Tag Archives: stimulant

Cacao and Religion in Ancient Mesoamerica

The presence of cacao in ancient Mesoamerica dates back to the Pre-Classic civilization of the Olmec. Archeologists have been able to study the presence of cacao in ancient Mesoamerica by debunking hieroglyphs, discovering artifacts, and chemically testing for cacao residue. From their studies, they have been able to discern that cacao played an intimate role in ritualistic religious practices. Evidence shows cacao being incorporated in a myriad of ancient ceremonies like marriage, burial, sacrifice, and shaman initiation, dating from the Pre-Classic age through Post-Classic Mesoamerica. The focus of this piece is to explore, further, the connection between cacao and religious practices in ancient Mesoamerica by way of artifacts found by archeologists. Religion played a massive role in the everyday of people in Mesoamerica, as I have come to find out, cacao did too. The first step is understanding what cacao meant to religion is to better understand what exactly the people of the time believed in.

It is important to clarify that,“cacao” for the purpose of this paper is starkly dissimilar to chocolate. The processes ancient Mesoamericans used to consume their cacao were very simple, not many ingredients whatsoever, compared to the cacao to chocolate processes of today. We use it as a decadent treat, whereas they used it primarily as a stimulant (McNiel 82). There was a focused purpose when someone consumed cacao, purposes stated in the preceding section. The ancient Mesoamericans, in particular the Mayans, held cacao in such a high-regard that the importance of cacao of the time was akin to maize (Mahony). It is well understood that maize was more integral in the everyday diet of the Mayan people, however, maize was not integral in the ceremonial processes of the time. Cacao represented much more than sustenance, there was a sacred component to it which is why I became interested in discovering its relationship with cacao in Mesoamerica.

Religion throughout ancient Mesoamerica has remained fairly consistent beginning with the Olmecs, moving to the Mayans, and ending with the Aztecs. Professor Davíd Carrasco, who studies specifically Mesoamerican anthropology at Harvard, suggested this assertion to me through a book recommendation and I find the thesis of the book very compelling. Professor Carrasco turned me to Peter Berger’s Sacred Canopy which aims to tackle the question, “Why did people believe what they did?” When discussing ancient Mesoamerica his primary contention and explanation was “As above, so below” which basically means that ancient Mesoamericans thought that the happiness or discontent of the gods was directly reflected in their earthly ongoings (Berger). In other words, they believed that life was being played on two different levels simultaneously: one being their autonomous action and the other being the will of the gods in the other world. This is commonly referred to as “duality” in anthropology. They used religion to explain the ongoings of the natural world. As a result we have seen a repetition of ritualistic archetypes from all ancient civilizations in attempt to garner the favor of the gods. Even through the years it is noted that the Nahuas made a cacao sacrifice to an effigy of Jesus Christ that the spaniards brought in (Mahony). This offers even more evidence of their religious practices remaining consistent even through severe transition. All in all,  Berger makes a compelling argument as to why ancient Mesoamerican belief has been rather consistent.

The repeated ritualistic archetypes to appease the needs of the gods is where we find chocolate in ancient Mesoamerica. Burial ceremonies were religious in nature (Prufer). Their understanding of death was that it was more of a beginning than an end. Death embarked one’s journey into the other world. In an ancient burial ground dating back to the 5th to 4th century there was a bowl uncovered that had chemical tracings of cacao, discovered in what would have been ancient Maya. The bowl was thought to have possessed the ritual sustenance for that person’s travel into the other world (Prufer). As the person died and moved on to the next life the cacao was the fuel that allowed them to successfully travel to the other worldly side. Consequently, the people that were still alive would continually make sacrifices in order to gain the favor of the past relatives, cacao deities, and other agricultural deities.

Copán is a famous archeological site located in current day western Honduras, in the 5th to 9th century it is understood that they were a part of the Mayan civilization. This site is one of the most famous locations connecting religion to chocolate by way of physical artifacts and hieroglyphs. In Copán we see diagrams and hieroglyphs of cacao trees and other agricultural deities. An interesting discovery in Copán was that the cacao tree was used to help depict their ancestry. Furthermore, there were artifacts that correlated people whom were still alive putting multiple sacrificial ornaments in their past relatives’ tombs. The connection with their ancestors which played a massive role in their religion (McNeil). They would pay respect to the dead and they looked upon their ancestors as having almost god-like impact in the other world, they Mayans would look to their ancestors alongside deities to help them protect and maintain their cacao storages. As a means of protecting their ability to successfully complete their ritualistic practices both religious and social.

