Tag Archives: pre-columbian

Pre-Columbian Cacao: The Great Societal Stabilizer

In life and in death. In books and on bowls. In the Pre-Columbian Era, cacao was everywhere, and it characterized many of the most fundamental components of survival and society. Whether it was a medicinal remedy, Mesoamerican currency, or a burial ritual, cacao always remained within the scope of visibility. In the modern day, cacao is often simplified to being the principal ingredient in processed chocolate; however, in the Pre-Columbian era, cacao acted as a grounding and stabilizing entity that made up the functional premise of Mesoamerican society and way of life. The stability imparted by cacao onto Mesoamerican society can be most strongly articulated via an analysis of Mesoamerican religious artifacts, socioeconomic practices and the physical uses of cacao.

To explain the omnipresence and consequential significance of cacao in Mesoamerican society, we first must understand the idea of the World Tree (Martin, 2020). A World Tree is believed to “embody the most essential powers of fertility, stability, and the renewal of life on Earth” (Castillo, 2012). World Trees were believed to reach from the Earthly world to both the sky and the underworld – effectively connecting the Maya with their past ancestors in death, and sky-based, life-supporting elements such as rain (Castillo, 2012). In regions that contained the cacao tree, the cacao tree acted as the World Tree (Martin, 2020). Henceforth, amongst Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican natives, the cacao tree was viewed as the center of life and was a guiding symbol in their society.

The view that cacao symbolized the center of life can be seen throughout the Mesoamerican region amongst religious artifacts left by the Maya and the Aztecs. With the aid of these Pre-Columbian artifacts, we can see how cacao played into themes of fertility and renewal of life throughout the Pre-Columbian era, and how the presence of life-bearing themes effectively cement the perception of cacao as a symbol of societal stability during this time period.

Figure 1: “The head of the Maize god suspended in a cacao tree” as depicted on a Classic Maya Vase (Image provided by Coe and Coe, 2013).

In this first image taken from a Mayan vase, the head of the Maize god rests among cacao pods (Coe and Coe, 2013). In the image, the Maize god is physically a part of the cacao plant. This physical connection between the cacao plant and the gods symbolically highlights the Mayan association between cacao and the sprouting of life. A similar message can be deduced from a second image of the Maize god amongst cacao pods.

Figure 2: “The Classic Maya Maize god depicted as a cacao tree” as depicted on a bowl from the Dumbarton Oaks Collection in Washington D.C., USA (Image provided by Coe and Coe, 2013).

In this image carved into a bowl, we again see an explicit relationship between fertility, cacao and the gods (Coe and Coe, 2013). In this image, we see an image of the Mayan Maize god as a literal cacao tree with cacao pods sprouting from their sides. This physical relationship between the gods and the cacao plant again demonstrates the Mesoamerican association between the cacao plant, fertility, and the stability of survival conditions.

When the images from the artifacts above are taken in context with other Mesoamerican beliefs, i.e. the Aztec belief that the cacao pod symbolized a human heart, the physiological driver of human life, it is clear that cacao was synonymous with the maintenance of survival in the Pre-Columbian Era (Coe and Coe, 2013). However, note that the view that cacao was synonymous with the concept of life stability was not limited to religious practice and was also observed in rites of passage.

Given the involvement of cacao in social contracts and celebrations, i.e. marriages and funerals, it is clear that cacao was also perceived to symbolize stability of relationships and socially-recognized moments of transition. 

As a part of arranging marriages, Mayan culture included the transaction of a cacao bean dowry to the family of the bride to be (Dreiss and Greenhill, 2008). Acceptance of the cacao bean dowry by the bride was indicative of acceptance of the marriage proposal by the bride’s family such as in the image below (Dreiss and Greenhill, 2008).

Figure 3: “The Mixtec Marriage of Lord Eight Deer and Lady Thirteen Serpent” in 1041 BCE as depicted in the Codex Nuttall  (Provided by Ancient Scripts Mixtec Website).

In this image, we observe Lord Eight Deer and Lady Thirteen Serpent unite over a chocolate beverage (Ancient Scripts Mixtec). Given the ritualistic incorporation of cacao in marriage discussions, we can note the role of cacao in facilitating not only the growth of life, but new relationships as well. Here, cacao is seen to be a social, rather than a societal stabilizer.

On a less lively note, cacao was also incorporated into rituals of death. Amongst both the Maya and the Aztec, it is believed that cacao eased the soul in its journey to the Underworld (Martin, 2020; Dreiss and Greenhill, 2008). Amongst the Aztecs, a last rite consisted of feeding the soon-to-be sacrificed a dyed blood-red cacao drink (Dreiss and Greeenhill, 2008).

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Figure 4: “Mixtec funeral scene with funeral procession of Twelve Movement, Lord Eight Deer’s older half brother; bottom vessel of foaming cacao beverage as depicted in the Codex Nuttal (Provided by Martin, 2020).

In this image from the Codex Nuttal, we observe funeral rites that include a foaming cacao beverage in the bottom vessel (Martin, 2020). Here, we witness cacao provided to the deceased in death as well to provide comfort – indicating the Mesoamerican perception that cacao symbolized transitional stability.

As seen in the rites of passage discussed above, cacao not only played a role in maintaining metaphysical stability, but in supporting the stability of momentous life transitions and agreements as well. As we proceed to discuss cacao in economics and medicine, we will see that cacao’s motif of stability extends beyond symbolism to tangible forms of stability.

Amongst Mesoamericans, cacao served as a form of currency; likewise, cacao also brought on societal stability by creating an economic and socioeconomic order. The typical load of cacao with a trade or porter was three xiquipillis, which translates to 24,000 beans, and could be used to trade for various items (Coe and Coe, 2013). However, currency was not the only way cacao created socioeconomic order. Cacao, being a comestible, was also employed to make beverages indicative of one’s elite status (Coe and Coe, 2013). Cacao solidified the social order in terms of finances and in terms of consumption. As a result, Mesoamercian leadership would accrue exorbitant amounts of cacao beans to highlight their own wealth (Coe and Coe, 2013). To observe the socioeconomic relevance of cacao, consider merchant behaviors. In order to ascend the social ladder, merchants needed to hold banquets with a wide variety of food, slaves for sacrifice, hallucinogenic mushrooms and cacao drink to highlight their own status (Coe and Coe, 2013). As can be seen here, cacao created a social hierarchy, and in doing so, stabilized the social order amongst Mesoamericans.

As a form of medicine, cacao beans were believed to improve health. In this context, cacao beans brought on physiological homeostasis – the stability of the body. Amongst Aztec doctors, or ticitl, a combination of magic and plant-based remedies were used to combat ailments (Coe and Coe, 2013). As a part of these treatments, cacao was incorporated to treat diseases such as dysentery (Martin, 2020). To treat dysentery, five cacao beans would be combined with the bark of plants, i.e. an avocado, and provided to an individual following an incantation (Martin, 2020). The medical knowledge of the Aztecs was relatively thorough given their extensive understanding of the plants in their vicinity (Coe and Coe, 2013). The fact that cacao was incorporated into this magical, botanical-based medicinal process speaks volumes to the contributions of cacao as a physiologically stabilizing entity.

