Tag Archives: Mesoamerican culture

From Cultural to Commercial: Cocoa’s Geopolitical Transformation

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).

Described by Coe and Coe in The True History of Chocolate and drawn by Diane Griffiths Peck, this illustration provides a glimpse into one of many Maya and Aztec cacao preparation and serving methods.
Of the 15 discovered, translated, and still intact, the Dresden Codex contains the aforementioned Mayan hieroglyphic depiction of cacao being consumed by gods and used in rituals (Martin, 2019). Other major works include the Popol Vuh or “Book of Counsel” is a colonial document later translated by Friar Francisco Ximénez that reveals the importance of cacao among early civilizations.

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.

Works Cited

  • 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.
  • Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018

Media Cited

  • Hansen, Magnus Pharao. “Cacao: How a Single Word Holds the Key to Understanding the Mesoamerican Past”. Nawatl Scholar. January 1, 1970. Accessed March 15, 2019. http://nahuatlstudies.blogspot.com/2015/01/cacao-how-contested-history-of-single.html?spref=tw.
  • Olver, Lynne. “Food Timeline FAQs: Aztec, Maya, & Inca foods and recipes”. Lynne Olver 2000. March 1, 2015. Accessed February 17, 2019. http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodmaya.html.
  • 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.
  • Wikimedia Commons. File:Popol vuh.jpg. (January 16, 2015). Retrieved February 17, 2019. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Popol_vuh.jpg&oldid=146695431.
  • 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.

Lectures Cited

  • 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.

Cacao as Part of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Society

While the essential process of turning pods of the Theobroma cacao, or cacao tree, into edible forms of chocolate has remained largely unchanged over the last several thousand years, its earliest/original cultural significance has largely been lost or ignored in favor of an emphasis on individual enjoyment and commercial expansion.  As Carla Martin and Kathryn Sampeck reflect in “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe,” cacao has a “Potent history of ritual, cosmological, and high-status associations.”

Through various accounts, as well as the discovery of ancient artifacts and the more recent translations of glyphs found on Classic-period vessels, we can enjoy a more authentic understanding of what cacao meant to the people who brought it into existence.  Chocolate is such an incredibly important part of our world today, it is hard to imagine a society without it. We owe it to these early civilizations to pay respectful attention to the importance chocolate played in their own societies and how it permeated every aspect of their cultures during the pre-Conquest era.

Cacao held value in myriad ways for the people of pre-Conquest Mesoamerica, and therefore it was present in almost every aspect of society.  It was also of great importance at every level of society, from the lowest classes to royalty and even in their views the celestial world and the afterlife.  

One use of cacao that affected all aspects of society was as coinage.  It can be difficult in at this point in time to imagine using a perishable commodity such as chocolate as currency, but it was indeed a valuable staple of the Mesoamerican economical system.  While some have argued that the Spanish introduced the concept of using cacao as a form of currency, we can see from Colonial era documentary information that the indigenous communities were already using it in this way upon their arrival.  One of the first accounts of this “coin of the realm” was written by Peter Martyr, an early observer of the Aztec society. In one of his passages from his De Orbe Novo, he writes “ But it is very needful to heare what happie money they use, for they have money, which I call happy, because for the greedie desire and gaping to attaine the same, the bowelles of the earth are not rent a sunder, nor through the ravening greediness of covetous men, nor terrour of warres assayling, it returneth to the dennes and caves of the mother earth, as golden, or silver money doth. For this groweth upon trees.”

In terms of the purchasing power of cacao beans (or more accurately, the seeds of the cacao pod), there are varying reports. However, according to a Nahuatl document in 1545 documenting prices in Tlaxcala, one cacao bean held the equivalent value of one large tomato or one tamale.  Three beans would buy you an avocado, 30 would buy you a small rabbit, and 100 full beans (or alternatively 120 shrunken beans) would buy you one good turkey hen.

Naturally, cacao was also used as a consumable good in pre-Colonial Mesoamerica, but it was consumed largely as a drink rather than a food.  According to Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, “during nine tenths of its long history, chocolate was drunk, not eaten.” Evidence of this can be found in many artifacts discovered in that region, including the Princeton Vase below.  This example of Maya “codex style” ceramic art depicts a woman pouring a chocolate beverage from one vessel into another for the Merchant God. It is the earliest known depiction of a chocolate beverage being frothed and served. Cacao was often combined with corn in beverages to give it more sustenance, and it was also used in recipes to add flavor to other foods.

Beyond the serving of cacao as a pleasurable beverage or food, it was also believed by the Mesoamericans to have medicinal qualities.  It was used to treat digestive issues, coughs, and other sicknesses, and it was used as an anaesthetic, an anti-inflammatory aid, and as a cure for struggles such as breast milk production and kidney stones.  According to the Florentine Codex, an early collaboration between Aztec and Spanish ethnographers, cacao beans were used in combination with other ingredients to treat a range of physical and psychological issues, from fatigue to anemia. Cacao was also believed to provide strength and energy, so soldiers would often drink it before battle, and depictions of warriors carrying cacao beans into war can be found on many of the artifacts from that era.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who documented the Spanish conquest extensively, relayed the use of cacao beverages by the Aztecsfor “success with women.”  We now know that chocolate contains the compound phenylethylamne, which the brain produces when they experience attraction, confirming the Aztec belief in the connection between chocolate and romance.  

Cacao had a large role in community rituals and traditions as well.  Cacao beans were used as dowry payments, and cacao beverages were served during betrothal and marriage ceremonies.  One such marriage ritual, “tac haa,” involved inviting the father of a girl whom one’s son wants to marry to discuss the marriage and serving him a chocolate drink.

Similarly, cacao was present in the death rituals of the Mesoamerican era as well.  Images and glyphs depicting cacao in its various forms – pods, beans, beverages, etc. – are seen in many depictions of burial ceremonies, and for those who could afford it, the dead were even buried with cacao vessels filled with the chocolate beverage, to give their souls strength and energy in the afterlife.