I have been very interested in exploring the roots of Mesoamerica because they are my ancestors. Their belief system being so closely tied in with chocolate of all things is fascinating.The implications of rituals has had dramatic effects throughout all ancient Mesoamerican history, it was fruitful finding where cacao finds it place in these repeated archetypes.

Works Cited

Berger, Peter L., 1929-2017. The Sacred Canopy; Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Garden City, N.Y. :Doubleday, 1967. Print.

Rosenswig, R. M. (2008), Cacao in Mesoamerica: A Culture History of Cacao ‐ Edited by Cameron L. McNeil. Bulletin of Latin American Research, 27: 435-437.

Mahony, Mary Ann. “Cacao in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao (review).” Enterprise & Society, vol. 11 no. 1, 2010, pp. 175-177. 

Prufer, Keith M. W. Hurst, Jeffery; Cacao in the Underworld Space of Death: Cacao Seeds from an Early Classic Mortuary Cave. Ethnohistory 1 April 2007; 54 (2): 273–301.



Chia, Coca and Cacao: Stimulants in Meso and South American Culture and Their Lasting Effects

Chia seeds, coca, cacao and their derivatives were used by the ancient civilizations of the Mayans, Aztecs, Olmecs and Incans in a variety of ways for a variety of different reasons. They were used as sacrifices, as food, and even as a currency. Chia, coca, and cacao share a lot more in common than these words starting with the same letter; most people, however, do not know that. Exploring the relationships between these substances is vital to understanding how these substances had shaped the civilizations of the past and is still shaping ours today.

Chia seeds were a staple in the diet of Aztec civilizations along with beans, amaranth, and maize[1].There is ample evidence to suggest that Mayans also consumed chia seeds in their diet due to “chia” translating to “strength” [2] in Mayan and the region of Chiapas, which comes from Chiapan meaning “river of the chia”[3]. The Aztecs offered these seeds to their gods during religious ceremonies and were consumed with the thought that it had supernatural powers. “Ancient warriors attributed their stamina to this tiny seed.” [4] It is worth noting that a diet consisting of the four aforementioned crops meet today’s Food and Agricultural Organization diet requirements[5]. Chia seeds, as we now know, are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and dietary fiber[6][7]. These supernatural seeds have an extraordinary ability to absorb water and it can be visualized in this video: https://youtu.be/ZyjK3nOxzjs[8]. The reported “increased stamina” after consuming these seeds is because of this high absorption ability of them.

The coca plant is most commonly found on the Andes mountain range in Peru and Bolivia, the home of the ancient Incan civilization. The following excerpt from Sigmund Freud’s “Uber Coca” shows how coca was viewed and used by the indigenous people that cultivated it:

When the Spanish conquerors forced their way into Peru they found that the coca plant was cultivated and was closely connected with the religious customs of the people. Legend held that Manco Capac, the divine son of the Sun, had descended brought them knowledge of the gods, taught them the useful arts, and given them the coca leaf, this divine plant which satiates the hungry, strengthens the weak, and causes them to forget their misfortune. Coca leaves were offered in sacrifice to the gods, were chewed during religious ceremonies, and were even placed in the mouths of the dead in order to assure them of a favorable reception in the beyond.[9]

Like the chia seeds, there is a religious significance embedded in the society’s use of the coca plant. Coca leaves like chia seeds were cited to have supernatural and miraculous powers. Freud points out the story of a sixty two year old man performing “laborious excavation work for five days and nights” all while sleeping no more than two hours and consuming nothing but coca leaves.[10] Nowadays, tourists in the Andes are given a tea made from coca leaves that helps cure altitude sickness[11]. Despite having many other uses, the main use of coca is that of a stimulant that increases the physical capacity of the body.[12] However, nowadays the most common and far deadlier is the coca plant’s addictive derivative: cocaine.

