Cacao: The Mayan “Food of the Gods”

Cacao, the simple bean native to South and Central America, is today a staple of food across the world, giving us such delicacies as milk chocolate, hot chocolate drinks, and chocolate chip cookies, and altogether responsible for over 20.1 billion dollars in sales in the U.S alone. Yet, as important as chocolate may be for us today- who could think of a Valentines day without a box of chocolates, or an Easter without chocolate bunnies- for the Mayans of Belize, it took on an entire other form: it was the Food of the Gods.

Theobroma cacao, is the scientific name of the cacao tree. The genus name, Theobroma, literally translates to “Food” (Theo) “of Gods” (broma) in Greek. It is believed to have originated far to the south of the historic boundaries of the Mayan civilization, in the thin stretch of coastline west of the South American Andes Mountains, although the native peoples there are thought to have eaten the fleshy fruit that grows around the bean instead of roasting the bean itself. It wasn’t until the plant made its way to Central America that it began to be cultivated, this time by the precursor civilization to the Mayans, the Olmecs, who lived along the Pacific coast of Guatemala.

 

Cacao was originally eaten for its fruit rather than its beans

Cacao was originally eaten for its fruit rather than its beans. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The first evidence of Mayan chocolate use was found in Colhá in Northern Belize, and dated back to around 600 BCE. While the Olmecs may have been the first to use cacao for its bean rather than its fruit, for the Mayans it was more than a food, but a delicacy approaching divinity. According to Mayan belief, cacao was discovered by the Mayan gods within a mythical mountain, and was given to the Maya by the god Hunahpú after humans were created from Maize by the “divine grandmother” Ixmucané. Cacao became to the Mayans one of the godliest of all foods, trumped only by Maize, with a God of Cacao- Ek Chuah- having his own annual festival every April. The holiday consisted of gift giving, offers of cacao, feathers and incense, and the sacrifice of a dog decorated with cacao colored markings.

As a food, cacao was enjoyed by the royal elite as a drink, and was prepared hot, bitter, and frothy, often flavored with chili powder, vanilla, honey and allspice. Its uses were not just relegated to a dessert, however- the Mayans also used the beans as a form of currency, and even prescribed cacao as a medical remedy for ailments ranging from an upset stomach to kidney and bowel problems. It was also used in burials, most likely to give comfort to the dead as they passed onto the next world. Mayan merchants used cacao as a luxury good to be traded with the Tainos of Cuba and the Quechua of South America, spreading their love of cacao across Central and South America.

Even after the Mayan civilization’s collapse, its fascination with cacao has continued to influence our culture today. The word “cacao” itself comes from the Mayan word for the bean, “Ka’kau”, while our word “Chocolate” derives from the Mayan verb “Chocol’ha”, or “to drink cacao”, combined with the Aztec word “atl”, or water, a combination that was probably created by the Spanish during their conquests of Central America. It was Mayans who first introduced chocolate to Europe in 1544, when a group of Kek’chi Mayan nobles from Guatemala were brought to Spain by Dominican friars, and there presented a chocolaty drink to Prince Phillip.

 

Cacao was often featured in Mayan pottery, as seen here

Cacao was often featured in Mayan pottery, as seen here. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Today, cacao cultivation is spread across the world, yet still Belize- once part of the heart of Mayan civilization- continues to be one of the foremost sources of cacao, with Southern Belize having served as the world’s first source commercial cacao production. One of the first countries to advocate for organic cocoa production- Green and Black’s- itself originates from Belize, and in 1993 launched the world’s first fair trade chocolate bar, “Mayan Gold”.

While the Mayan civilization may be a thing of the long distant past, the Mayan people still live in Belize, and many of them still today drink the bean in the same spirit as their ancestors: hot, bitter and frothy, and sometimes with a spike of chili powder.

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Devin Windelspecht is a sophomore at Northeastern University in Boston MA where he majors in international relations.  Devin is responsible for background work on many of the articles on the site, as well as some science writing.

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