Other examples of cacao as part of the societal fabric is how it was used to depict class and hierarchy.  For example, we see portrayals in paintings and carvings of members of royal families emerging from the ground as cacao trees.  This was done as a way of legitimating their royal blood and status. The cacao trees, or theobroma cacao, were considered sacred, referred to also as “world trees” or “first trees.”  In their mythologies, dieties were often born of trees or transformed into trees; the roots extended down to the underworld, the trunk represented the contemporary world, and the leaves or shoots reached up into the heavens.  In essence, the cacao tree served as a metastructure of the heavens.

As we have seen here, cacao in its various forms played a very potent role throughout pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.  It served as a social “glue,” binding the peoples of each region together through common rituals and customs, and doing social “work,” in a vastly expanded yet somehow way when compared to our own contemporary concept of “chocolate.”  

Works Cited:

Bernardino de Sahagun, Fray. Florentine Codex, General History of the Things of New Spain, Book X. Santa Fe: School of American Research, 1955.

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

Edgar, Blake. “The Power of Chocolate.” Archaeology Magazine, 2010, archive.archaeology.org/1011/abstracts/chocolate.html.

Martin, Carla and Sampeck, Kathryn. The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe. The Social Meaning of Food. Socio.HU, 2015.

Wolfe, David and Holdstock, Sharon. Naked Chocolate: The Astonishing Truth About the World’s Greatest Food. North Atlantic Books, 2005.


The Movement of Cacao and its Contributions to Today’s Contradictory Chocolate Culture

Chocolate. Convenient, but luxurious. Heartwarming, yet harmful to health. Innocently childish, but sinfully sexual. Rich and elite, yet somehow democratized. The cultural impact and social connotations of chocolate are about as diverse and confounding as the chemical makeup of the cacao beans themselves. Metaphorically and physically, it seems as if chocolate can take on any form we impose on it. It has no strict definition, so it either contributes to the confusing complexity of our culture today or is oversimplified through the imposition of a specific but incomplete structure. One might wonder how and why chocolate, specifically, so profoundly developed these odd cultural characteristics in the Western world.

The development of the role of chocolate in society today ties fundamentally back to the effect of the spread of chocolate from its Mesoamerican home to Europe, when the functionality of chocolate shifted and developed into what we know today. Whereas all aspects of chocolate production and consumption were intertwined and fundamentally connected in Mesoamerican society, its spread to Europe caused an irreversible disconnect between all stages of the chocolate experience. Chocolate no longer served as a reflection of or connection to humanity and society. Instead, it took on an exotic quality, able to be molded into the desires of the person.  It became a social construct and developed a standardized, homogenous cultural trap for Westerners, both fulfilling and now defining their own desires rather than reflecting it.

In Mesoamerican society, where cacao was first cultivated and consumed, cacao served as a pillar of the social, cultural, and religious structures and was as a crucial reflection of the state of society as a whole (Coe 17, 39-40). Mesoamerican people, specifically the Aztec and Maya, integrated cacao into every portion of their life and were connected to cacao and chocolate at every stage of its harvesting, consumption, or use otherwise. Cacao served as a currency, a luxury food for the elite, a powerful source of energy for warriors, a symbol of religious significance, and a deep and meaningful connection to the significance and origins of life (Leissle 30-32). All members of society were aware of its role at every stage of development and consumption and felt a personal stake in maintaining and cherishing the importance of the cacao plant. Each person’s life was intrinsically connected to that of the cacao plant (Coe 41-42). Cacao reinforced the social structure, the culture, and the way of life, and consequently also reflected it.

However, cacao’s connection to European societies was intrinsically different. Europeans were introduced to cacao with prejudice, with a mindset already in place that would forever change the way that they interact with the plant. Their goals in traveling to the Americas were to find cures and remedies for all that seemed to be plaguing their own societies. They were looking for sources of wealth, medicine, romance, and more (Coe 96).  And with such a strong, desperate desire to find these things, they ended up fabricating them out of whatever they found, especially cacao. The first Europeans to “discover” cacao already had a destiny planned out for cacao before even setting eyes on it, and this destiny was what they brought back to their home.

What does this mean for the contribution of cacao and chocolate to Europe’s culture? Clearly, since the very beginning, chocolate served as a mode of fabricating a reality that fit the wishes and desires of Europeans. It served as an exotic, luxurious drink of the elite (Leissle 35-36). It served as a medicine, a cure-all for the various ailments that plagued European society (Coe 126-129). It was simultaneously sexualized (Coe 171) for adults and later purified for children. It was politically, religiously, and medically debated (Leissle 35). Chocolate could be anything and everything. Since Europeans felt no historical, traditional, or other connection to cacao, they had complete discretion over the role it played in their own lives. As this power fell into the hands of millions of Europeans, the role of cacao was suddenly no longer well-defined. Chocolate became a little bit of everything, but it thus fell victim to not truly being much of anything. Because of this, it escapes specific categorizations and is associated with general contradicting characteristics (sensuality, wealth, luxury, innocence, etc.). Take, for example, a Ferrero Rocher advertisement, displaying chocolate as a luxury for the wealthy (Ferrero Rocher). Another advertisement, released by Sainsbury, depicts quite the opposite scenario where chocolate is meant to warm the hearts of the jaded common men fighting in WWI (Sainsbury’s).

Ferrero Rocher Commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jld1rpsrtSI

Sainsbury Commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWF2JBb1bvM

Or consider, for instance, a Godiva commercial where chocolate is advertised as a highly gendered, sexualized product (Godiva Chocolates). Yet, we can quickly turn to a Cadbury commercial that ties chocolate to innocent young children and family values (Cadbury):

Godiva Commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfA1iAgPczY  

Cadbury Commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0eEqeizNCA

Curiously, as early Europeans defined cacao and chocolate culture, they were unconsciously setting themselves up to later be dominated by the same product that they once controlled. Besides its enticing flavors, the ability to fit any desire gradually made chocolate extremely popular, which transferred power back to cacao. The Western world trapped itself in a generalizing, homogenifying culture defined by chocolate’s cultural associations. Today, we see that chocolate has grown so powerful that now it defines for us the contradictory culture that we initially created for it.

