Cocoa and its use in ancient Mesoamerica

"Cocoa had deep symbolic, ritual and medicinal connotations throughout Mesoamerica"

Olmecs, Maya, ToltecsAztecs, and other Mesoamerican ethnic groups, (obviously in different historical periods), they created abundant cocoa drinks, both cold and hot. Despite this, 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 in Europe.

The use still made of cocoa in Central America is mostly in the form of a hot drink, and in some cases, recalling what was once the ancestral drink based on water, cocoa and corn. In southern Mexico, there are numerous cocoa-based drinks: one of them is "Pozol", a cocoa drink typical of Chiapas. 

It is sad to write this part, but the colony has obviously had very complex, often tragic developments, helping to marginalize the indigenous communities in every possible way which unfortunately have over time lost a large part of their ancestral knowledge and traditions (we will talk about it maybe in a other post).

El Salvador, which was part of the Kingdom of Guatemala in the west, was the largest cocoa-growing center in the whole Kingdom between 1500 and 1800 AD. This area of ​​rich and fertile soil, known as "Los Izalcos", was rich in indigenous communities of Maya and Nahuat Pipil descent, who had learned the work of growing native cocoa for centuries. So much so that some archaeologists have started to think that it was from El Salvador, at its exit point through the port of Acajutla, that the criollo cocoa (we are obviously talking about the genetically pure one) was then transported to the other Spanish colonies in the South. America. 

The written testimonies at the time of the Spanish colony narrate that the cocoa was dried and toasted, fragmented and then ground until the production of the cocoa paste, making use of the same "tool" to grind corn, the "metate". 

The cocoa mass, with its raw texture, was then mixed with water, corn, vanilla, chilli and / or other local spices. The Mesoamerican peoples did not know sugar, this took over with the arrival of the Spaniards. 

Before the Spanish invasion, which took place in 1518 AD with Hernàn Cortés on the coasts of eastern Mexico, cocoa was uniquely "grown" in Mesoamerica or at least this is what is known so far even if there is a current debate on what the exact origin is, 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.

At that time Hernán Cortés himself wrote a letter 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 ".

The last Aztec emperor Montezuma II, before his death - which occurred at the hands of the troops led by Cortés himself -, it is said that he drank at least 50 cups a day of cocoa to stimulate libido. The aphrodisiac properties were already known by then. It is also said that the Maya used to celebrate puberty with propitiatory rituals with cocoa and perfumed water (Yucatàn).


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

When it comes to ancestral cocoa let us remember that it was not only the Maya who used it, but also other indigenous peoples of other cultures and other languages, and in different eras. It would be erroneous to attribute its use only to the Maya, when we know that the Olmecs used it as early as 1800 BC, therefore, since ancient times.

The Mesoamerican peoples (including also Maya e Aztecs) considered cocoa as part of the sacred, and there are many archaeological evidences of its use as early as 1800 BC in this region. Therefore, the spiritual relationship of cocoa with these peoples and in general between the various Mesoamerican ethnic groups seems to be established.

To specify: "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

  • As a currency 

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 

Evidence of the use of El Salvador cocoa Maya site Joya del Cerèn 

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1 comment

Thank you, the article is interesting and gave me insights into the preparation of ceremonial cocoa


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