Chocolate—Food of the Gods in Mesoamerica
Did you know… Money grows on trees?

Mayans used chocolate as currency.

[January 30, 2023 | Montrose Mirror | By Kathryn R. Burke]

Did you know? The phrase, “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” was coined by the Spaniards in the 1500s when they saw cocoa beans used as currency by the Aztec, who considered it more valuable than gold. To the Spanish (who were after their gold, “A tolerably good slave was worth around 100 beans, a rabbit cost 10 beans, and a prostitute could be procured for as few as 8 beans.”(1, 15)

Chocolate as a food source with magical stimulant properties dates back more than 5,000 years in Mesoamerica, (a term used to describe Mexico and Central America before the 16th century Spanish conquest). “The first known use of cacao is believed to have been discovered in southern Ecuador near Palanda at Santa Ana La Florida in the region of Zamora Chinchipe, where 5,500-year-old ceramic pots and a piece of a mortar were found to contain traces of theobromine, a marker for cacao. Shamans among the Shuar Indians are said to have used this equipment to prepare hallucinogenic potions.”(15)

The earliest image of preparing chocolate appears on a Mayan Vase…which also depicts human sacrifice; chocolate was a part of the ritual. The drink, a combination of chocolate and the blood of previous victims, was given to calm or “bewitch” the victim before they lopped of his head.(3)

The most notorious chocolate lover in Mesoamerica was the Aztec emperor Montezuma II. He allegedly drank gallons of it from a gold goblet every day…for energy and as an aphrodisiac. Unfortunately, Montezuma welcomed Hernán Cortés and the conquistadors with chocolate…thinking Cortés was reincarnated deity instead of a conquering invader.(4) Big mistake. The Spaniards came for his gold, got it—over 8 tons by some accounts—and took a boatload (literally) of cacao with them when they sailed back to their homeland, leaving Montezuma dead in their wake. Adding insult to injury, Cortés, who didn’t care for the royal drink, described it as “a bitter drink for pigs.”(4)

Despite that old saying that money does not grow on trees, it actually does when it comes from chocolate’s origin, the tropical cacao tree of Central and South America. It was probably was first discovered as a food source in the Orinoco River basin, which flows from Columbia through Venezuela to the Atlantic Ocean(11) where the Maya lived. The Aztecs prized cacao, but they couldn’t grow it where they lived in the dry highlands (of Mexico). So they traded for it, using it as currency. By one account, a hen or a hare was worth 100 beans.(3)

Giant bean-like pods, the “fruit” of the tree, up to a foot long and weighing as much as a pound, grow directly from its trunk (or largest branches). The pods are whacked off, split open with a large knife or machete, and the seeds (called beans), as many as 60 at a time, scooped out of the pod’s fleshy interior. Interesting fact: cacao fruit is pollinated by tiny flies, not bees or butterflies.(9)

As the seeds dry, they turn a rich cocoa brown. The dry seeds are pounded into a powder with stone and mortar, and the result made into a bitter, frothy drink, often mixed with chilis and vanilla…but never sugar. Each seed is about 50% fat (the source of cocoa butter).

The fermented pulp can also be made into an alcoholic beverage. A recent discovery of cacao residue on pottery excavated in Honduras, that could date back as far as 1400 B.C.E., suggests that the sweet pulp of the cacao fruit, which surrounds the beans, was fermented into an alcoholic beverage, much as it is today.(4) (Have you ever tried a chocolate martini? They’re lethal!)

An active ingredient of cacao is Theobromine, a stimulant similar to caffeine also found in tea, although this was not discovered until the 1800s by a Russian chemist.(7) This explains the use of cacao as an energy booster. Chocolate has often been given to soldiers for that reason. In WWII, Hershey bars were given to troops storming the beaches of Normandy(8) In the American Revolutionary war, it was also used as currency. Soldiers were given a chocolate paycheck in place of actual money.(1)  Back to that thought that money does grow on trees. Interesting fact: Theobromine is also used in some cosmetics.

Questions: Who first thought to harvest a cacao pod. And why? They’re ugly, the seeds are hard to process, and the resulting drink bitter. How did such a beverage become a sign of wealth and power and revered as a gift of the gods?