One of the clearest examples of this is how cacao’s role changed in the reinforcement of class structure. In Mesoamerican society, cacao reinforced strict social dichotomies, mainly through how each class interacted with the substance (Leissle 33) (Martin and Sampeck 39-40). The chocolate drink and cacao cakes were for the nobility and warriors (Coe 33, 76, 95).  Lower classes did not consume it often (Coe 95), but they were fundamentally connected to cacao ecologically, financially (as a currency), and symbolically (Leissle 30). No matter the class, everyone was aware of every step of cacao harvesting, use, and value addition. This universal awareness of cacao’s role in society seemed to create a very transparent social structure.

When cacao moved to Europe, it took on a different way of reinforcing class structure. Cacao production was moved to far away plantations in Sao Tome, Principe, Ghana, Nigeria, Côte D’Ivoire, and more (Martin and Sampeck 49-50). Cacao stopped reflecting society or connecting cacao and humanity. We are no longer familiar with who grows it, how it is made, and how it affects us. We have trapped ourselves in a world of mirrors, where all that is visible is our final personal interaction with the product. All else is hidden behind closed doors. Europeans could define the role that chocolate played; they could show what they wanted, hide what they wanted, cherish some aspects, and spit on others. But, fragmenting cacao’s value and social impact inherently fragmented humanity as well.

It is common in this day and age to believe that ancient societies like those of the Aztec and Maya were incredibly powerful, stable, and knowledgeable. It appears as if these people held the key to life, youth, health, happiness, and more, but this is not necessarily true. The Maya and Aztec appeared successful because their lifestyle was centered around traditions and objects that dated back centuries, possibly even millenia. In contrast, with the diversity of concepts, foods, objects, and more that the Europeans had been introduced to which had no traditional or fundamental connection, they were essentially given the incredible power to decide for themselves how to incorporate each new discovery into their own society. By pure nature of the situation, as we see with cacao specifically, out of a stable and established culture grew a fluid, moldable, and complex one that has trapped Westerners in a contradictory culture that now ironically defines their roles for them.

Works Cited:

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

Cadbury. “Cadbury – Mum’s Birthday TV Advert – 2018 (60 secs).” YouTube, Cadbury, 12 Jan. 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0eEqeizNCA.

Ferrero Rocher. “Ferrero Rocher: Christmas Greetings.” YouTube, Ferrero Rocher, 29 Nov. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jld1rpsrtSI.

Godiva Chocolates UK. “New Godiva Masterpieces Chocolates. Chocolate Never Felt so Good.” YouTube, Godiva Chocolates UK, 3 Oct. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfA1iAgPczY.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

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

Sainsbury’s. “1914 | Sainsbury’s Ad | Christmas 2014.” YouTube, Sainsbury’s, 12 Nov. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWF2JBb1bvM.

The Ritual Significance of Cacao in Pre-Colombian Mesoamerica

Chocolate and other cocao-based products were first produced by Mesoamerican natives from the beans of the cacao tree, theobroma cacao, pictured below. The genus of cacao’s scientific name, theobroma, means “food of the gods,” and the species name, cacao, is the Mesoamerican name for the tree and its beans (Coe and Coe 2007, 17-18). This scientific name is particularly appropriate for cacao, as the tree and its beans carried great significance in Mesoamerican religions. Cacao was indeed associated with the gods and important rituals in Maya and Aztec societies. In pre-Columbian Maya and Aztec civilizations, cacao was significant for religious customs and beliefs surrounding death, fertility, and economic exchange.

Cacao Tree - Theobroma cacao
Figure 1: Theobroma cacao tree and pods

Cacao and Death

In pre-Colombian Mesoamerica, cacao was ritually connected to and representative of death. The cacao tree grows in the shady understory of the lowland tropical forests of Central America (Coe and Coe 2007). Because of cacao’s love of shade, the tree was associated with night and the Underworld in Mesoamerican societies (Leissle 2018). In the Maya origin myth, the central deity, the Maize God, is beheaded in the Underworld. The Maize God’s head is then hung on none other than the cacao tree. Cacao beverages were often prepared by adding achiote, a red plant substance, that colored the drink red and linked cacao to blood (Leissle 2018). In Figure 2 below, the cacao tree is depicted as one of the four sacred trees of Aztec society, representing the South. The pods of the cacao tree in the image are painted red, harkening this connection to blood and resembling a human heart (Coe and Coe 2007, 103). The ghostly spectre of Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of the Land of the Dead, is depicted standing beside the cacao tree on one side, reinforcing cacao’s connection to death and the Underworld (Coe and Coe 2007, 103). Cacao was also utilized as an offering in human sacrifices, especially by the Aztecs (though human sacrifice was likely not as widespread as Spanish accounts suggest) (Leissle 2018). In both Maya and Aztec societies, cacao was not only a food but an important symbol of the transition between this life and the next. Because of cacao’s religious significance, the consumption of cacao in these Mesoamerican societies was a symbolic act in itself.

Figure 2: pre-Columbian Aztec ritual calendar depicting the four quarters of the universe, four world-trees, and nine gods , taken from the Codex Fejervary-Mayer (Coe and Coe 2007, 102). The cacao tree of the South is depicted on the right.

