the separation between “producing” and “processing” countries (read: colonies vs. industrialized nations) was increasingly clear.
So while cultivation and production spread across Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa to meet demand, industry began to take shape on the consumer side as well with the emergence of social gathering halls or “Chocolate Houses” in Britain, France, Spain, the United States, and other “industrialized” nations who had transitioned to managing the cacao’s trade as a commodity and processing for various food and beverage applications. It was not until Rudolphe Lindt’s invention of the conche in 1879, an advancement that bolstered flavor and feel (among other things), and set the stage for quality, processing, and mass production to take off (Coe and Coe, 2013).
Illustrated above, the matete, grinder, and conche are examples of what cacao processing tools were used by early civilizations (and are still used in the same or similar forms today) and evolved or industrialized processing equipment employed today (Martin, 2019).
From early civilizations to present day, cacao’s role in society, cultural significance, availability and consumption have evolved tremendously. However, its mystique and association as something special are still true to this day—just as they were in different and more elaborate forms among early civilizations. Perhaps this condensed history will give pause and reason for the average consumer to think beyond commercialization of cacao, cocoa, or chocolate, and value and validate its history and claims made by brands to improve global understanding, perception, and consumer habits.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd Edition, Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.Hu, Vol. 3, 2015, pp. 37–60.
Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.
Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies. “Map of Mesoamerica.” Accessed February 17, 2019. http://www.famsi.org/maps/.
Río Azul [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
Matete [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
Grinder [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
Conche [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. February 13, 2019. Lecture.
Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. February 20, 2019. Lecture.
Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
Depicted in various Mayan artifacts, cacao along with its various forms were interwoven into Mayan society. From rituals to everyday life, cacao seemed to have an immortal presence in Mayan society, so much so that it found its way into Mayan religious paintings that depicted cacao beans or cacao trees intertwined with the Gods. In the picture below, the Maize God, a central deity in the Mayan religion, is seen shaping himself as a cacao tree, and pointing at what seems to be a vessel holding liquid cacao: “His limbs are studded with ripe cacao pods, and his skin is marked with wavy ‘wood’ motifs. Clearly, an anthropomorphic cacao tree is at hand” (Simon Martin 155).
Along with the Maize God, cacao seems to also play a central role in other Godly tales, but why? Why did cacao play such an important part in Mayan theology? The answers lie in the very same picture above. This artifact highlights how the Mayans used the story of the Gods to explain the world around them, and ultimately, how, and why, the Mayans decided to incorporate cacao into their theology.
First, let’s establish the magnitude of how holy the cacao tree is according to the Popol Vuh, “a colonial document from records of Franciscan friar, believed to be the oldest Maya myth documented in its entirety” (Carla Martin 35). According to the Popol Vuh, a central Mayan God, the Maize God, was sacrificed during harvest time in Xibalba, the Underworld, by the Death Gods. He was later buried and somehow was reincarnated as a cacao tree, albeit quite an anthropomorphic one. The picture below depicts how the Maize God supposedly looked after he was slain and reborn as a cacao tree.
The Maize God, as a tree, impregnated an Underworld goddess, who subsequently gave birth to the Hero twins, Xbalanque and Hunahpu. Eventually, the Hero Twins “go on to defeat Xibalba and its ghastly denizens” (Coe and Coe 39). They then “resurrect their slain father, the Maize God…[and] rise to the sky in glory as the sun and the moon” (Coe and Coe 39).
Within this story alone, it’s undeniable that the cacao tree represents the Gods. It has a God-like quality, and is intrinsically connected to the Mayan idea of holiness. The cacao is not only deeply connected to the integrity of the Maize God, but to many others as described in the Dresden Codex, “Pre-Columbian Maya books written in hieroglyphics” (Carla Martin 34). In the Dresden, “seated gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans” (Coe and Coe 42). Cacao is also frequently seen “being consumed by Gods in ritual activities” (Carla Martin 34). Depicted in a section of the Dresden regarding new year celebrations, the Opossum God is seen carrying the Rain God on his back, with caption being “cacao is his food [kakaw u hanal]” (Carla Martin 34).
Whether through the cacao tree or beans, cacao has an incredibly important role in the Mayan religion, as shown by its extensive portrayal in the Popol Vuh and the Dresden. In addition to Gods being portrayed with cacao in some way, the cacao tree is explicitly referred to as the World Tree, which “connects the vertical realms of Sky, Earth, and the Underworld” (Carla Martin 44). This is consistent with how the Maize God was murdered in Xibalba (the Underworld), how he impregnated a woman who escaped into the world’s surface (the Earth), and how the Hero Twins avenged the Maize God’s death and became the sun and the moon (the Sky). The cacao tree is present in nearly all forms of activities of the Gods and of the cycle of nature, of life and death. From the epic of the Maize God to the tales of other Gods, it is obvious that cacao is deeply connected to the Gods.