All in all, cacao took on multiple roles in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Cacao was not only an object of religious reverence, but also a ritualistic staple, a socioeconomic driver, and a medicinal ingredient. Despite having many explicitly different purposes, cacao plays a singular thematic role: stabilization of life, transitional experiences, and society as a whole. Across its many uses, cacao symbolically grounded the order of all things. Cacao was a notable symbol of multifaceted harmony amongst Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans; therefore, it can be ultimately argued that cacao was indeed the great Pre-Columbian stabilizer.

Excluding In-Text Citations, Sources and Figure Labels, Content Word Count: 1,211

Content Sources

Castillo, Bernal Diaz del. The True History of The Conquest of New Spain. Translated by Janet Burke and Ted Humphrey, UK ed. edition, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2012.

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

Dreiss, Meredith L., and Sharon Greenhill. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. University of Arizona Press, 2008.

Martin, Carla. “02 Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Google Docs, https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1c6fZMj2cW7A-bByTKzaP-YS7pLdm0dmVPidneg4T4XU/edit?usp=drive_web&ouid=104280922214973046242&usp=embed_facebook. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Image Sources: 

Ancient Scripts: Mixtec. http://www.ancientscripts.com/mixtec.html. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

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

Martin, Carla. “02 Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Google Docs, https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1c6fZMj2cW7A-bByTKzaP-YS7pLdm0dmVPidneg4T4XU/edit?usp=drive_web&ouid=104280922214973046242&usp=embed_facebook. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Chocolate & Spice

The production and utilization of cacao continues to be extremely prominent in global economies and cultures. In Mesoamerican history, the use of cacao can be traced to as early as 2000 B.C., where the fruit solely belonged to the elites in ritual. By 400 B.C., cacao seeds began to be transformed into lavish beverages, or “chocolate,” as defined by Mesoamericans. Pre-Columbian regimes “invoked class-based authority” (Martin and Sampeck 2015) of the extractive production of the commodity, and the use of cacao as a chocolate beverage was a delicacy for the noble. However, Mesoamericans utilized the cacao bean itself in a variety of ways. In fact, the refined seed along with the process itself  “defined an experience quite separate from other agricultural, consumable products, largely because Mesoamericans consumed cacao in simultaneously discordant and complementary ways: as a ritual offering, as currency, as a flavouring in foods, and as a beverage” (Martin and Sampeck 2015). Cacao is historically unique because of its versatility as a spiritual symbol, a flavoring, a stimulant, a marriage ritual, and most importantly within the context of Mesoamerican culture, a beverage. As shown in the photo below, this chocolate beverage held great significance as a symbol of virtue and celebration in the Mesoamerican regions, as it is given as a beverage at a wedding ceremony.

Historically, the cacao seed itself is highly social and ritualistically significant, and Mesoamerican practices have even had the power to influence today’s use of chocolate. 

The ways in which cacao was prepared, consumed, and flavored was not consistent amongst the various regions of Mesoamerica. Pre-Columbian inscriptions and recipes depict that “different spices, colorants, and kinds of cacao” (Martin and Sampeck 2015) used in “various stages of ripeness were emblematic of a particular place; taste and place designated each other” (Stuart 1988). The standard mode of cacao and chocolate preparation was established by the nobility of each region. Terroir, or the impact of the natural environment such as “the manner of production and almost ineffable qualities of genetics, climate, soil, and place” (Martin and Sampeck 2015) strongly influenced the variety of cacao use across Mesoamerican regions.

Both “cacao” and “chocolate” are terms that come from Mesoamerican languages, “chocolate” referring to the processed cacao seed in the form of a delicious, highly regarded beverage. However, chocolate was only one of various cacao drinks, so what made Mesoamerican chocolate so unique? Aside from the pre-Columbian nomenclature and the term of “chocolate,” “preparing and consuming cacao beverages were sensory experiences that stood cacao apart from other foods and drinks” (Schwartzkopf and Sampeck 2017)  The Mesoamerican procedure for conditioning the cacao seeds set the region apart from others: “the distinctive tools and preparation of cacao beverages – the molinillo, the steep-sided cup, and the spouted pot – created a highly distinctive sensorial experience of cacao beverages in Mesoamerican foodways” (Martin and Sampeck 2015). In particular, the pouring of the hot cacao liquid from a height, conserving the foam, set the drink apart. The photo below depicts this almost sacred act of pouring the heated chocolate liquid from a height, allowing the foam to naturally rise. This technique was specific to Mesoamerican cacao procedures.

The pre-Columbian, chocolate beverage was so alluring because it satisfied social, political, and sensual needs all at once. Though Mesoamericans regarded the foam as the beverage’s most desirable feature, additional ingredients, flavors, and spices that were added to the chocolate not only enhanced the beverage but also differentiated the chocolate from other foods and drinks.

Hot chocolate beverages were more often enhanced by other flavorings than not, and “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” (Mintz 1985). Early colonial Mesoamerican recipes show that vanilla and water, among an array of other aromatic flavors, were delicately incorporated into the chocolate recipes. Depicted in the chart below, Mesoamericans were notorious for incorporating a large variety of secondary ingredients into the chocolate for consumption.

Over time, Mesoamerican recipes also show a European influence, with the adoption of sweetening flavors, and vice versa, Europe obtaining Mesoamerica’s strategy in using the chocolate beverage as a caffeinated stimulant. Between the various colors of the cacao pods, the sweeteners, aromatic flavorings, and herbs, Mesoamericans often incorporated other ailments into chocolate.

A common theme among the additional ingredients that Mesoamericans paired with cacao was the theme of flowers. Despite one’s immediate assumptions, flowers in Mesoamerican life do not symbolize “sentimental, cloying sweetness,” but rather “forces of warfare, power, death, and life” (Schwartzkopf and Sampeck 2017). One recipe, in particular, utilizes one of the three flavorings that is known to be highly prized by the Aztecs: hueinacaztli. Hueinacaztli, most importantly “nacaztli” meaning “ear,” or the “ear-shaped petal of the flower” (Mintz 1985). This particular recipe is unique because of its ability to lead to drunkenness, and it’s similarity to beverages that we consume today. Hueinacaztli’s flavor can be described as similar to black pepper, but “other sources compare it variously with nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon” (Mintz 1985). These flavor descriptions of warm and hot spices are similar to flavorings that we pair with chocolate today, such as cinnamon, hazelnut, and other blends.

These recipes are historically significant because they demonstrate that one substance, cacao, was able to be modified in so many different ways, utilized by a diverse group of regions, but still able to represent something used by the elite. Chocolate’s ability to simultaneously be used in so many different ways make the substance so unique and distinct in Mesoamerican history.