Cacao and Fertility

In Mesoamerican religion, cacao was also associated with rebirth and fertility. In Mesoamerican ideology, death is the foundation for new life (Martin 2009). In the Maya origin myth introduced above, from the Maize God’s corpse, the next generation is conceived and fruit-bearing trees sprout, specifically the coveted cacao tree (Martin 2009). In this cycle of death and rebirth, cacao was not only an important symbol of death in Mesoamerican cultures but also a symbol of fertility and life. Mesoamerican people believed that humans were created by the gods from the food crops that sustained life, especially cacao and maize (Coe and Coe 2007). As a symbol of new life, cacao was often exchanged to endorse marriage alliances in both Maya and Aztec societies (Martin and Sampeck 2016; Coe and Coe 2007). Brides and bridegrooms in marriage ceremonies would often gift cacao beans or beverages to one another and engage in chokola’j, the act of drinking chocolate together, to seal the wedding pact (Coe and Coe 2007, 61). This exchange of cacao was a blessing of fertility for the couple.

Cacao and Wealth

Beyond the social exchanges of marriage and fertility, cacao was also important for economic exchanges and ritual displays of wealth. Cacao beans were used as valuable currency by Maya and Aztec people. Cacao became associated with trade and mercantilism as the merchant class in Mesoamerican societies transported precious cacao beans and seasonings from distant areas of production throughout the Maya and Aztec civilizations (Coe and Coe 2007). Figure 3 below depicts the Maya Merchant God (Ek Chuah or God L) with a cacao tree. The Merchant God in the image is located at the botom of a set of stairs; this location is quite purposeful because the Merchant God was also the principal deity of the Underworld. Thus God L has a two-fold connection to cacao as both an important trade item and a symbol of death (Martin 2009). Cacao was such a valuable currency and sacred food item that Mesoamericans were buried with cacao in their tombs to take with them into the afterlife (Coe and Coe 2007, 47; Leissle 2018). Cacao in daily life and in Mesoamerican religion was a symbol of power and wealth that could even aide one in death. In life, Mesoamerican elites would also display their wealth and power by hosting feasts at which guests drank chocolate beverages (Coe and Coe 2007). Cacao as a symbol of wealth in life and in death interweaves these ritual themes of death, rebirth, and economic exchange.

Figure 3: The Maya Merchant God with a cacao tree on a 9th century mural at Cacaxtla in central Mexico (Coe and Coe 2007, 55).

Concluding Thoughts

The spiritual meanings of cacao as it related to death, fertility, and economic exchange in Mesoamerican societies were interconnected in complex and significant ways. Cacao served in Maya and Aztec cultures as a symbol of the afterlife, yet the afterlife was also intimately connected with the idea of rebirth and fertility. Thus, cacao carried meanings of both death and new life. Additionally, cacao came to be associated with wealth, power, and trade. The significance of cacao in economic exchange transcended both life and death as the Maya and Aztec elites displayed their wealth in cacao through ritual feasts while living and in their burial chambers after death. Cacao for the Maya and Aztec was so much more than a food product or a beverage. Cacao was thoroughly integrated into Mesoamerican peoples’ belief systems and ways of life.

If the reader is interested in further exploring cacao’s ritual significance in Mesoamerica, check out this video production:

Bibliography

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Bjorn, S. 2016. “Cacao Tree: Theobroma Cacao.” Flickr. Retrieved March 15, 2019 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/40948266@N04/26680744921).

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2007. The True History of Chocolate. 2nd ed. London: Thames & Hudson.

Leissle, Kristy. 2018. Cocoa. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Martin, Carla and Sampeck, Kathryn. 2016. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, 37-60.

Martin, Simon. 2009. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and other Tales from the Underworld.” Pp. 154-183 in Chocolate in Mesoamerica. Edited by McNeil, Cameron L. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press.

Sandra Origins. 2016. “Cacao Pathway to the Gods: Sacred Cacao Rituals.” You-Tube Web site. Retrieved March 14, 2019 (https://youtu.be/XDxZ_BH_xYQ).

Zaman, Tim. 2012. “Caxatla Mural Del Templo Rojo.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved March 14, 2019 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caxatla_Mural_Del_Templo_Rojo.jpg).

Compliments to the Chef: Lessons from a Mayan Chocolate Recipe

In 2017, consumers in the United States spent over $22 billion on chocolate and ate an average of 12 pounds of chocolate per person. That chocolate is consumed in many forms: mass-market Hershey’s Kisses, melted chocolate covering a strawberry, chocolate powder warmed up with milk to be drunk, or an artisanal cacao bar, just to name a few. Chocolate has become so desirable and pervasive in our society that Kay Jewelers even has a collection of chocolate diamond rings.

In understanding the history of chocolate, it is important to consider early Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Aztecs and Mayans. In the interest of brevity, I will focus exclusively on the Mayan civilization below. My hope is that by examining a traditional Mayan chocolate recipe, and the societal context of chocolate in classical Mayan society, one will better understand both the evolution of chocolate and also Mayan society itself. At the risk of sounding dramatic, chocolate can be an incredibly powerful way of comprehending history.

The Classical Mayan Civilization

I begin with a map of the general location of the Mayan civilization (below). I have chosen to include this map for two reasons. The first is that in understanding Mayan cacao, it is necessary to think about environmental factors that dictate nuances such as the characteristics of the Mayan cacao trees and pods. For instance, cacao can only be grown in certain ranges of latitude, but even within that range, temperature and climate differences dictate the nature of the cacao pods in a given location (Coe and Coe, 2007). But the map is also worth keeping in mind when considering the spatial relation of cacao to other civilizations. From its origin in the Amazon Basin, cacao spread to Mesoamerican civilizations, and gradually to continents far and wide through institutions such as colonialization. In understanding how civilizations engaged with cacao, it is useful to keep a mental image of a map so as to understand how other cultures then created their own cacao recipes as it moved geographically around the world.

A map of the Mayan civilization

Although the so-called classical Mayan era occurred over a millennium ago in the years of 250AD through 800AD, historians have nonetheless been able to piece together aspects of the Mayan civilization through various means: artifacts, linguistics, and written documents, to name a few. Among these methods have been the work of epigraphers such as Yuri Knorosov which has allowed for historians to be able to read texts from the era such as the Dresden Codex (Coe and Coe, 2007). Being able to read books such as the Dresden Codex have in turn shed great insight into how the Mayan civilization engaged with cacao.  

