Tag Archives: Olmecs

Stimulating Relationships

The indulgence that we know as chocolate has its roots in a South American tree that can not exist without a symbiotic partner. Originating in the upper Amazonian River basin, as an understory tree of the rainforest, Theobroma cacao is a fascinating plant. Pollinated by a single type of insect, colorful melon like pods are full of sweet pulp and bitter seeds–which we refer to today as “beans.” These hefty pods have to attract the assistance of a hungry monkey, Toucan, or human to release the beans and the next generation of trees. Monkeys and birds like the sweet pulp, but when it comes to humans, we became addicted to the bean.

Cacao pods often grow in groups and can be many different colors.

T.cacao migrated northward along the Pacific coast to take hold in a place that is now Central America. Although the details of the journey between continents is a mystery, the first evidence in the historical record that cacao was used as a food source is found in the Rio Ceniza Valley of modern El Salvador. (Martin)

Chemical analysis of pottery shows the Olmec culture made cacao pulp into an intoxicating beer-type drink at least 1000 years before the current era. Eventually the cacao bean byproduct fermented into its own food source and began to resemble chocolate–at least in its crudest liquid form. (Henderson) In the rural communities of the region today you can still find sweet pulpy drinks as well as meal-replacing beverages made from ground cacao beans and maize. These traditional ground bean beverages are bitter, filling, and stimulating enough to provide a morning or afternoon energy boost which keeps the drink popular despite being labor intensive to prepare. The stimulating caffeine and theobromine compounds that the Olmec people unlocked from the cacao bean became a driving force for the political relations and trade between nations until Cortez arrives in the modern era–usurping the entire region and economy for the Spanish crown.

The Classic Maya Civilization (250-900 CE) raised the imbibing of the rustic, gritty, cacao bean drink to a godly level. The artwork they left behind tells the story of how cacao was literally considered to be the food of their pantheon and used in rituals for pivotal moments in society and life. In The New Taste of Chocolate, Presilla points out that “from both the glyphs and actual pictured scenes on Maya posts we have been able to learn that chocolate made using particular recipes was drunk by kings and nobles. There is also evidence that it was used by people of all classes, particularly during rites of passage…” (12) 

 Mayan drinking vase documents one particular event.

The gourds that most people used for drinking have not withstood the impacts of time but some ceramic vessels of the wealthy remain intact. These colorful jewels of Western Hemisphere art document the details about ritual life by describing events, attendees, and even the ingredients. Many of these vessels can be seen in art collections today; the Mayan drinking vase on display in the permanent collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is a fine example of storytelling. Slightly larger than a modern quart jar, the drinking vase has a wrap-around visual narrative that details a ritual, specifically noting out that kakaw (cacao) was one of the stimulating substances used in this event.

Mayan Interpretive dignage MFA

Although the Mayan people still live in the same region today, they mysteriously abandoned their cities around 900 CE and were eventually conquered by the Aztec civilization. Cacao beans not only survived the invasion from the north, they could well have been the cause. The Aztecs so valued the stimulating substance that they used dried beans as coinage to exchange for produce, meat, and other locally available consumables.

small and large cacao bean
The size and quality of a cacao bean determined its worth in the Aztec economy.

Unfortunately for the Aztecs, though their money grew on trees, those trees did not grow on the arid plateau that was the center of their empire. They solved this dilemma by strategically conquering trade routes into regions where cacao was cultivated. The wealth of these conquered regions was then extracted by political tribute–much of which was paid in the form of fermented cacao beans. This cacao wealth was then added into the Aztec economy both by putting it onto the consumable market and by stockpiling it as currency in treasuries. Used throughout their empire as form of payment and a beverage of celebration, cacao was also milled into portable nuggets to use as traveling rations for instant energy. The earliest documents of the Spanish settlers refer to how the native culture prepared cacao with maize into a cold frothy beverage that was used as a meal replacement in the extreme heat of the subtropical afternoons. (Presilla 17-24)  Cacao literally fueled both the people of the working class and the general economy well into the Spanish colonial period.

Anasazi vessels are reminiscent in shape to the Mayan.