The recipe for chocolate has been around for many centuries with traces going back all the way to the predecessors of the Mayan civilization, the Olmecs[13]. They were thought to be the first to first develop the recipe for “chocolate”. Chocolate and cacao beans were used in a range of different uses from religious ceremonies and medicines just as the coca leaf and chia seeds were also used. It was even thought to be an aphrodisiac[14]. The chemical name given to the cacao tree, theobroma cacao, translates to “food of the gods”[15]. The Mayan hieroglyph below shows just that, as it depicts the God of Maize as a cacao tree. This depiction signifies the importance of cacao as a crop to the Mayan civilization.


Maya Maize God

Recent studies show that what we know today as “dark chocolate” contains two main alkaloids that are responsible for its stimulant properties, theobromine and caffeine.[16] It is therefore safe to assume that even before the incorporation of sugar into chocolate recipes it had stimulant properties like coca leaves and chia seeds. And while there is no evidence to suggest that chocolate was used to perform “supernatural” and “miraculous” feats, it is not beyond the realm of possibility.

All of chia, coca, and cacao have been used in some sort of way as a drink mixed with other ingredients to release their stimulant properties. Moreover, chia seeds and cacao beans were used as currencies in the Aztec and Mayan civilizations respectively[17].[18] More recently than the Mayan and Aztec periods, the derivatives of the coca leaf and the cacao beans, cocaine and chocolate respectively, have become highly addictive substances that are widely consumed nowadays. The former is illegal and the latter is not, however, the amount of money in both industries is in the multibillions, with the people at the top of the chain usually the ones to profit the most. Pablo Escobar, the King of Cocaine, reportedly burned two million dollars of cash to keep his daughter warm.[19]

Chia, unlike coca, cacao and their derivatives, does not have an exploitative history. In the later cultivation of chocolate, sugar was, and still is today, a main component used in chocolate production. Sugar workers, slaves “imported” from Africa, were treated very harshly on colonies. The following website shows just how just many slaves were exported from Africa over the years: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_history_of_american_slavery/2015/06/animated_interactive_of_the_history_of_the_atlantic_slave_trade.html[20]

Cocaine’s exploitative and negative history came more recently in the 1900s when after seeing initial success in it being used as an anesthetic, later became thought of as a narcotic like opiates when the number of addicts rose.[21] The War on Drugs by the United States of America on South American countries in the late 20th century saw many people die just as many Africans died during their life tenure as unpaid workers or even before their ship had docked in their forced destination.


Chia seeds and the history of their cultivation and consumption being free of controversy is very possibly the reason it was nearly forgotten and why people are not as aware of it now as they are of chocolate and cocaine. Spanish colonists banned the cultivation of both the coca leaf and chia seeds as they viewed the religious association of these substances as “heathenish and sinful”.[22] Unlike chia, however, the Spanish later allowed coca cultivation as they saw that the Indians were unable to complete their labor without it[23]. A combination of these factors led to chia not being widely present. In addition, there does not exist universally known brand names for a chia seeds product. Coca Cola (although it does not contain cocaine anymore), and Hersheys or Cadbury are synonymous with coca/cocaine and chocolate respectively. Furthermore, there are widely acclaimed and recognized movies about chocolate such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that instantly come to mind and many movies and television shows about drug dealers and the cocaine business like for instance, Narcos. Movies or shows about chia on the other hand, if they even exist, do not even ring a faint bell in one’s memory.

The association of all these substances to some religious deity or ritual, their perceived supernatural powers, and their wide range of uses are what initially elevated these crops to a higher regard in ancient times. What has kept these items in the current conversation though is their stimulant properties and the large amounts of profit associated with their respective industries.


[1] “Chia History – An Ancient Crop.” AzCHIA, https://azchia.com/chia-seeds-history/.

[2] “Chia Seed History and Origin.” ANCIENT GRAINS, http://www.ancientgrains.com/chia-seed-history-and-origin/.

[3] “Chia History – An Ancient Crop.” AzCHIA.

[4] “Chia Seed History and Origin.” ANCIENT GRAINS.

[5] “Chia History – An Ancient Crop.” AzCHIA.

