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Athena Review Vol.2, no.2


A Brief History of Chocolate, Food of the Gods


Of the many agricultural wonders produced in the New World, few ultimately proved as popular or as sweet as chocolatl. In the Aztec’s Nahuatl language xocoatl or cacahuatl means “bitter water” (with atle or atl for water). A related Nahuatl word, cacao (source of the English word cocoa) refers to the bean itself, and is also used today to designate the ever-popular hot drink made from chocolate powder. The plant’s botanical name, Theobroma cacao, literally means “food of the gods.” To its many devotees, chocolate is exactly that.

Europeans first tasted chocolate in 1519 when the Aztec emperor Moctezuma greeted Cortés and his army with a drink of chocolatl in Tenochtitlán (today’s Mexico City). At that time, the cacao bean was ground into a paste and mixed with spices, vanilla (Vanilla planifolia, another New World plant), and a small amount of honey. The resulting beverage, poured into special goblet-shaped cups from a height to create foam, was relatively bitter but highly regarded. Primarily  reserved for the nobility in the Postclassic society of the Aztecs, Mixtecs, and their neighbors (fig.1), it could also be drunk by other esteemed persons, including long distance traders (pochteca) and warriors. According to the chronicler Bernal Díaz who travelled with Cortés, the emperor Moctezuma “was served, in cup-shaped vessels of pure gold, a certain drink made from cacao.” After the emperor had dined, his retinue was provided with “over two thousands jugs of cacao all frothed up...”

[Fig.1: Scene from the Nuttall Codex where a cup of foaming chocolate is exchanged at the marriage in AD 1051 of two Mixtec nobles, 8 Deer and 13 Serpent (after Miller 1975).]

Cacao beans were both a valuable commodity, and a major form of currency and tribute payment in the Aztec empire (AD 1376-1520), which encompassed most of Mesoamerica when the Spaniards arrived. The twin, neighboring towns of Tenochtitlán and Tlatelolco each had large, well-organized markets visited by all the surrounding townspeople. Regulated by special government officials who insured that weights, measures, and prices matched the quality of goods, the Aztec market included both vendors of prepared chocolate (frequently, women), and dealers of raw beans. One of the main sources on Aztec life, the 1578-1580 Florentine Codex by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590), reports in Book 10 that the seller of fine chocolate beverages, meticulous in her preparations, produces “the drink of nobles” infused with chili water, flowers, vanilla, and honey; “she makes it form a head, makes it foam...” The honest cacao seller would divide the beans into separate piles according to their origin. Dishonest dealers, meanwhile, used various ruses to sell counterfeit beans, artificially coloring inferior lots of cacao, or even disguising worthless amaranth dough or avocado seeds with cacao hulls to fool customers.  

For currency the Aztecs used certain luxury goods such as cotton cloaks, gold dust encased in quills, and most notably, cacao beans themselves. The Spanish chronicler Bernal Díaz reported that gold was placed in transparent tubes or goose quills whose length and thickness established “how much so many mantles or so many gourds full of cacao were worth...” López de Gómara, Cortés’ private secretary, states that “the most important fruit of all, which is used for money, is one that resembles the almond, which they call cacahuatl, and we cacao.”

Unable to grow the tropical cacao locally at their capital in the temperate highlands of Central Mexico, Aztec emperors incorporated a large portion of the rich cacao-producing Pacific coastal province of Xoconochco (Soconusco) as well as other tropical lowland areas from on the Gulf Coast from Vera Cruz and Tabasco to Yucatán, Honduras, and El Salvador. Tribute to Tenochtitlán from its many vassal towns are depicted on remarkable painted manuscript known as the Codex Mendoza (fig.2). This major source of information on Aztec tribute was composed for Don Antonio de Mendoza, who served from 1535-1550 as first Spanish viceroy of New Spain. Written in the Aztec pictographic system by a native tlacuilo, or book artist, with Spanish notations,  the third section is on the daily life of the Aztecsand the second contains a copy of the Tribute Roll of Moctezuma.

