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History of the Cacao or Chocolate Tree
Cacao was apparently used by the Mayans about two thousand years ago in Mexico and Central America. The Mayan leaders were buried with bowls and pots of the chocolate drink. Chocolate was also used by the Aztecs in Mexico. There is documented evidence that the Olmecs used cacao for drinks around 1500 B.C. In 1100 B.C. the first documented case of cacao use by the Aztecs and Mayans was found. Both groups used it for a drink they called bitter water or xocolati.
Cacao trees were grown in prehistoric times by the Mayans and Aztecs and others in the area where the trees were native. According to Aztec mythology, the plant was of divine origin. An old sacred Mayan text called Popol Vuh says that the gods created people from certain foods, including cacao.
By the time the Spanish arrived the trees were grown in other tropical areas where they weren’t native. Cacao trees were among the sacred groves planted in the Yucatan.
Pre-historic Uses for Cacao Beans
Certain parts of the bodies of newborns were painted with chocolate. The beans were also used as a tribute by the Aztec leaders. For tribute one town had to ship 40 baskets of ground cacao mixed with corn flour every 80 days. In another example, seven other Aztec towns owed 20 bags of cacao beans as tribute. Sometimes the beans served as a form of currency with other items priced according to the number of cacao beans required. The beans were also used as offerings to the gods.
How the Ancients Made Hot Chocolate
Ritually the chocolate drink was important to these New World cultures. It was used at banquets, weddings, and special social events. It was prepared in a ritualistic way in special containers, many of which served to preserve or create extra froth or foam on the surface of the drink. This foam was very important to these people. One way to develop froth was to have someone blow air through the spout of the vessel. Another method was to pour it from one pot to another while standing. The froth served to keep the chocolate mixed up in the drink. Otherwise it might settle to the bottom of the vessel.
Mayans took great care when making the drink. They let the cacao beans germinate and ferment. Then they dried them in the sun, roasted, and dehusked them, and ground this into a paste. The paste was made into the drink. The Mayans added corn flour, hot pepper, vanilla, and flowers, such as the ear flower (Cymbopetalum penduliflorus).
Various kinds of special vessels were used for making the drink. Some of these containers had a special spout to make the drink foamy. Scientists have analyzed the contents of old pots from prehistoric times to determine whether chocolate drinks were prepared in the containers. They test for the presence of theobromine, a chemical in cacao. Such tests determined that one Mayan burial site had 14 of these special vessels once used to serve chocolate. One pot that tested positive dated to 460-480 A.D. Other pots from 1150 B.C. also tested positive for theobromine. Aztecs drank the chocolate from earthenware or gourds. Chocolate vessels have even been found in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. These were tested for the presence of cacao and dated to 1000 A.D.
According to some Spanish sources the Aztecs added honey to the drink. They drank it after a meal. Vendors in Aztec markets sold the cacao beans as well as the drink. The drink seller poured it from a height to get a maximum amount of foam. The Aztecs also added various flowers and herbs, such as Magnolia mexicana petals and seeds or leaves of a pepper (Piper sanctum). Nowadays, natives in Mexico add other ingredients, such as annatto, allspice, and black pepper.
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