“Who would have thought, looking at this, that you can eat it?” said Richard Hetzler, executive chef of the café at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, as he displayed a fresh cacao pod during a recent chocolate-making demonstration. “You would have to be pretty hungry, and pretty creative!”(4)

One theory suggests people eating the fruit and spitting the seeds into the fire noted the rich smell as they roasted. and thought “Maybe there is something more to this.”(13)

Whatever the reasons, ancient Mesoamericans were creative when they discovered cacao and what you could do with it. Chocolate has been around for over 5.300 years. It may have started with the Olmec, an ancient civilization (of southern Mexico) that left little trace and may have used it as a ceremonial drink. Olmec pots and vessels from around 1500 B.C. were discovered with traces of theobromine.(2,3)

The Maya civilization, which followed, was one of the most dominant Indigenous societies of Mesoamerica, and they did leave written history. They used cacao for ceremonies and trade and believed it to have mystical and medicinal qualities which could also increase libido. The Maya were deeply religious, and worshiped various gods related to nature, including the gods of the sun, the moon, rain, and corn. They considered chocolate to be the food of the gods, held the cacao tree to be sacred, and buried dignitaries with bowls of chocolate. Cacao played a big part in their rituals and religious. Interesting fact: The Latin name for the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, literally means “food of the gods.”(4)

The wealthier Mayan households enjoyed chocolate as a thick, frothy beverage often seasoned with chili peppers, honey, vanilla and other spices. (Have you ever purchased a 90% Cacao candy bar flavored with chili?) The less affluent usually had it cold, in a porridge-like dish.(3)

The Aztec couldn’t grow cacao, so they traded for it. They considered chocolate more valuable than gold and a gift from the gods. (All of which contributed to their society’s decline.) According to a 15th century Aztec document: One bean could be traded for a tamale, while 100 beans would by a good turkey hen.(3)

Aztec chocolate, which they called xocolatl, was mostly an upper-class extravagance, although the lower classes enjoyed it occasionally at weddings or other celebrations.(2) Like the Mayans, “the Aztec considered the cacao bean magical, or even divine” and used it in sacred rituals, including birth, marriage, death, and human sacrifice.

It was the Spanish who first brought cacao to Europe. Read more here, how chocolate went from a bitter drink to a sweet confection for the elite, and eventually, for the masses.

Kathryn will present this story as a PowerPoint with photographs at the Montrose Senior Center, Tuesday, February 14, 2023, with samples of today’s Valentine chocolates. She will also share an abbreviated version February 20 for the Montrose Women’s Club at the Lions Clubhouse, Montrose.

Aztec’s making chocolate. 1685 Granger.

Woman holding cacao (and decorated with cacao beans), Maya, AD 250-450. ©Bridgeman Images, Jean Pierre Courau.

Mayan woman preparing chocolate drink. Public domain.

Cacao tree with seed pods, which could grow up to 1 foot long and way over a pound. Wikipedia. Public Domain.



Azec Empire. Triple Alliance of three Nahua (Mexica) city-states—Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan—which dominated the Valley of Mexico and extended its power to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific from about 1428 until its downfall at the hands of the Spanish, 100 years later. The empire was territorially discontinuous. Farming and warfare were the primary economic resources. Their form of warfare preferred capturing live prisoners to be used as slaves or for human sacrifice. Moctezuma II, the last emperor before the Spanish conquest in 1520, continued strong imperial reforms, destroying the chance for commoners to advance to the nobility. The Alliance did not claim supreme authority over its tributary provinces, but required them to pay tributes (to their nobility)—a source of the discontent that led many to join Cortés in capturing Montezuma and his capital city.

Aztec society. Highly complex and stratified society into independent city-states, called altepetls, composed of smaller divisions (calpulli), which were again usually composed of one or more extended kinship groups. Socially, the society depended on a rather strict division between nobles and free commoners, both of which were themselves divided into elaborate hierarchies of social status, responsibilities, and power.

cacao. Chocolate food or beverage, made from the seeds of the fruit of the cacao tree. Comes from the Mayan words “Ka’kau” meaning “heart blood,” and “Chokola’j” meaning “to drink together.

cacao tree. Tree that grows in tropical areas. The “fruit” of the tree is the source of cacao or chocolate. Giant bean-like pods, the “fruit” of the tree, up to a foot long and weighing as much as a pound, grow directly from its trunk (or largest branches).

chocolhaa (“bitter water”). Mayan name for chocolate.