Mayan Engagement with Cacao

From the Dresden Codex, for example, historians have been able to conclude that cacao had a place in ritualistic spheres of the Mayan civilization, with descriptions of the gods engaging with cacao (Coe and Coe, 2007). From the Madrid Codex, historians have learned of a powerful connection between human blood and chocolate in Mayan civilization (Coe and Coe, 2007). And from chemical analysis of residue on artifacts, researchers have been able to learn about the vessels through which cacao was enjoyed. While cacao thus held several ‘uses’ of sorts, whether for rituals or consumption, a common misconception is that cacao in Mayan civilization was solely enjoyed in pure form as a drink. Instead, as Coe describes, “pre-Conquest chocolate was not a single concoction to be drunk; it was a vast and complex array of drinks, gruels, porridges, powders, and probably solid substances, to all of which could be added a wide variety of flavorings” (Coe and Coe, 2007, p48). This serves as a nice segue into thinking about a Mayan recipe for cacao.

Mayan Chocolate Recipe

To modern-day Americans, a foodstuff recipe typically consists of a list of ingredients described in precise quantities and orders that result in an end-product ready for consumption. However, the use of the word recipe for the Mayans is much broader (Hull, 2010). From a Mayan recipe for chocolate, we can gather information such as the contexts in which cacao was consumed, the methods of preparation, and characteristics of a society-at-large.

Consider the chocolate recipe of sorts that was deciphered by David Stuart and others. In scenes depicted on vases, we can see the process by which Mayans frothed the chocolate beverage. The very act of frothing the beverage shows us a specific, integral feature of the Mayan chocolate. We concurrently see writings that mention flavorings that were added, such as chilli (Coe and Coe, 2007). The types of ingredients added to cacao help us to imagine flavor profiles of the Mayan diet, but also to then compare to later iterations of chocolate found in countries such as England with high levels of added sugar (Mintz, 1986). Finally, vocabulary related to chocolate are an integral part of the recipe. For instance, the term ‘tac haa’ related to fathers’ of a future married couple meeting and discussing the prospect of a wedding over chocolate (Coe and Coe, 2007). A vital component of the Mayan recipe was thus the social aspect of consumption of chocolate.

The image included below summarizes some of the above components of the recipe. For instance, the depicted drinking cup would be placed on the ground and have chocolate poured into it from an above height for the purposes of frothing. It also has elaborate depictions on the outside of the cup which are one of the many ways that historians and researchers have been able to piece together the very ‘recipes’ of the ancient Maya.

The drinking cup of a classic Maya noble.

Lessons from the Recipe

A great deal can be learned from what may appear above to be a simple recipe. For instance, we can think about how different recipes reflect the broader nature of a civilization. The Mayan recipe seems to focus on cacao as a social experience rather than a commodity. Sidney Mintz’s observations on how sedentary civilizations over time demand more complex carbohydrates in their diets then allows us to understand how recipes evolved to include more sugar and other such ingredients (Mintz, 1986).  

While the classical Mayan civilization may have fallen more than a millennium ago, the idea of Mayan chocolate has been both idealized and profit-ized; it has become synonymous with chocolate from a past era, eliciting feelings of more natural and wholesome cacao. The included National Geographic video (below) for instance, profiles a chocolatier in Guatemala who is claimed in the video to employ a present-day version of Mayan chocolate making. While the authenticity may be disputed, the genuine interest in understanding distant cultures and societies persists nonetheless.

National Geographic video on the continuing Mayan tradition of chocolate making

Ultimately, learning about the Mayan recipe has also made me want to be more cognizant of the deliberate choices that are made in the preparation of foodstuff. For instance, it is not only the ingredients that are selected that matter, but also the exacting methods (such as frothing of chocolate for the Mayans) that go into the final presentation.

Works Cited

Coe, S. (2007). The true history of chocolate (Revised [and updated ed.]. ed.). New York: Thames and Hudson.

Doyle, J. (2014). The Drinking Cup of a Classic Maya Noble. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed from https://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/now-at-the-met/2014/maya-drinking-cup

Hull, K., Staller, J., & Carrasco, M. (2010). An Epigraphic Analysis of Classic-Period Maya Foodstuffs. In Pre-Columbian Foodways: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Food, Culture, and Markets in Ancient Mesoamerica (pp. 235-256). New York, NY: Springer New York.

Mintz, S. (1986). Sweetness and power : The place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin Books.

Image Credits:

https://ancientcivilizationsworld.com/maya/ancient-maya-civilization-map/

https://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/now-at-the-met/2014/maya-drinking-cup

Lets talk about chocolate sauce

 

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CHOCOLATE SAUCE- Picture was taken by me

 

A few months back my aunt Bazat Saifiyyah made a chocolate sauce that everyone in my family went completely crazy over. We would eat it at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. With many different foods such as ice-cream, strawberries when they were in season, spread over toast or just eaten plain.

For my blog post I want to explore within the context of my aunt’s recipe, the ingredients that go into it, where does the chocolate come from, the historical backing and also the perception of chocolate and its health benefits.

The recipe 

 

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A picture taken by me to show the ingredients that go into the chocolate sauce. 

 

 

The ingredients that go into the chocolate sauce are butter, dark chocolate compound, Hershey’s natural unsweetened cocoa, Hershey’s caramel syrup, icing sugar, milk and fresh cream.

The chocolate sauce is made by melting butter over a low heat flame, then add the dark chocolate compound broken up into many pieces. Then after this has melted the milk and fresh cream are added and then whisked until fully mixed. Then after this, the Hershey’s natural unsweetened cocoa powder is added with the icing sugar. After this, the caramel syrup is added. Then the whole mixture is to be whisked over a low flame for two minutes, then it is ready to be eaten.

This is a short video that I have taken during the making of the chocolate sauce.

 

What is the history behind the recipe?

