The History of Chocolate

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The Beginning

Just the word chocolate evokes strong emotion in almost every person.  Its texture, taste and divine flavor can make grown mean swoon.  In addition to being one of the most highly regarded food items, it also enjoys a rich, exotic history.  Chocolate in its raw or processed form is produced from the seed of the Theobroma Cacao tree.  Its earliest documented use dates before the Olmec civilization—discovered by archeologist in Honduras dating from about 1,100-1400 BC.

The Ancient Mayans

The history of chocolate begins over 2,600 years ago in Central America. The ancient Mayan Indians are the first known consumers of chocolate. Images of cocoa pods were carved into the walls of their temples, and ancient Mayan writings refer to cacao as “food of the gods.”

It was the Mayans who first created a beverage from crushed cacao beans which was enjoyed by royalty and shared at sacred ceremonies. The Mayans established the earliest known cacao plantations in the Yucatan.

Montezuma and the Aztecs

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Aztecs were an advanced and powerful civilization located in what is now central Mexico. Chocolate’s importance to the Aztec empire is also clearly recorded. The Aztecs called the prized drink they made from cocoa beans “xocolātl,” (/ʃo.ko.laːtɬ/) which means “bitter water.” Like the earlier Mayans, the Aztecs drank the unsweetened beverage during special ceremonies. Montezuma II, a royal monarch of the Aztecs, maintained great storehouses filled with cocoa beans and reportedly consumed 50 or more portions of “xocolātl “ daily from a golden goblet.

The frothy beverage, which was sometimes made with water, and sometimes with wine, could be seasoned with vanilla, pimento, and chili pepper. It was thought to cure diarrhea and dysentery, and was believed to be an aphrodisiac.

Not Just a Sacred Drink

Chocolate was also an important luxury good throughout pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.   Cocoa beans, however, were not only consumed.  They were also used as a form of currency. According to records of the time, a rabbit could be purchased for four cocoa beans. In Mexican picture scripts, a basket with 8,000 beans represents the figure 8,000.

As the Aztecs conquered other areas that cultivated cacao, these groups were ordered to pay it as tax, or as the Aztecs referred to it, a “tribute.”  Until the sixteenth century, no European had heard of the popular bean and its value as a ceremonial/sacred beverage or the economic base for many cultures.

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