Fig.2: Tribute from the Aztec Codex Mendoza. The two left baskets show cacao mixed with maize flour. One flag stands for twenty baskets, while feathers each represent 400 cacao beans (thus, 1600 per basket). At right is a symbol for 20 baskets of sage and maize flour.

Long before the Aztec Empire, Mesoamerican lowland civilizations including the Olmec (1150-300 BC) and Maya (200 BC-AD 1550) raised and traded cacao as a valuable commodity. Cacao was grown both in house gardens and in plantations from Guatemala and El Salvador on the Pacific Coast to the Chontal province of Acalán (“Place of the Canoes”) on the Gulf coast, described in the Letters of Cortes. Along the Candaleria river basin in present day Campeche, Acalán’s rulers maintained large cacao plantations. The capital city of Acalán, Itzamkanac, was visited in1524 by Cortés who saw many temples, some dedicated to the god Ykchaua (Ek Chuah in Yucatán), patron of merchants and cacao producers. As reported by Gómara, the lord of Acalán was a great merchant who maintained commercial interests with the Gulf Coast, northern Yucatán, and the Gulf of Honduras where a Chontal quarter was located in the trading port of Nito.  

Archaeological evidence for use of cacao, while relatively sparse, has come from the recovery of whole cacao beans at Uaxactún, Guatemala (Kidder 1947) and from the preservation of wood fragments of the cacao tree at Belize sites including Cuello and the Pulltrouser area (Hammond and Miksicek 1981; Turner and Miksicek 1984). In addition, analysis of residues from the interiors of four ceramic vessels from an Early Classic period (ca. AD 460-480) tomb at Río Azúl in northeastern Guatemala has revealed the presence of theobromine and caffeine. As cacao is the only known commodity from Mesoamerica containing both of these alkali compounds, it seems likely that these vessels were used as containers for cacao drinks. In addition, cacao is named in a hieroglyphic text on one of the vessels - a stirrup-handled pot with an intricately locking lid.  

The cacao tree: The neotropical Theobroma genus in the Sterculiaceae family (which also includes the African cola nut) contains 22 species. Today, the most common of the cultivated species is Theobroma cacao L, with two subspecies and three forms. Origins of domesticated cacao are still in doubt, with the wild cacaos falling into two groups. The South American subspecies spaerocarpum, has a fairly smooth melon-like fruit. In contrast, the Mexican and Central American subspecies cacao has ridged, elongated fruits. At some unknown date, the subspecies T. cacao cacao reached the southern lowlands of Mexico and was later domesticated by the Maya and other groups.

The cacao tree is usually planted in hot and humid areas with rainfall above 2,000 mm per year. The tree is very delicate when it is young and must be shaded from the hot sun. For this reason, the seedlings are planted beneath large shade trees of different species (often in the Leguminosae family) known as “madre de cacao,” shielding the saplings from the sun. The cacao tree, which matures at a height of 6-12 meters, is cauliflorous, with flowers and fruit developing directly on the trunk and the branches. The fruit ripens throughout the year, in the shape of melon-shaped pods which must be broken open to extract the precious beans, 20-40 per pod.   To process the beans, the mucilage covering them must be removed. Cacao beans are fermented for a number of days when first harvested, then dried in the sun. In the areas of the world where cocoa beans are grown commercially today (West Africa, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, and the West Indies) expanses of drying beans on concrete patios are a common sight. Once dried, the beans are washed and roasted, which develops the flavor and cracks the shell. The nib or meat of the bean can then be ground into a thick paste, commonly known as chocolate liquor of which about 53% is cocoa butter. Further processing and refining then includes conching, or the kneading of the heated liquor for up to 72 hours, and the addition of various products such as sugar, milk solids, and emulsifiers.

