Tag Archives: pre-conquest

What Did Chocolate Taste Like Before European Intervention?: A Brief History of Mesoamerican Chocolate Recipes

By Juliana Ruggieri

Today if you ask someone to describe chocolate, they would describe a bar of a sweet and silky creation that is hard when you bite it but melts as it hits your mouth. This idea of the solid chocolate bar however is distinct from the original forms of cacao in historical mesoamerican recipes. Cacao has existed for millenia in Central and South America. In their book The True History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael Coe give an excellent  description of the history of cacao before colonial powers ever laid eyes on the crop. The Olmec people, who lived in the Mexican gulf coast from 1500 to 400 BCE, are wrongly believed to be the first to understand and produce chocolate products; however, researches at the Hershey Lab have shown that while the Olmecs certainly used cacao, they were by no means the first to engage with this product (2019, 34). Coe and Coe explain that evidence of cacao has been found on the pottery of a pre-Olmec civilization that existed sometime between 1800 and 1400 BCE, called “Barra” by researchers. The design and delicate nature of the vessels suggest that they would have been used to display the valuable chocolate drink rather than cooking it (2019, 36). In chapter 2, Coe and Coe present the earliest known depiction of a chocolate drink being made on a vessel from 750CE. The image depicts an important part of Aztec and Mayan chocolate recipes: the process of pouring the liquid from one vessel to another to create foam, “considered the most desirable part of the drink” (2019, 50). These ancient civilizations reveal how long cacao has existed and been an important part of life in Mesoamerica.

Image from the Codex Tudela depicting an (Europeanized) Aztec women pouring chocolate from one vessel to another

Anonymous, “Mujer vertiendo chocolate,” circa 1553, Madrid-Museo de América.

The Mayan people experienced chocolate centuries before the Aztecs, using cacao both as a currency and a drink (2015).  The Classic Maya likely enjoyed their chocolate drinks at a variety of temperatures; however, so far the cacao hieroglyph has only appeared on excavated vessels used to keep drinks cool (2019, 45). As Coe and Coe describe cacao in Classic Maya was not prepared just 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…” (2019, 44). Classic Maya chocolate was made by grinding processed cacao beans (beans that had been hulled, roasted, and fermented) into a powder then mixing it with water and other flavorings in a basin, before transferring the liquid between two vessels to produce the coveted froth (2019, 95). The Maya are known to have often mixed their chocolate with ground maize and chilli (2015). 

 

An image from Sahagún depicting Aztec pochtecas traveling.

Sahagún. Historia de Las Cosas de Nueva España, . Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana, Florence. 

Despite being far from the first to work with cacao, the Aztec people are often associated with ideas of early chocolate. Cacao was an extremely important aspect of Aztec life. The Aztec drank chocolate beverages for both religious and medicinal reasons, never cooking with chocolate along the same lines as a Christian would not cook with communion wine (2015).  As explained in The True History of Chocolate chocolate was seen as a favorable replacement to alcoholic beverages, “One of the reasons that the Aztecs were so interested in chocolate was that their native drink octli… was mildly alcoholic, and drunkenness was not looked upon favorably by Aztec society” (2019, 99). The pochteca (merchants) would bring four types of cacao, all thought to be among the criollo variety, to the center of the empire either for trade or tribute (2019, 104). Aztec recipes for chocolate drinks involved the same preparation as their Mayan counterparts, although the Aztec drinks are thought to have almost always been served cold (2019, 100). Inferior varieties of cacao were beefed up by adding nixtamalli and water, creating a gruel flavored with chocolate (2019, 102). The Aztec would often add extra flavorings to their chocolate drinks, a universally popular addition was powdered chilli, which could range from mild to extremely hot (2015). However many other flavorings were used. The Food Timeline quotes Townsend’s The Aztecs where some of the most popular additions including spices, like chenopodium, coriander and sage, vanilla orchid pods, or sweeteners, like honey (2015).

In  “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism,” Stacey Schwartzkopf and Kathryn E. Sampeck track how historical mesoamerican chocolate recipes influenced colonial European consumption of chocolate. They begin by giving a brief summary of the history of chocolate explaining how the first recipe for chocolate is believed to come from the Izalcos in Guatemala. They present images that explain the transfer of chocolate recipes between Mesoamerica, Colonial America, and Europe. The charts depict the strongest connection being the flow of recipes and other resources out of Guatemala and Peru to England (2017, 87). These recipes contained a variety of ingredients beyond the standard caco and water, the most common being  xochinacaztli, chile, anise, mecaxuchil, vanilla, Alexandran roses, cinnamon, almond, hazelnut, sugar, achiote, jamaica pepper, nutmeg, clove musk, ambergris, citron, lemon peel, odoriferous aromatic oil, china, sarsa, and saunders. The authors go on to explain the importance of this connection because of the global power the British Empire held at the time: “The most influential recipes for chocolate are British. This means that the set of ingredients occuring in British sources acts most like a base recipe from which other European ones derived” (2017, 89). This connection means that the recipes developed in what is now Guatemala and Peru would go on to be the beginning of what would eventually become the chocolate we know and love today.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 2019.

Olver, Lynne. “The Food Timeline–Aztec, Maya & Inca Foods.” The Food Timeline, March 1, 2015. http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodmaya.html.

Schwartzkopf, Stacey, and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” In Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2017.

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.