Works Cited:

  • Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” The Social Meaning of Food Workshop. The Social Meaning of Food Workshop, 16 June 2015, Budapest, The Institute for Sociology, Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
  • Stuart, D. (1988) The Rio Azul Cacao Pot: Epigraphic Observations on the Function of a Maya Ceramic Vessel. American Antiquity 62 (1), 153-157. – 
  • “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” Substance and Seduction. Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, by Stacey Schwartzkopf and Kathryn E. Sampeck, University of Texas Press, 2017, pp. 72–95.
  • Sampeck, Kathryn E. (2017) “Cacao and Violence: Consequences of Money in Colonial Guatemala” Society for Historical Archaeology 2019. Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Illinois State.
  • Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.
  • Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin, 1985.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Works Cited

Scholarly Sources:

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

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

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

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

Additional Sources:

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

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

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

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

Multimedia Sources:

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

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

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

A Mestizo Tradition in Cacao: The Introduction and Incorporation of Molinillos

The history of chocolate mirrors the history of mestizaje from Mesoamerica to modern-day Mexico and Central America, with the contemporary product serving as the result of both Mesoamerican and Spanish influences. Even the production of authentic, ancient, or traditional Mesoamerican cacao beverages and chocolate are infused with post-colonial influences, from the addition of new ingredients to entirely new techniques for crafting chocolate. Of these, the introduction of the molinillo, now considered a staple component in crafting traditional Mexican chocolate, represents the culmination of indigenous and Spanish techniques.

Pre-Conquest Mesoamerican Chocolate

Cacao was harvested and consumed as early as the Olmec civilization, with cacao originating from their word for currency, ka-ka-w [1]. The Mayans adopted cacao into their respective civilization–for consumption, as legal tender, and for rituals.

Cacao was essential for social, physical, and spiritual well-being, regarded for its medicinal, spiritual, and aphrodisiac qualities. The Mayan would prepare the batidos and other hot chocolate beverages from the ground cacao pulps. They were also used for arranging marriages, with the term tac haa, “to serve chocolate,” commonly used to describe the discussions in which they would determine marriages while drinking chocolate. Mixtec went a step further, using “cacao” as a phrase for royal marriage [2]. For the Aztecs, only the elites and wealthy consumed it because it couldn’t grow in Mexico, so they had to transport it 900 miles on their back [3].

Aztec sculpture holding a cacao pod.

Early pre-Columbian religious references to cacao are also prevalent in both Mayan and Aztec artifacts, with the Popol Vuh ascribing cacao with godly qualities and the Dresden Codex featuring cacao throughout, including consumption by the gods [4]. Likewise, in the Madrid Codex, Aztecs believed that cacao beans were the physical manifestation of Quetzalcoatl [5]. Other religious depictions included:

  • Cacao in fertility rites, with Ixchel and the rain god exchanging cacao.
  • Cacao tree depictions of royal bloodlines, with deities emerging from cacao trees with pods and flowers to symbolize their royal blood [6].

Figure: Aztec statue holding a cacao pod.

“Chocolate for the body; foam for the soul.”

Meredith Dreiss, Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods [7]

The foam produced was of special religious importance, with the foam seen as the most sacred part of the drink [8]. With this reverence toward the froth, the molinillo, as the instrument used to facilitate easier production of the froth, would also be revered and would become deeply intertwined in the chocolate-making process.

Molinillo in Mesoamerica? The Spanish Arrive

Many would expect that the Mayans and Aztecs used molinillos, since they are now regarded as crucial instruments when crafting authentic traditional chocolate beverages, but in fact, the molinillo was most likely introduced by the Spanish, possibly during the 16th century. While it is true that pre-Columbian texts mentioned turtle/tortoise shell stirring spoons and stirrers, there were no mentions of molinillos in pre-Columbian texts. Moreover, it was noticeably absent from the first Nahuatl-Spanish dictionary in 1571 [9].

Some of the possible confusion could stem from anachronistic depictions of the molinillo, such as the one below:

 “The artist has misunderstood the use of the metate [curved cacao grinding stone], and has mistakenly included the post-Conquest molinillo. (From J. Ogilby, America, London, 1671.) 

Instead, they used “small, hemispherical bowls” as drinking and mixing vessels, made with materials ranging from ceramics, to decorated calabash gourds (Crescentia cujete tree), to gold (huei tlatoani). Foam was created by pouring chocolate repeatedly between drinking vessels to produce the foam [10].

Left: 6-9th century Mayan ceramic vessel, Guatemala  | right: 7-8th century Mayan ceramic vessel, Mexico
Mayan woman producing foam via pouring technique

It wasn’t until 1780, when Jesuit Francesco Saverio Clavigero, mentioned the molinillo but not the traditional method of pouring the beverage to produce foam [11].

Molinillo: The Basics

The molinillo, a kitchen tool used to froth hot chocolate beverages, is a carved, handcrafted wooden stick, with a slender handle at one end and a knob at the other [12]. Its name is derived from its circular shape and its motion when used for producing foam resembling that of a molino (windmill) [13]. Each molinillo is unique and varies in size depending on the amount of beverage to be produced. The first iterations involved a simple ball or square at the end of a long handle. However, these soon were adapted to better facilitate frothing. Modern molinillos are crafted from a single block of wood, forming a slender wooden “whisk” with a long tapered handle and a carved knob with rings and other movable parts on the other end [14].

Each molinillo is unique, and the basic design can be flourished with details such as colored accents or ivory pieces, as well as square tops instead of rounded [15].

Molinillo with Color Accents
Molinillo with Squarish Top

Using a Molinillo

Frothing hot chocolate beverages with a molinillo is straightforward. Simply put, the slender handle is gripped between the palms, which are then rubbed together to rotate the carved knob back and forth. This motion grinds the chocolate discs used for the beverages against the pestle bottom of the drinking vessel [16], allowing the beverage to froth within a few minutes.

A Mexican Cook, “Using A Molinillo to Make Hot Chocolate.”

The motion is so simple, in fact, that the molinillo frothing process is even a popular rhyme among Mexican children and their teachers:

Bate, bate, chocolate,
tu nariz de cacahuate.
Uno, dos, tres, CHO!
Uno, dos, tres, CO!
Uno, dos, tres, LA!
Uno, dos, tres, TE!
Chocolate, chocolate!
Bate, bate, chocolate!
Bate, bate, bate, bate,
Bate, bate, CHOCOLATE![17]

Bate = Stir or whip
tu nariz de cacahuate = roughly "your peanut nose"
Uno, dos, tres = One, two, three

Crafting Molinillos

“Molinillo and chocolate depend on each other–one cannot exist without the other. “

Molinillos are carved from a single piece of wood rotating on an axis. Typically soft wood from trees like the aile mexicano (Alnus acuminata ssp. glabrata) are used for carving because they are odorless and flavorless as to not impact the flavor of the chocolate. The black sections of the molinillo are not painted; rather, the friction from the velocity of the wood spinning on the axis of the machine burns the wood a darker color, which the crafter then polishes. Once the base is completed with all the large grooves, all the smaller notch carvings (helpful for circulating the milk to increase frothiness) are completed by hand [18].