Cacao first came to be cultivated agriculturally by the Olmecs in the lowlands of the Mexican Gulf Coast ( C ) It was picked up by the Mayans and then from them the Aztecs. In this time the way that they processed the cacao bean was very different then how it is processed today. The cacao pod would be harvested and then its beans would be dried, roasted, shelled and then ground on a metate to make a paste, this paste could have other flavoring additions to it depending on the culture that it was made in. This paste was then made into balls from which a hot foamy chocolate drink was made, this seems to have been the primary way in which the Mesoamericans consumed their cacao. However, there are mentions of it being used in other food items. ( C )

This is a video that demonstrates the Mesoamerican chocolate making practices.

This cacao consumption was picked up by the Spanish during their colonization period. It became an extremely important part of their culture and practices. Then it was picked up by the European colonizers and it became joined with sugar that was also being produced in the colonies. Then came the inventions that changed how chocolate was produced such as conching by Rudolph Lindt in Switzerland, this made the chocolate smooth by breaking down the large particles in a machine. ( P ) Also, the addition of dairy products like milk and cream to chocolate changed drastically how chocolate was enjoyed by many people.

Where does the cacao come from? 

The two chocolate products that go into making this compound are Hershey’s natural unsweetened cocoa and Mordes dark compound chocolate ( CD D16 ). Both these ingredients are processed differently to reach the state that they are in.

Hershey’s natural unsweetened cocoa- 

The processing of cacao to reach cocoa powder was invented by Coenerad Van Houten in the Netherlands. He developed a technique which processed cacao beans in such a way that they separated into two compounds, cacao butter, and a solid cake.  ( P ) The cacao butter was the more prized of the two compounds and often it was sold by companies and not used with the solids of the beans that it came from.  The solid cocoa cake that was made was then ground up into a fine powder and it is used in chocolate drinks and baking. Another process that also goes behind the cocoa powder made today is the dutch processing technique which is a treatment done by adding alkaline salts to neutralize the bitter taste and also to have a darker colored chocolate. ( P )

There is no mention of the product about where the cacao that goes into this process comes from. This makes the cacao completely anonymous.

This anonymity of chocolate shows a shift in the attitudes of people towards cacao beans and their sourcing. In the past centuries, before the manufacturing of chocolate became so connected to the industrialized process, the sourcing of the cacao bean was of utmost importance. The criollo pods were counted as the best type of cacao, it has the sweetest flavor and the richest taste ( P), the finding of this pod is extremely rare nowadays and many expert chocolatiers try with great difficulty to get a hold of this criollo pod to make their chocolate. This pod was mainly used by the Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs and then it was transported to Hispanic plantations such as Venezuela during their period of colonization. ( P ) The most common type of cacao in use today is the forastero variety, this is purple and of a darker color then the criollo variety, it is also extremely bitter however the multiple industrial processes that cacao beans go through these days balance out the bitterness. Then there is also the Trinitario variety, this is a cross breed between the criollo and forastero, it was developed in Trinidad, this is the most resilient variety and it has a more pleasant taste than the foraestro. ( P )

The other factor that matters a lot in the sourcing of cacao is where is it grown, this contains the Terrior of the landscape and also carries a lot of history and chocolate traditions and culture with it. Chocolate has a dark history intertwined with the slave trade and abuse of peoples in plantations. In the modern day, the roots of colonization, the booming cacao trade, and European chocolate culture has led to established cacao farming in many parts of the world that were colonized such as Brazil, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Ecuador and West Africa. Today West Africa produces 75% of the worlds cacao and most of this cacao is exported for production abroad, only 4% of the worlds chocolate is consumed by its people. West Africa collectively produces 3 million metric tonnes of cacao in a year( L 8)

There is a lot that goes into the cacao bean and if it is made so anonymous its history is wiped away and its variety and subtleties are emitted out of the chocolate making process as nobody knows where it originates from.

Mordes dark compound chocolate ( CD D16 ) 

This chocolate is also another example of the anonymity of the cacao bean today. The ingredients that go into making this bar are as follows, Sugar, Edible Vegetable fats, Cocoa Solids and Emulsifiers ( 492, 322 ) CONTAINS ADDED NATURAL (VANILLA) FLAVOURING SUBSTANCES, Hydrogenated Vegetable Fat Used- Contains Trans Fats.

This bar does not have a cacao percentage in it however it has cocoa solids, so it does not have cacao butter in it.

This is a video that demonstrates how chocolate bars are made today.

 

 

A look into Hershey’s

Hershey’s was founded in 1903 by Milton S. Hershey, it came to be known as Americans most iconic chocolate. It had a great influence on American business and taste. ( L 11 )

The two struggles that this company faced and managed to overcome were, one, the struggle to develop milk chocolate, so they made their own dairy farms and sourced their milk from there. Two, the struggle to control the sugar supply chain. Sugar used to come from Cuba and during the period of 1916-46 there was a highly volatile situation and this affected the sugar supply chain. To face this problem Hershey brought land in Cuba where he established his own sugar plantations, for the transportation of this sugar he also built some connecting railways.  ( L 12 )

This is a video that demonstrates the history and founding of Hershey’s chocolates.

Health effects

The potential health risks in consuming chocolate are environmental factors of polluted soil and water, problems in other ingredients such as milk, sugar, soy lecithin, inclusions, manufacturing issues, allergy or sensitivity to certain ingredients mixed with the cacao or to the caffeine, and a very high sugar and saturated fat content and a very high calorie content. ( L 12 )

There has also been a lot of contemporary research on the health benefits of chocolate. These are Antioxidant, Cardioprotective, Psychoactive, Anti-inflammatory, Anti-allergy and Anti-tumoral properties ( L 12 )

After knowing some of the history behind chocolate and everything that has gone into making it, one can eat the chocolate sauce with more understanding of what actually goes on in the making of it.