Drinking Culture

Two of the most developed and complex human empires to ever populate the planet are the Maya (Classica Maya 250-900 AD) and the Aztecs (1420-1520). Prior to conquest by the Spanish conquistadors, these two massive societies inhabited the region now known as central Mexico. At the height of their power, both civilizations were enormous: the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan contained 200,000 people, and the roughly 40 cities of the Maya contained between 5,000 and 50,000 people each. These two empires are well known for their architecture, astronomy, food (specifically cacao, maize, and chili peppers), calendar, mathematics, writing, and religion. One commonality between the two societies was the presence of the cacao bean and its role in the lives of their citizens, specifically in the form of chocolate beverages. The pre-Conquest specialty cacao drink preparations of the Mayan and Aztec people provided a social, societal, and religious backbone for two of the most complex civilizations in modern human history.Man frothing chocolate drink

“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 subtances” (Coe). Traditional Maya recipes included the tzune (made with cacao, maize, sapote seeds), saca (made from cooked maize, water, cacao), and a “Lacandon Sacred Drink”. This special drink was made by fermenting dried beans that were toasted and ground with a suqir vine and stirred into water. The tougher part of the vine was the foaming agent that was whipped up before serving (Martin). Aztec cacao drinks were actually initially produced to replace octli, a native wine that was alcoholic. Drunkenness was not looked upon favorably in the Aztec society, so a focus was turned to cacao. Aztec beverages contained more flavoring than their Mayan counterparts, using plants like chili peppers to create mild to extremely hot concoctions (McNeil). In terms of preparation, Aztec beverages were very similar to their Mayan counterparts, but were most often served cold. Traditionally popular recipes included honey chocolate, flower chocolate, vanilla chocolate, bright-red chocolate, and black/white chocolate: “the ruler was served his chocolate… green, made up of tender cacao; honeyed chocolate made with ground up flowers- with green vanilla pods; bright red chocolate; orange-colored chocolate; black chocolate; white chocolate. (Sahagun). These drinks were made by grinding cacao seeds into a powder and mixed with water while changing basins to whip up foam. The drink is then flavored (often with hueinacaztli, an ear-shaped flower) and mixed with small spoonfuls of gold, silver, or wood before consumption

.pulque-boisson-maguey-mexique

These various specialty beverages produced in pre-Conquest Mesoamerica served immense social purposes. In addition to being a “social lubricant” that was enjoyed over conversation, there were several social customs that were centered on drinking chocolate. The term “chokola’j” which provides the foundation for the modern word “chocolate” means to drink chocolate together with friends in the Mayan culture. “Tac haa” is the word for a marriage ritual in which the man invites the father of a potential wife to discuss the future and marriage over a chocolate drink (Martin). Cacao drinks also operated as tokens of inter-societal bonding: “In later Mesoamerican societies for which we have data on social alliances, cacao was a primary object of exchange between social groups, marking betrothal, marriage, and children’s life cycle rituals” (Coe). For chocolate consumption to be so intertwined with everyday culture in pre-Conquest Mesoamerican shows its importance to the social lives of people in these societies.

Cacao beverages also served a societal purpose in terms of establishing and recognizing hierarchy in government. Specifically in the Aztec empire, Bernardino Sahagun, a missionary from Spain provided rich descriptions of cacao in royal cities as an example of a rich food consumed primarily by lords and people of distinction. Chocolate drinks were served as part of elaborate feasting systems; the royalty in Aztec culture were served chocolate with a meal that consisted of the finest maize breads, soups, fish/meat casseroles, and tamales. These feasting systems had great political implications: “the feasting system not only created a forum for sociopolitical alliance formation but it was also and essential economic mechanism wielded by Mesoamerica’s ruling elites” (McNeil). In addition to being a social element for Mesoamericans, cacao also heavily influenced the political makeup of societies.

chocolate1

Finally, cacao is deeply rooted in the religion of Mesoamerican societies, so much to the point that it has such influence over culture and politics as mentioned above. Throughout the Dresden Codex, cacao is featured as a food for the gods of the Mayan people. Consuming cacao, especially the luxurious foam of the beverage, is also thought to ease the soul during its journey into the Underworld after death (Martin). The Popol Vuh, a colonial document from the records of a Franciscan friar, states that gods used cacao and sweets to form humans: “and so they were happy over the provisions of the good mountain, filled with sweet things, thick with yellow corn, white corn, and thick with pataxte, arid cacao, zapotes, anonas, jacotes, nances, matasanos, sweets” (Popul Vuh).

The cacao tree and the undifferentiated beans that it produces also has many other uses in Mesoamerican societies such as its role in medicine; cacao is used as a stimulant and was believed to be able to cure exhaustion, mental illness, fevers, etc. There is no doubt that the cacao tree has huge historical significance in pre-Conquest Mesoamerica, as it essentially provided structure to the Maya and Aztec empires. Traditional cacao beverages were intertwined with the social lives of citizens, held significance in its role as an elite food that mediated conflict and formed political alliances, and were “foods of the gods” that comprised creation stories for its people. To see that a beverage made from a regional plant can have so much influence on the lives of entire civilizations is truly amazing.

Works Cited

Coe, S. et Coe, M. 2013. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames and Hudson. Everbest Printing. Print.

Martin, C. 2007. Lecture Slides, AFRAMER 119X, Harvard University.

McNeil, C. 2009. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. University Press of Florida. Print.

Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings. Trans. Dennis Tedlock. New York: Simon and Schuster 1985

Sahagun, B. 1950-1982. Florentine Codex. General History of the Things of New Spain. Translated by A. Anderson and C. Dibble. School of American Research, Santa Fe, New Mexico, University of Utah Press.