With all this reverence given to the cacao tree, it’s only natural to ask why did the Mayans choose to akin cacao to the Gods?
Firstly, the Mayans used their religion as a tool to explain the world around them. Having “had an abiding and intimate relationship with the natural world,” (Simon Martin 154) the Mayans wanted to explain why and how the world around them grows the way it does, so it’s only natural for them to create these mythical stories to do just that.
Secondly, because cacao was so integral to the lives of the Mayan and so deeply connected to their way of life, it only makes sense that they so closely kinned the very nature of the cacao to the Gods. Looking closely at the Maize God’s epic death and rebirth, it is clear that the entire story was created to simply explain how their sacred cacao was created, and how it ultimately grows.
The act of the Maize God’s dead body giving rise to trees and edible fruits and seeds (enough to impregnate an Underworld goddess) symbolizes germination in nature: “Cacao, the most coveted product of the mortal orchard, was emblematic of all prized and sustaining vegetal growth—with the exception of maize—and the myth served to explain how it and other foodstuffs came into being” (Simon Martin 178). In other words, “the story, then, basically deals in symbolic form with the burial (that is, the planting of the seed), growth, and fruition of maize [and cacao], the Maya-and Mesoamerican-staff of life” (Coe and Coe 39). Essentially, the Mayans used the Gods to explain how and why the nature around the grows (especially their precious cacao), which was used to ultimately explain the phenomenon of life and death.
While the Mayans certainly had other reasons in creating their religious tales, there is no doubt that a number of myths, including the Popol Vuh, incorporated cacao to help the Mayans understand the world around them. After all, chocolate was, and is considered divine, so why wouldn’t the Mayans place their cacao in the hands of the Gods in their tales?
Coe, Sophie, and Coe, Michael. “The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013.
Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard College: Cambridge, MA. 1 Feb. 2018. Class Lecture. (Images also used from this Lecture as well)
Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009.
In today’s modern society, when Westerners things of chocolate, images of it’s solid sweetened form is likely the first thing that comes to mind. A more in depth look at the history of cacao shows that nine tenths of the time it was consumed in liquid form not eaten (Coe & Coe, 2013, p. 12). The story of how cacao developed from a sacred drink to the industrialized food that is is today is a rich history that dates back thousands of years to the Amazon basin. As more knowledge about cacao and its history is uncovered, it is important to note the significance that historical linguistics, written documents, and archaeological artifacts play in revealing the ancient uses and significance of cacao. Even the word cacao itself has a disputable lineage. Today, words such as chocolate, cocoa, and cacao float around and are often used interchangeably when in fact they are quite different products. It is useful then to example the word cacao, referring to the unprocessed material that is used to create both chocolate and cocoa.
First, the historical linguistics of the word cacao should be considered part of and a type of Mesoamerican artifact, for the word itself has helped elucidate the development of modern chocolate as it is now known. The scientific name of chocolate before processing is known as Theobroma cacao, which comes from Greek and means “food of the gods”, aptly names in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus (Coe & Coe, 2013, p. 18). Even from the naming of cacao, it is evident that history of chocolate was written and known mostly from a western-centric point of view and that influence must be considered.
The word cacao was taken by Spanish invaders and their first real knowledge of cacao came from the Maya people of the Yucatan Peninsula and close by parts of Central America. They used the word chokola’j, or ‘to drink together’. Going back even further, the Olmec civilization from the lowlands of the Mexican Gulf Coast, known for their Colossal Head mounds, left no writings behind but research shows that the word cacao originated from kakawa of the Mixe-Zoquen language dating back to 1000 BC (Presilla, 2009, p. 10-12). Further, there are many word diffusions that came from Uto-Aztecan languages. For instance, classic Nahuatl used the kakaw-atl or cacautl. In addition, there are other known words with similarities to Mesoamerican languages that use versions of the word cacao as Professor Carla Martin of Harvard University and the Founder and Executive Director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (FCCI) discussed in her Harvard Extension School Course on the topic. As she explained, there are many variations of the usages and origins of cacao which include: The proto-Mixean used kakaw, the Nahua used kakawa-tl, the Mazahua used kakawa,the proto-Mayan, Totonac, Salvador Lenka people had the word kakaw, the Paya/pech people used kaku, the Purhépecha used khe´kua, and Hondura used kaw (Martin, 2018b, slide 19).
