Chocolate’s Beginning

olmec map
Map of Ancient Mesoamerica

Chocolate was once very different; it was not the solid, sweet candy bars that we are familiar with today, but a spicy, frothy drink. There were three main civilizations in ancient Mesoamerica that were the precursor to chocolate’s introduction into Europe.  They were the Olmec, the Mayans, and the Aztecs.  Within these societies chocolate was a way of life and without them we wouldn’t have chocolate.

The Original Chocolate: Olmec

The ruins represent the longevity of the Olmec influence on chocolate.

Not much is known about the ancient Olmec civilization.  They lived in the lowlands of the Mexican Gulf Coast around 1500BC, and were the first major civilization in America (Coe, 36).
They were amazing architects, creating clay mounds, pyramids, and most famously, huge multi-ton stone portraits of their kings (Coe, 36).  The Olmec dwindled by 400 BC, but are still recognized as the first civilization to domesticate the cacao plant (Coe, 37)  This cultivation and domestication of the cacao plant will effect many cultures to come.

For more on the Olmec.

Food for the Gods: Mayan

Chocolate’s Use in Religion

The Mayans were an ancient civilization located in the Yucatan Peninsula. The Mayan use of chocolate extends back to between 600-400 BCE ( Grivetti, 4).  The cacao seed was so important that it was both a unit of currency and tribute (Grevetti, 3).  These rituals, including marriage which was sealed with a vessel of chocolate, were often held in caves (Grivetti, 7).  Its importance stems from Mayans creation story.

“Mayan beliefs of creation story extends back to when humans were created: cacao is one of the precious substances that is released from “Sustenance Mountain” along with maize from which humans are made at the time just prior to the fourth or present creation of the world. Before this maize and chocolate belonged to the realm of the Underworld lords where it grew from the body of the sacrificed god of maize who was defeated by the lords of the Underworld in an earlier era. At a later time the maize god was resurrected by his sons the Hero Twins who were able to overcome the Underworld gods.  Thereafter human life became possible once the location where the grains and maize were hidden was located and its bounty released by the rain god Chaak and the deity K’awil who represents both the lightning bolt and the embodiment of sustenance and abundance.”(Grivetti, 4).

Therefore, only blood and cacao was able to feed the gods (Grivetti, 5).

Chocolate’s Consumption

It is thought that one way the Mayans drank chocolate was a brew of almost a chocolate beer (McNeil, 140).  This was done by fermenting the pulp of the cacao pod, and from some of the ancient vases there are references to the use of honey in the fermentation process (McNeil, 143).  The fermented cacao was called “tree-fresh cacao” or “green cacao”, and was a refreshing drink unless a person drank too much (McNeil, 144).  This beverage was a waste product of preparing the cacao seeds for standard Mesoamerican chocolate (McNeil, 144).  The fermentation was much lighter than the other cacao beverage and would have had to be drank right away as otherwise it would become very bitter as it continued fermenting (McNeil, 145).   The other was as a chocolate drink from the seeds, which was a great source of dietary fat for the Mayans (McNeil, 146).

Many different types of equipment was needed for cacao’s transportation, creation, and consumption.  Wood containers were used to transport the cacao seeds and wooden troughs were created to process the seeds (McNeil, 147).  The chocolate was served in painted gourds that would have facilitated frothing which was important to get the ground up cacao to mix with the water (McNeil, 147).  The overall shape of the drinking cups would have been a small body with a flaring neck for the foam of the drink (McNeil, 147).   There were also beaters, strainers, baskets and other dishes that had to be made and designed because of chocolate (McNeil, 147).

Spicing up Chocolate: Aztec

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This picture celebrates the fifth sun.

The Aztecs are well known for their power and viciousness, but they had a very humble beginning, one that was very primitive and poor.   Their rise to power began with a prophecy from their god Huitzilopochtli (Coe, 70).

“They would leave Aztlan, and would eventually reach an island in a lake where they would see an eagle perched on a prickly-pear cactus, holding a serpent in its beak. On that island they were to found a city, and from that city they would come to rule the world.” (Coe, 40).

The Aztecs found the Valley of Mexico in the 14th century, where, after awhile working as serfs for the original inhabitants, they took over and established their capitol Tenochtitlan (Coe, 40).  The Aztecs conquered all the surrounding tribes except for the Mayans, who they had very beneficial trading with, and the Tlaxcallans, who they scheduled “Flowery Wars”, which guaranteed a steady supply of sacrifices for both sides (Coe, 71).   The Aztecs needed a lot of sacrifices to please the Sun God, who they thought would destroy them if he was unhappy because of their origin story.  According to Aztec tradition there had been other worlds, called suns, and that all human kind now live in the Fifth Sun, which was born from the great city of Teotihuacan. (Coe, 68-69).  The other worlds had been created and then destroyed by dieties, and one day the Fifth Sun is to be destroyed by monstrous earthquakes, where everyone will die (Coe, 68-69).  The cacao pod was a symbol for the human heart torn out in sacrifice (Coe, 101).  This symbolic meaning was most likely derived because of the similar shape and of chocolates role in the sacrifice of slaves (Coe, 102).  Once a year a slave, in perfect condition, was chosen to impersonate the god Quetzalcoatl for forty days (Coe, 102).  On the night of the sacrifice, the slave was told he was going to die and had to perform a dance (Coe, 102).  If the slave did not perform it happily, the priest would wash the blood from previous sacrificial knives and put a spell on the  bloody water in order to prepare a gourd of chocolate to give to the slave (Coe, 102).   It made the slave forget what he had been told and he continued to dance (Coe, 102).