[6] Ullah, Rahman, et al. “Nutritional and Therapeutic Perspectives of Chia (Salvia Hispanica L.): a Review.”

[7] “Chia History – An Ancient Crop.” AzCHIA.

[8] Watch Chia Seed Expanding in Time Lapse, https://youtu.be/ZyjK3nOxzjs.

[9] Sigmund Freud, “Uber Coca,” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, no. 1 (1984): 206.

[10] Freud, “Uber Coca,” 207.

[11] Michael D. Coe. “The Tree of the Food of the Gods” in The True History of Chocolate (Thames and Hudson Ltd., 2013), 33.

[12] Freud, “Uber Coca,” 212.

[13] Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion,” 3.

[14] Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods,’”16.

[15] Michael D. Coe. “The Tree of the Food of the Gods,”31.

[16] Michael D. Coe. “The Tree of the Food of the Gods,”57-58.

[17] “Chia History – An Ancient Crop.” AzCHIA.

[18] Carla D. Martin, “Chocolate Expansion,” 8.

[19] Amanda Macias, “10 Facts Reveal the Absurdity of Pablo Escobar’s Wealth.”

[20]Kahn, Andrew, and Jamelle Bouie. “This Haunting Animation Maps the Journeys of 15,790 Slave Ships in Two Minutes.”

[21] Joseph F. Spillane, “Making a Modern Drug: The Manufacture, Sale, and Control of Cocaine in the United States, 1880-1920,” in Cocaine: Global Histories, ed. Paul Gootenberg (London: Routledge, 2006), 22.

[22] Freud, “Uber Coca,” 207.

[23] Ibid.

Works Cited:

  1. “Chia History – An Ancient Crop.” AzCHIA, azchia.com/chia-seeds-history/. Accessed 14 Mar. 2018.
  2. “Chia Seed History and Origin.” ANCIENT GRAINS, 20 Mar. 2015, http://www.ancientgrains.com/chia-seed-history-and-origin/. Accessed 13 Mar. 2018.
  3. Freud, Sigmund. “Uber Coca: Freud’s Cocaine Discoveries.” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, Edited by Howard Shaffer, vol. 1, 1984, pp. 206–212.
  4. Kahn, Andrew, and Jamelle Bouie. “This Haunting Animation Maps the Journeys of 15,790 Slave Ships in Two Minutes.” Slate Magazine, 25 June 2015, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_history_of_american_slavery/2015/06/animated_interactive_of_the_history_of_the_atlantic_slave_trade.html. Accessed 7 Mar. 2018.
  5. Macias, Amanda. “10 Facts Reveal the Absurdity of Pablo Escobar’s Wealth.” The Independent, 29 Dec. 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/pablo-escobar-worth-wealth-money-how-much-a8133141.html. Accessed 17 Mar. 2018.
  6. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion.” docs.google.com/presentation/d/1KJFs2ZF_a-yamF8vy-75BrE3itqNR0t1eVIYRO8mgGo. Accessed 7 Feb. 2018.
  7. Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” docs.google.com/presentation/d/1XF-lM9Z9iks0cVhUFRJ1QWBokKTRrdvZISwAJVSe_Ag. Accessed 31 Jan. 2018.
  8. Spillane, Joseph F. “Making a Modern Drug: The Manufacture, Sale, and Control of Cocaine in the United States, 1880-1920 .” In Cocaine: Global Histories, edited by Paul Gootenberg, Routledge, London, 2006, pp. 21.
  9. “The Tree of the Food of The Gods.” in The True History of Chocolate, by Michael D. Coe, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013, pp. 31–58.
  10. Ullah, Rahman, et al. “Nutritional and Therapeutic Perspectives of Chia (Salvia Hispanica L.): a Review.” Journal of Food Science and Technology, Apr. 2016, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4926888/. Accessed 12 Mar. 2018.
  11. “Watch Chia Seed Expanding in Time Lapse.” 16 Oct. 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZyjK3nOxzjs&feature=youtu.be. Accessed 13 Mar. 2018.

Stimulating Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

 Mayan drinking vase documents one particular event.

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

Mayan Interpretive dignage MFA

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

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

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

Anasazi vessels are reminiscent in shape to the Mayan.

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

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

Works Referenced:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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