Molinillo Tradicional [Making a Molinillo from Wood]

Each molinillo is unique, and the basic design can be flourished with details such as colored accents or ivory pieces:

Artisanal Molinillo Crafting

For molinillo artisans in areas popular for their chocolate, such as 3rd generation crafter Jesus Torres Gomez, carving molinillos, among other wooden kitchen utensils, is both a skill and an artform, passed down for over 100 years as they continue to modify and perfect their craftsmanship. While he uses a motor to facilitate the rotation of the wood piece, all the carvings are completed by hand. He produces 3 types of molinillos:

  • Criollo, for making the foam for chocolate atole in the central valleys.
  • For making the foam for hot chocolate.
  • More elaborate item to serve as a decorative souvenir for tourists in Oaxaca (not meant to be used).

Similar to the more extravagant uses of chocolate and chocolate-producing equipment in Mesoamerica, these items are often also used for special events, including weddings and quinceañeras (coming of age celebration for 15th birthday) [19].

Jesus Torres Gomez, “Artesano de Molinillos”

Modern-Day Molinillos and “Authentic Recipes”

Contemporary molinillos serve more as a nostalgic artifact than a necessary tool for the average chocolate beverage consumer. For champurrado–traditional Mexican chocolate-based atole– and hot chocolate, recipes available online often include many modifications to traditional recipes, incorporating many ingredients not available to pre-Columbian Mesoamericans. For the thicker champurrado, they are often flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, anise, nutmeg, cloves, and other spices, as well as grated piloncillo (raw, undefined sugar cane)[20].

Likewise, they often include milk instead of water, and they are frothed with whisks or spoons. For “authentic Mexican hot chocolate” recipes, chocolate beverages are not strictly based on traditional Mayan or Aztec chocolate recipes; similar to the effect of molinillos on chocolate crafting, they combine indigenous and Spanish influences. However, molinillos are still incorporated into more traditional recipes, particularly Oaxacan hot chocolate, which uses water instead of milk and is whisked with a molinillo [21].

Endnotes:

  • [1] Khan, Gulnaz. “Watch the Ancient Art of Chocolate-Making.”
  • [2] Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’”
  • [3] Festa, Jessica. “Sweet Guatemala: A Look At The Country’s Mayan Chocolate History And Modern Experiences.”
  • [4] Martin, Carla D.
  • [5] De la Fuente del Moral, Fatima.
  • [6] Martin, Carla D.
  • [7] Dreiss, Meredith L., and Sharon Greenhill. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods.
  • [8] Martin, Carla D.
  • [9] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate.
  • [10] ibid
  • [11] ibid
  • [12] Edwards, Owen. “A Historic Kitchen Utensil Captures What It Takes to Make Hot Chocolate From Scratch.”
  • [13] CORTV. Jesús Torres Gómez artesano en molinillos.
  • [14] Bowman, Barbara. “Molinillo – Mexican Chocolate Whisk (Stirrer).”
  • [15] ibid
  • [16] “Molinillo: Hot Cocoa Frother | Mexico, Wooden Stick, Traditional Hot Chocolate Grinder, Frothing Stick, Molinillos.” UncommonGoods.
  • [17] Fain, Lisa. “Mexican Hot Chocolate and a Molinillo.”
  • [18] Cocinando con Rita. Molinillo Tradicional.
  • [19] CORTV.
  • [20] Rodriguez, Vianncy. “How to Make Champurrado.”
  • [21] “How to Make Authentic Mexican Hot Chocolate.” A Side of Sweet.

Works Cited

Multimedia Cited

———. Molinillo with Squarish Top. Gourmet Sleuth, Molinillo – Mexican Chocolate Whisk (Stirrer). Accessed May 16, 2019. https://www.gourmetsleuth.com/images/default-source/articles/molinillo-3.jpg?sfvrsn=2.

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.


Primary Uses of Cocoa Within the Pre-Colombian Mayan Civilization

Introduction

Given the fact that cocoa has an extensive and, often times, perplexing history, it is often time the case that the many different uses for cocoa are analyzed in order to determine cocoa’s true significance and impact on some of the world’s earliest documented civilizations. In today’s modern world, it has become the norm to view chocolate as either a simple snack, or as nothing more than a gift that one might give his or her loved one as a means for celebration on a special day. However, once one begins to delve deep into the cocoa’s earliest roots, it can immediately be seen how it not only played a significant role in how different civilizations, such as the Maya, viewed cocoa, but also, how it was able to, in part, dictate a large part of how their civilizations were organized and governed. Despite how common chocolate is today, such is the case that some of the main methods by which cocoa was used in the Mayan civilization, to our knowledge, include using cocoa as a means to flash their wealth, marry other individuals, and as an exchange of currency throughout society.

Cocoa as a Portrayal of Wealth 

Despite the fact that a number of civilizations drank cocoa for a multitude of reasons, whether it was cleansing of the body or as a means for socializing, there is strong evidence that points to the notion that one of the most common uses of cocoa in both the the Mayan civilization was both as a tool for the elites to convey both power as well as a negotiation tool (Dorie Reents-Budet). In order to do this, it was not unusual to see wealthy elites flash their wealth in front of their peers by taking part in gift presentations that common individuals would not be able to afford. By doing this, elites were able to claim a stake in society and were often times able to make a point in regards to the amount of wealth that they had. Of course, in civilizations such as the Maya, more wealth, in this case, also meant more political power, thereby being granted the ability to enact change within society due to this certain wealth. As such, it is therefore argued in many historical contexts that cocoa was able to play a lead role in appealing to the wealthy, while it was more likely the case that the common, everyday individual did not have much access to cocoa throughout his or her lifetime.

Portrayal of a Mayan Polychrome Vase being utilized for the purpose of serving chocolate during a presumably elite occasion (McNeil, Collections of New Orleans Museum of Art. Photograph copyright Justin Kerr).

Cocoa as a Means for Marriage 

The notion of cocoa became incredibly central to the idea of a Mayan marriage with the introduction of a ritual referred to as the tac haa, which is to be translated as “to serve chocolate” or “to invite the father of a girl whom one’s son wants to marry to marry to discuss the marriage and serve him drink” (Martin “Mesoamerica”). The fact that tac haa was considered to be a key component in order for a man to be able to ask a father whether or not he would be able to marry the father’s daughter is a strong indicator of just how significant cocoa was throughout this time period. Equally as important to point out is the that “these feasts celebrated significant political events, such as royal marriage or military victory; in that context, serving cocoa was a way to display wealth, and therefore power” (Leissle 36). Within this context, it can be seen that cocoa’s role in Mayan civilization extended from being able to inquire about marrying a specific woman all the way to conveying to outsiders the amount of power that they had via the celebration of the marriage.

Portrayal of the ritual of tac haa taking place, in which a man would request to discuss a marriage with the father of the woman he wished to marry (Martin).

Cocoa as a Means for Currency 

Perhaps one of the most indicative aspects of the Mayan civilization that points to just how central cocoa was to society is the way in which they started to use cocoa as a means for currency. In terms of using cocoa as a means for currency, individuals would use cocoa beans as a method to be able to exchange or purchase goods, such as food or other amenities (Museum of the National Bank of Belgium). In addition to being used as a currency, individuals would often times take their cocoa beans and make a drink referred to as Xocoatl. The fact that cocoa was able to be used as currency within the civilization shows the heavy importance that individuals would place on cocoa. Not only that, but it is also able to show that they not only saw cocoa as a simple food that grew on trees, but rather, as nothing short of a lifestyle design.

