"And so they were happy over the provisions of the good mountain, filled with sweet things, ...thick with pataxte and cacao...the rich foods filling up the citadel named Broken Place, Bitter Water Place". Popol Vuh
Chocolate and Maya civilization go hand in hand. We know that over 3,500 years ago in the Maya lowlands, the Maya were already making the chocolate drink from cacao seeds. It was the great eighteenth century Swedish botanist, Carl von Linne, who named the tree from which the seeds are obtained Theobroma cacao. This is a plant that can only grow in tropical lowlands where frost never arrives.
The word cacao originated from the Maya word Ka'kau' as well as the Maya words Chocol'haa and the verb chokola'j "to drink chocolate together", were then adapted centuries later by the Aztecs. The Maya believed that the ka'kau' was discovered by the gods in a mountain that also contained other delectable foods to be used by the Maya. According to Maya mythology, Hunahpu gave cacao to the Maya after humans were created from maize by the divine grandmother goddess Ixmucane.
In the image above, which is a painting on a Late Classic Maya vase, the glyphs describe a lord testing the temperature of his hot chocolate drink; note the tamales below him, covered with chocolate-chili sauce. These tamales are a true delicatessen, and just as in ancient times, they are reserved for special occasions and important events, such as the Christmas' Eve dinner.
Among the Mayas, chocolate was an elite, prestigious drink, reserved for royalty, nobility, long-distance merchants, and high-ranking warriors. By 450 BC large numbers of magnificent vases filled with the chocolate drink were placed in the tombs of Maya kings. Beyond its function as a funerary offering, chocolate continues to be part of important celebrations, including the negotiation and celebration of marriages.
Cacao had one other function in early Mesoamerica, and that was as money. We know that for the Maya on the eve of the Conquest, cacao beans served as currency in market transactions, so literally, this was the time "when money grew on trees," as the saying goes.
Christopher Columbus was the first European to come in contact with cacao. On August 15, 1502, on his fourth and last voyage to the Americas, Columbus and his crew encountered a large dugout canoe near the Guanaja island off the coast of what is now Honduras. The canoe was the largest native ship that the Spaniards had seen. It was as long as a galley, 8 feet wide, and with 25 paddlers and was filled with local goods for trade, including cacao beans. Columbus had his crew seize the vessel and its goods, and retained its skipper as his guide. Later, Columbus' son Ferdinand wrote about the encounter. He was struck by how much value the Native Americans placed on cacao beans, saying: "They seemed to hold these almonds (referring to the cacao beans) at a great price; for when they were brought on board the ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen."
Chocolate was then introduced to the Spanish court, but Spaniards and other Europeans did not develop a taste for it, until it was heavily sweetened with sugar, which they had brought from the Mediterranean to Mesoamerica. Until the beginning of the XIX century chocolate remained an elite drink, too expensive for ordinary people to enjoy, and often forbidden to them.
Michael Coe, Professor of Anthropology, and Curator Emeritus in the Peabody Museum at Yale, and coauthor of the book "The True History of Chocolate" (1996), states that the word chocolatl appears in "no truly early source on the Nahuatl language or on Aztec culture. Furthermore, he cites the distinguished Mexican philologist Ignacio Davila Garibi, who proposed the idea that the "Spaniards had coined the word by taking the Maya word Chocol and then replacing the Maya term for water, haa, with the Aztec one, atl."
Should you like to learn more about the fascinating chocolate, its history and evolution? Please visit Dr. Coe's presentation (in Spanish): El Chocolate en la Cultura Guatemalteca.
While the Mayans in Guatemala no longer use cacao as a currency as they did centuries ago, chocolate has remained an important part of their culture. Once viewed as food fit for the gods, hot chocolate has been drunk in Guatemala for thousands of years. It continues to be served traditionally with Pan de Yemas (an egg yolks-based sweet bread) at weddings, funerals, birthdays, and other celebrations. The hot chocolate of Guatemala is still made by hand without any special machinery, giving it outstanding quality and flavor, and it just so happens that Xelaju is the place in Guatemala where the best traditional handcrafted chocolate is produced.
Thank you Colomba for giving me the idea and the appropriate source for this post!