Hernán Cortés (c. 1485-1547). Spanish conquistador (conqueror) who led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire and brought large portions of what is now mainland Mexico under the rule of the King of Castile in the early 16th century. Cortés was part of the generation of Spanish explorers and conquistadors who began the first phase of the Spanish colonization of the Americas.

ka’kau. Mayan name for chocolate bean and means heart blood. It is also the origin of our word, cacao.

Maya Civilization. 250 – c. 1697 CE Mesoamerican classic period. Highly sophisticated culture noted for its architecture, art, astronomy, calendar, and mathematics, which included one of the earliest known instances of the explicit zero in human history. As a part of their religion, the Maya practiced human sacrifice, which often involved the use of chocolate, which was thought to have spiritual properties. Maya cities tended to expand organically. The city centers comprised ceremonial and administrative complexes, surrounded by an irregularly shaped sprawl of residential districts. Different parts of a city were often linked by causeways.

In the 16th century, the Spanish Empire colonized the Mesoamerican region, and a lengthy series of campaigns saw the fall of Nojpetén, the last Maya city, in 1697.

Today, their descendants, known collectively as the Maya, number well over 6 million individuals, speak more than 28 surviving Mayan languages, and reside in nearly the same area as their ancestors (southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. It includes the northern lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula and the highlands of the Sierra Madre, the Mexican state of Chiapas, southern Guatemala, El Salvador, and the southern lowlands of the Pacific littoral plain.)

Mesoamerica. Historic regions of Central and South America dating back as early as 21,000 BCE and populated by indigenous cultures including the Olmec, Zapotec, Maya, Toltec, and Aztec peoples that developed prior to Spanish exploration and conquest in the 16th century. Mesoamerica was one of six cradles of civilization (a location and a culture where civilization was created by humankind independent of other civilizations in other locations) worldwide. Mesoamerican civilizations were the Olmec, Teotihuacan, Maya, and Aztec.

The six cradles of civilization of the “Old World” are considered to be Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Ancient India, and Ancient China. Those in the “New World” are Caral Supe of costal Peru an the Olmec of Mexico.

Montezuma II. Moctezuma Xocoyotzin (c. 1466 – 29 June 1520). Ninth Emperor of the Aztec Empire (also known as Mexica Empire), reigning from 1502 or 1503 to 1520, when he was killed during the Spanish invasion. Questions remain a to who killed him—his on people or the invaders. Maya. one of the most dominant Indigenous societies of Mesoamerica. The Mesoamerican area gave rise to a series of cultural developments that included complex societies, agriculture, cities, monumental architecture, writing, and calendrical systems. The set of traits shared by Mesoamerican cultures also included astronomical knowledge, blood and human sacrifice, and a cosmovision that viewed the world as divided into four divisions aligned with the cardinal directions, each with different attributes, and a three-way division of the world into the celestial realm, the earth, and the underworld.

Olmec. Ancient civilization (of southern Mexico), around 1500 BC.

Tenochtitlan. Capital of the Aztec Empire, founded by the Aztec or Mexica people around 1325 C.E. The Aztec region of Mesoamerica, called Anáhuac, contained a group of five connected lakes. The largest of them was Lake Texcoco. The Aztec built their capital city, Tenochtitlan, on Lake Texcoco. Built on two islands, the area was extended using chinampassmall, artificial islands created above the waterline that were later consolidated. Tenochtitlan eventually reached an area of more than 13 square kilometers (five square miles). Causeways that doubled as dikes connected the island to the mainland and separated freshwater from salt water, protecting the chinampas. The Spanish conquistadors, aided by an alliance of Indigenous peoples, laid siege to the Aztec capital for 93 days, until the Mexica surrendered on August 13, 1521. A great deal of Tenochtitlan was destroyed in the fighting, or was looted, burned, or destroyed after the surrender. The leader of the conquistadors, Hernan Cortés, began the construction of what is now known as Mexico City among the ruins. Lake Texcoco was ultimately drained, and much of Mexico City rests in the lake basin.

Theobroma cacao, Latin name for the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, literally means “food of the gods

Theobromine.  Active ingredient of cacao, a stimulant similar to caffeine also found in tea.

Xocolatl, Aztec name for chocolate.