Modern-day portrayal of how Xocoatl might have been made during the time of the Maya’s existence (Geographic).

Works Cited 

Dorie Reents-Budet, “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking among the Ancient Maya,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica .

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa, Polity Press, 2018.28:48.

Geographic, National. “Watch the Ancient Art of Chocolate-Making | National Geographic.” YouTube, YouTube, 13 Oct. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3l3TFieqIvk.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard College: Cambridge, MA. Jan. 2018. Class Lecture.

Mcneil, Cameron. “Chocolate in Mesoamerica.” 2009, doi:10.5744/florida/9780813029535.001.0001.

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

Cacao: Then and Now

The influence of chocolate in Mesoamerica was seen in many aspects of Mesoamerican life prior to the arrival of the Spanish to the Americas: it was present in cultural, religious, and economic areas of life in Mayan communities. In Mayan culture, it is clear that they believed that the “gods provided recipes for making cocoa drinks, which gave those drinks high status and political significance”. 1 It is true that many aspects of Mesoamerican life changed after the arrival of Hernan Cortes and the Spanish in what is modern day Mexico and parts of Central America. The strong influence in Mesoamerican culture was one of the aspects of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culture that did survive many of the transformations that occurred once the Spanish began to introduce European culture into the way of life of the Mayans. Although chocolate was still a mainstay in Mesoamerican society after the Spanish arrived, there were many aspects of the role of chocolate that did change from the time that chocolate was seen as a sacred item in Mayan society. One clear example is how in “ancient Maya religion cacao was the first food to grow from the body of the maize god.” 2 This shows how cacao was not only used practically in religious rituals, such as during Mayan marriage and baptism rituals 3, but it held a critical role in the sacred texts and stories that served as the foundation of what quotidian Mayan life was like. Similarly, cacao seeds were also seen as important because they were used as currency which you could use to buy food and other items in Mayan society.4 We see traces of the power that had been assigned to chocolate in modern Mesoamerica—which exemplifies the power that the cacao seeds had in Mayan societies since it was able to maintain a role culturally despite the massive cultural changes that were imposed on indigenous people once the colonial period began. The most striking example of how the role of cacao seeds has largely remained unchanged is how it is still used to make chocolate beverages that are still very similar to the recipes that were being used during the colonial period by the indigenous population.5 Although the essence of the chocolate beverage drink has remained the same since the Spanish conquered the Mayan people, there has been a couple of changes to the original chocolate beverage recipe: the indigenous people now use chocolate tablets when they start making the drink instead of starting from scratch with cacao seeds.6 What is most telling of the evolution of this ingredient is the fact that these tablets are usually purchased and they are made in a factory—quite different from the rigorous process of grounding the kernel and beaten with “water, flavorings, and usually maize to make a drink.” 7 Similar to this aforementioned change in chocolate, indigenous people now add sugar to the chocolate beverage recipes—which is different from the classic Maya hot chocolate and a byproduct of the evolution of hot chocolate once there was European influenced involved8, as you can see in the video published by National Geographic (that can be accessed through https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/north-america/guatemala/anitgua-maya-chocolate-making/ ). Yet, if we fast forward to modern day Mesoamerica we do see a more dramatic change in how current-day Mayans use cacao seeds in their culture and in their society. A significant change we can see is that Mayans no longer use cacao seeds as currency as they used to back in Pre-Columbian times since researchers have not been able to find any 20th century ethnographers that have been able to document the use of cacao as money. 9

An explanation for why people may no longer use cacao as currency is because the new generation of indigenous people in Mexico see a tie between chocolate and poverty since it is so laborious to cultivate and not financially sustainable.10 As mentioned in the video below.

Additionally, there are examples of how much more localized the use of cacao has become in modern Mayan societies. Indigenous communities in Guatemala and Honduras have a cacao market where trade is restricted within the “Maya and Ladino communities in which it is produced or between closely associated areas.” This is in contrast to the use of cacao and cacao-based feasts during feasts that were intended to create sociopolitical alliances between different tribes and different Mayan factions.11 All in all, the connection between cacao and Mayan culture has evolved and/or disappeared, but there are also many characteristics of Mayan culture that have remained the same throughout the years and throughout all of the political and cultural changes that started happening during the Colonia Period. However, it is certain that ever since 1900 BCE12 —the earliest record of cacao seeds, cacao has been a critical part of Mesoamerican culture that has transformed and evolved from the chocolate beverages that the Mayans prepared in Pre-Columbian times to the chocolate bars that indigenous people now use to help emulate the chocolate drinks that their ancestors drank. This is eloquently explained in the video below by Ted-ed.


1 Kristy Leissle, Cocoa (Cambridge: Polity, 2018), 21
2 Cameron L. McNeil, “Introduction,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 14.
3 Ibid, 18.
4 Mary Ann Mahony, review of Chocolate in Mesoamerica, by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2009. Review page 175
5 Cameron L. McNeil, “Traditional Cacao Use in Modern Mesoamerica,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 346.
6 Ibid, 348.
7 Terrence Kaufman and Justeson, “The History of the Word for ‘Cacao’ and Related Terms in Ancient Meso-America,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 117.
8 Gulnaz Khan, “Watch the Ancient Art of Chocolate-Making,” National Geographic, September 11, 2017, Accessed March 14, 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/north-america/guatemala/anitgua-maya-chocolate-making/.
9 Cameron L. McNeil, “Traditional Cacao Use in Modern Mesoamerica,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 356.
10 The Perennial Plate, “An Act of Resistance,” Filmed [February 2014], Vimeo video, 04:03. Posted [February 2014], https://vimeo.com/85727477.
11 Dorie Reents-Budet, “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking among the Ancient Maya,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 209.
12 Ted-ed, “The history of chocolate,” Filmed [March 2017], YouTube video, 04:40. Posted [March 2017], https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibjUpk9Iagk.

Pre-Columbian cacao usage: more than a delicious snack

 

In contemporary society, the primary role of chocolate is as something to consume. Although some types of chocolate are more expensive or valued than others, it is generally easy to obtain, not necessarily precious, and available to just about anyone who desires it. In pre-Columbian cultures, however, although chocolate was used as a food, it also had other kinds of significance. It was a precious item, not necessarily available to those who were not elite, and had much symbolic and religious significance, playing an important role at various occasions.

Although evidence of cacao has been found on Olmec pottery shards from as early as 1650 B.C., not much is known about the cacao related customs or beliefs of the Olmec people. More is known about the role of cacao in the Mayan and Aztec civilizations that followed them, thanks to the depictions of cacao in Mayan books (codices) and ceramics and the recollections of the Spanish priests and conquerors, who observed Aztec society before it fell. Indeed, the decoding of the Mayan symbol for cacao (see below) was one of the keys to translating the Mayan hieroglyphic language. (Carla Martin, chocolate class).

kakaw_28mayan_word29

Mayan script for the word ‘kakaw’. The drawing is based on Kettunen, Harri; Helmke, Christophe (2008).  “Introduction to Maya Hieroglyphs: Workshop Handbook'”. p. 73.  To learn more about Mayan hieroglyphs, visit: http://www.mesoweb.com/resources/handbook/WH2008.pdf.

