Cacao & Chocolate

On this page we are assembling materials that may be useful for designing curriculum around cacao and its derivative, chocolate, topics of note in the ethnobiology of Mesoamerica.

One of various Maya glyphs for cacao. (Must write for permission from for publishing this image in your curriculum)

History and Etymology

(Theombroma cacao) The earliest physical evidence of the presence of cacao in Mesoamerica dates as far back as 2000 years B.C.E. and comes from the Olmec culture of Mesoamerica (Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador). Having percolated through the subsequent Maya and Aztec cultures, cacao and chocolate eventually became known to the Spanish colonizers. Though most early accounts of the cacao tree come from colonial-era European records, there exists an abundance of indigenous art and legend demonstrating that cacao was one of the most sacred natural staples, with ritual, economic, and dietary value prior to contact.

Although botanical evidence suggests the cacao tree is native to South America, it was the Mesoamerican civilizations (Olmec, Maya, Aztec, etc.) who popularized it and held it in the greatest esteem. (Dreiss-Greenhill 4) By the Classic Period, in Maya settlements, it had become especially prevalent.

Carl Linnaeus, who pioneered the system of Latin scientific nomenclature, named the cacao tree “Theobroma cacao” which translates to, “Food of the Gods: Cacao.” (Dreiss-Greenhill 4)  Here is a beautiful botanical image of cacao hosted at Dumbarton Oaks research library in Washington, D.C.

Very recent linguistic research finds Nahuatl origins for the term chocolate (chocolatl, xocolatl) to be problematic. Examples of the use of “chocolatl” in early manuscripts are also extremely rare. Not one manuscript yet found from the first half of the sixteenth century, whether in Nahuatl or in Spanish, uses the word “chocolatl.”  Both at that time and even continuing forward, manuscripts are far more likely to mention the term cacahuatl (cacao + atl, Nahuatl for water/liquid). Scholars Michael Swanton and Bas van Doesburg, both now of Oaxaca, have conducted detailed research into the earliest manuscript references to cacao. If you understand Spanish, you can watch this 14-minute video of a recent lecture about the subject: El Origen de la Palabra Chocolate. But one of the main points van Doesburg makes is that the term chocolatl (or chocolate in Spanish) does not become common until after 1590.  It moves from Guatemala and Chiapas into central Mexico in the 1590s. He also notes how the Spanish colonizers encouraged the spread of chocolate production beyond its prehispanic limits, and they began consuming it along with the indigenous people. It becomes clear that what was once a cold cacao beverage, in prehispanic times, came to be a hot beverage under Spanish influences, and that is when the term chocolate appears.

We can ask van Doesburg and Swanton what they have discovered since that 2010 presentation of the video.  Be watching especially for comments they will make about research into terminology related to the frothing of the beverage.


The fruit-bearing cacao tree is native to Mesoamerica.


The tree’s specific origin is hard to pinpoint due to the diversity of wild and domesticated trees today. It is suggested however that they come from somewhere in the Amazon basin or Orinoco region. This is based on the existence of the greatest number of species and closest relatives in these areas. (McNeil 3)

Animals such as birds, monkeys, and bats are attracted to the sweet pulp and subsequently are responsible for seed dispersal. (West 108)

Botanically, the cacao tree is a very regionally specific plant. The climate conditions are quite specific. It requires shade, a hot and humid climate, and shelter from wind. It retains its leaves year-round and it flowers at around 2 to 3 years. The flowers do not always produce fruit (around 5%). A cacao tree on average will produce 20 to 50 pods. (West 108)

Each pod typically contains 25-40 seeds. Both the pulp and seeds are edible. The pulp is sweet while the seeds are bitter.

Cacao pods are not uniform in color. They will range from yellow-green to bright red when ripe. (West 107)

It is likely that cacao was domesticated in both South America and Mesoamerica, though evidence suggests that South Americans were known to use primarily the cacao pulp and Mesoamericans were known more commonly to use the seeds. (McNeil 5)

Here’s an Ancient Cacao Map, made at the archaeology lab at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The site includes an interactive online database which collects information about ancient cacao samples found in archaeological sites and beyond.

