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Chocolate in Mesoamerica

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CHOCOLATE IN MESOAMERICA

When we think about chocolate we automatically think about Hershey’s, Reese’s, Cadbury, Snickers, Kit Kat, and so many more but chocolate actually predates all of these famous chocolate brands. Chocolate is made from the cacao plant, an indigenous plant, which originally appeared millions of years ago in South America. Cacao weighs quite a lot in the religious, political and social matters in Mesoamerica but its vessels are just as important and can be regarded as powerful objects in a social sense. There is a lot of evidence present that tells us that cacao was quite frequently used in rituals in the Preclassic Maya and it was even used as currency at one point of time. Cacao is also considered to be the connection humans have to the gods and it is one of the main items that is used during important ceremonies.

A very important Maya god is the Maize god who is an extremely important in the Mayan literature, Popol Vuh. In this literature, which is a creation myth, the father of the Hero Twins, Hun Hunahphu, is regarded to be the Maize God (Taube 1985). The myth goes on to describe the father’s decapitated head transforming into a cacao pod which is then placed in a cacao tree. This myth emphasizes the importance of maize and cacao. Both food plants are considered to support life. Maize is considered a staple food among the Maya while the cacao is used during social and ritual relations. This is the reason the gods used maize and cacao to make the perfect or true humans. Both crops are found at the Mountain of Sustenance.

Chocolate is also used as a symbol for blood throughout Mesoamerican society. In the Madrid Codex, which is another Mayan text, four young gods cut off their ears so they can bleed onto cacao pods, mixing their blood with cacao (Coe & Coe 1996: 44-45). Blood and chocolate also had a connection in Aztec society, in which the metaphor of heart and blood defined cacao as the human heart that’s torn out during sacrifices (Coe & Coe 1996: 101). Interestingly, the Aztecs offered chocolate as ‘comfort food’ to the human sacrifices for the god of trade Yacatecuhtli (Dillinger 2000). Unlike the Aztecs, Mayans did not use cacao in a ritualistic sense during their human sacrifices; however it was used when personal bloodletting was taking place. Although human sacrifices were eventually banned, the connection between blood and cacao never ended and it continued to be a vital part of worship. [pic 1]

According to Dreiss and Greenhill, maize and cacao harvests could recreate the idea of rebirth. The cacao’s harvest is ending as the maize is being planted and so it showcases the never-ending cycle of birth and death. Kufer explains that there are human-like characteristics to the maize and cacao crops (both fruits grow from the plant’s trunk). Some have even said that this could be a connection to the idea of human sacrifices since the fruit’s ‘head’ is being removed from the plant’s ‘body’ when they are being harvested.

Aside from being used during bloodletting and human sacrifices, cacao was also used during major life events. One example of this is Diego Garcia de Palacio observed a Maya naming ritual where the newborn baby was presented cacao from the priest and mother (Henderson 2007). Another example is bishop Diego de Landa described Mayan children being baptized with the mixture of cacao, virgin water, and crushed flowers during the ceremony (Vail 2009: 5). In the 16th century, Friar Bernardino de Sahagun recounts Aztec fathers giving counsel to their sons to offer cacaoatl drink to the gods. The list of these examples could go on and on since chocolate still echoes in indigenous ceremonies just like it did in earlier times.

Chocolate is made from the Theobroma cacao and it requires very specific conditions, such as temperature, for it to be able to grow healthy. The temperature and humidity needs to be high and it has to be under the shade of a very large canopy. If these conditions are not applied to the cacao plant, disease, infestations, withering, and even death can threaten the plant. Another requirement for the cacao plant to be healthy is that midges, which are very small flies, are the only ones that can fertilize it. The seeds are very sour which is what stops animals from eating them which is why they go for the pulp that surrounds the beans. The cacao plant pod contains 30-40 seeds and it relies on humans and monkeys for it be domesticated and for them to open the pods and to disseminate the seeds. Spider monkeys are known to eat the seeds and they scatter the seeds through their feces and are called the ‘bringers of cacao’. The tree’s sensitivity is exactly what makes one wonder how it survived to be such an important plant in ancient Mesoamerican cultures (Coe & Coe 2007: 21). [pic 2]

        The tree originated from the Amazon Basin but it’s unclear when it originated as well as how it spread to Central America. Allen M. Young suggests that humans started interacting with the tree when South America was becoming colonized. The earliest known evidence of the cacao tree in Mesoamerica is limited to the chemical theobromine that is found in the ceramics.

The cultivating and processing of the cacao beans and pulp is very labor intensive. The pods grow on the trunks of the trees and as soon as they are ripe, they are harvested. Both the pulp and beans of the cacao can be eaten fresh or in an alcoholic drink. Henderson advocates that fermented pulp was actually the primary use for the cacao. Pulp fermentation actually is not necessary for the production of chocolate. To produce chocolate, the pulp is maintained while the seeds brew for a couple of days and then left in the sun to dry. After this, the seeds are roasted and grounded into a paste or powder, which then can be used in different ways.

In Mesoamerica the most common use of the cacao crop was a chocolate drink. According to Dorie Reents-Budet, the cacao powder used to be mixed with water, chili powder, vanilla, and sometimes ground maize. It’s because of the chili powder that the chocolate drink was considered intoxicating. The strong craving that the Mesoamericans had to the chocolate drink was the froth. The froth came from blowing into a vessel that had a spout or by pouring the liquid back and forth between two vessels (Reents-Budet). She goes on to explain that the appeal of the drink is the enhanced taste and aroma that you get when the bubbles burst in your mouth (215). The purpose of the consumption of this chocolate drink is not supposed to get you drunk but to make sure you have an enjoyable experience by being physically stimulated (Reents-Budet).

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