The Maya and the Ka'kau'  (Cacao)

A lord tests the heat of his chocolate in this painting on a Late Classic Maya vase  from Petén; note tamales (Maize cakes), covered with chocolate-chile sauce below him.

"And so they were happy over the provisions of the good mountain,
filled with sweet things, . . . thick with pataxte and cacao. . . the rich
foods filling up the citadel named Broken Place, Bitter Water Place".
 Popol Vuh

Chocolate has a long and interesting history in Mesoamerica. From the very beginning of Mesoamerican culture some 3500 years ago, it has been associated with long distance trade and luxury. The  Pacific Coast of Guatemala, thought to be the original source of Olmec culture, was, and remained, an important area of cacao cultivation. The Maya passed on the knowledge of cacao through oral histories, stonework, pottery and the creation of intricate, multicolored documents (codices) that extolled cacao and documented its use in everyday life and rituals, centuries before the arrival of the Spanish. In the centuries after initial contact between the Spaniards and indigenous peoples of the New World, hundreds of descriptive accounts, monographs and treatises were published that contained information on the agricultural, botanical, economic, geographical, historical, medical and nutritional aspects of cacao/chocolate.

The cacao tree called Madre Cacao, (Theobroma cacao  "Food of the Gods"  a name coined by the swedish Linneus, that merged the greek words "Theo" god "broma" food with the Maya cacao) can be traced historically as well as archaeologically. Cacao, native to the Americas, was used in both Mesoamerica and South America. Cultivation, cultural elaboration and use of cacao were more extensive in Mesoamerica, but it remains unclear which geographical location was the center for domestication. The difficulty in identifying the wild ancestors to modern cacao plays a role in this controversy. Although some have argued for a South American center of domestication (Cheesman 1944, Stone 1984), other scholars have noted insufficient evidence to support this thesis because the wild ancestors of cacao found in Central America are genetically distinct from both current cultivars and South American wild cacao plants.  The South American subspecies T. cacao spaerocarpum, has a fairly smooth melon-like fruit. In contrast, the Mesoamerican cacao subspecies has ridged, elongated fruits. At some unknown date, the subspecies T. cacao cacao reached the Pacific  lowlands of Mesoamerica and was later domesticated by the Maya and other groups.

Glyph for Kakau in Río Azul Pot (460 AD)

The word cacao  originated  from the Maya word Ka'kau', and, as well as the chocolate Maya word Chocol'haa and the verb chokola'j "to drink chocolate together", were then adapted centuries later by the aztecs. The Maya believed that the ka'kau'  was discovered by the gods in a mountain that also contained other delectable foods to be used by the Maya. According to Maya mythology, Hunahpú gave cacao to the Maya after humans were created from maize by the divine grandmother goddess Ixmucané. (Bogin 1997, Coe 1996, Montejo 1999, Tedlock 1985). The Maya celebrated an annual festival in April to honor their cacao god, Ek Chuah (left), an event that included the sacrifice of a dog with cacao colored markings; additional animal sacrifices; offerings of cacao, feathers and incense; and an exchange of gifts.    Michael Coe, Professor of Anthropology, and curator emeritus in the Peabody Museum at Yale, and coauthor of the book  "The True History of Chocolate" (1996),  states that the word chocolatl appears in "no truly early source on the Nahuatl language or on Aztec culture. Furthermore, He cites the distinguished Mexican philologist Ignacio Davila Garibi, who proposed the idea that the "Spaniards had coined the word by taking the Maya word chocol and then replacing the Maya term for water, haa, with the Aztec one, atl."

