Pre-European Influences

The natives of Central and South America – the Aztecs and the Mayans  – both viewed the cacao as a divine food, and they also believed that ‘Gods’ discovered this plant.  In the Aztec civilization, the word Theobroma means “food of the gods”, and it was treated as such.  It was considered a divine gift, a source of power, a form of currency, and a health food by the peoples of ancient Mesoamerica.

The Mayans were considered the most culturally advanced among the Mesoamerican civilizations, and because of this advancement they were able to do many things with the cacao plant.  With the seeds from the Cacao tree, the Mayans brewed spicy, bitter-sweet drinks by roasting and pounding the seeds with maize and chilli peppers and letting it ferment.  They called this frothy drink chocolatl.  Within their culture, this drink was reserved for ceremonial uses and was consumed only by the wealthy and religious elite and soldiers.

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Along with this spiced drink, they were able to make a variety of porridge-like meals that varied in thickness from very thin and watery to thick and solid.  These dishes were high in nutrients and very healthy.  They also were inedible by our standards and a far cry from the chocolate we eat today, but since they had an abundance of cacao trees growing in their region, they made and created many uses for this plant.

ImageMayan Chocolate God

The Mayans harvested cocoa beans from the rain forest trees, and then later cleared areas of the forest to make way for the first known cocoa plantations.  The Mayans knew a good thing when they saw it, and worshipped the cacao bean as an idol.  Along with the Aztecs, the Mayans used the beans as a form of currency; so when trading with other civilizations the Mayans developed their very own trading system.  Four cocoa beans would get you a pumpkin, 10 a rabbit and 100 would buy you a slave.

An Aztec Cacao Tree Drawing with Codes

While the Mayans were are culturally advanced society, the Aztecs were  considered an aristocratic society and they had a higher value for the Cacao beans; because the Aztec’s lived further north in regions that have higher altitudes, they were unable to cultivate the Cacao tree, because the climate was not suitable.  They had to acquire these beans through trade or rewards from war.

Since the beans were so hard to acquire and they valued them so highly, they were their form of currency.  The price in trade difference between the Mayans and the Aztecs is quiet evident.  For the Aztecs, 100 beans bought a Turkey or a slave, 30 cacao beans gave you a small rabbit, 3 cacao beans gave you 1 turkey egg, and 1 cacao bean gave you 1 large tomato, and the Mayans’ value was slightly lower because they had access to the seeds in abundance.   Along with this trading system, taxes and tributes were paid in Cacao beans to the Aztec Emperors.

Aztec Chocolate God

Even though the Mayans and Aztecs had differences in cultural development and advancement, they both had a common love for the Cacao bean.  They both found common uses for this special fruit, forming it into currency which later down the line help changed they way the world ran.  By the time the Europeans arrived, both civilizations had the Cacao beans in heavy circulation and use, which made them even more interesting to the Europeans.

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