Recently have we discovered the literal lengths that native peoples went to in acquiring this stimulating beverage. Modern gas chromatography analysis on Native American pottery has increased our understanding of which cultures had access to the only source of theobromine in the hemisphere. Testing of North American artifacts has shown that long before the Aztecs usurped the market on cacao, the trade routes of the Mayans had extended northward to the Anasazi nation of modern New Mexico. This 1200-mile path between where the vessels were found (in the Pueblo Bonito of Chaco Canyon)  and the nearest source of cacao would have required 600 hours of backpacking through rough country and sweltering heat. As one researcher phrased it “That’s a long way to go for something that you don’t need for survival”, [something] that’s more of a delicacy…”  Whether the Anasazi acquired this cacao through dedicated treks south–which would have taken weeks–or their pueblo was the endpoint of an even slower hand-to-hand, village-to-village trade route, acquiring the ingredients for a cacao beverage came at great cost. (Mozdy) Such an expenditure indicates how intensely desired this addictive substance was.  

The historical record may not tell us how the first cacao trees made their way to a new continent, but we do know that once here, it helped fuel people, economies and trade for centuries. The stimulant properties that the seed contains spurred the native cultures of a continent to covet, acquire, distribute and control access to the plant itself. By affecting and connecting with humans in this way, the plant forged a symbiotic partnership with the indigenous peoples which ensured its survival and success throughout pre-Columbian era.  

Works Referenced:

Henderson, John S., et al. “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Acad Sciences, 16 Nov. 2007, www.pnas.org/content/104/48/18937.full. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

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

Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion.” 8 Feb. 2017, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.

Mozdy, Michael. “Cacao in Chaco Canyon.” Natural History Museum of Utah, Natural History Museum of Utah, 4 Aug. 2017, nhmu.utah.edu/blog/2016/08/04/cacao-chaco-canyon. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Unknown. Anasazi [Pueblo] pottery, Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New MexicoAMNH Digital Special Collections, accessed March 06, 2017, lbry-web-007.amnh.org/digital/items/show/38991.

Unknown. Drinking Vase for “om kakaw”. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, 2003.

Image Citation:

Images may not be reused without attribution.

The Sacred, Ancient History of Chocolate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Royal Indulgence: The Elite Origins and Introductions of Chocolate

Hundreds of years before Cadbury, Hershey and the like transformed chocolate into a mass-produced and affordable dietary staple, chocolate was a royal indulgence. Reserved for the most prestigious social classes in Mesoamerica, sumptuary laws in New World governed who was able to consume it and, according to some accounts, consumption of chocolate without sanction by commoners was punishable by death (Presilla, 18). The value and reverence the Aztecs had for chocolate made a strong impression on early travelers, who readily shared the frothed-beverage with their commissioners in the Old World, making the ruling elite of the 16th century among the first Europeans to regularly imbibe.

Elite Origins in Mesoamerica

Chemical analysis has allowed researchers to place chocolate over 38 centuries back, although not much is known about the drinking habits of early cultures such as the Olmecs and Mayans (Coe, location 464-578). The only surviving written evidence for classic Mayan use of cacao has been found on elegantly painted and carved cylindrical vases and vessels in the tombs and graves of the elite (Coe, location 578). Some of these excavated vases are externally marked with Mayan hieroglyphs denoting cacao, and internally bear chemical traces of alkaloids found in cacao and dark rims on the interior that suggest the contents were once liquid (Coe, location 625). There is not enough evidence to concretely conclude that chocolate was chiefly drunken by the ruling class, but the inclusion of chocolate provisions for the afterlife of the elite suggests Mayans placed a high level importance on the drink.

A Mayan lord sits raised above a servant on a platform next to a frothing pot of chocolate, forbidding the servant from touching the container. (Mayan Civilisation)

Much more is known of the chocolate consumption habits of the Aztecs than the Mayans. Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina (c. 1398-1469 AD) issued a series of laws stating that “he who does not go to war, be he son of a king, may not wear cotton, feathers or flowers, nor may he smoke, or drink cacao” (Coe, location 1372). Only members of the royal house, the lords and nobility, long-distance merchants who endured dangerous lands and battles with foreign groups, and warriors were allowed to drink chocolate in Aztec society (Coe, location 1324). In Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, Sahagún describes how stringently this hierarchical framework for chocolate consumption was followed by the Aztecs; cacao was very valuable and rare, and was proverbially referred to as “Yollotli eztli”, or the “price of blood and of heart”, because if people of the working class drank it without permit, it would cost them their life (“si alguno de los populares lo bebía, costábale la vide si sin licencia lo bebían”) (Moreno, 500).