Columbian Exchange

One can trace products as they go from the Western Hemisphere across the Atlantic and vice-versa; what is now called the Columbian Exchange, thanks to the coining of the term by Al Crosby (on the faculty of UT Austin) in 1972.  Here’s a summary of the concept by Al himself. To look more closely at the export of chocolate to Europe, take a look at this article about chocolate kitchens in London.

Harvesting and Processing (Modern Day)

The following summary has been paraphrased from T. A. Rohan, Processing of Raw Coco for the Market (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1963):

As with most fruit, cacao pods are judged ripe or unripe by their color. When the grower has decided to harvest, the first round of pods are cut off the tree with a sharp blade that is either hand-held or attached to a large pole for distance. This process is usually repeated three times in intervals of three weeks or longer, because not all pods ripen at the same rate and crop uniformity is important for efficient processing.


Maya cacao pickers with pruning poles and baskets,   twentieth century

Working with the long poles

Once picked, the pods are taken to the location where fermentation will take place. It is important that the seeds stay in the pods to insure uniform condition upon their arrival for fermentation. It is then that the seeds must be removed from the pod. Depending on the tradition or location a machete, wooden mallet, or cutlass is used to open the pod. The wet beans are then removed from the pulp by hand or knife.

Fermentation is the next step. The flavor we associate with chocolate comes from this process. In order for the aroma and flavor to develop, the beans must “sweat” out their moisture. There are essentially four methods for fermenting cacao beans:

1) Curing on a drying platform or table

2) Basket fermentation

3) Heap fermentation (most popular)

4) Box fermentation

Each of these methods employs sunlight as a heat source. The beans are meant to lose their moisture slowly without roasting in a process comparable to sitting in a sauna. The moisture is drained and the beans are mixed so air exposure is uniform and molding is prevented. Also in this step of the process the bean finally dies. This eliminates its possibility to germinate or sprout. The fermentation takes about three days.

Once cured, the cacao beans have reached maximum flavor potential and are laid out to dry completely. Once dry, they are ready to use or trade.

Dried cacao beans (S. Wood)


The dried beans are removed from their thin husks (similar to the papery shell around a peanut), and then they are ground on a metate until a smooth paste is achieved.

A mano (hand piece) and metate (platform for grinding).

The metate (Spanish for the stone slab platform, above, which comes from the Nahuatl term, metlatl), was used for grinding cacao beans, corn kernels, seeds, and even the bugs that are ground for the cochineal dye.  The metate (and mano, hand piece) has prehispanic origins and yet it is still found throughout Mesoamerica today.

Metates for sale somewhere in the state of Oaxaca, ca. 1930s or 1940s. Slide in the WHP collections.

An image from a Classic-period Maya vase shows a cacao tree, and below it we see a person using a mano and metate to make a cocoa powder or paste.  We have permission to use any of Justin Kerr’s photos of Maya vases.  If you go to his database search page, you can search cacao and other terms and get many results.

This resulting paste made from ground cacao beans is pure chocolate. This paste can be immediately used or can be shaped into tablets for later use. This was a popular option for ancient preparations on a batch-by-batch basis. It was more common in the Spanish colonial period for ground cacao to be mixed with other ingredients. It may have originated as a cold beverage, but was clearly drunk hot by the late sixteenth century (see van Doesburg video, above).

Chocolate also increasingly became an ingredient not only in beverages but also in sauces, such as what is now called mole (from molli, Nahuatl for sauce).

Mole sauce (chocolate is the primary ingredient).            (Photo, R. Haskett, 2005)

Many historical accounts point out that the original Mesoamerican cacao drinks were quite bitter, and the most basic recipes usually consisted of water and cacao paste. To sweeten the drink it was quite common to use small amounts of maguey syrup (aguamiel) or honey. Often times however, dry ingredients would be included on the metate with the cacao beans to create a cacao paste specific to a certain personal or regional recipe. These popular ingredients included:

earflower – heart flower – white flower – cacao flower – anise – vanilla  – zapote seed – silk cotton seed – pepper leaf – root beer plant – allspice berry – red chili – maguey flower – achiote (red dye/seasoning)

Maya Recipe Names (from Driess-Greenhill)

  • iximte’el kakaw – “Maize Tree” Cacao
  • y-utal kakaw – “Sustenance” Cacao
  • tshih te’el kakaw – “Tree-Fresh” Cacao
  • k’ab kakaw – “Juice” Cacao [using honey]
  • om kakaw – “frothy” or “foaming” cacao
Note how the Maya word, “kakaw” (spelled phonetically), is the same word we know today, cacao.  The English word “cocoa” is a distortion of cacao.
A full-text essay by Kerry Hull about Maya foodstuffs, including cacao, might be of interest. It is available from  to members (and membership is free).

