Ancients in Mesoamerica

Where the Equator cuts through the Americas, ancient peoples discovered cacao and revered it, using it to carry out rituals and to heal their bodies.

Life in the Ancient Americas. Courtesy of National Confectioners Association.

The Olmecs (1500 B.C. to 100 B.C.+)

The Olmecs, famous for carving colossal stone heads, were the first people known to process and eat cacao beans, which they called kakaw.

As did other ancient cultures, the Olmecs drank their cacao. Residue left in a small bowl in 1800 B.C. at Paso de la Amada in southern Chiapas, Mexico, provides the earliest evidence of cacao use known today.

What’s most interesting is that the Olmecs figured out how to eat cacao at all. Animals simply spat out the hard, bitter seeds, lending no clue to the mysteries inside. The Olmecs had a better idea. They devised the fermenting, drying, roasting and grinding process that remain the basis of today’s chocolate production, which took extensive knowledge of food science and biochemistry. They then passed this knowledge down to the Mayans.

Mayans (1800 B.C. - 1500 A.D.) Mayan Art. Courtesy of National Confectioners Association.

Perhaps the first chocoholics, the Mayans were open about their love for cacao. They wrote about cacao as “the food of the gods,” carved the shape of the pods into their stone templates, painted people drinking cacao into their artwork, hired artists to decorate elaborate drinking vessels, placed those vessels in tombs and even used the beans in human sacrifice. They also grew cacao trees, planting them in their household gardens.
While some debate exists, many scholars believe that Mayan cacao was reserved for the elite, government officials and warriors. Used in royal ceremonies and religious ones, such as marriage, cacao even appears in the sacred Mayan book the Popol Vuh. The Mayans also used cacao for medicinal purposes.

So that they could eat cacao at all times, the Mayans also created an on-the-go form by packing it tightly with cornmeal into small round slabs. Warriors carried these snacks, which their enemies envied and stole.

Southwestern Americans (1000-1125 A.D.)

The early Mesoamericans didn’t keep cacao a secret. Instead, they traded it to their neighbors living many miles to the north.

Pottery fragments show that sometime between 1000 and 1125 A.D., people living in northwestern New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon drank cacao from cylindrical jars believed to be used for rituals. At the time a cacao drink coated these jars, the closest cultivated cacao grew in central Mexico.

A Mayan image shows a woman pouring cacao between cylinder jars, possibly to froth it as was her culture’s custom. Archaeologists know that other Mesoamerican items such as copper bells, cloisonné and Scarlet Macaws found their way to the American Southwest. The Chaco Canyon jars mark the first known use of cacao drinks north of the Mexican border—and indicate that the Mesoamerican rituals spread to the area as well.

Because cacao is not native to the area, the knowledge of how to prepare and use it would have been imported along with the beans—and having that knowledge may have bestowed prestige to those in charge of the cacao.

In fact, some experts wonder if those individuals’ ability to obtain objects and rituals from Mesoamericans helped to spur Chaco Canyon’s growth.

Aztecs (1420 A.D. - 1520 A.D.)

While the Aztec royals continued the tradition of drinking cacao at ceremonies, they could not grow it in the seat of their empire at Tenochtitlán, in the central highlands of Mexico. As such, they too traded for it, with their southern neighbors the Mayans and others.

Aztec rulers also demanded that their tributes, an early form of taxation paid by citizens and those they conquered, be paid in cacao. In the communities themselves, cacao seeds were used as currency, traded at the market and kept locked up. A rabbit cost between four and 10 beans, a mule was worth 50 and a turkey hen went for 100.

In fact, cacao was so valuable in early times that it was counterfeited. People would hollow out the pods, fill them with dirt and pass them off as newly harvested.

Believing that the god Quetzalcoatl brought the cacao tree to them, Aztecs also used the beans as offerings to the gods. For certain rituals, they added achiote from the annatto tree to turn their cacao red—and signify blood. The Aztecs also are said to have used chocolate to calm those who were about to become human sacrifice.

Did You Know?
The price of cocoa can fluctuate daily—affecting farmers’ incomes.
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