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A Mayan lord sits before an individual with a container of frothed chocolate.

A Brief History of Chocolate – Part 1

Origins

The cacao plant is believed to have originated in the upper reaches of the  Amazon basin and the foothills of the Andes in South-Eastern Ecuador. It is thought that humans first used wild cacao plants by consuming the sweet, fleshy pulp inside the cocoa pod which surrounds the cocoa beans.  Evidence suggests that this may have been fermented and served as an alcoholic beverage as early as 3,500BC.  

Researchers do not agree on which Central American culture first domesticated the cacao tree, but the first to use fermented cocoa beans rather than the pulp to make a drink seem to have been the Olmecs. They were found on the East coast of Mexico, near Veracruz, and were around between 1600BC to 400BC.  Scientists have been able to confirm that chocolate was present in their drinking  vessels by evaluating the “chemical footprint” detectable in microscopic residues on the pots.   The Olmecs used chocolate for religious rituals or as a medicinal drink, it does not appear to have been drunk for personal use. Little evidence remains of how the beverage was processed because the Olmecs did not have writing. 

Olmec Head
Olmec Head

The Mayans

A Mayan lord sits before an individual with a container of frothed chocolate.
A Mayan lord sits before an individual with a container of frothed chocolate.

The Mayan Empire spanned the Yucatan Peninsula in Southern Mexico, crossing modern Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.  We know a lot more about how they used cacao because they left writings and decorated vases. They identified the drink with the gods, who were said to shed their blood on the cacao pods as part of its production. It was the food of the rain deity Chaac, while the god Ek Chuah was dedicated to cacao and traders.   Mayans cultivated a wide variety of cacao plants, with varying traits and flavours, which they named after the colours of the fruit.

Maya preparation of cacao started with cutting open cacao pods to expose the beans and the fleshy pulp. The beans were left out to ferment for a few days. In some cases, the beans were also roasted over an open fire in order to add a smoky flavour. The beans then had their husks removed and were ground into a paste. Since sweeteners were rarely used by Maya, the cacao paste was flavoured with additives like flowers, vanilla pods, chilies and cornmeal. The vessel used to serve this chocolate liquid was stubby, the drink was transferred repeatedly between pots until the top was covered with a thick foam.  Chocolate was drunk hot. The vessels tended to be decorated in intricate designs and patterns.

There were many uses for cacao among the Maya, but it tended to only be accessible by the rich. It was used in official ceremonies and religious rituals, at feasts and festivals, as funerary offerings, as tribute, and for medicinal purposes. Both cacao itself and vessels and instruments used for the preparation and serving of cacao were used for important gifts and tribute. Cacao beans were used as currency, to buy anything from avocados to turkeys to sex. A rabbit, for example, was worth ten cacao beans, a slave about a hundred, and the services of a prostitute, eight to ten. Archaeologists have even discovered counterfeit cacao beans! The beans were also used in betrothal and marriage ceremonies among the Maya, especially among the upper classes. 

“The form of the marriage is: the bride gives the bridegroom a small stool painted in colors, and also gives him five grains of cacao, and says to him “These I give thee as a sign that I accept thee as my husband.” And he also gives her some new skirts and another five grains of cacao, saying the same thing.” 

Chocolate spread throughout region, for example the Pueblo people, who lived in an area that is now the U.S. Southwest, imported cacao from Mesoamerican cultures in southern Mexico between 900AD and 1400AD.

Mayan mural with cacao tree in the middle
Mayan mural with cacao tree in the middle

The Aztecs

An Aztec woman generates foam by pouring chocolate from one vessel to another in the Codex Tudela
An Aztec woman generates foam by pouring chocolate from one vessel to another in the Codex Tudela

By 1400, the Aztec Empire took over a sizable part of Mesoamerica. The Aztecs could not cultivate cacao themselves, due to the climate where they lived, so were forced to import it. All of the areas that were conquered by the Aztecs that grew cacao beans were ordered to pay them as a tax, or as the Aztecs called it, a “tribute”. The cacao bean became a form of currency. The Spanish conquistadors left records of the value of the cacao bean, noting for instance that 100 beans could purchase a canoe filled with freshwater or a turkey hen. The Aztecs associated cacao with the god Quetzalcoatl, who they believed had been condemned by the other gods for sharing chocolate with humans, much like Prometheus and fire in Greek myths. While the Aztecs prepared their chocolate drinks in a similar way to the Maya of Yucatán, they drank their chocolate cold rather than hot. It was consumed for a variety of purposes, as an aphrodisiac or as a treat for men after banquets, and it was also included in the rations of Aztec soldiers. Allegedly, Moctezuma II consumed up to 50 servings of the spiced foamy cacao drink a day. He even had a cacao warehouse that at the time of contact contained roughly 1,000,000,000 beans (that’s a billion)!