As the above illustrates cacao did not have its start in Europe, a common misconception from the vantage point of the western elite who have colored the history of cacao in their image. Examples of our current understanding on the Aztec and Maya people in relation to cacao is explored in the general over stereotyping of these cultures through generic and inaccurate hieroglyphs and word use. The Larabar and Rawcholatl examples (Martin, 2018, slide 22,24) below were especially telling for this propagated understanding of what the Aztec and Maya people actually represented and how they lived. Many do not understand the falsity of these representations when it comes to actual history.
In reality, the Mesoamerican region where cacao’s influence can be seen in societal, political, and religious aspects among Preclassic Maya which lasted lasted from 2000 BC-AD 200 to late classic times of AD 200-700. The increasing number of archaeological artifacts discovered and analysed reveal and even deeper history with cacao. For instance, research done at the Hershey Food Technical Center by Jeffrey Hurst detected three types of alkaloids important to cacao in samples that were taken from archaeological ceramics that date back almost 40 centuries, predating even the Olmecs (Coe & Coe, 2013, p. 36). There were many words for cacao throughout the region, which not only further demonstrating its importance as an linguistic artifact but also its widespread use and importance to those civilizations through centuries of history well before europeans decided on the anglicized word chocolate used today.
This linguistic artifact use and misuse can then be viewed in the few remaining written documents of the time. Documents such as the Dresden Codex, Madrid Codex, and Paris Codex are good examples of this. These documents are extremely rare pre-Columbian Maya books written in hieroglyphics that often depict cacao being consumed by gods in ritual activities. They build on and solidify the linguistic Mesoamerican artifact history of cacao.
When Yuri Knorosov deciphered the phonetic part of the Dresden Codex, he made it possible to read its text and from that we learn that ritual activities show Gods with cacao pods and beans. It is written that, “On a Dresden page dealing with the New year ceremonies so important to Post-Classic Yucatan, the Opossum God travels a sacred road to the edge of the town carrying the Rain God on his back, while the associated text tells us that “cacao is his food [kakaw u hanal]”” (Coe & Coe, 2013, p. 42). This is pictured below.
The cacao-containing vessels, or “chocolate pots”, became recognized as powerful social objects unto themselves for the Maya and Aztecs as well.David Stuart, the epigrapher was the one to deciphered the hieroglyphic for cacao. This was an important step in the Primary Standard Sequence (PSS) in gaining better understanding of glyphs of classic ceramics, one such pictured below (Coe & Coe, 2013, p. 44)
Once the cacao symbol was determined, when other types of vessels were found and had the cacao hieroglyphic on them, it provided further linguistic proof that these vessels once contain cacao. To conclude, the word cacao has a fundamental significance that can be traced back through linguistics, written documents, and archaeological artifacts directly linked to a powerful and long standing Mesoamerican history.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. (1996). The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson.
Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 1 Jan. 2018. Class Lecture.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 2009. Print
All images used from: Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 1 Jan. 2018. Class Lecture.
Artifacts play a significant role in shaping how we view history and cultures. In the case of cacao artifacts, they have changed not only what we know about Mesoamerican culture, but also how/what we enjoy tasting in America today. Today, “sugar is so familiar, so common, and so ubiquitous that it is difficult to imagine a world without it” (Mintz, 1986, p. 74). In Mesoamerica – 1500 BCE – 1521 AD (Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. [FAMSI], 2012), sugar was considered a spice and not nearly as prevalent as it is now. If ancient artifacts had not been found to illustrate the use of cacao, particularly by the elite, both cacao and sugar may potentially be consumed less than they are in America today.
The discovery of the Dresden Codex (and lesser-known Madrid Codex) are perhaps two of the largest breakthroughs in discovering how cacao was used in Mesoamerica. This Dresden Codex, “deal[s] with ritual activities tied in to the Maya’s scared 260-day cycle” (Coe & Coe, 2013, p. 42). When Yuri Knorosov broke the phonetic element of the hieroglyphs used to write the Dresden Codex, it was discovered that “the text written above each deity states that what is held in the hand is ‘his cacao [u kakaw]’” (p. 42). This shows that cacao was viewed as sacred in the Mayan culture. In the Classic era – 300-950 AD (FAMSI, 2012), very few documented incidents of cacao being used exist, and the few that do are, “elegantly painted or carved vessels that accompanied the elite” (Coe & Coe, 2013, p. 43). It is not known if ordinary Mayans consumed cacao or if they could even afford it.
