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Cocoa and its ceremonial use in Mesoamerica

 During the pre-Columbian period, in Mesoamérica, cocoa had deep symbolic, ritual and medicinal connotations.

Olmecs, Maya e Aztecs (in different historical periods), they created abundant cocoa drinks, both cold and hot. However, there is no historical evidence that indicates its use in the solid state, or in the form of chocolate, this in fact, was invented a few centuries later right here in Europe.

The use that is still made of cocoa in Central America is mostly in the form of a hot drink. High temperatures prevent chocolate bars from keeping well, especially in areas where it is warmer. 

The historical testimonies of the Spaniards narrate that the cocoa was dried and toasted, fragmented and then ground up to the production of a cocoa paste, making use of the same "tool" to grind the corn. The cocoa paste was then mixed with water, corn, vanilla, chilli and other local spices. The Mesoamerican peoples did not know sugar, this was added in Spain by missionaries who tried to sweeten this unknown bitter drink.  

But returning to what were the historical facts; before the Spanish invasion, which took place in 1518 AD with Hernàn Cortés, cocoa was uniquely "grown" in Mesoamerica or at least that's what we know so far, and only after the great success in the court of Spain for its aphrodisiac effect did it soon become in great demand all courts of Europe, starting what was then the expansion of cocoa crops also in Africa and Asia, aimed precisely at improving the supply of cocoa itself to be able to reach what were the first European chocolate factories.

According to historical evidence, Hernán Cortés wrote to Charles V - the then King of Spain -, assuring that: "cocoa could sustain the forces of a soldier for a whole day "and that it was a powerful" tonic ".

Moctezuma II, last Aztec emperor, before his death at the hands of the troops led by Cortés himself, it is said that he drank as much as 50 cups of cocoa a day to stimulate libido. The aphrodisiac properties were already known by then. It is also said that in the times of the Maya, puberty was celebrated with propitiatory rituals with cocoa and perfumed water.


Photo: Moctezuma II, the last Aztec King in his meeting with Hernàn Cortès

The Mesoamerican peoples (including Maya e Aztecs) considered cocoa to be part of the sacred, and there are many archaeological evidences of its use in ceremonies as early as 1800 BC in this region.

"Mesoamerica" ​​is the region that includes southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, part of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, where some of the major pre-Columbian civilizations developed. 

But at what point was cocoa consumed according to historical evidence?

  • Weddings of nobles;

  • Military victories;

  • Conclusion of successful commercial expeditions;

  • To accompany the deceased towards the descent to the underground world and therefore during funeral ceremonies.

  • Celebration of the onset of puberty

This plant was so important that, in Popol Vuh (the sacred book of the Maya) was considered one of the four cosmic trees located in the directions of the universe, making it a symbol of the "sacred" and the "divine".

Photo: Tazumal - Archaeological complex dating back to the Mayan era - El Salvador


UNAM, Mexico 

Encyclopedia Britannica 

Maya cc image: University of Oregon 

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