Chocolate’s link to luxury and power in Aztec culture is further enforced with the cacao bean’s role in the economy. The Aztecs used cacao beans as currency: a rabbit cost about ten beans (Coe, location 832). When the elite drank chocolate, they were quite literally drinking money. This did not go unacknowledged by the Europeans, who quickly realized that cacao was as valuable to this group of people as gold and gems (Presilla, 18). Watch this video to learn a little more about cacao beans in Aztec culture and the introduction of chocolate to Europeans (Youtube).

Royal Introductions in Europe

In 1544, chocolate made its first documented European appearance in Spain. Dominican friars brought Mayan nobles to the courts of Prince Philip, who presented some of the wonders of the New World to the king: quetzal feathers, painted gourds, and containers of beaten chocolate (Presilla, 24). Forty years later in 1585, the first official cacao bean shipment reached Seville from Veracruz (Coe, location 1848).

A Spanish mancerina with a metal tray. Mancerinas were also made with porcelain trays to match the cup. (Tamorlan)

The Spanish altered the chocolate recipe slightly – preferring it hot as opposed to cold, as the Aztecs had taken it. The Aztecs would add ingredients they were familiar with such as vanilla, herbs, flower petals, and honey, and the Spanish did the same with sugar, cinnamon, hazelnut, anise, and almonds (Presilla). The Spanish sipped it out of mancerinas, a plate or saucer with a ring in the middle to hold a small cup and prevent it from slipping, rather than jícaras. One thing that didn’t change, however, was the elite ties of chocolate; making and drinking chocolate “involved special pains and paraphernalia” (Presilla, 25).

During the 17th century, chocolate spread throughout Europe. It was highly valued as an exotic, tasty alternative as well as a health-promoting drug and was treated differently than other foods. During the reign of Charles III of Spain, chocolate was sent directly to the “royal keeper of jewels” rather than the kitchen (Presilla, 32). France mimicked Spain’s royal consumption of chocolate, reserving it strictly for the aristocracy while England allowed it to hit the free market (Coe, location 2412). Any Englishman or woman was able to consume it so long as they had enough money to pay for it.

A woman drinks chocolate. Notice her elegant clothing and the chocolate paraphernalia on the tray next to her. (Raimundo)


Castriocto, Alessandro. “File:João V – Duque de Lafões.Jpg – Wikimedia Commons”. 1720. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

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

Mayan civilisation. “File:Mayan People and Chocolate.Jpg – Wikimedia Commons”. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

Moreno, Wigberto Jiménez and Sahagún, Bernardino de. Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España: Libros I, II, III, y IV. Linkgua digital, 1938. Online.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.

Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta. “File:Raimundo Madrazo – Hot Chocolate.jpg – Wikimedia Commons”. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

Salvor. “File:Chocolate-house-london-c1708.jph – Wikimedia Commons”. 2006. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

Tamorlan. “File:Macerina-Barcelona-03.Jpg – Wikimedia Commons”. 2010. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

YouTube. “This Is México – Cacao”. Royal Channel Cancun, 2009. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

Pre-Columbian Cacao, a Progression of Beliefs From the Olmec to the Aztec

Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans have a long and rich history with cacao starting with the consumption of the sweet, tart pulp that is found just below the husk and around the seeds; the seeds would later become this tree’s claim to fame.  More than just food stuff, this plant had a larger connection with religion, the economy, and society than almost any other edible in Mesoamerican society.

Cacao Bean
Fresh Cacao from Sao Tome & Principe



Michael and Sophie Coe have claimed in their book, The True History of Chocolate, that cacao, as a drink, was a creation of the Olmec.  As they studied ancient Mesoamerican cultures they discovered that cacao, known as “kakawa” by the Olmec, was used as early as 1000 BCE. The authors have suggested, based on this and other linguistic evidence that the Olmec were the first people to have domesticated the plant and to have consumed it as a beverage made from the beans of the tree that we now know as Theabroma cacao. While the Olmec may have been the first to use cacao in this way, they left us very little writing aside from a few scattered glyphs, a few stone monuments and some pottery. Most of our information comes from other sources, specifically The Maya, The Aztec and later the European invaders.1 (Coe and Coe 34)  Since there is really no written first hand account of cacao in the Olmec society one can only speculate as to the role cacao played in Olmec spirituality and in the rest of their society.