The view that cacao is only for the wealthy and/or holy leads one to wonder if this is not what led to its mass consumption today. People want what they cannot have. Since cacao was viewed as a delicacy for the higher classes when it was brought to Europe, average people wanted to try this luxury, likely to emulate the wealthy. With an increase in demand, ways had to be found to increase the number of cacao products that were available. An increase in cacao production and importation would enable those other than the wealthy to access and consume it. “In 1898 in the United States a dollar bought forty-two percent more milk, fifty-one percent more coffee, a third more beef, twice as much sugar, and twice as much flour as in 1872” (Laudan, n.d, p. 41, as cited in Martin, 2018a, slide 9). With the increasing amounts of sugar people were able to purchase, adding it to cacao seemed the logical choice for companies to dilute – and thus cheapen – the cacao and allow ordinary people to access and enjoy it…or think they were enjoying it, even though they were actually tasting fillers such as sugar and condensed milk. According to Martin (2018a), in the United States today, out of “300 million people, 3 billion pounds annually, 12 pounds per person” (slide 42) of chocolate is consumed. This illustrates the mass scale in which chocolate is consumed today. Without the discovery of the Dresden Codex, cacao may never have been viewed as a delicacy enjoyed by gods, thus its demand would not be as high as it is today.
The Dresden and Madrid Codices are not the only examples of artifacts that shaped how we view cacao. A Classic Mayan tomb was discovered in 1984 at Río Azul, Guatemala and was found “to be full of the paraphernalia of chocolate consumption” (Coe & Coe, 2013, p. 46). The most obvious example of the existence of cacao in this tomb was “a stirrup-handled pot with a screw-on lid” (p. 46). This vessel had six hieroglyphs painted on it
and two of them “read ‘cacao’” (p.46). These hieroglyphs lead one to believe that these vessels were very likely used to store cacao, but it was not proven until a selection of the vessels found in Río Azul were tested. “[T]he screw-top jar had contained both theobromine and caffeine, two of the cylindrical vases had definite traces of theobromine, one had possible traces of theobromine, and the last had no traces of either alkaloid” (p. 46). In the period in which these vessels were constructed – the end of 5th century AD, cacao was the only plant in the region that contained both the caffeine and theobromine compounds (Martin, 2018b, slide 48). This proved that these vessels did, in fact, store liquid cacao at the time the tomb was closed.
The Copan excavations in western Honduras have opened an entirely new way of thinking in regard to the excavation and testing of Mesoamerican artifacts (Presilla, 2009). In fact, “[a]t one time nearly everyone assumed that the presence or absence of cacao residue could be inferred by the shape of a vessel. If it didn’t look like a tall drinking vessel, it wasn’t worth examining for evidence of cacao” (Presilla, 2009, p. 15). In fact, “the Deer Vessel (far left, [below])…contained chocolate (cacao). A shell scoop in the shape of a hand (second from left) was found inside the Deer Vessel” (Sharer, 2012a, Copan Altar Q section). The team excavating Copan has been sending all forms and shapes of vessels to be analyzed for cacao residue. Finding residue on various types of vessels outside of the typical drinking vessel could unveil an entirely new way in which the Mayans utilized, prepared, and consumed cacao. The implications of these discoveries could include modern Americans thinking about new ways to use cacao, beyond its standard use in candy products.
Clearly, artifacts play a role in shaping how we view history and cultures. They also impact how we utilize and consume products, in this case, cacao, today. Had ancient artifacts like those in the tomb at Río Azul, Guatemala and Copan, Honduras, and the Dresden Codex artifact not been found, cacao may not be as highly sought after as it is today. We may also not know how to use it in such a variety of ways. The prevalence of cacao grew because of this knowledge and the availability of sugar; sugar helped make cacao available to the masses, albeit in highly diluted form. Today, every American can consume the “food of the gods.”
Coe, S.D., & Coe, M.D. (2013). The true history of chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson LTD.
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.
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.
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.
The purpose of this small-scale ethnography is to examine the social significance of chocolate from a cross-cultural perspective. Through interviewing various members of my local community that were born in different regions of Mexico and Central America, I document here their experiences and observances of chocolate.
Experienced through consumption or non-consumption, and observed through their emic perspective, there are underscoring themes exposed amongst the roles in which chocolate has played throughout each of their own lives. Within the context of those personal relationships with chocolate, an interaction between social and economic functions of their state and country may be contemporaneous to their outlook. Although this simultaneity is not always the circumstance, motifs emerge as their uniqueness transpires. Effectually, their contributed insight has actualized a microcosm of chocolates’ socio-cultural diversity and likenesses.
While conducting the interviews with members of my community, the aim was to first listen to their observances, and to then ask questions of clarification to assist in their thought process. The framework of my Q&A was designed this way to acquire a qualitative study, so that this retelling would reflect the individual perspectives of each subject, synchronously providing a glimpse into the societal experience. To depict those experiences through a cultural historical lens, that of which illustrated itself during most of the interviews already, I asked questions about their culture as a whole and how they thought chocolate was generally regarded in their own communities.
