This is a short introduction to cacao, its biology, history and the people who discovered this plant.
Cacao, scientific name: theobroma cacao, Greek translation: "Food of the Gods". Other names: cocoa, chocolate, kakaw.
Drawing by Yolanda Tovar A vessel like those found in the Ulua Valley of Honduras dating back to 1100 B.C. Traces of theobromine and caffeine in shards from the vessels indicate that they held a beverage derived from the cacao tree, but the bottle's skinny, long neck hints that the drink was probably more like beer than cocoa.
The Spanish invaders derived their knowledge of cacao from the Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula, not from the Aztecs as previously believed. There is significant archaeological evidence of the existence of cacao in Mesoamerica before the Aztecs came to power. No doubt they adopted the habit and loved it as much as the Mayas did.
The ancestors of the classic Mayas entered the Peten lowlands of northern Guatemala around 1000 BC. Before then, they lived in the cool highlands of Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico. The Pacific coast in Guatemala and other similar terrain were ideal for growing cacao. Here all requirements for this finicky plant were met. In all likelihood, cacao was growing wild in this area.
Cacao producing regions of Colonial Mesoamerica
The name cacao first turns up in their literature around 400 BC. There is a treasure trove of cacao vessels in existence depicting the royal court partaking in rituals of cacao making and drinking, as well as merchants traveling with this valuable commodity in their backpacks. Also the sacred book of the Quiche Mayas, the Popol Vuh, mentions cacao several times.
This vase was painted sometime in the 7th or 8th century A.D., in or near the Chama region of Highland Guatemala. According to the myth of the Popol Vuh of the Quiche Maya, the head of Hun Hunaphpu sprout from a calabash tree.
Cacao seeds, or beans, were used in religious ceremonies. The Mayas occasionally replaced blood used in sacrifices, with cacao tinted red with achiote. It is recognized that Mayan architecture, astronomy and art were outstanding, but what is not so well known is that the Mayas were truly literate. Hieroglyphic writing was well known in Mesoamerica and reached the greatest level among the Mayas. They had signs for complete syllables, and signs standing for units of meaning. The Mayas also had a remarkable mathematical system. We call this system "vigesimal" because it is based in number 20, in contrast with our decimal system. Their system of time keeping was complex, and, if it possible, even more remarkable than the mathematical system. Their calendar round consists of two basic cycles. One incorporates twenty name days in a revolving sequence of 260 days which is called Tzolk’in. While the other incorporates 18 named months in a sequence of 365 days called Ja’ab. Each cycle includes its own set of numbers interrelated and constantly cycling through eternity. The 260 day and 365 day cycles mesh together to form a large sequence of 52 years.
from Classic maya vase
Classic Cacao Glyph
Post Classic Cacao Glyph
In Dresden Codex
The elite rulers and warriors of ancient Mesoamerica almost certainly consumed the Theobroma cacao criollo variety of cacao. It was not only food, drink and medicine, but it was also used as a currency. In some ancient records you can find that "a large turkey was worth two hundred cacao beans", "a turkey egg-three beans", "one avocado-one bean".