A short history of cacao

Cacao has a rich history in Mesoamerican native cultures. Traces found of its use date back to 1900 B.C. although newer evidence points to much earlier use. Cacao gained a divine status in different cultures like the Olmecs, Izapan, Maya, Toltecs, Aztecs and Incas. As a frothy, godly and highly prized drink it was mainly consumed by the elite. Deities were worshiped for bringing cacao to the world and shamans used it in rituals and ceremonies. It is still regarded by many people as a medicine and highly valued. The beans were even used as an early form of money and unit of measurement.

The word cacao stems from the Olmec and Mayan word kakaw. They used cacao in many different recipes, from sacred drinks to energyzing breakfast drinks. The basis for chocolate we inherit from the Nahuatl language, spoken by the Aztecs, chocolātl. The official name for the cacao tree is Theobroma Cacao, meaning ‘food of the gods’ in Greek. Theo meaning god and broma meaning food. Named after how natives referred to cacao in their own languages. When the Aztec emperor Montezuma dined with Cortés and his officers, they were amongst the first Europeans that have been offered a cacao drink.

Mayan vase depicting a woman pouring a frothy cacao drink ( Princeton vase, AD 670-750 ).

Mayan vase depicting a woman pouring a frothy cacao drink (Princeton vase, AD 670-750).

Old texts and images on vases show that paste of roasted cacao was mixed with water, chili peppers and cornmeal to be poured between pots until covered with a thick foam. Cortés (who was mostly against native culture and customs) wrote: ”This drink is the healthiest thing, and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else”.

There are different written records of Europeans encountering cacao for the first time, all impressed by its flavor and power. Also its central position in Mesoamerican cultures is emphasized. The Spanish brought cacao back to Europe in the early 16th century. When they lost their monopoly on import, cacao quickly spread through Europe. Different technological advances as well as adding sugar, milk powder and other ingredients lead to chocolate as we know it today. A beautiful treat that melts on your tongue, although not always the healthy food for which is was prized by native Mesoamerican people.

Cacao is still used by shamans as a medicine and in ceremonies. The interest in native knowledge and use in cacao is growing. As well as the effects of cacao are an increased topic for modern research for health, beauty and pharmaceutical industries.

Chocolate as we know today is a derivative from cacao and various ways of processing destroy healthy compounds that make cacao so interesting. The quality of cacao depends on different factors and we are especially interested in cacao that is as little processed as possible. Fermentation and some degree of heating or roasting have been used throughout cacao’s history. For both the healthy properties and spiritual power we prefer cacao in this pure form.