The culture to follow the Olmec and to have also incorporated cacao into its culture is, without any doubt,  the Maya.  “The Maya derived a lot of their high culture from the Olmec, even the word ‘cacao’ is not a native Maya word—it’s Olmec.”said Coe, in a interview with National Geographic (Bijal P. Trivedi, Nat Geo 2002) If this is the case would it not be reasonable to assume (with a great and careful deference) that the Maya could have received not just the cacao itself, but also the religious and social connection to it from the Olmec?2

Maya Cacao Pot

An Example of a vessel that might have been used to hold cacao by the Maya

When used in Mayan religious rituals, only the elite consumed cacao (St. Jean, Julie 1), which made cacao a status symbol as well as a religious one. The cacao beverage was a prohibited food for children and women in religious and ritualistic setting (Dillinger et al. 2000, 2057s). In addition to being a part of these religious ceremonies, cacao makes several appearances in the Maya creation stories within the narratives from The Book of Council also known as Popo Vuh, an epic that preserved sacred and secular Mayan history. (Coe and Coe 39). In it cacao was used to create human kind by the gods after several other attempts had failed. The Maya believed that cacao was literally a part of them.

As a culture following the Maya, the Aztec had similar creation story. In the Aztec myth, the god Quetzalcoatl ordered the ants to bring the domesticated edible plants down from a great mountain on which they were all hidden. (Coe and Coe 40) To the Aztec, cacao was literally a gift from the gods.

A common custom and preference that is shared by the Aztec and Classic Maya was to raise a substantial amount of foam on the chocolate drink. This was considered the most desirable part of the drink by both cultures. In order to do this they would take two separate cacao vessels and pour the drink from one vessel into another until the desired amount of foam had been created.

A woman Pours chocolate from one vessel into another . (The Princeton Vase, late classic Maya. AD 670- 750)

A woman Pours chocolate from one vessel into another in this image from The Princeton Vase. It is the earliest known depiction of this process.

In addition, the Maya and Aztec also both used cacao like we use some precious metals today, as a currency.  For these two cultures money literally grew on trees and the exchange rate went something like this3:

1 good turkey hen=100 cacao beans

1 turkey egg=3 cacao beans

1 fully ripe avocado=1 cacao bean

1 large tomato=1 cacao bean

(Man) In addition to buying goods and services cacao was also used to pay taxes and tribute to the royals. The Codex Mendoza shows the tribute that the Aztecs had to pay twice a year. There are two loads of cacao beans right next to the jaguar pelts. Each is accompanied by five flag-like symbols, each equals 20; therefore, 200 loads were given. While the Codex Mendoza was created after the Spanish invasion of Mesoamerica it is reasonable to assume that this taxation occurred long before the Spanish arrived.

Codex Mendoza


From functioning as a currency, a traditional drink to a religious rite, cacao was and is of varying importance to many different cultures in many different times.Although we do not know all of the secrets of the Olmec, Maya or the Aztec, we have a good base of knowledge to support the claim that cacao was extremely important to Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican society. One may go so far as to say it was an integral part of Mesoamerican culture that, if absent, would have quite possibly changed the course of the development of these and other societies, their religion, their economies and their diets.



1. While we do have varying amounts of information on each of these cultures, most of it being from European sources, it is very important to remember that these cultures, unless they where recorded by that culture, were recorded through the worldview of other cultures. Therefore, while studying it, there is a necessity to peel those superimposed cultural filters away.

2.While cultural development and progression often draws from other cultures it seems reasonable to think that the role chocolate played in the Mayan culture socially and spiritually was passed on from the Olmec.

3. This was an example of the exchange rate about 25 years after the Spanish arrived and like any other currency it was subject to fluctuation.

Works Cited


“Codex Mendoza.” The Public Domain Review, 2016. Photograph. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.

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

Dillinger, T., Barriga, P., Escarcega, S., Jimenez, M., Salazar Lowe, D., Grivetti, L., (2000). Foods of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate. The Journal of Nutrition   2057s-2072s

Everjean. Fresh Cacao from São Tomé & Príncipe. Photograph. Flickr. 28 Jul. 2010. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.

Man, Albert R. “Chocolate, Food Of The Gods.” Cornell University 2007. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.

St. Jean, Julie. “Medicinal and Ritualistic Uses for Chocolate in Mesoamerica.” Heritage Daily.  6 Aug 2015.  Web. 19 Feb 2016.

The Princeton Vase. AD 670-750. Princeton University Art Museum/ Art of the Ancient Americas, Princeton. Princeton University Art Museum. Photograph. Web. 16 Feb 2016.

Travis. Anciano. Photograph. Flickr. 22 Jan. 2012. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.

Trivedi, Bijal P. “Chocolate Found in Ancient Mayan Teapot.”  National Geographic News 28 Oct. 2010.  Web. 15 Feb. 2016


Chocolate: Curse or Cure?

