Tag Archives: vessel

Let Us Raise a Vessel to Cacao… Mayan Style!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References Cited:

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

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

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

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

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


Stimulating Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

 Mayan drinking vase documents one particular event.

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

Mayan Interpretive dignage MFA

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

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

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

Anasazi vessels are reminiscent in shape to the Mayan.

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

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

Works Referenced:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Citation:

Images may not be reused without attribution.

Mayans and the Food of the Gods

For most of us consumers, it is easy to have a sense of detachment from the origins of the product which we consume, this statement is most applicable in the case of chocolate. It is arguable that the vast majority of chocolate consumers do not know the etymology of chocolate nor do they know it as a Cacao fruit first before its many transformation into chocolate. The word chocolate is said to have come from the Mayan word xocolatl. We have come to be introduced into the world of chocolate thanks to the many works of the meticulous archaeologists who have gone back in time to examine artifacts from regions in Mesoamerica that has helped to pinpoint the introduction of Chocolate into history, the culture, uses and beliefs of this wonderful beverage that came to be known as “food of the gods” (Presilla 5). The more delicate discoveries of chocolate including pre-Columbian recipes, uses and beliefs stems out of the Mayan civilization. In Mayan culture chocolate was a highly revered beverage both to the living and the dead and in particular to the Mayan elite. It was of utmost importance in Mayan ritual sacrifices and the use of cacao was also prevalent in Mayan dishes. Today, is a treat that can be afforded by both the rich and the poor, this being the case it is so easy to forget that at one point and especially in Mayan culture chocolate was a treat reserved only for the wealthy and the gods. The Mayan use of chocolate in various ceremonies including in sacred ritual sacrifices, marriage ceremonies, funerals and such makes an astounding case that the association of chocolate as “ the food of the gods” had its influences from the Mayan civilization.
It may be argued that cacao made its first appearance in the Olmec civilization but the Mayans came to domesticate this fruit and provide the vast artifacts that gave room to the study and understanding of chocolate. The area known today as Mesoamerica which spans “between central Mexico and Western Honduras, including all of Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador” (Presilla 8); Is said to be the birth place of the cacao and for the most part, this region has been placed as the sites of Mayan settlement.

Image 1:


The first discovery of Cacao in Mayan culture came from the Dresden codex. This historical artifact is “a type of folding screen book that was discovered as part of Mayan writing collections that preceded the Spanish conquest” (Coe 41). From the scenes in which cacao is depicted in this sacred text, it can be deduced that the Mayans saw cacao as a sacred. Cacao also made another appearance in a “far less artistic Madrid codex and in this text, a young god squats while grasping limbs from a cacao tree. We also see a depiction of gods scattering blood over cacao bloods” (Coe 42). This last scene was the first time the association between human blood and chocolate was made one that would come to mean so much later as we discover about the use of chocolate and blood in sacred sacrifices.

Image 2:

A god holding a vessel with cacao beans.

As it has become apparent, the Mayans highly prized cacao, so much so that it was depicted quite often in the presence of gods. For people who held such reverence for this fruit, how so did they consume it?

We know from “inscriptions deciphered from classic period drinking vessels and funerary offerings” (Presilla 12), that cacao was first consumed as a fruit beverage made from the fruit pulp. Mayan glyphs for “tree fresh cacao, was discovered from the Primary Standard Sequence of the Buena vista vase, from Buena vista del Cayo in Belize” (Presilla 12).
Image 3:

mayan drinking vessel
Classic Mayan drinking Vessel


The most instrumental discovery for archaeologists in understanding the Mayan use of cacao and chocolate came from the discovery of the tombs at Rio Azul. It proved to be a site of countless evidence of the chocolate drinking culture of the Mayans. On one particular person, that of a “middle aged ruler, archaeologists discovered in his tomb an astounding 14 pottery vessels including six cylindrical vases and on some of the vases evidence that they had contained dark liquid was very apparent” (Coe 46). In this particular tomb, evidence of different recipes of chocolate was also found; a drinking vessel containing for “witik cacao and kox cacao” (Coe 46). In these wonderful discoveries, it is well seen that the Mayans even sent of their dead equipped with chocolate beverages to ensure a feast in the afterlife. The Mayans were also credited for popularizing the frothed chocolate beverage which we still enjoy today. In a vase that was discovered and attributed to be made in the “Nakbe area in the 8th century, of the images illustrated, a lady is seen pouring a chocolate drink from one vessel to another. A discovery that proved to be the first time a picture of a chocolate drink was being made and the introduction of the foaming method” (Coe 48).

Image 4:

mayan glyph for cacao
A replica of the vessel found in a tomb at Rio Azul; highlighted next to it is a Mayan glyph for cacao.

To the Mayans, chocolate was a highly prized beverage, one that found its way into various aspects of Mayan culture including, marriage ceremonies, parties, rite to passage ceremonies, burial ceremonies and sacred ritual sacrifices. Although cacao may have first made its appearance in the Olmec civilization, it was not raised to its level of importance until the Mayans came into the picture. That is, the Mayans are responsible for introducing a level of finesse into the making of the beverage we come to know as chocolate today; The Mayans raised chocolate to its status as the “food of the gods”.

Scholarly Sources:
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013(1996). The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames&Hudson.
Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural &Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Multimedia Sources:
Herrera, Ashleigh. beloit college. 2012. image. 28 february 2016. <https://www.beloit.edu/wright/honors_term_pilot/mayan_vase/&gt;.
http://www.famsi.org/maps/. n.d. 26 February 2016.
Vail, Dr. Gabrielle. Chocolate in Prehispanic Maya Culture. 8 August 2015. 28 february 2016. <http://www.southfloridamuseum.org/TheMuseum/EastGallery/MayaStories/tabid/218/post/chocolate-in-prehispanic-maya-culture/Default.aspx&gt;.
—. The Food of the Gods: Cacao use among the Prehispanic Maya. 1 August 2014. Image. 27 February 2016. <http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/cacao-use-among-the-prehispanic-maya&gt;.