This study is not meant to define those relationships, but to highlight multiplicities within these individual cross- cultural accounts. Over reflections of my own and of the human subjects in this ethnographic study, I hope to provide sufficient imagery of historic milieu within the functional roles chocolate has played in personal experience and in society.
Theobroma Cacao, or the Food-of-the-God’s Cacao, is widely accepted by botanists and scholars as indigenous to Mesoamerica. Evidence of its cultivation is indicative of the role it played in ancient civilizations like the Mixe-Zoquean-speaking Olmecs (1500 BCE – 400 BCE). At the famed Olmec archaeological site in San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, evidence has been found of the term “Kakawa” used by the Olmec as early as 1000 BCE (Coe & Coe, 1996). See on the map below, San Lorenzo is west of present day Guatemala, and north of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.
We find in the archaeological record, the ways in which early civilizations illustrated cacao, or “Kakawa” on their pottery. This being a significant attribute to understand the role chocolate played in their livelihoods and rituals. According to Maricel Presilla in her book, The New Taste of Chocolate, “it was the Maya who brought chocolate making to a high art… building on the foundation left behind by other Mesoamerican cultures”, like that of the Olmecs and other sibling tribes (2009).
See this Classic Maya vase from the seventh century portraying the Maize God in an “unending dance, symbolizing both the creation of the universe and also his cycle of death and rebirth” (Takushi, Pioneer Press).
Maya Classic period (250 – 900 CE) vessels show quite literally the function of cacao as it was for drinking, as well as the relative role it played in Mayan life though various representations of the divine.
This is one of the many Classic period vessels that was found to contain cacao residues inside. We know it was used to hold chocolate because cacao is the only plant in the region with both the compounds Theobromine and Caffeine, “a unique marker for the presence of cacao in pre-Columbian artifacts” (Cheong, 2011). To verify the vessels were used to hold chocolate was an important piece to the archaeological record. It provided contextual knowledge when deciphering the imagery or glyphs depicted on the vessels.
Affirmed in the glyphs of drinking vessels from this period, there is evidence of “well established cacao-chocolate terminology”. On the Buenavista vase shown above, we see “tree-fresh cacao” inscribed. From the Primary Standard Sequence (PSS) of the glyphs you see banded around the top of the vessel, the characters that make the Maya name for cacao, “Ka-Ka-Wa” were deciphered. What strikes me the most about this piece is the seemingly relative “tree-fresh cacao” to the Maize God’s cyclical existence. (Presilla, 2009)
I particularly find this vessel so interesting when we look at the role of chocolate in culture because it reflects a cyclical ideology of their ecological relationship to their land; in the sustenance it provides, the concept of time through death and rebirth, and their Gods all-encompassing role within those cycles.
A few years ago in 2013 I came to know a few young men and women from the northern Mexican state of Sonora – (follow the link to read a brief history of Seri Indians of Sonora). They were working and studying here on visa’s while we were employed at a busy restaurant in the heart of downtown Boston. What better place than behind the bar to nose around and pick into people’s lives for cultural insights! Just kidding on the nose-picking… but seriously, even minute conversations with guests created thought-provoking observations. During their multiple terms of residency in Boston over the years, these talented intellectual Sonoran natives and I connected on Mexican – American culture alike, and apart. Upon reaching out to ask if anyone would be interested in participating in this modest ethnographic study, my request was received most graciously. They have all elected to omit fully identifying information, so for the purposes of this study, I will refer to them by their first name only. Below I have included their perspectives on the role chocolate has played throughout their lives.
Andrés began by explaining Mexico as a large country where the culture is full of diversity. “Every state has their own culture about everything – food, traditional parties, our dialect and slang”. With that being said, in the state of Sonora where he lives he doesn’t use chocolate and cacao the way he knows it is used in the southern states of the country like Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas, and Tabasco. Andrés has observed the influence of cacao beans in southern Mexico because the cacao growing region produces a lot of recipes that involve cacao and chocolate.
When I asked what he knows about Mesoamerican uses for cacao, he remembers learning from childhood that they used it as currency, and he understood they sometimes would use it in beauty treatments. On that note, I recollect a fortuitous conversation about skin care had between myself and a female of Mexican ancestry I met while servicing wedding hair and makeup to her cousin’s bridal party, circa summer 2015 in East Boston – Indeed, I am not only an aspiring Anthropologist, also a Cosmetologist. My thoughts are usually occupied by anthropological inquiry on a daily basis, which inevitably grants unique opportunity for cultural discussions with the people I meet. Although not a part of this ethnography, she let me know back then about her family recipe for a skin care regimen that contains cacao. Her grandmother and her aunts would grind down cacao beans into a powder, “cocoa powder” minus the hydraulic press. They would mix the antioxidant rich powder with other grinded down local herbs, add water to create a paste-like texture and apply generously to the skin.