The Mayan and Aztec civilizations shared similarities in their use of cacao. It’s preparation was far more varied than it is today. Presilla tells us that the idea of how to prepare cacao may have come from other foodstuffs such as maize that were dried, roasted and ground. The beverage made of ground cacao beans and water was typically bitter and savory –  often flavored with chilis and other botanicals – and only sometimes sweetened. Coe tells us that it was often mixed with maize (mature or young) was a way to make a nutritious gruel with more caloric value. Presilla mentions the use of cacao as a seasoning in other dishes as well. The froth was particularly desirable and was created by pouring the liquid from one container into another, sometimes at great height.

Aztec woman pouring

Picture of Aztec woman, from the Codex Tudela, pouring chocolate from one container to another to raise the foam.

Although cacao may have been available to various strata of Mayan society, in Aztec society it could only be used by the elite: nobles, the merchant class (long distance traders), and warriors. The Aztecs felt that bad luck would come if a commoner drank cacao – and the penalty for a commoner who did so was death. According to Coe, the Aztecs also did not care for drunkenness (the penalty was death) and chocolate was viewed as an alternative beverage to alcoholic beverages.  Warm cacao generally seems to have been preferred by Mayans, and it was typically served in tall vessels. When it was served cool, they served it in shallow bowls. The Aztecs liked their cacao cool and served it in small round gourd bowls. The Aztec warrior class also had cacao as part of their rations – the ground cacao was pressed into wafers for portability on their treks. (Coe)

Cacao vessels could be quite elaborate. The ornate ceramic jar depicted below is an example of a Mayan cacao drinking cup. According to the Walters art gallery, the hieroglyphs describe it as a cacao drinking cup, and include the name of the owner. It is covered with a variety of cacao imagery and decorated with molded cacao pods, which also indicate that it is intended for cacao. It’s fine construction indicates that it is for the use of the upper classes. It may have been intended for use in a special feast or as a special gift.

mayan_-_lidded_vessel_-_walters_20092039_-_side_a

Mayan lidded cacao vessel, decorated with molded cacao pods and cacao imagery and glyphs

Festive and ceremonial use of cacao was a feature for both the Aztecs and the Mayans. At Mayan marriages, the couple exchanged 5 cacao beans with each other. Mayans also had a baptism-like ritual in which children who reached puberty were anointed with a cacao mixture. (Coe, Mexilore). Aztec traders (the pocheta) hosted large banquets as a means of climbing the ladder to higher ranks within the guild, and cacao was an important aspect of the banquet. (Coe) The word “chokolaj” means “to drink chocolate together”, thus referring to the communal aspect of consuming chocolate. (Coe)

Although important as a foodstuff, cacao was also used as money. It was a precious item, as it was fussy to grow and could only be cultivated in a narrow range of temperatures. It would not grow in Aztec lands and had to be acquired through long distance trade or as tribute paid by conquered peoples. Cacao beans were used to pay laborers and Coe tells us of price lists which show the value of various commodities (tomato, rabbit, avocado, etc.) in cacao beans. As Coe points out, drinking cacao was equivalent to actually drinking actual money.

Cacao was also a feature of the symbolic and spiritual universe of the pre-Columbians. Many pictures depict gods with cacao trees, pods, and seeds, including a portrait of the opossum god bearing the legend, “cacao is his food.” (Coe) Cacao was among the offerings placed in graves for the dead to take to the after life. (Presilla) In Aztec cosmic imagery a cacao tree stands at the south, in the land of the dead. (Coe)

The Mayans and the Aztecs also associated blood and cacao.  According to Coe, cacao could metaphorically be referred to by the words for heart and blood, and cacao was sometimes colored with achiote to become red like blood. Some scholars believe that this could be because of the resemblance of the cacao pod to the heart. Or, perhaps as Coe suggests, it was because both the heart and the cacao pod “were the repositories of precious liquids.” Coe also refers to an image in the Mayan Madrid Codex in which gods pierce their ears with obsidian blades. The blood drops down and sprinkles on cacao pods. Finally, as Coe and Mexilore tell us, in the annual Aztec ritual to ensure the continuation of the world, the sacrificial victim was supposed to dance happily before his death and the removal of his heart. To enchant him and keep him happy as he danced, he was made to drink cacao made with the water used to wash the blood from the obsidian blades that were used on the previous sacrificial victim. (Coe)

Cacao played a large and significant role in pre-Columbian society. As a foodstuff, it was prepared in a myriad of ways. It marked important occasions and was typically consumed by the elite. It’s preciousness is shown in that it could be used as money. Indeed, cacao was a significant aspect of the pre-columbian view of the cosmos. One has to wonder what they would think of today’s easy availability, low cost, and casual use.

References Cited

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

Maricel E. Presilla, The New Taste of Chocolate, revised. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009.

Mexicolore, The food of the Gods: Cacao use among the prehispanic Maya, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/cacao-use-among-the-prehispanic-maya.

Mexicolore, Chocolate: the blood of the Gods?, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/blood-of-the-gods. 

Walters Art Gallery, lidded vessel description                    http://art.thewalters.org/detail/80194/lidded-vessel/

Wikipedia Commons, Mayan glyph for cacao, public domain.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cb/Kakaw_%28Mayan_word%29.png

Wikipedia Commons, Aztec woman in Codex Tudela.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/ff/Mujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_Tudela.jpg/366px-Mujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_Tudela.jpg

Wikipedia Commons, Mayan lidded vessel, owned by Walters Art Gallery, public domain. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/37/Mayan_-_Lidded_Vessel_-_Walters_20092039_-_Side_D.jpg/423px-Mayan_-_Lidded_Vessel_-_Walters_20092039_-_Side_D.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

Significance of Cacao in Mayan Civilization: Exposing the Divine Origins of Chocolate and its Mysticism

Cacao and chocolate were important aspects of Mesoamerican civilizations’ customs and beliefs. In addition to drinking chocolate, Mayan societies utilized cacao for ritualistic purposes, an interesting aspect of chocolate’s history that deserves further exploration. While the Olmecs, active from 1500 to 400 BCE, were most likely the first to make chocolate from cacao beans, the focus will be on the Mayans’ utilization of chocolate. Evidence suggests that cacao was an integral part of their society as it was embedded in their religious beliefs. Understanding these historical uses and origins of cacao illuminates the reasons chocolate is represented as a luxurious item in today’s society. The representation of cacao in the Mayan religion established chocolate as a powerful entity, which shaped the ways that chocolate was utilized, and contributed to its essence of purity.