Powdered spices that were used in making cocoa.

Besides sacrifices, chocolate also played an important role in the elite Aztec society.  The two most important drinks in their society was octli (the native “wine”) and chocolate.  Besides the rigid sumptuary laws about dress and ornament, 15th century Tenochtitlan’s and other Valley cities’ elite, warriors, and merchants lived an unmatched luxurious way of life (Coe, 77).  The highest of Aztec society was the priest, who performed the sacrifices, then the warriors, who provided the captives, and then the merchants, who were heavily involved in the cacao trade (Coe, 75*76).  Octli was made from the juice of a few species of agave, and was mostly consumed by the elderly or on very special occasions  (Coe, 78).  This was because drunkenness was looked down upon, and the punishment for public intoxication was death (Coe, 78).  It was because of this that chocolate was the preferred drink.  Chocolate was made by grinding cacao beans into a powder, and was sometimes mixed with other small seeds or ground maize to make it more nutritious (Coe 86).  The powder is then mixed with water using special spoons of wood, gold or silver (Coe, 87).  The mix is then poured from one vessel to another to give rise to a lot of foam (Coe, 87).  The Aztecs would also add chili powder, vanilla and flowers for additional flavoring (Coe, 90).  Four types of flowers that were added to chocolate were hueinacaztli (“great ear”) similar to cinnamon, tlilxochitl (“black flower”) similar to vanilla,  mecaxochitl (“string flower”) similar to black pepper, and Izquixochitl (“popcorn flower”) similar to rose  (Coe, 91-92).  Chocolate was thought to be one of the healthiest and sustaining foods, as with only one glass it was claimed a man could go a whole day without eating anything else (Coe, 87).   Because of chocolates value, only the elite were allowed to drink it (Coe, 93). The only person who was allowed to drink chocolate throughout the meal was the emperor, otherwise it was only to be drank after the meal with smoking pipes of tobacco (Coe, 94). When drinking chocolate a person carried the cup in the palm of their right hand and the stirring stick in their left hand (Coe, 96).  The lords drank chocolate out of gourd cups, but the lesser ranks drank it out of clay cups (Coe, 97). However, in contrast to this, and in support of the sumptuary laws, there was a story of a group of wizards who traveled back to Aztlan to visit the goddess Coatlicue (Coe, 79).

“The custodian of the hill told them to bring their gifts and follow him up the hill.  But while the spry old man sped up the slope, the wizards found that they could barely walk, their feet sinking down in the sand. They called the old man who was walking with such lightness that his feet did not seem to touch the ground.

“What is wrong with you, O Aztecs?” said he.  “What has made you so heavy? What do you eat in your land?”

“We eat the foods that grow there and we drink chocolate.”

The elder responded, “Such food and drink, my children, have make you heavy and they make it difficult for you to reach the place of your ancestors.  Those foods will bring death.  The wealth you have we know nothing about; we live poorly and simply.”

The old man picked up their bundles and showed them to the goddess, who, when presented with the food and chocolate, exclaimed, “This is what has burdened you!  This is why you have not been able to climb the hill.”

Once they returned down the hill, the old man became younger and told them, “Behold my sons, the virtue of this hill; the old man can climb to the point on the hill that he wishes and there he will acquire the age that he seeks.  That is why we live to old age and that is why none of your companions of your ancestors have died since the departure of your people.  We become young when we wish.  You have become old, you have become tired because of the chocolate you drink and because of the foods you eat.  They have harmed and weakened you.  You have been spoiled by those mantles, feathers and riches that you wear and that you have brought here.  All of that has ruined you.” (Coe, 80).

This picture is reminiscent of the great capitol Tenochtitlan, which was located in the middle of a lake.

Despite these warnings, the Aztecs continued to eat chocolate, and value it so much that they, like the Mayans, used cacao beans as currency (Coe, 84).  It was said that Montezuma had 960,000,000 beans in his warehouse (Coe, 85).  To put this number into perspective, here is a list of the value of cacao beans (Coe, 98):

  • One good turkey hen is worth 100 full cacao beans, or 120 shrunken cacao beans
  • A turkey cock is worth 200 cacao beans
  • A hare or forest rabbit is worth 100 cacao beans each
  • A small rabbit is worth 30 cacao beans
  • One turkey egg is worth 3 cacao beans
  • A newly picked avocado is 3 cacao beans, and a fully ripe avocado is worth 1
  • One large tomato is worth 1 cacao bean
  • A large sapote fruit or two small ones is worth 1 cacao bean

When the Spanish began conquering Mesoameria, they quickly appreciated the value of the cacao bean.  However, they also lusted for more.  Follow the link to learn how the Spanish lead to the downfall of the Aztecs.

To continue to Chocolate’s Claim to Fame click here.

Suggested Readings:

  1. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996.
  2. Grivetti, Louis E., and Howard Shapiro. Chocolate History, Culture, and Heritage.Somerset: Wiley, 2011.
  3. McNeil, Cameron L. Chocolate in Mesoamerica a Cultural History of Cacao. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.