References

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013 – ( C)

Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Random House Digital, Inc., 2009. – ( P )

Chocolate class lectures, Carla Martin, Harvard Extension School, Spring 2018 – ( L )

History of Hershey’s chocolate, Charles Dean Archive, Published on Jan 9, 2014 on Youtube

Milk Chocolate from Scratch How it is made, Science Channel, Published on Oct 30, 2016 on Youtube

Watch the Ancient Art of Chocolate Making, National Geographic, Published on Oct 13, 2017 on Youtube

Let Us Raise a Vessel to Cacao… Mayan Style!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References Cited:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ethnography on Chocolate: Socioeconomic Visual Culture, Mesoamerican Origins, & Contemporary Perspectives

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.

Origins

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.

 

San Lorenzo on the map 2
San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán is a famed archaeological site, well known for the massive Olmec stone heads excavated there

 

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).

 

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Buenavista vase, Buenavista del Cayo, Belize

 

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)

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Buenavista vase closeup: Maya glyphs depicted translate to “tree-fresh cacao”, “Ta-Tsih-Te’el Kakawa” (Prescilla)

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.

Field Study

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.

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The Spa At Hotel Hershey seems to know just how to indulge all the senses with chocolate

 

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.

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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.

Interpretations

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)

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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.”

 

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“Mole” Ingredients. Presilla, 2009

 

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.

***

 

Sources:

Campbell, Lyle & Kaufman, Terrence. 1976. A Linguistic Look at the Olmecs: American Antiquity, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 80-89 Published by: Society for American Archaeology http://www2.hawaii.edu/~lylecamp/LC%20Lx%20look%20at%20Olmecs%20JSTOR.pdf

Cheong, Kong (Powis, T.; Cyphers, A.; Gaikwad, T.W.; Grivetti, L.) 2011. Cacao use and the San Lorenzo Olmec: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). 108(21):8595-600 · May 2011 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51110764_Cacao_Use_and_the_San_Lorenzo_Olmec

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

Johnston, Bernice. 1997. The Seri Indians of Sonora Mexico. The University of Arizona Press http://www.uapress.arizona.edu/onlinebks/SERIS/HISTORY.HTM

Liebig, Jason. 2012. Carlos V – Building a history for the King of Chocolate Bars http://www.collectingcandy.com/wordpress/?p=2958

Martin, Carla. 2017 AAAS E-119 Lecture Slides. February 1st, pp.23, 47, 53, 57

Mintz, Sidney. 1986 [1985] Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books

Morton, Marcia and Frederic. 1986 Chocolate, An Illustrated History Crown Publishers, Inc. New York, NY

Nestlé. 2017. https://www.nestle.com.mx/brands/carlos-v

Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology: Harvard University. 2017. https://www.peabody.harvard.edu/node/287

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

Smithsonian Institute. 2017. Olmec Stone Heads photo: http://anthropology.si.edu/olmec/english/sites/sanLorenzo.htm

Takushi, Scott (Pioneer Press). 2013, December 17. Museum of Belize and House of Culture: NEWSEUM Blog Spot: Belize’s Maya Collection on Displayhttps://mobnmoc.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/belizes-maya-collection-on-display/mayaex1/

Unknown photographer; featured image. 2016, October – November. Nexos. https://americanwaymagazine.com/cacao-route

Unknown photographer; chocolate as beauty regimen image. 2017. The Spa At The Hotel Hershey. http://www.chocolatespa.com/treatments/signature/chocolate.php

The Sacred, Ancient History of Chocolate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlAg7zIR57k

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 1 Feb. 2017. Class Lecture.

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

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

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

 

This Little “chocolate pot…”

Much literary attention has been given to Pre-Columbian cacao artifacts, specifically the cylindrical types used by both the Maya and Aztec for cacao preparation and consumption. Until more recently, however, there has been little attention given to the much older Preclassic spouted vessels excavated throughout Maya highlands and lowlands (see figures below). The pichinga, as these vessels are now called by modern Maya groups living in the Guatemalan highlands, are historically significant as they fit into the earlier segment of the cacao and chocolate narrative; furthermore, these pots have only more recently been able to provide the ethnographic data to substantiate why for the past century “Mayanists have dubbed [these] Preclassic spouted vessels as “chocolate pots”” (Powis et al., 2002).

 

Figure 1: Spouted Vessel, Tomb 1, Mound 1, Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas Mexico 100 BCE-100 CE, 21 x 18.5 cm. (source: http://www.mesoweb.com/lords/feasting.html)

Figure 2: Excavated from the Colha site in northern Belize between 600 BCE-250 CE, is one of 14 vessels that contained substantial amounts theobromine.
(source: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v418/n6895/fig_tab/418289a_F1.html)

As early as 1918 the term “chocolate pots” was used in Thomas Gann’s report, “The Maya Indians of Southern Yucatan and Northern British Honduras” to describe the Late Preclassic spouted vessels found in burial sites at Santa Rita Corozal, Belize without any supporting evidence to confirm its accuracy. The term “chocolate pots” has since permeated literature, uncontested albeit the lack of “supporting contextual, residual, phytolith, or iconographic analyses to either confirm or deny” cacao usage (Powis et al., 2002). Why then has this phrase “chocolate pot” become so embedded within the literature? With the discovery of new methods to analyze phytoliths, these vessels now provide substantial data to conclusively determine that these vessels were indeed used during the preparations and consumption of cacao, given the high levels of theobromine found within them (Powis e al, 2002).

Preclassic spouted vessels were associated with the elite class. The contextual findings presented by Powis et al. suggest that approximately 90% of these vessels were excavated in “special deposits”, and were of elaborate forms, suggesting that cacao drinking was incorporated in ceremonial and ritual practices. Patricia McAnany and Eleanor Harrison, in their seminal 2004 work, K’axob: Ritual, Work, and Family in an Ancient Maya Village, confirm these special burial caches, suggesting that the K’axob site yielded “signature pieces” and that “they contain special characteristics such as modeling, gadrooning, incising, and appliqué,” which denoted dedicated function (McAnany and Eleanor, 2004). As is more commonly known, this practice of dedicated vessel usage was exhibited with the Classical cylindrical vessels and continued on up until the arrival of the Spaniards. However, the Primary Standard Sequence (PSS) does not appear on any spouted vessels, only on the Classic cylindrical types. Nonetheless, these elaborate spouted ceramics were part of the elite continuum of cacao’s status among the Mesoamerican people.