            The common association of cacao with godly figures derives from its origin story. According to Mayan religious beliefs, their gods discovered cacao.[1] Consequently, cacao, or chocolate, is termed “food of the gods.”[2] There are two Mayan Gods worth mentioning to emphasize the importance of cacao in their society. The first, Ek Chuah, was supposedly honored by the Maya in an annual festival.[3] While some chocolate historians term Ek Chuah the Maya Merchant God, others refer to Ek Chuah as the Cacao God.[4][5] Regardless, Ek Chuah was an important deity to the Mayans, and commonly presented with cacao or a cacao tree.[6] The second, the Maize God, was an important deity, as maize was necessary to sustain life.[7] The image below illustrates the Maize God, on the right, presumably conversing with the figure on the left (Image 1). The Maize God is depicted as older and in control of the discussion, compared to the younger, timid being on the left, suggests he is authoritative in the Mayan religion. In another recreation of the Maize God, he is portrayed as a cacao tree.[8] That cacao is associated with this powerful god signifies the importance of cacao in Mayan religion and justifies its use in significant Mayan rituals.

maize_god_and_itzamnc3a1

(Image 1)

            The strong connection between cacao and the gods established chocolate as a mystical and highly valued substance. Records from Mayan society, written in hieroglyphics, reveal the significance of cacao in the Mayan rituals. One document, called the Dresden Codex, describes rituals in which the gods consume cacao.[9] Another document, called Popol Vuh, also mentions cacao in combination with godly rituals.[10] That cacao was used by divine beings qualifies chocolate as a divine entity as well. Labeling chocolate as “food of the gods” implicates cacao as a substance worthy to unworldly beings, which has resulted in mystical and pure connotations being attached to cacao. These associations have extended to the present-day, demonstrated by the chocolate named “Food of the Gods,” displayed in the image below (Image 2). This brand name implies this chocolate is pure and of high quality. That this phrase and idea is employed in chocolate marketing strategies today validates the historical significance of cacao’s divine origins, and is representative of expectations that chocolate is pure and of high value.

1411838976

(Image 2)

            The symbolic importance of cacao is exemplified by the Mayas’ incorporation of chocolate pottery vessels in their burial rituals. Cacao was included in numerous different ceremonies in Mayan society, including baptisms, banquets, weddings, and funerals.[11] Fascinatingly, archaeological excavation of ancient Mayan graves found tombs filled with chocolate pottery vessels.[12] Noteworthy, these vessels are only found in tombs of the Mayan elite presumably because only those in the highest social circles consumed chocolate.[13] The image below pictures a pottery vessel from Classic Maya society that contained chocolate (Image 3).[14] This presents a characteristic chocolate pottery vessel buried in a tomb of a Mayan elite. The delicate shape and intricacy of the images on the side of the vessel indicate that not only was chocolate highly valued, but the container the substance was consumed from was also of high value, probably only affordable by the wealthiest Mayans. The purpose of burying these formerly cacao-filled pottery vessels with the deceased resided in the Mayan belief that chocolate assisted the soul’s travel to death.[15] Perhaps Mayan society only buried these pottery vessels with the elite because they were the only individuals worthy of cacao’s powers in the afterlife. Again, this represents the mystical abilities of cacao, attributable to its divine origins and association with the gods.

alv14539

(Image 3)

            The use of chocolate for medicinal purposes in Mayan society also exemplifies the mystical abilities associated with cacao, attributable to its discovery by the gods. In most modern western societies today, chocolate is not used as a medical treatment, but rather is detrimental to health when consumed in large quantities. The Mayans utilized chocolate for health ailments such as digestive issues, fatigue, and inflammation.[16] Similar to the argument made for chocolate’s powers in the afterlife, the belief in cacao’s healing powers also arguably originates from its divine origins. The belief that chocolate possessed healing abilities portrays it as a mystical substance. This is historically significant because while the Mayans may have been the first society to utilize cacao for medicinal purposes, it is certainly not unique to their society now, as this treatment was adopted by cultures and societies as cacao spread throughout the world in subsequent centuries.[17] The Aztecs and even doctors in 16th and 17th century Europe placed faith in the healing powers of cacao.[18] The medicinal use of cacao helped cement the illusion of chocolate as a pure, mystical, and powerful substance, These mystical abilities established chocolate as a special, highly-valued, and pure substance, perceptions of cacao that have persisted to the present-day.

Thinking of chocolate probably triggers happy memories for most people, but for most individuals in modern western societies today, it most likely does not elicit symbolic or religious meaning. However, for the Mayans, chocolate was strongly associated with their gods and played an active role in their rituals. Cacao possessed powerful skills, able to help the dead pass into the afterlife, and cure health ailments. The association of cacao with divine beings established chocolate as a special substance, and set a precedent for it as a highly-valued, pure, and luxurious item, only to be consumed by worthy, elite individuals. The symbolic significance and use of cacao in Mayan society plays an important historical role in how chocolate would be used and by whom in the following centuries, and the connotations attached to it in present-day cultures.

[1] Teresa L. Dillinger, Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Escarcega, Martha Jimenez, Diana Salazar Lowe, and Louis E. Grivetti, “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate,” The American Society for Nutritional Sciences 130 (2000): 2057-72, accessed March 7, 2017, http://jn.nutrition.org/content/130/8/2057S.full.pdf+html.

[2] Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, “The Tree of the Food of the Gods,” in The True History of Chocolate, (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013), 33-64.

[3] Dillinger et al., “Food of the Gods.”

[4] Coe and Coe, “The Tree.”

[5] Dillinger et al., “Food of the Gods.”

[6] Coe and Coe, “The Tree.”

[7] Donatella Lippi, “Sin and Pleasure: The History of Chocolate in Medicine,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 63 (2015): 9936-9941, accessed March 7, 2017, doi: 10.1021/acs.jafc.5b00829.

[8] Coe and Coe, “The Tree,” 43.

[9] Coe and Coe, “The Tree.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Carla D. Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘food of the gods,’” lecture for Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food course, Cambridge, MA, February, 1, 2017.

[12] Coe and Coe, “The Tree.”

[13] Ibid.

[14] Coe and Coe, “The Tree,” 47.

[15] Martin, “Mesoamerica.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] Lippi, “Sin and Pleasure.”

[18] Dillinger, “Food of the Gods.”

References

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. “The Tree of the Food of the Gods.” In The True History  of Chocolate, 33-64. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013.

Dillinger, Teresa L., Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Escarcega, Martha Jimenez, Diana Salazar Lowe, and Louis E. Grivetti. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” The American Society for Nutritional Sciences 130 (2000): 2057-72. Accessed March 7, 2017. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/130/8/2057S.full.pdf+html.

Lippi, Donatella. “Sin and Pleasure: The History of Chocolate in Medicine.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 63 (2015): 9936-9941. Accessed March 7, 2017. Doi: 10.1021/acs.jafc.5b00829.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘food of the gods.’” Lecture for Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food course, Cambridge, MA, February, 1, 2017.

