History of cacao

Archaeological sites dating back to the Mayan Early Formative (1900-900 BC) period show that cacao has long been an important aspect of Mesoamerican culture. Cacao is made from cacao beans that are found within a pod from the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), which is distributed throughout the wet forest of Yucatan Peninsula extending to the Pacific Coast of Guatemala.

The word cacao is derived from Mayan ‘Xocolatl’ which meant bitter water and from the Aztec word ‘Cacahuatl’. A vessel found at an Olmec archaeological site on the Gulf Coast of Veracruz, Mexico dates cacao's preparation by pre-Olmec peoples as early as 1750 BC. 


Maya heiroglyph - cacao

 Maya hieroglyph Kakaw - cacao

The first evidence of the Mayan use of cacao, as fourteen ceramic pots used for cacao, was found at Colhá in Northern Belize and dates from 600 BC. Cacao use at this time was as a frothy, savoury beverage. Cacao had an important place in the religious, spiritual, and cultural lives of the Mayan people with cacao pods symbolising life and fertility as depicted on vases, murals and other pieces of art. It was later discovered that the Mayans worshipped two cacao gods, Ek-Chua and Ish-Cacao.

Cacao and Maya

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

Mayan rituals involving cacao

Among the ancient Maya, cacao was consumed by the rich and elite class including kings and priests. The drinking of cacao was traditional in royal and religious ceremonies, and Mayan priests presented cacao seeds as offerings to the gods at sacred alters. Lavishly decorated vessels were used by aristocrats to serve cacao to their associates from the elite class. Cacao was also placed in cylindrical vessels and entombed at royal burials to ensure comfort into the afterlife.

Every cylindrical vessel in tombs probably had cacao in them. Cacao was enormously important to the Maya. It was the elite drink that was taken to seal all important diplomatic, marital, and social contracts, and was the glue that help Maya society together.

The Maya believed the cacao was discovered in a mountain by the gods "And so they (the gods) were happy over the provisions of the good mountain, filled with sweet things, . . . pataxte and cacao. . . ".  Popol Vuh. The Plumed Serpent then gave cacao to the Maya after humans were created. The Maya held  a festival in April to honor the cacao god, Ek Chuah. A dog with cacao coloured markings and other animals were sacrificed, along with offerings of cacao and feathers and incense.

Cacao beans as currency

Cacao was a valuable product to the Mayans and in cacao-growing regions people often paid tribute with cacao beans, which could also be used as money at markets. Customers paid with cacao to purchase food, clothes and kitchen tools. Early explorers to the region found that a rabbit could be bought with ten cacao beans and a slave could be afforded with one hundred. Cacao beans were still used as currency until the nineteenth century.

Spanish drinking cacao in Central America

"Traités nouveaux & curieux du café du thé et du chocolate", by Philippe Sylvestre Dufour, 1685.

Mayan processing of cacao

The Maya harvested cacao pods from cacao trees in the rainforest, scooped out the seeds and pulp and then fermented the mixture until the seeds became a rich dark-brown. The seeds were then dried and roasted before being ground into a think cacao paste. To make the cacao drink the paste was mixed with hot water and spices such as chilli, vanilla, annatto, allspice, honey and flowers. The surface froth of the drink was produced by pouring the mixture from standing height into a vessel on the ground. In other recipes the cacao was mixed with water, corn, and other ingredients. It wasn’t until the 1850’s when European style solid chocolate was first produced.

Sustainable cacao production 

For indigenous communities in Southern Belize, the cultivation of cacao beans has become their major industry. In the Toledo district, Belize, the organic cultivation of cacao has become the most economically viable and sustainable crop of Belize. The Toledo Growers Association has over 1000 members mostly from indigenous Maya villages and together they cultivate organic cacao which is purchased by Green and Black’s (United Kingdom) for the production of their award winning Maya Gold chocolate bars.

A new dimension to the use of cacao has been created in the modern day in spas and beauty salons, contributing to the tourism industry in many cacao producing regions. Cacao contains theobromine a substance that produces a slimming effect. 

Derivation of the term chocolate

People who lived 1200 years ago in a Utah village known as Site 13, near Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA used cacao as evidenced by its presence in excavated bowls, the earliest known use of cacao in North America imported from Central American orchards thousands of kilometers away. The word "chocolate" comes from the Classical Nahuatl word chocolātl, and entered the English language from Spanish.

Cocao and health

Prolonged intake of flavanol-rich dark chocolate has been linked to cardiovascular health benefits, including a lowering in cholesterol levels, lower rates of heart disease and cancer, and may improve learning and memory. Drinking cacao produced a 50 percent reduction in cardiovascular mortality and a 47 percent reduction in all-cause mortality for the men when compared to those that did not regularly drink cacao. 

Chocolate also contains a substance called anandamide that mimics the effects of marijuana in boosting the pleasure of eating chocolate. Anandamidean endogenous cannabinoid neurotransmitter with its name taken from the Sanskrit word (and Hinduistic religious term) ananda, which means "joy, bliss, delight", and amide.

Lady pouring chocolate

A Lady Pouring Chocolate (1744) depicting drinking chocolate paraphernalia. "Liotard-Lady Pouring Chocolate" by Jean-Étienne Liotard - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Chocolate contains compounds that promote the emotional response felt by a person in love. Chocolate acts as a relaxant through its magnesium, potassium and calcium content and can reduce emotional stress. At the same time chocolate can, through its calorific constituents, boost energy and mental performance, and stimulate the nervous system through increasing blood pressure and heart rate. Wikipedia .

Cacao was once the aristocratic and spiritual food of Mayan kings and aristocrats. Chocolate now represents the sharing of love, and when combined with flowers representing innocence, beauty, and fertility.  Chocolate is also widely consumed as an everyday confectionary, at festivals such as Easter, and as an ingredient of many foods.

Cacao quotes:

Antonio de Solís, Philip IV's official Chronicler of the Indies, described Montezuma customarily taking a cocao beverage after meals, as part of a sumptuous daily ritual:

“He had cups of gold, and salvers of the same; and sometimes he drank out of cacaos [i.e., coconut shells], and natural shells, very richly set with jewels.[...] When he had done eating, he usually took a kind of chocolate, made after the manner of the country, that is, the substance of the nut beat up with the mill till the cup was filled more with froth than with liquor; after which he used to smoak tobacco perfum'd with liquid amber.”

Jose de Acosta, a Spanish Jesuit missionary who lived in Peru and then Mexico in the later 16th century, wrote of cocao:

“Loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant taste. Yet it is a drink very much esteemed among the Indians, where with they feast noble men who pass through their country. The Spaniards, both men and women that are accustomed to the country are very greedy of this chocolate. They say they make diverse sorts of it, some hot, some cold, and some temperate, and put therein much of that "chili"; yea, they make paste thereof, the which they say is good for the stomach and against the catarrh.”

Solís y Ribadeneyra, Antonio de (1685 original [1724 trans.]). "Book III Chapter XV". The History of the Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards, done into English by Thomas Townsend (in original in Spanish). Trans. Thomas Townsend. London. pp. 336–38.

"History of Chocolate". Retrieved 21 April 201
Terry G. Powis, W. Jeffrey Hurst, María del Carmen Rodríguez, Ponciano Ortíz C., Michael Blake, David Cheetham, Michael D. Coe & John G. Hodgson (December 2007). "Oldest chocolate in the New World". Antiquity 81 (314). ISSN 0003-598X. Retrieved 2011-02-15.