“Lather. Dry. Rinse. Repeat.” – she persisted. Yum.
For the purposes of this study, I was curious about chocolate in spa treatments, as I have heard echoes of the luxury before. Take a look at The Spa At The Hotel Hershey or examples of just a few contemporary accommodations created for chocolate in the beauty industry.
Andrés expressed to me that Sonora being just below Arizona, his culture is more- so “American” than the way Mexicans live in the south. It is in his experience and observation the misconception of Mexican culture as being one. I think any educated person understands culture, language, economy, etc. vary across spaces of human population. Yet, for those who generalize a nation’s people by its borders, Andrés and his community experience the bias. He grew up with a collection of influences “by the things Americans do”. For example, one of his earliest memories of eating chocolate was during Halloween. They’re also heavily influenced by “spring break madness”, as he defined the season. He grew up consuming chocolate predominantly made by the big corporations, like Mars. His notable favorites being the Snicker and M&Ms. “In the south they don’t have that influence, they don’t experience American Halloween as we do”.
Carlos V chocolate bars are the Nestlé- proclaimed “# 1 chocolate brand in Mexico with over 70 years in the market!… Because of its unique and mild flavor, it is considered the reference of chocolate for Mexicans.” The Aztec stylized imagery first designed to brand the chocolate before it was bought by Nestlé sometime in the 1980’s was created by Fabrica de Chocolates La Azteca, S.A. de C.V. Jason Liebig on his blog, Collecting Candy chronicles his findings in the L.M. Kallok Confectioners Collection of antique packaging. Most notable about the evolution of the branding is first the Aztec styling alongside the “Imperial Coat of Arms” for “by the grace of God, Carolus V Imperator (emporer)”. Then with the English labeling introduced we see a change in the ingredients as well (which was apparent of each label seen in Leibig’s compilation from the beginning to the end. “A tie-in with the film Toy Story, which tells us La Azteca was still the brand’s sole owner as late as 1995″ is interesting where we see Quaker Oats leaving its insignia on the label by the late 1990’s.
Not one of the Sonoran’s I interviewed has tried a Carlos V chocolate bar but they have all heard of it at some point in their life through advertisements. Eduardo attests to Andrés’ personal account of diversity from the southern regions in Mexico. Dia de los Muertos is “not celebrated as much as the south, but we do things like going to the cemetery”, Andrés says. Eduardo told me that they celebrate Dia de los Muertos on November 2. “We celebrate in memory of the people who are no longer with us and usually at the tombstones we put special things they liked when they were alive. Chocolates is usually one of them”. Both Andrés and Eduardo did not have a definitive sense of the historical reason for chocolate being placed on gravesites, but they both know it as a long- standing tradition and ritual in celebrating their deceased ancestors. Fernanda, another Sonoran native, added some insight to this practice of memorial. She told me that usually the graveyards are managed by local churches or publicly owned so in contrast to the majority of graveyards that are privately owned in the US, the families play a greater role in gravesite maintenance of their deceased. In this way, chocolate serves a social function in their celebrations.
Shown below, Dr. Martin presented in class this semester some of the ways Maya and Mixtec society visually depicted the functions that cacao played within their cultural practices and belief systems. Royal marriages necessitated the use of currency in the negotiation, so we see in the Codex Nuttall how cacao was a part of the price for the bride. Eduardo remembers learning in school that Mayans used to used the cacao “as a coin to buy everything, from goods to wives”. A relative topic for further study would be in the ways chocolate was introduced to the elite. Diffused out of Mesoamerica first by the Spanish, the Europeans assimilated to its royal regard and used chocolate in the women’s dowry through royal inter-marriages – that of which played a great role in spreading chocolate throughout Europe.
Another example (seen below) comes from the Madrid Codex where we see cacao being exchanged, portraying a give-and-take linkage between their concepts of cyclical time (lunar goddess) and their environment (rain god). I find this imagery especially expressive to their belief of the divine relationship to their human existence and sustenance on earth. Lastly, from the Codex Nuttall we see a royal funerary procession in “Twelve Movements”. Within the tomb depicted at the bottom right of the artwork lies a “vessel of foaming cacao beverage… to ease the soul’s journey to the underworld”. (Martin)
Eduardo recounts drinking cups of hot chocolate since he can remember. While traveling south to Puebla state he tried their “typical meal, mole, and it’s made of cacao”. What he knows about the Maya and cacao is how they used to prepare beverages and meals like the Puebla “mole”. “We have different tribes and culture but we learned about it in school and I experiences it myself while traveling south. Cacao is still a huge deal in south Mexico.”