Multimedia sources

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maize_God_and_Itzamn%C3%A1.JPG

Image 2: http://www.foodofthegods.org.uk/

Image 3: http://www.artehistoria.com/v2/contextos/3850.htm

The Long Intercontinental and Multiethnic Career of the Mesoamerican Metate

482_03_2

Figure 1: A Traditional Mesoamerican Metate and Mano

          In order to create their sacred chocolate drink, pre-Columbian Mesoamerican women kneeled on the ground to pulverize roasted beans with a mano on a curved grinding stone called a metate, which together act as a horizontal version of a mortar and pestle (Mcanany and Murata 12).  During this “gendered labor”, women added damp corn masa as well as other spices, “such as chile pepper, vanilla, and annatto”, to the cacao (Mcanany and Murata 12).  Originating as early as 7000 BCE, these grinding stones are some of the oldest domestic tools in the Americas (“Metate”).  This simple invention spread hand-in-hand with the popularization of cacao in Europe.  Due to its involvement in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican chocolate production and its persistence as a pillar of Latin American food traditions, its pervasive adoption by Europeans, and its influence on the modern, niche chocolate industry, the metate proves to be one of the most important artifacts in the history of chocolate.

Enjoying “an amazing intercontinental and multiethnic career”, metates rank among the few elements of the chocolate-making process that Europeans did not alter (Presilla 26).  In order to appeal to a European audience and “cross the ethnocentric taste barrier” between Mesoamericans and Europeans, chocolate had to undergo a hybridization process (Coe and Coe 114).  This hybridization changed or modified nearly everything about the chocolate-making and chocolate-consuming processes.  Instead of following Aztec customs of drinking chocolate at cold or at room temperature, Europeans “insisted on taking chocolate hot” (Coe and Coe 115).  In regard to the recipe, Europeans regularly sweetened the drink with cane sugar, and invaders introduced “Old World spices”, such as cinnamon, anise seed, and black pepper, in place of native Mesoamerican flavorings (Coe and Coe 115).  Europeans even replaced the method of obtaining the greatly desired froth of the drink.  While native Mesoamerican women customarily poured the liquid from one vessel to another from a height to achieve frothiness in the drink, Europeans used “a large, wooden swizzle-stick called a molinillo”(Coe and Coe 115).  Despite all these changes during the European adoption of chocolate, the metate was embraced by Europeans in the same capacity as it was used by Mesoamericans.

The age of mechanization of chocolate manufacturing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries made the metate obsolete, yet the device continued to be used in Latin America as a symbol of tradition and in Europe by artisanal confectioners.  Beginning in the sixteenth century the Mesoamerican invention of the metate and the technique perfected by the Aztecs and Maya of grinding up roasted cacao beans on it “travelled everywhere that cacao was turned into chocolate” (Presilla 180).  The metate instantly became a popular device in Europe; “The metate became as much at home in Spain, France (where it was called “the Spanish stone”), and the Philippines as in Mexico” (Presilla 26).  Figure 2 shows a carving from de Blegny’s 1687 treatise, depicting a European man using a metate to grind heated cacao beans.  This depiction is notable because European men took up the craft of chocolate-making in European, which was viewed as a woman’s task in Mesoamerica.

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 4.35.59 PM.pngFigure 2: European gentleman grinding cacao beans from de Blegny’s 1687 treatise

The industrial revolution marks a shift away from using the metate in favor of machine processes in the late 1700s, such as M. Doret’s hydraulic machine to grind chocolate and form a paste.  However, this transition to machine-based chocolate production took time, and cacao beans continued to be ground by hand (Coe and Coe 227).  The “ancient ways of making chocolate” persisted in “isolated pockets within Southern Europe” (Coe and Coe 233).  Confectioners in southern France in the 1870s continued to use metates as did the Romanengo chocolate establishment in Italy, which “still had stones to grind the cacao” as late as 1989 (Coe and Coe 233).  In fact, the industrialization of the chocolate industry made many consumers distrust the quality of the chocolate they purchased, which bolstered the artisanal chocolate industry and its use of metates as the artisanal chocolate was perceived as purer.  For example, Catalan chocolate makers in Spain encouraged observers to witness the chocolate being made with the metate to demonstrate to the buyer “that the chocolate he is buying is true-stone ground chocolate, made according to a procedure which…makes it more difficult to add adulterants” (Coe and Coe 233).

Figure 3:  Preparing Drinking Chocolate Near Oaxaca, Mexico

Today, many Latin Americans pay homage to their ancestors by using the traditional metate in making chocolate, and the niche chocolate industry often derives their techniques and tastes from this ancient style of chocolate production.  As shown in the video of Figure 3, a Mexican woman from Teotítlan Del Valle makes a traditional chocolate drink using a mano and a metate over a flame.  Alex Whitmore, CEO of Taza Chocolate, “brought a taste of Mexico to Somerville”, Massachusetts by making “authentic stone ground chocolate” (Hofherr) (Figure 4).  After apprenticing with Mexican molineros and “learning their ancient chocolate-making secrets”, Alex decided to use simple rotary stone mills derivative of the metate to create a chocolate with a “gritty, rustic texture” and be “one of a handful of companies in the country that are bean-to-bar chocolate makers” (Hofherr).  Taza and its rival companies symbolize a retreat to the roots of chocolate production and the traditional tools involved in the process.

taza_chocolate_mission_largeFigure 4: Taza Chocolate Mission

          Ultimately, the metate proves to be one of the most important instruments in the history of chocolate.  From its humble origins in the Maya and Aztec civilizations to its widespread adoption all over Europe, the metate enjoyed “an amazing intercontinental and multiethnic career”, transcending vastly different cultures and enduring the test of time (Presilla 26).  Due to the longevity and geographical range of its use and to the influence it has on contemporary niche confectioners, the metate helped shape the history of chocolate as we know it today.

Works Cited

A Mexican Metate, or Grinding Stone. Digital image. Mexicolore. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Mar. 2017.            <http://mexicolore.co.uk/images-4/482_03_2.jpg&gt;.

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

Hofherr, Justine. “CEO Desk: How Taza Chocolate’s founder brought a taste of Mexico to             Somerville.” Boston.com. The Boston Globe, 23 Feb. 2016. Web. 8 Mar. 2017,                               https://www.boston.com/jobs/jobs-news/2016/02/23/ceo-desk-how-taza-                               chocolates-founder-brought-a-taste-of-mexico-to-the-east-coast

Le bon usage du thé, du caffee et du chocolat. Digital image. Rachellaudan.com. Rachel Laudan,           18 July 2010. Web. 9 Mar. 2017.

Mcanany, Patricia A., and Satoru Murata. “America’s First Connoisseurs of Chocolate.”               Food and Foodways 15. 1-2 (2007): 7-30. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 8 Mar. 2017.

“Metate.” Mexicolore, 8 Mar. 2017, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/artefacts/metate

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

Taza Chocolate Mission. Digital image. Taza Chocolate. Taza Chocolate, n.d. Web. 9 Mar.                   2017.

Wilmo55. “Preparing drinking chocolate near Oaxaca, Mexico.” Youtube. The Sunday                     Supper Project, 25 Apr. 2010. Web. 9 Mar. 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?               v=GlAg7zIR57k>.