The “Foam” or “Froth”

Mesoamerican preparations of chocolate often called for the frothing of the drink. The foam created in the process is especially sweet and is highly sought after. The chocolate is traditionally frothed by by pouring the drink from pitcher-to-pitcher from a distance (a pre-Columbian method) or agitating the liquid with carved wooden mollinets (a European introduction). The older process is pictured below.

Classic-period Maya, frothing chocolate.         (Bas van Doesburg presentation)

An Aztec woman pouring chocolate from a standing position to raise the foam    (Tudela Codex)


“Molinets” (an Anglicization of the French; in Spanish: molinillos, little mills) were introduced by Europeans for frothing chocolate in small quantities.

Raising a froth is also a desired result for other beverages, such as tejate (still popular in Oaxaca) today, pictured below.

In this video of Oaxacan cuisine, at about the 14th minute, we see a woman making coconut-flavored tejate, pouring the water in from a height in order to increase the foam.  The next time you have a frothy latte, think about how enjoyable froth can be.

Cacao and Religion

In this lecture by Oswaldo Chinchilla from 2007 and hosted by the Universidad Francisco Marroquín (Guatemala), lasting one hour and 22 minutes, all in Spanish, we learn about the use of cacao in human sacrifice as seen in the archaeological record.  Comparisons are also made to Mexican archaeological evidence. “La cosecha gloriosa: El cacao y el sacrificio humano en Mesoamérica.”

Trade and Tribute

Chocolate beverages were consumed primarily by Mesoamerican elite families, perhaps because cacao was not obtained easily, at least originally. Certain climatic conditions were required to grow cacao, such as those found in what is now Guatemala, Soconusco (a Pacific coastal region in the Mexican state of Chiapas), a small part of the Mexican state of Tabasco, and a small area of Honduras.  The Nahuas of central Mexico obtained cacao through trade and through conquest, followed by the demand for cacao as a tribute item.  Foot-merchants (the pochteca class) traveled great distances to bring cacao to central Mexico. But cacao also made its way into what is now the U.S. Southwest, where residues have been found in pre-Columbian pots.

Below is a page that was illustrated by an Aztec artist for Antonio de Mendoza, the first Spanish viceroy of Mexico. It depicts the tribute items of high value that the Aztec empire exacted from subjugated communities.  Here we see cacao, honey, cotton, feathers, animal pelts, jade beads, and gold.

On this page we see two bundles of cacao beans (wrapped in woven mats). Each bundle has five flags on top, and each flag represents the number 20. Therefore, we are seeing references to two lots of 100 bundles of cacao seeds. Page from the Codex Mendoza or Matrícula de Tributos.

The role of cacao in trade and payment in the market was quite significant. Cacao beans were reliable payment for most anything sold in markets. It served as a form of currency widely accepted around the Mesoamerican kingdoms. In a sixteenth century colonial account, a man named Jose de Acosta writes, “with five cacao beans one thing can be bought, and with thirty another, and with a hundred another, without haggling.” (McNiel 18)

From the Nahuatl Dictionary we have this passage, harvested from a book about documents in Nahuatl from Guatemala (where Nahuas accompanied Spaniards in conquest and settlement):

achtopa notequiuh nicalactia çeçemetzt[l]i ticcalactia 3 tamamali chili 3 ta[ma]mali et[l] yhuan çe xiquipilmat[l]actzont[l]i cacavat[l] yhuan mat[l]acpoual hanegas t[l]aoli ticmacaque xpño [Nahuatl original}Primero es el tributo que entrego cada mes: entregamos tres cargas de chiles, tres cargas de frijol, 12,000 granos de cacao y 200 fanegas de maíz, que dimos a los españolesFirst is the tribute that I deliver each month: we provide three loads of chiles, three loads of beans, 12,000 cacao beans, and 200 fanegas of maize, which we give to the Spaniards [literally, to the Christians].  [English translation by Stephanie Wood.]

