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Drink of the Gods: The Ancient History of Cacao

Cacao beans are a consumer item with high demand all over the world and have a rich and tasty history that is thousands of years old. 

The Olmec of southern Mexico were the first to brew, roast, and grind cacao beans for drinks and food, perhaps as early as 1500 B.C. According to the Smithsonian, there is no written history for the Olmecs. However, fermenting pots and other ceramic vessels, predating the Olmec, have been discovered and show traces of cacao and its inherent chemical theobromine.  Most of our knowledge of cacao and its use in ancient cultures comes from the Mayan and Aztec empires. (Unlike the Aztecs and Maya, the Inca did not cultivate cacao.)


After the Ecuadorian period, cacao made it’s way northward, though researchers are unsure how. Because the cultivating and transportation of cacao beans is very difficult, they were also very rare. Cacao plants require just the right soil, climate, and weather to grow. Traders may have transported seedlings along the coasts, which would later be grown in private Mayan orchard gardens.

The Maya are credited with inventing the basics of cacao paste preparation, which involved the fermenting, drying, roasting, removing the shells, and grinding the nibs. A modern version of this same process is still used today. 

The pre-Columbian Maya not only consumed cacao but revered it. Mayan written history refers to cacao drinks being used to finalize important transactions. It was important in celebrations, as depicted in their artwork and their written history and it was one of the few crops accepted as part of a dowry in marriages. 

Kings, nobles, and priests used elaborate ceramic cups adorned with etchings, paintings, or precious stones to drink their cocoa. Pre-Columbian Mayan vessels were often adorned with images of cacao pods and the processing of cacao drinks. While cacao was so important to the Mayan culture, cacao was not reserved for only the rich and powerful. Cacao was accessible and regularly consumed by everyone in their society. 

Over time as cocoa grew in popularity, the pre-Columbian Maya drank it from gourds and mixed it with maize and annatto (or annatto), which gave it a red, blood-like color. Annatto comes from the fruit seeds of the achiote bush (Bixa Orellana), which is native to the tropical regions from Brazil to Mexico. Often grown together in the same fields with cacao and vanilla plants, annatto is still used today to impart color and flavor to chocolate and other foods, including cheddar cheese. 

Early Mayan recipes enjoyed the naturally bitter taste of cacao at full strength, before better roasting and mellowing process methods were developed. The Maya also rarely sweetened their cacao drinks, except for fermentation. 

To Mayan society, cacao was a sacred food and a sign of prestige. Drinks made from cacao became associated with special celebrations and high status, not too unlike fine wine, or craft beer is today. Cacao also served as a cultural, social centerpiece around which the people united. 

The Aztecs, who received cacao from the Maya, also revered it, and they used it in multiple ways. Cacao beans were their primary form of currency, alongside obsidian and copper. Cacao was used as a bitter spice in food by commoners: today's Molé sauce is an example rooted in this history. However, cacao was not as readily available in the Aztec world, so its consumption as a drink was reserved mainly for nobles and religious ceremonies. 

Cacao had deep religious significance for the Aztecs. Cacao was considered to be of divine origin — the cacao tree a conduit between heaven and earth. The flesh from the plant and the drink made from cacao was regarded as the body and blood of the gods. Aztecs believed that consuming chocolate bestowed mortals with wisdom from Quetzalcoatl, the God of knowledge and the wind.

Aztec codices and artwork often depict vessels filled with cacao drink being offered to deities, and used in funerary rites and important ceremonies. Couples drank a ritual cup of chocolate during and exchanged cocoa beans during weddings — assistants of the priests were given cacao beans at children's blessing ceremonies. 

Cacao powder that could be added to water to make drinks was issued to the Aztec army as part of their rations. This practice seems to suggest possible knowledge of cacao’s nutritive qualities and properties as a stimulant.  Cacao likely helped sustain armies on a march, and warriors may have believed that drinking this blessing from the gods would give them an edge in battle. 

Its sustaining value did not go unnoticed by Cortez’s men. A man known to scholars as ‘the Anonymous Conqueror,’ who accompanied Cortez’ on his expedition, wrote about the cacao drink in 1556 in his book “A Narrative of Some Things of New Spain.” He described its qualities thus: 

“This is the most healthful and most nutritious ailment of all known to the world, for one who takes a cup of it, though he may make a long journey, can pass all day without taking another thing….” (Chapter X, How They Make The Cacao, page 41:

Though the methods of cacao preparation were about the same between the Mayan and Aztec cultures, Maya tended to prefer to drink their cacao hot, while the Aztecs seem to have preferred to drink it cold. The Aztecs also regarded the preparation and pouring of their frothy cacao drink as an art, as the cacao drink was skillfully poured between vessels to create a foamy top. 

The Aztecs referred to both the cacao bean and the drink as Xocoatl. The pan-European word “Chocolate” comes from this word. Cacao was classified as Theobroma cacao (aka T. Cacao) by Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus in 1753, taking the name of the genus from the Greek phrase, "Gods’ food" or “food of the Gods.” Since then, scientists have used the word "theobromine" to designate the active ingredient found in chocolate.

To this day, the growing of chocolate is an important cultural practice and family tradition for many indigenous groups. Ninety percent of the world’s chocolate is grown on small family farms of 25 acres or less. 

To some degree or other, the world has come to depend on many foods created by the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, and by far, chocolate is one of our most valued and enduring favorites. 

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