The Saga of Chocolate -Part 1, to 1585
The Saga of Chocolate -Part 1, to 1585

All About Chocolate > The Saga of Chocolate -Part 1, to 1585

Tree of life for the Mayans
Blood of a Toltec princess
Idolized by the emperor Montezuma
Considered an aphrodisiac by the Aztecs
Coveted by Spanish plunderers
Disdained by English pirates
Exchanged as money by Dutch traders
Used as a magic potion by Casanova…

Central and South America - more precisely, Mexico's Yucatan peninsula and the Amazon and Orinoco basins

from the Aztec word tchocolatl, derived in turn from the Mayan xocoatl (choco meaning "noise" and atl meaning "water"): an allusion to the sound of the whisk dissolving and foaming the chocolate in hot water

Pre-Columbian Era
After having grown wild for centuries, cocoa came to man's attention about 2000 BC in the immense Mayan empire. In ensuing eras, chocolate would see a whole succession of great civilizations pass by, each attributing to it royal or divine origins. Its Latin name Theobroma means "food of the gods."

It was Quetzalcoatl, symbolized by a plumed serpent, the god of vegetation and regeneration who reigned over the city of Tula, who taught men how to grow cacahuaquahuilt, the cocoa tree, in the pre-Columbian era.

Sacred Tree
For the Pilpil people, cocoa was associated with the main events of everyday life. Cocoa beans served as offerings for the major rites of passage from conception to birth, from childhood to puberty. The bodies of young boys were anointed with a mixture of rain water, flower petals and cocoa powder.

For the Mayans, it was above all a ritual beverage called "chacau haa." After the decline of the Mayan empire, the Toltec invaders (post-classical period 950 - 1500) made the cocoa tree their symbol of earthly reincarnation in the plant world. Associated with blood because of the beans' colour, cocoa to the Toltecs was the representation of a tribal princess who had been savagely murdered. The beans' bitterness was nothing more than the perceptible expression of the sufferings she had endured before her death, and of the suffering of an entire people before it came to dominate all of central Mexico under the watchful eye of the civilizing hero Kukulcan.

The same connotations existed for the Bribris, for whom cocoa acted as a mediator between heaven and earth, between man and nature, a source of fertility and life to be shared by everyone. Every year, they would seek out a dog with a cocoa-coloured coat and offer it to the gods to make the earth fruitful and to ensure a generous harvest.

Tree of Life
The Mayans and Aztecs learned the hydrating properties of cocoa butter, a substance obtained after several steps of processing. This balm became a staple item of their pharmacopoeia, used for healing burns and chapped skin, easing sunburn, treating the liver and lungs and as a preventative against snake bite.

In the Kingdom of the Aztecs
The Aztecs crushed the cocoa beans on their knees, using a "metalt": a half wood, half iron mortar that was lightly heated on a flat stone called a matate. The beans were then roasted and crushed with spices, including pepper, cinnamon and achiote before being sieved. Throughout the Aztecs' rule, cocoa pods would remain an important element of social, economic and religious life, right up until the time their civilization came under the Spanish yoke with the 15th century conquest.

The cocoa pod was the basis for accounting in the Americas
The dried cocoa bean became a form of currency. One could buy a rabbit for 10 beans and a slave for 100. With a financial system in place that was accepted by the various tribes, several important Central American civilizations began to develop trade relations based on a system other than bartering. The oldest known calendar inscriptions also date from this period. The standard measure of the Mayans was the "carga," equivalent to the load that one man could carry on his back, fixed at 8,000 beans.

  • 1 zontle = 400 beans
  • 20 zontles x 400 beans = 3 xiquipils
  • 3 xiquipils or 8000 beans = 1 carga
  • 32 cargas = approximately 1 tonne

The Aztecs continued to use the standardized measure established by the Mayans. Therefore, the tribute that subjugated peoples had to pay their valiant conquerors in order to be freed from the yoke of slavery was set in cargas. The annual taxation collected by the Aztec confederation was 980 cargas, or approximately 30 tonnes. A whole banking system grew up around the political structure, with the position of banker held in high esteem.

Hispanic Era
In 1502 - Christopher Columbus landed in Nicaragua in July. Near the end of the month, his ship lay anchored off the island of Guanaja, a few leagues from present-day Honduras.

"A large local boat with 25 rowers came out to meet us. Their chief, sheltered by a roof, offered us cloth, beautiful copper objects and almonds which they use as money and from which they make a drink."

Too focused on his search for the New World and the route to the Indies, Columbus did not pay much attention to the "almonds."


1519 - We owe the discovery of chocolate to Hernan Cortes, and his arrival in April 1519 on the Tabasco coast. The inhabitants, seeing him mounted on horseback, in his armor and with his bearded white face, took him for the god Quetzalcoatl since a prophecy had told that this god had gone off to conquer new lands in the east and would return in his descendants. They led the conquistador to the flamboyant palace of the emperor Montezuma where, as sign of hospitality and in order to honour the god of cocoa growing, Cortes was offered a "xocolatl" in a golden goblet inset with tortoise shell. Montezuma wanted to share with Cortes his passion for this thick honey-sweetened beverage that he liked for its aphrodisiac bitterness, accented with spices and chili. His own daily intake amounted to 50 cups! Thus Cortes came to taste hot chocolate flavoured with cinnamon, pepper, cloves and achiote seeds… and though perhaps aware that he was discovering a new food, he was more dazzled by the opulence of the goblets. In his first letter reporting back to Emperor Charles V, dated 1520, Cortes mentions cocoa "which is a fruit like almonds that the natives sell in ground form. They value it so highly that it is treated like currency throughout their land and they buy with it everything they need, in the markets and elsewhere."

About the time this first report was sent, the Spanish massacred the Aztec nobility and Cortes had to flee Mexico City on June 30 of the same year. Almost a year later, backed by tribes that opposed Aztec domination and their practice of human sacrifice, he took Mexico City and destroyed it. In 1522, he was appointed governor-general of New Spain.

In 1528 (or 1529 according to some documents), Spanish caravels, their holds bulging with gold, headed for Spain carrying sacks of cocoa beans taken from Cortes's plantations, which had been given to him as a welcome gift by Montezuma. Cortes remained in Aztec territory until 1540 and came to appreciate the value of the cocoa pods. In 1536, he estimated the price of cocoa at around 5 or 6 gold pesos. Its price remained stable for an entire decade. After Cortes' departure, it began to climb and reached 20 pesos per carga, the price set by an act of 1551. Adopting the accounting and political system of the Aztecs, he imposed an annual tax and established a system of "voluntary cooperation" under the name "encomienda," for cultivating the cocoa plantations and ensuring a progressive harvest.

Chocolate wins over the court of Charles V as well as New Spain Introduced to Spain by the famed navigator Cortes, chocolate, which was supposed to strengthen the weak and allow men "to approach women," at first left a bitter taste. After numerous attempts, a recipe was finally created in Mexico that could satisfy Spanish tastes by replacing the pepper and achiote with agave sugar. The nuns of Oaxaca added vanilla, orange flower water and musk. In this new form, chocolate once again crossed the Atlantic - from it, Charles V would create a state monopoly.

In 1585 - a first cargo load of cocoa from Vera Cruz was unloaded in Seville. Only botanists showed any interest.

In Mexico, the aristocracy were consuming more and more hot chocolate. Women commonly had a finely carved goblet of it served to them every 2 hours and even long religious services did not interfere with this ritual. The bishop of Chiapas castigated the faithful, imploring them to use temperance during services, but these ladies would do only as they wished. In an ironic twist, the bishop died of poisoning… from a cup of chocolate.

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