[Source: Nuestro pesar, nuestra aflicción / tunetuliniliz, tucucuca; Memorias en lengua náhuatl enviadas a Felipe II por indígenas del Valle de Guatemala hacia 1572, introduction by Cristopher H. Lutz, paleography and translation by Karen Dakin (México: UNAM and Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica, 1996, 52-53.]

Cacao was so valued that archeological digs have discovered collections of counterfeit beans. This was the early equivalent of a modern day criminal printing fake money.

Cultural Themes in History

The Popol Vuh (Quiché Maya book of creation) suggests that cacao was one of the few ingredients used to create human beings. (Dreiss-Greenhill 18)  On a Classic-Period Maya vase (below) we see that the head of Hun Hunapuhu, a figure in the creation story, was put on a cacao tree. Click to enlarge the image or follow this link to Justin Kerr’s Mayavase Database.  From the entry search page, one can enter cacao and find other interesting examples.

Note the cacao tree at the center.  Hun Hunapuhu’s head is on the lower left. K5615.                                                                    (Justin Kerr, Mayavase Database, with his permission.)

The above image is discussed in the full-text essay hosted by FAMSI, Michael J. Grofe, “The Recipe for Rebirth: Cacao as Fish in the Mythology and Symbolism of the Ancient Maya.”

Cacao trees between the masks. Esquintla style tripod bowl. K7784. (Justin Kerr, Mayavase Database, with his permission.)

Monkeys, as depicted in pre-Colombian legends and art, are often juxtaposed with cacao. In Maya and Aztec mythology, there were two attempts at creating humans, the survivors of the first attempt (from wood and mud) became monkeys and were destined to live among the trees like cacao pods, while the creations of the second attempt (from food, including cacao) successfully became human beings, considered ancestors of both cacao and monkeys. (Dreiss-Greenhill 21)

Monkey holding cacao pod with text. K6312. (Justin Kerr, Mayavase Database, with his permission)

In this image of the cacao pod (above) we can see how similar the arrangement of the beans in the pod are to the kernels of corn on a cob.  Grofe mentions this similarity in his article (page 4), where he discusses the close relationship between cacao and maize for the Classic Maya. They may have had the same patron deity.

Repeating images of monkeys and cacao beans. K8234. (Justin Kerr, Mayavase Database, with his permission)

In some Mesoamerican cultures, trees are a metaphor for spiritual transcendence. From their roots to their canopy, they represent a connection between the underworld, the physical world, and the heavens. In Maya cosmology, all of creation came from a “World Tree” or “First Tree.” Depending on the region, sometimes this “First Tree” was a cacao tree. (Dreiss-Greenhill 22)  At the Mayan city of Copan, depictions of cacao pods grow from the trunk of the axis mundi (World Tree or Cross), which distinguishes it as a cacao tree.

Cacao beans and prepared chocolate are common as divine offerings between the gods. Depending on the depiction or belief, they were used as bargaining chips, divination ingredients, or ritual containers. (Dreiss-Greenhill 35)

The Mixtec marriage of Lord Eight Deer and Lady Thirteen Serpent, who exchange a cup of chocolate.
(Codex Nutall)
The Maya rain god Chac and the moon goddess IxChel exchange cacao.
(Madrid Codex)

Depictions of cacao and chocolate are common in caves near Mesoamerican communities. Caves and sinkholes (especially in the arid Yucatan) were seen as portals to the underworld and were sacred. They served a dual purpose as both a site for religious contact and as a vital source of water. Archaelogical evidence has shown cacao remains in these locations, used as offerings to appease the gods. (Dreiss–Greenhill 42)

Cacao was generally viewed as the cosmic opposite to its partner food staple, maize. Maize had a symbolic relationship to life and cacao to death. The former grows in the sun while the latter requires shade. Its ritual importance even existed in the most sacred of ceremonies; human sacrifice. We learn that “the people of Cholula, Mexico, made a cacao beverage using water in which the knives used in human sacrifice had been washed…,” and, in the Florentine Codex, Sahagún recorded that “‘heart’ and ‘blood’ were metaphors for cacao.” Both the heart and the cacao pod served as containers of divine fluid; blood and chocolate. It has even been suggested that cacao exchange between intermarrying families represented the mixing of the bloodlines. (McNeil 15) The cacao pod also resembles a human heart and is about the same size.

In pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, to possess cacao was evidence of affluence and prosperity. Early accounts record mixed reports of exactly who was able or allowed to drink cacao, but the most reliable estimate is that only those in power or those with expendable wealth drank the beverage. Sahagún reports, “If he who drank it were a common person, it was taken as a bad omen. And in times past only the ruler drank it, or a great warrior, or a commanding general…if perhaps two or three lived in wealth they drank it. Also it was hard to come by; they drank a limited amount of cacao for it was not drunk unthinkingly. (Florentine Codex, Book 6). Another 16th century account from Diego Garcia de Palacio regarding the Pipil natives in El Salvador writes, “the beverage in which they prepare from cacao was formerly so highly esteemed by the Indians, that no one was permitted to drink of it, unless he were a great personage, a cazique, or a famous warrior” (McNiel 18).

Spanish Observations

Chocolate beverages captured the attention of Spanish invaders right away.

  • “…in the shortest possible time, they had decked the room with flowers, and had food for [them] to eat, and prepared plenty of cacao, which is the best thing they have to drink.”  (Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Chronicler of Cortes’ conquest expedition into Tenochtitlan)
  •  “From time to time they brought [Montezuma], in cup-shaped vessels of pure gold, a certain drink made from cacao, and the women served this drink to him with great reverence.” (also from Bernal Díaz del Castillo)
Spaniards would take chocolate back to Europe with them, and from there it would eventually circle the globe and become an object of mass consumption.

Chocolate as Resistance

This is a video published by the Huffington Post, just over 4 minutes, that discusses the decline in the production of cacao for making chocolate.  It has wonderful scenes of a woman in her cacao forest, close-ups of the seed pods, and images of the roasting of the cacao beans.  In Spanish with English subtitles.

Chocolate Mills in Oaxaca Today

While in Oaxaca city, consider taking a visit to Mina street to see (and smell) the wonderful chocolate mills, where customers bring an ingredient list, and workers make special recipes to order. One can specify how much cacao, cinnamon, vanilla, sugar, and so on.

A Oaxacan chocolate mill on Mina street. (S. Wood, 2005)

Cacao beans and other ingredients, ready for grinding on Mina street, Oaxaca. (S. Wood, 2005)

YouTube Videos about Oaxacan Foods (where chocolate is an ingredient)

Curricula from Previous Institutes

 Curricula from Other Sources

Additional Reading


Works Cited

Castillo, Bernal Diaz. The History of the Conquest of New Spain. Ed. David Carrasco. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2008.

Coe, Sophie D. America’s First Cuisines. Austin TX: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Dreiss, Meredith L. and Greenhill, Sharon E. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 2008.

McNeil, Cameron L. Chocolate in Mesoamerica. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2006.

Rohan, T.A. Processing of Raw Cocoa for the Market. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1963.

West, John A. “A Brief History and Botany of Cacao.” Chilies to Chocolate: Food the Americas Gave the World. Ed. Nelson Foster, and Linda S. Cordell. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 1992.

Walter Baker & Co. Limited. Cacao and Chocolate: A Short History of Their Production and Use. Dorchester, Mass: The Barta Press, 1917.

Suggested Additional Readings

Whymper, R. Cacao and Chocolate: Their Chemistry and Manufacture. Philadelphia, PN: P. Blakiston’s Son & Co., 1912.

Gage, Thomas. “Writings on Chocolate.” Thomas Gage’s Travels in the New World. Ed. E.S. Thompson. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958.

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Assembled by Andrew Gunsul, Spring 2010, University of Oregon. With some subsequent edits by Stephanie Wood.