Hello there. In honor of Chocolate Day, we present to you “The History of Chocolate.” Anyways, quick trivia. What came first: chocolate candy or hot chocolate? Take a wild guess. If you haven’t guessed yet, do so now, because the answer is coming. Now, here it comes. The answer is…drumroll please….. neither.
Ceramic shard found in Paso de la Amada
containing cacao residue (Antiquity)
You see, archaeological evidence in 2007 reveal residue of cacao beverages—yes beverages with a plural s—in ceramic shards found in Paso de la Amada of Chiapas, Mexico (found in blue in figure 1), dating back to the Mokaya villagers of 1900-1700 B.C.E. Mesoamerica. The Mayans also occupied Chiapas, Mexico, which links pottery of the Mokaya to pottery of the Maya.
Anyways, the Mokaya are believed to have first processed cacao and consumed it as liquid chocolate. Where the cacao comes from is disputable between South and Central America. Studies aren’t too clear on how the drink was served during this period either, but later dates (as in Maya-later and not us later mind you) indicate a closer resemblance to cocoa than hot chocolate, but we’ll get to that later.
Back to the science, other archaeological evidence reveal cacao residue in a pottery dating 1650-1500 B.C.E. in the archeological site of El Manati of Veracruz, Mexico (found in green in figure 1).
Mayan chocolate vessel found in
Veracruz, Mexico (Science Museum of Minnesota)
Interestingly enough, the ceramic the residue came from was a ritual-type ceramic (wink wink). Another 2007 study also found over 10 ceremonial (wink wink) drinking vessels, dating between 1300-900 B.C.E., contained cacao residue—from archaeological site Puerto Escondido of the Ulúa River Valley of Honduras (found in purple in figure 2). That sits near the Olmec civilization which is considered Mesoamerica’s first great civilization, originating in Guatemala circa 1200-400 B.C.E.
Now, normally, when you think of rituals and ceremonies, and all of those important events that gather lots and lots of important people, what do you think of first in terms of drinks. (Hint: we call them drinks.) If you haven’t guessed yet, here’s the answer: booze.
Chocolate Beer (Eureka Beer Guide)
You see, back in ancient times, beer was the preferred drink. It could be made with crops in abundance (like say the Mesoamerican maize for example *cough cough*) and could be easily stored. Moreover, plain water might be contaminated and cause illness or death when drunk (no pun intended). Alcohol, with its antibacterial properties, thus became the safer alternative to drinking water.
Chicha de Jora – Fermented Corn beer
(jasmine navarro oviedo)
Products high in sugar—like chocolate—were preferred in alcohol production. See where I’m going here? Cacao, whether the seeds or the fruit depending on whom you ask, was thereby very likely fermented by the ancients to produce chicha—a type of corn beer made from maize.
As exciting as the ancient chocolate beer recipe is (it really doesn’t taste like cocoa or hot chocolate), even more exciting is the fact that the Olmecs came up with the “fermenting, drying, roasting and grinding process” that stems modern chocolate processing.
Of course, while it seems that chocolate history would stop there and jump straight to the modern chocolate we eat today, that’s not quite how people work.
Chocolate Vessels found in the burial
grounds of Rio Azul (Authentic Maya)
A 2002 study found traces of chocolate in ceramic vessels in burial sites found in the Mayan archaeological site Colha of the country Belize (found in orange in figure 2). The vessels date between 1000 B.C.E. to 250 C.E. An earlier study in 1990 found more evidence of chocolate in vessels dating 460-480 C.E. at Maya burial grounds (did things turn superstitious or what?) in Rio Azul, Guatemala. They believed that it would help sustain their dead in the afterlife.
Maya Hieroglyph of Cacao (Authentic Maya)
Vessels like the one shown above would have hieroglyphs depicting cacao (written in what translates roughly to “ka’kau”).
Chocolate Pot from Rio Azul
The Mayans, though, didn’t make their chocolate quite the same way as the Olmecs. The Mayans added chili (and to think we thought hot sauce chocolate was new), vanilla planifolia, and/or honey to their cacao beverages. They also poured it back and forth into different containers (like shaking a cocktail) to make it nice and frothy. Served hot, it resembled modern-day cocoa.
Chocolate Atole (Magnus Manske)
In addition to the predecessor of cocoa, the Mayans also had chocolate atole, a drink thickened with atol (a corn based beverage/gruel).
The Mayans also used cacao as medicine and as battle provisions for warriors. Cacao would be mixed with flowers or packed into small slabs with corn meal. Energy bar anyone?
Mayan Vase Depicting A Lord And His Chocolate (Authentic Maya)
Wrapping it all together, the Maya were very close to their chocolate. They drank chocolate. They ate chocolate. They treated ailments with chocolate (How? I don’t know.). They fought battles with chocolate. They scribed about chocolate (on their pottery). They celebrated holidays, weddings, feasts, and ceremonies with chocolate. (They have chocolate myths associated with the ceremonies as well.) Heck, they even died with chocolate. Granted, some of them didn’t really want to die with chocolate, seeing as the cacao beans were just added in to human sacrifice rituals because the royals wanted them to, but hey. Whatever floats their boats.
To recap, the Mokaya made drinks with their cacao. The Olmecs made alcohol with their cacao. The Mayans did almost everything with their cacao. In this Mesoamerican chocolate saga, there’s still the later Aztecs and Incas to go.
Do they follow the footsteps of their predecessors and find even more ways to bind with their chocolate? Or do they wait it out and leave it up to us North Americans (*cough* Hershey’s *cough*)? Stay tuned to find out.
(If you can’t wait to find out though, the National Confectioners Association has a detailed history of chocolate in the ancient world at http://thestoryofchocolate.com/ and Mars—the company, not the planet, silly—has a really good timeline on chocolate history at http://www.americanheritagechocolate.com)
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