See the dozen or more ingredients to make the traditional “thick, baroque sauce, mole” from Xalapa, Veracruz (Presilla), north of Puebla state in Mexico. Presilla notes that each ingredient is “processed in sequence, each at its own time” (2009).
As the mole is diverse in ingredients, and rich in unique Mesoamerican culture, so too – as these contemporary perspectives have illustrated, are the people of the region diversely interwoven with it’s history and unique place on Earth’s sphere.
In the academic discourse, there is a noticeable preference for the utilization of textual sources, rather than non-textual sources, such as material artifacts, photographs, oral histories, etcetera. As a student of archaeology, I recognize the myriad insights that can be gleaned from studying and analyzing material objects and artifacts, especially for the purposes of developing a fuller comprehension of a people, culture, or time period. I would contend that, in many cases, material objects can provide a more detailed, nuanced understanding of a people, culture, or time period than textual sources and, as such, should be valued and utilized more readily in academia as invaluable primary sources.
A particularly illustrative case-study, the Río Azul vessel demonstrates the extent to which the close analysis of an artifact can provide keen insights into a people, culture, or time period. Specifically, this vessel illuminates the importance of cacao for the Classic Maya and, as such, serves as an essential tool for reconstructing an understanding of the uses and multivalent meanings of cacao for this cultural group.
The Río Azul vessel features an exterior surface, which has been covered in stucco and adorned with Classic Mayan hieroglyphs. Close analysis of the vessel’s exterior can provide invaluable insights into the Classic Mayan artistic tradition, writing system, artisan class, manufacturing process, etcetera.
Before delving into the insights derived from the Río Azul vessel, it is instructive to first discuss the vessel’s archaeological context. In 1984, archaeologists discovered Tomb 19, a Classic Mayan tomb dating from the last half of the fifth century CE, in Río Azul, a Mayan city in the northeastern corner of the Petén region of Guatemala (Stuart 1988: 153). Within Tomb 19, the corpse of the tomb’s owner, a middle-aged ruler, had been laid on a funeral litter and was surrounded by various objects, including fourteen pottery vessels (Coe and Coe 2013: 46).
One of these vessels, which I will henceforth refer to as the Río Azul vessel, particularly intrigued archaeologists. An extremely rare pottery form, this vessel consists of a wide, bowl-shaped pot and a lid, which includes an arching handle. The pot’s lid possesses a noteworthy “lock-top” feature: the lid can be screwed onto the main body of the pot and, when properly closed, can be held by its handle without any risk of spilling the vessel’s contents. The exterior of the stirrup-handled vessel features stucco covering and large hieroglyphs, which have been brilliantly painted in turquoise blue and earthen tones.
This view allows one to see the “lock-top” feature of the Río Azul vessel’s lid. One can discern the grooves into which the vessel’s lid slid and closed, which prevented the vessel from spilling its liquid contents.
Both the Río Azul vessel’s interior and exterior fascinated archaeologists, who were desirous to utilize the vessel to learn about the Classic Maya. What did the vessel originally contain? Why was it included in a ruler’s burial tomb? What function did it serve in Classic Mayan burial practices? Based on a dark ring around the vessel’s interior, archaeologists hypothesized that the stirrup-handled vessel originally held a dark liquid (Coe and Coe 2013: 46). To determine the exact nature of this dark liquid, archaeologists turned to epigraphy and chemical analysis for answers. The epigrapher, David Stuart, analyzed the vessel’s hieroglyphs and recognized that two of these hieroglyphs represented kakaw, the Classic Mayan hieroglyph for cacao that consists of “a drawing of a fish, preceded by a comb-like sign established by the syllabic glyph ka and followed by the sign for final ‘w’” (Coe and Coe 2013: 45). Stuart’s transliteration of the hieroglyphs—y-uk’-ib’ ta witik kakaw ta koxom mul(?) kakaw—can be translated as “(It is) his cup for witik cacao, (and) for koxom mul(?) cacao” (Stuart 2009: 193). Based on his translation, Stuart posited that the vessel’s dark liquid vestiges belonged to a cacao beverage.
This drawing, which was created by the epigrapher David Stuart, allows one to more clearly see the Classic Mayan hieroglyphs that were inscribed on the Río Azul vessel. Note hieroglyphs A and D, which represent kakaw.