When Cortés returned to Spain in 1526, he may have brought several precious cacao beans as the earliest introduction of chocolate in the Old World. The first commercial shipment occurred in1585 when a load of beans was sent from Veracruz to Seville. For almost 100 years, preparation of the drink remained a Spanish secret, until it was finally introduced into Italy in 1606, and from there into France. The beverage soon became very popular, and chocolate houses spread all over Europe. In the 17th-18th centuries, chocolate was thought to be both nourishing and an aid to digestion. In the late 17th century, chocolate houses appeared in London, alongside (or identical with) already flourishing coffee houses. Coffee/chocolate houses were often the scenes of gambling, political intrigue and general dissipation - so much so that one scene from Hogarth’s paintings of the “Rake’s Progress” was set in White’s Chocolate House.

In the 18th century the idea of mixing chocolate with milk instead of water was hit upon. Credit for this happy invention goes to Sir Hans Sloane, personal physician to Queen Anne. This energetic gentleman was also President of the Royal Society and a founder of the British Museum. His secret recipe, eventually sold to a London apothecary, at a later date was acquired by the Cadbury brothers, whose name appears today on some of England’s most popular chocolate bars. Chocolate is also a prime ingredient in some quintessential American desserts - chocolate chip cookies, brownies, chocolate ice cream, and devils food cake. And in winter time, thoughts of childhood and snowy days make us long for a large cup of richly satisfying, hot chocolate - the gift of the gods, invented in ancient Mesoamerica.

(Written and researched by Randi L. Rust)


Chocolate Bibliography

Baggett, N. 1991. The International Chocolate Cookbook. New York, Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

Coe, S.D., and M. D. 1996. The True History of Chocolate. New York, Thames & Hudson.

Coggins, C. C., and O. C. Shane III (eds.). 1984. Cenote of Sacrifice. Austin, Univ. of Texas Press.

Cortés, Hernando. 1928 (orig.1519-26). Letters (tr. J. Bayard Morris). London. George Routledge & Sons.

Gómara, Franciso López de. 1964 (orig 1552-4). Cortés: The Life of the Conqueror by his Secretary (tr. L.B. Simpson). Berkeley, Univ. of California Press.

Gómez-Pompa, A. , J. Salvador Flores, and M. Aliphat Fernández. 1990. “The Sacred Cacao Groves of the Maya.” Latin American Antiquity 1(3).

Goodbody, M., et al. 1989. Glorious Chocolate. New York, Simon & Schuster.

Hall, G. D., et al. 1990. “Cacao Residues in Ancient Maya Vessels from Rio Azul, Guatemala.” American Antiquity 55(1).

Hammond, N., and C H. Miksicek. 1981. “Ecology and economy of a Formative Maya site at Cuello, Belize.” Journal of Field Archaeology 8(3).

Kelley, D.H. 1976. Deciphering the Maya Script. Austin, Univ. of Texas Press.

Kidder, A.V. 1947. The Artifacts of Uaxactun, Guatemala. Carnegie Inst. Wash. Pub. 576.

Lundell, C.L. 1937. The Vegetation of the Peten. Carnegie Inst. Wash. Pub. 478.

Ross, K. 1978. Codex Mendoza. Fribourg, Productions Liber SA.

Sahagún, Fray Bernardino de. 1578-80. Florentine Codex (tr. C. E. Dibble & A. J.O. Anderson). Bk 10. Santa Fe, School of American Reserach & Univ. of Utah.

Schele, L., and M.E. Miller. 1986. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Fort Worth, Kimbell Art Museum.

Steggerda, M. 1931. “Physical Anthropology in Yucatan.” Carnegie Inst. Wash. Yearbook 30: 124-5.

Steggerda, M. 1931. “Results of Physical tests Given to Maya Indians in Yucatan, Mexico.” Eugenical News 16: 205-210.

Stuart, D. 1988. “The Rio Azul Cacao Pot.” Antiquity 62.

Turner, B.L. II, and C.H. Miksicek. 1984. “Economic Plant Species Associated with Prehistoric Agriculture in the Maya Lowlands.” Economic Botany 38: 179-193.


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