Although evidence for the medicinal use of chocolate appears in Mesoamerican artifacts as early as 600 B.C. (Dillinger et al. 2000), the health benefits of chocolate have only recently been evaluated in modern American society. Mesoamerican civilizations and European countries long ago recognized the ways chocolate could improve the conditions of those who were sick. One could even say the Mayans deemed chocolate a super food thousands of years ago, when they integrated cacao into their diet and rituals as they believed in its magical properties. Food was considered to be medicine long before contemporary sources of treatment prescribed by physicians. Mesoamerican sources of evidence include pieces of writing, the transmission of words across languages, and residue found in vessels made of pottery and materials stored in tombstones (Coe and Coe 1996).

The consumption of chocolate began in the New World among the Olmecs, and later made its way to the Old World in the 16th century. I explore its incorporation in three primary sources: the Badianus Manuscript, the Florentine Codex, and the Princeton Codex (De la Cruz 1940 and Sahagun 1981). Chocolate was used for preventative and healing purposes, according to these documents.

desta gente indiana y de los miembros de todo el cuerpo interiores y esteriores y de las enfermedades y medicinas contrarias y de las nationes que a esta tierra an venido a poblar, Mexico, 1577

The image above is printed on the Florentine Codex, an encyclopedia about central Mexico culture that Bernardino de Sahagun composed in 1590. “Book X [the tenth of twelve books in the series] is about Aztec society and covers such subjects as the virtues and vices of the people, food and drink, the parts of the human body, and illnesses and remedies. In this book, Sahagún describes the process of making chocolate from cacao beans, which is also depicted on folio 71v.” The Florentine Codex includes an exploration of medical treatments that used cacao. Among these health benefits were reducing agitation, asthma, cancer, thirst, and hoarseness (Stubbe 1662). Sahagun also described how different parts and methods of preparing cacao (cacao-tree bark, leaves of the cacao, and cacao as a beverage) could be used in order to cure or treat various illnesses.

The Badianus Manuscript was found in the Vatican Library in 1929, and provides pharmacological treatments for various diseases.

The Badianus Manuscript, written in 1552 in Nahuatl, presents the use of food in healing particularly through the use of medicinal herbs. The manuscript explores “the use of cocoa derivatives as nutrients or remedies for angina, constipation, tartar-related dental problems, dysentery, dyspepsia, indigestion, fatigue, gout and hemorrhoids” (De la Cruz, 1940). This primary source focus on the use of cacao flowers to cure fatigue. Finally, the Princeton Codex was discovered in 1914 in Yucatan and describes chants that were recited for patients who were ill. “At the conclusion of chants to cure skin eruptions, fever and seizures, a bowl of chacah (i.e., medicinal chocolate) that contained two peppers, honey and tobacco juice was drunk by the patients” (Princeton Codex 1965).

As chocolate was transferred to Western Europe, its consumption was deemed suspicious given its stimulating effects. In order to appeal to Galenism, the prominent medical philosophy at the time, doctors and scientists found evidence of the ways it improved the body (Lippi, 2012). There were various conclusions drawn pertaining to the health impacts chocolate provided from the 17th to the 19th centuries, though the results center on three medicine-related uses for cacao and chocolate: weight gain in emaciated patients, stimulating the nervous system, and improving digestion (Dillinger et al. 2000).

Chocolate is the New ‘Super Food,’ The Telegraph, United Kingdom, 2011

In a study by the Hershey Centre for Health and Nutrition, researchers found that dark chocolate contained more antioxidants and polyphenols than fruit “all of which are thought to protect the body from diseases such as cancer, and heart conditions” (Alleyne, 2011). Nutritionists and vendors alike have declared chocolate, especially dark chocolate, a super food. Cocoa products have been proven to slightly lower blood pressure and have even been linked with lower rates of cancer (Steinberg et al. 2003). However, most studies on the health benefits of chocolate have focused on cocoa extracts, not chocolate, and the distinction must be made in order to consider the impact of the addition of sugar and fats in modern American society.


Alleyne, Richard. “Chocolate is the New ‘Super Food’” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, United Kingdom [Online Image.] 7 Feb. 2011. Retrieved 02-14-16 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/8306796/Chocolate-is-the-new-super-food.html.

“The Badianus Manuscript.” America’s Earliest Medical Book. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.

Coe, S.D., Coe, M.D., 1996. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, London

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