To validate Stuart’s hypothesis, archaeologists sent the Río Azul vessel to W. Jeffrey Hurst of the Hershey’s Company Research Labs in 1987. Using high-performance liquid chromatography to identify the chemical composition of the vessel’s food residues, Hurst isolated the chemicals theobromine and caffeine (Presilla 2009: 10). Since cacao is the only Mesoamerican plant to contain both chemicals, Hurst’s discovery provided “conclusive proof” that the Río Azul vessel was, in fact, a container for a cacao beverage (Coe and Coe 2013: 46).
With its contents confirmed, the Río Azul vessel afforded a wealth of information to academics studying the Classic Mayan relationship with cacao and, therefore, underscores the important contributions that can be derived from studying non-textual sources. For example, the Río Azul vessel served as “the Rosetta Stone” for epigraphists attempting “to crack the whole code of Maya writing” (Presilla 2009: 10). Stuart’s breakthrough—identifying the hieroglyph for cacao—allowed academics to recognize and analyze other hieroglyphic appearances of cacao. As a result of the Río Azul vessel, a single material object, scholarship on cacao received access to additional sources on, and references to, the Classic Mayan relationship with cacao; the Río Azul vessel’s groundbreaking contribution to epigraphy underscores how a non-textual source can provide new opportunities for academic research.
The Río Azul vessel also attests to the myriad uses for cacao during the Classic Mayan period and, therefore, functions as an invaluable tool for comprehending the vast variety of cacao-related terminology and cacao recipes from this period. Specifically, the vessel’s inscription mentions witik and koxom mul, two different types of cacao preparations that do not appear in any other textual or non-textual sources (Stuart 2009: 201). Thus, knowledge of these two types of cacao can only be acquired through the analysis of non-textual sources, a further endorsement for the need to emphasize the importance of studying non-textual sources for their numerous contributions to academia.
As a primary source, the Río Azul vessel also illuminates the Classic Maya’s broader social and artistic culture. The vessel’s beautifully painted and intricately detailed exterior exemplifies the artistic flourishing of the Classic Maya during their Golden Age when they erected magnificent temples and palaces, created stone relief carvings and wall paintings, and delicately painted and carved ceramic vessels, such as the Río Azul vessel. The Río Azul vessel, therefore, typifies the rich artistic culture of the Classic Maya and provides a more nuanced understanding of the period’s Golden Age than a textual source.
Given its archaeological findspot in a burial tomb, the Río Azul vessel also provides compelling insights into the cultural, religious, and sociopolitical importance of cacao during this period. In Classic Mayan burial practice, the deceased were physically surrounded by pottery dishes, bowls, and cylindrical vases that held the food and drink that the deceased was meant to enjoy and utilize in the afterlife (Coe and Coe 2013: 43). The Río Azul vessel’s function as a container for a cacao beverage suggests that the vessel’s cacao contents were intended to sustain the tomb’s owner in the afterlife (Coe and Coe 2013: 43). The Río Azul vessel designates cacao as an essential food for the afterlife and as a valued commodity in both life and death, thereby augmenting the argument that important insights can be derived from studying material objects.
As a final point of consideration, in light of the dearth of written evidence from the Classic Mayan period, the Río Azul vessel merits increased importance as a source for understanding the importance of cacao during this time. Since no textual sources from the Classic Mayan period proper remain, the Río Azul vessel, among other such inscribed ceramics, provides the only primary and contemporary evidence for the Classic Mayan use of cacao; its significant contribution to reconstructing cacao’s significance for the period cannot be overstated.
For its various, important glimpses into Classic Mayan culture and, more importantly, the period’s relationship to, understanding of, and use of cacao, the Río Azul vessel merits the designation as a potent, invaluable source of information. This artifact of stoneware can—and does—speak to the power of archaeological artifacts and other non-textual sources to communicate knowledge and serves as an emphatic call for the greater incorporation and utilization of non-textual sources in the academic discourse.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson.
Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Stuart, David. 1988. “The Rio Azul cacao pot: epigraphic observations on the function of a Maya ceramic vessel.” Antiquity 62: 153-7.
Stuart, David. 2009. “The Language of Chocolate: References to Cacao on Classic Maya Drinking Vessels.” In Chocolate in Mesoamerica, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, 184-201. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Image after Stuart 1988, Figure 2 (see above for the full article citation).
“Kakaw (Mayan word).” Wikimedia Commons, accessed on March 7, 2017. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kakaw_(Mayan_word).png
“Stirrup lidded vase, from Rio Azul.” Harvard Fine Arts Library, Digital Images & Slides Collection 2004.H06.00848, accessed through Hollis.
“Stirrup lidded vase, from Rio Azul.” Harvard Fine Arts Library, Digital Images & Slides Collection 2004.H06.00847, accessed through Hollis.