There are several mixtures of cacao described in ancient texts, for ceremonial and medicinal uses, as well as culinary purposes. Some mixtures included maize, chili, vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), peanut butter and honey. Chocolate was also mixed with a variety of flowers, and sometimes it was thickened with atol, a corn gruel. There were numerous variations, including a red variety made by adding annatto dye (achiote). 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 Chocolá and Takalik Abaj, in the pacific lowlands. In addition, analysis of residues from the interiors of four ceramic vessels from an Early Classic period (ca. AD 460-480) tomb at Río Azul in northeastern Guatemala has revealed the presence of theobromine and caffeine. As cacao is the only known source from Mesoamerica containing both of these  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 Maya drank its Chocolate hot and frothy that was  produced by pouring the drink back-and-forth from a height or with a beater (molinillo). One of the earliest images of this froth-producing process is the Maya Princeton Vase from the Late Classic. It was very useful in the Maya Medicine too, both as a primary remedy and as a vehicle to deliver other herbal medicines.

Princeton Vase (Petén Lowlands).

Vase from Nebaj, Quiché, Guatemala Highlands, depicting a cacao tree.

Christopher Columbus was the first European to come in contact with cacao. On August 15, 1502, on his fourth and last voyage to the Americas, Columbus and his crew encountered a large dugout canoe near the Guanajá island off the coast of what is now Honduras. The canoe was the largest native vessel the Spaniards had seen. It was "as long as a galley," and was filled with local goods for trade, including cacao beans. Columbus had his crew seize the vessel and its goods, and retained its skipper as his guide. Later, Columbus' son Ferdinand wrote about the encounter. He was struck by how much value the Native Americans placed on cacao beans, saying:  "They seemed to hold these almonds (referring to the cacao beans) at a great price; for when they were brought on board the ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen." 

Río Azul "Chocolate" pot.

Chocolate was made from roasted cocoa beans, water and a little spice: and it was the most important use of cocoa beans, although they were also valued as a currency. An early explorer visiting Guatemala found that: A  large tomato was worth one bean, a turkey egg was 3 beans,  4 cocoa beans could buy a pumpkin, 100 could buy a rabbit or good turkey hen, and 1000 a slave. Cacao beans were worth transporting for long distances because they were luxury items. In Maya times, one of the privilege of the elite (the royal house, nobles, shamans, artist, merchants, and warriors) was to drink chocolate.

 Maya Merchants often traded cocoa beans for other commodities, and for cloth, Jade and ceremonial feathers. Maya farmers transported their cocoa beans to market by canoe or in large baskets strapped to their backs, and a Mecapal, (forehead band tied to the basquet). Wealthy merchants traveled further, employing porters, as there were no horses, pack animals or wheeled carts in Central America at that time. Some ventured as far as Teotihuacan, introducing them to the much-prized cocoa beans, it was also traded with the Tainos from Cuba and the Quechua from South America.

Mesoamerican Commerce Routes and goods production, from the Pre Classic to the Post Classic

The Spaniards didn't like it at the beginning, as we can see in this description form the friar José de Acosta in Perú: "Loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant to taste. Yet it is a drink very much esteemed among the Indians, where with they feast noble men who pass through their country. The Spaniards, both men and women, that are accustomed to the country, are very greedy of this Chocolaté. They say they make diverse sorts of it, some hot, some cold, and some temperate, and put therein much of that 'chili'; yea, they make paste thereof, the which they say is good for the stomach and against the catarrh." 

 Although soon the chocolate would make its way across the Atlantic, first to Spain, and then to the rest of Europe. Chocolate, prepared as a beverage, was introduced to the Spanish court in 1544 by Kek'chí Maya nobles,  brought from  Cobán, Guatemala, by Dominican friars to meet Prince Philip. The first load of beans arrived to Sevilla, Spain in 1585.  (Coe and Coe 1996). Within a century, the culinary and medical uses of chocolate  spread to France, England and elsewhere in Western Europe. Demand for this beverage led the French to establish cacao plantations in the Caribbean, while Spain subsequently developed their cacao plantations in their Philippine colony (Bloom 1998, Coe and Coe 1996, Knapp 1930).  Cacao subsequently flourished in the 1880s after introduction as a commercial crop to the English Gold Coast colonies in West Africa.


For the Chocolate connoisseur, here's an article published by someone who helped me on some details on this page. lick here