Spouted vessels provide the linguistic evidence needed to link the word kakawa or cacao to the Olmecs. Until the discovery of these vessels, there was no strong evidence, either archaeological, botanical, or iconographic to support the Olmec theory of origin for the word, according to David Lentz and Michael Coe (Powis et al., 2002). Within scholarship there were two opposing hypothesis to the origin of the word cacao.  On the one side, as articulated by Karen Dakin and Sren Wichmann (2001), kakawa was a Uto-Aztecan term, of Nahuatl origin. This would then suggest that the history of cacao consumption started sometime during the 5th century CE.  However, Lyle Campbell and Terrence Kaufman’s seminal article in 1976, “A Linguistic Look at the Olmecs”, contended that the term kakawa was of Mixe-Zoquean origin, which the Olmec spoke as early as 1500 BCE, suggesting that Preclassic Mesoamerican cultures produced, distributed, and consumed cacao at least two millennia before the Aztec. Thus the discovery of these pots was significant in that they provided the necessary data to support the much earlier Olmec origin (Powis et al., 2002).

Although it is not definitive as to why Protoclassic Mayans replaced their spouted pots with the Teotihuacan-style tripod cylindrical vases, Powis et al. suggest that the new method for cacao preparation was perhaps introduced by Mayan contact with Mexican highlanders as these new vessels were superior for cacao usages than the spouted variety. Given its form and larger size, the cylindrical vessels provided better storage; made it easier for transportation; provided more space for inscribing glyphs to identify ownership, purpose and location of craftsmanship;  and perhaps most importantly, these new vessels provided wider mouths, openings from which to pour the liquid cacao from one vessel to another in order to create the all coveted foam for their beverages (Powis et al., 2001). Joseph W. Ball, in his 1983 article, “Teotihuacan, the Maya, and Ceramic Interchange,” provides a discussion of the notable homologies between the Mayan and the Teotihuacan ceramics, suggesting that:

…either aesthetic considerations or a desire to emulate a particular vessel form associated with a foreign social system and so connoting high status might have motivated such copying. Consideration should also be given to the possibility that lidded tripod cylinders might have represented specialized commodity containers. Some possible association with the transport, presentation, storage, and/or consumption of cacao or a cacao preparation comes immediately to mind given the Teotihuacan and Guatemala highland distributional foci of such vessels (Ball, 1983).

Although the “chocolate pots” of Preclassic Maya are less known and studied than the more recent cylindrical vessels, these spouted ceramics, nonetheless, play a vital role to understanding the Mesoamerican ethnography surrounding cacao and chocolate. The discovery and analyses of these spouted pots and the important data they provide have enriched scholars and chocolate lovers alike, providing us with a richer picture of how this “food of the gods” has evolved throughout the ages, and how it became intrinsic to the Pre-Columbian peoples: their sustenance, their rituals, their beliefs, and ultimately their enjoyment, a pleasure now indulged throughout the world.

Works Cited

“Archaeology Cacao Usage by the Earliest Maya Civilization : Nature.” Accessed February 20, 2016. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v418/n6895/fig_tab/418289a_F1.html.

Ball, Joseph W. “Teotihuacan, the Maya, and Ceramic Interchange: A Contextual Perspective.” In Highland-Lowland Interaction in Mesoamerica: Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Arthur G. Miller, 125–45. Washington, D.C: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections, 1983.

Brady, James E., Joseph W. Ball, Ronald L. Bishop, Duncan C. Pring, Norman Hammond, and Rupert A. Housley. “The Lowland Maya ‘Protoclassic.’” Ancient Mesoamerica 9, no. 01 (March 1998): 17–38. doi:10.1017/S0956536100001826.

Campbell, Lyle, and Terrence Kaufman. “A Linguistic Look at the Olmecs.” American Antiquity 41, no. 1 (January 1976): 80. doi:10.2307/279044.

Dakin, Karen, and Sren Wichmann. “Cacao and Chocolate: A Uto-Aztecan Perspective.” Cambridge University Press, Ancient Mesoamerica, 11, no. 1 (2000): 55–75.

“Gadrooning – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.” Accessed February 20, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gadrooning.

Gann, Thomas W. F. The Maya Indians of Southern Yucatan and Northern British Honduras. Bulletin/Bureau of American Ethnology 64. US Government Printing Office, 1918.

“K’axob – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.” Accessed February 20, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%27axob.

“Lords of Creation: Royal Feasting.” Accessed February 20, 2016. http://www.mesoweb.com/lords/feasting.html.

McAnany, Patricia Ann, and Eleanor Harrison, eds. K’axob: Ritual, Work, and Family in an Ancient Maya Village. Monumenta Archaeologica 22. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California Los Angeles, 2004.

“Mixe–Zoque Languages – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.” Accessed February 20, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mixe%E2%80%93Zoque_languages.

“Phytolith – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.” Accessed February 20, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phytolith.

Powis, Terry G., Fred Valdez, Thomas R. Hester, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Stanley M. Tarka. “Spouted Vessels and Cacao Use among the Preclassic Maya.” Latin American Antiquity 13, no. 1 (March 2002): 85–106. doi:10.2307/971742.

“Santa Rita Corozal – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.” Accessed February 20, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Rita_Corozal.

“Sourcebook on Ceramics – Stuartceramictexts.pdf.” Accessed February 20, 2016. https://decipherment.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/stuartceramictexts.pdf.

“Theobromine – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.” Accessed February 20, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theobromine.

“Uto-Aztecan Languages – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.” Accessed February 20, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uto-Aztecan_languages.