Cacao beans are a rich and tasty treat (and resource) that have been in high demand all over the world for thousands of years.
The story begins in Mexico, where ancient fermenting pots and ceramic vessels showed traces of cacao and its active ingredient theobromine dating back to 1900 B.C. Then around 1500 B.C., the Olmec began brewing, roasting, and grinding cacao beans for drinks and food, including gruel, and there’s evidence that cacao may have been fermented and used as an alcoholic drink. They were an original group to find that cacao helps to improve mood, boost energy, and provide sustenance, and they treated it as something with mystical properties. But it’s the Mayan and Aztec empires that were the biggest early hard-core cacao lovers and innovators.
It’s important to know that cultivating and transporting cacao beans was very difficult, and the beans require the perfect combination of soil, climate, and weather. This means that the beans were very rare and treated with special care. It’s likely that traders transported seedlings along the coasts and the Maya then grew them in private orchard gardens. The Maya get credit for the basics of preparing cacao paste — fermenting, dying, roasting, unshelling, and grinding the nibs. A version of their process is used in modern cacao preparation today, so cacao lovers everywhere are indebted to this early breakthrough.
The Maya didn’t just enjoy cacao as a drink, however. They revered the beans as sacred, calling it the food of the gods and naming it “Ka’kau.” There are Mayan depictions showing gods sprouting from cacao pods, and it was rumored that cacao was used as an ingredient in the creation of humans, among other purposes. The Maya embraced their endowment and treated it as a resource and social centerpiece that people united around. Cacao drinks were included in celebrations and cacao often sealed the deal on important transactions. According to Mayan writings and artwork, cacao was even accepted in marriage dowries. The Maya adorned their vessels with images of cacao pods and images of cacao drink preparation, and cacao drinks were associated with prestige, similar to how fine wine or champagne is seen today.
So how did they like to drink their cacao? Recipes show the early Maya embraced cacao’s naturally bitter taste and drank it hot at full strength, unsweetened except for the occasional dash of honey. They often added different flavors like vanilla, chili, and magnolia, and they mixed it with maize and annatto, which gave it a red, blood-like color. Typically people drank cacao from gourds, but kings, nobles, and priests enjoyed their cacao drinks in elaborate ceramic cups adorned with etchings, paintings, or precious stones. That doesn’t sound like a bad idea to us.
Next on the cacao train was the Aztecs, who were introduced to the special plant by the Maya. The Aztecs also revered the plant and they used the beans for practical purposes. In fact, cacao beans became the Aztec’s primary form of currency, alongside obsidian and copper. (This also sounds like a great idea to us.) In the Aztec markets you could get a tomato for one bean, a rabbit for 30 beans, and if you were hungry, a turkey for 200 beans. The Aztecs additionally put cacao to work as a bitter spice, and because cacao wasn’t as available to the Aztecs as it was to the Maya, cacao drinks were mainly reserved for nobles and religious ceremonies who frequently enjoyed their cups with a side of tobacco. Another distinguishing difference? The Aztecs preferred their cacao cold. They also were early practitioners of “latte art” and poured it carefully to create a foamy top for a frothy drink.
Cacao had a deep religious significance for the Aztecs. It was considered to be of divine origin and the cacao tree was revered as a conduit between heaven and earth, with the tree being a gift from the god Quetzalcoatl. The plant’s flesh and the cacao drinks were regarded as the body and blood of the gods, and Aztecs believed that consuming cacao bestowed mortals with wisdom from Quetzalcoatl. Like the Maya, they believed that cacao was an ingredient in the creation of humans. The cacao plant, and consumption of cacao, was believed to restore balance to people and the beans were often offered to the gods (sometimes with people).
Aztec codices and artwork often depict vessels filled with the cacao drink being offered to deities and show it being used in funerary rites and important ceremonies. For example, couples drank a ritual cup of cacao and exchanged beans during their wedding, and assistants to the priests were given cacao beans at children's blessing ceremonies.
The Aztecs also made cacao powder so that the Aztec army could have cacao drinks by simply adding water. This suggests that the Aztecs may have may have intentionally used cacao as a stimulant and nutrient to sustain their soldiers. Additionally, it’s considered that warriors may have consumed cacao to receive blessings from the gods that would give them an edge in battle. In general, cacao was put to work as medicine, as an energy booster, and to increase stamina.
During the Spanish conquests, the Aztec word for water “atl” was added to the Mayan word “Ka’kau,” which eventually became…“chocolate.” Cacao and chocolate are still valued by cultures globally and growing cacao remains an important social and family tradition for many peoples. You may be surprised to know that 90% of the world’s cacao is grown on small family farms of 25 acres or less. And you may be heart-warmed to know that Mayan people living in Belize today keep their drinks the way their ancestors liked: hot, frothy, and bitter, with the occasional hit of chili.
Today the world depends on many foods and resources created by the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and cacao (and chocolate) is one of the favorites. It’s important not to forget that without these key innovations and the early relationship that indigenous peoples developed with this precious bean, we might not enjoy the benefits and the tastiness of this incredible natural resource.