why was chocolate important to the mayans


was one of the most desired foods of Mesoamerica and was consumed by the, and
civilizations, amongst others. Its consumption even spread via trade routes to other parts of the Americas including the Chaco in modern New Mexico. The earliest known use of chocolate was by the Olmec around 1900 BCE and, enjoyed as a drink, it was drunk from special round jars known as tecomates. The Maya used tall cylinder beakers for drinking chocolate, and these very often had text on the rim indicating their intended use. The Aztecs also had richly decorated tall cups specifically reserved for chocolate drinks. It may be that such conspicuous vessels were designed to impress onlookers that the drinker had the means and status to enjoy such a prized drink. Chocolate is made from the beans of cacao pods from the Theobroma cacao tree (actually native to South America) which was first cultivated in extensive orchards near the Pacific and Gulf coasts of central America, especially in the Xoconusco region and the valleys of the Sarstoon, Polochic, and Motagua Rivers (modern Guatemala and Belize), where the tree thrives in the warm and humid climate. There were, in fact, four varieties of cacao bean or cacahuatl, as the Aztecs knew them, and the corruption of this word or their term for the chocolate drink – xocolatl – is probably the origin of the word chocolate. So esteemed was chocolate that beans were a commonly traded item, very often demanded as tribute from subject tribes and even used as a form of currency by the Aztecs. In fact, cacao beans were so valuable that they were even counterfeited either to pass as currency or, even more fiendishly, hollowed out of their valuable interior and re-filled with a substitute such as sand. As a currency, we know that in the Aztec markets one cacao bean could buy you a single tomato, 30 beans got you a rabbit and, for the more ambitious shopper, a could be had for 200 beans. As an expensive import then, chocolate was drunk mainly by the upper classes and consumed after meals, typically accompanied by the smoking of tobacco. It may have been enjoyed mixed with maize gruel by the poorer classes at important events such as weddings, but some scholars maintain that the pure chocolate drink was an exclusive status symbol of the nobility.


Curiously, it could even be given to favoured sacrificial victims as a final treat before they departed this world, for example, at the annual Aztec festival of Panquetzaliztli held in honour of. To prepare the chocolate, cacao beans were fermented, cured, and roasted. Then the beans were ground into powder and mixed with hot water, as chocolate was usually (but not always) consumed as a warm frothy drink, the froth made by vigorously whisking the liquid with a wooden implement and pouring the liquid from one vessel to another. Indeed, the froth was considered the best part of the drink. Bitter to taste, it could be flavoured by adding, for example, maize, vanilla, flowers, ground chile peppers, herbs, honey, or fermented agave sap ( octli ). Apart from the taste, another advantage of chocolate is that it also contains caffeine and so can act as a stimulant. The seller of fine chocolate [is] one who grinds, who provides people with drink, with repasts. She grinds cacao [beans]; she crushes, breaks, pulverizes them. She chooses, selects, separates them. She drenches, soaks, steeps them. She adds water sparingly, conservatively; aerates it, filters it, strains it, pours it back and forth, aerates it; she makes it form a head, makes it foam; she removes the head, makes it form a head, makes it foam. She sells good, superior, potable [chocolate]: the privilege, the drink of nobles, of rulers – finely ground, soft, foamy, reddish, bitter; [with] chile water, with flowers, with uei nacaztli, with teonacaztli, with vanilla, with mecaxochitl, with wild bee honey, with powdered aromatic flowers. [Inferior chocolate has] maize flour and water; lime water; [it is] pale; the [froth] bubbles burst. (Townsend, 178) Cacao, the simple bean native to South and Central America, is today a staple of food across the world, giving us such delicacies as milk chocolate, hot chocolate drinks, and chocolate chip cookies, and altogether responsible for over 20. 1 billion dollars in sales in the U. S alone.

Yet, as important as chocolate may be for us today- who could think of a Valentines day without a box of chocolates, or an Easter without chocolate bunnies- for the Mayans of Belize, it took on an entire other form: it was the Food of the Gods. Theobroma cacao, is the scientific name of theб cacao tree. The genus name, Theobroma, literally translates to БFoodБ ( Theo) Бof GodsБ ( broma) in Greek. It is believed to have originated far to the south of the historic boundaries of the Mayan civilization, in the thin stretch of coastline west of the South American Andes Mountains, although the native peoples there are thought to have eaten the fleshy fruit that grows around the bean instead of roasting the bean itself. It wasnБt until the plant made its way to Central America that it began to be cultivated, this time by the precursor civilization to the Mayans, the Olmecs, who lived along the Pacific coast of Guatemala. The first evidence of Mayan chocolate use was found in Colhц in Northern Belize, and dated back to around 600 BCE. While the Olmecs may have been the first to use cacao for its bean rather than its fruit, for the Mayans it was more than a food, but a delicacy approaching divinity. According to Mayan belief, cacao was discovered by the Mayan gods within a mythical mountain, and was given to the Maya by the god Hunahpц after humans were created from Maize by the Бdivine grandmotherБ Ixmucanц. Cacao became to the Mayans one of the godliest of all foods, trumped only by Maize, with a God of Cacao- Ek Chuah- having his own annual festival every April. The holiday consisted of gift giving, offers of cacao, feathers and incense, and the sacrifice of a dog decorated with cacao colored markings. As a food, cacao was enjoyed by the royal elite as a drink, and was prepared hot, bitter, and frothy, often flavored with chili powder, vanilla, honey and allspice. Its uses were not just relegated to a dessert, however- the Mayans also used the beans as a form of currency, and even prescribed cacao as a medical remedy for ailments ranging from an upset stomach to kidney and bowel problems.

It was also used in burials, most likely to give comfort to the dead as they passed onto the next world. Mayan merchants used cacao as a luxury good to be traded with the Tainos of Cuba and the Quechua of South America, spreading their love of cacao across Central and South America. Even after the Mayan civilizationБs collapse, its fascination with cacao has continued to influence our culture today. The word БcacaoБ itself comes from the Mayan word for the bean, БKaБkauБ, while our word БChocolateБ derives from the Mayan verb БChocolБhaБ, or Бto drink cacaoБ, combined with the Aztec word БatlБ, or water, a combination that was probably created by the Spanish during their conquests of Central America. It was Mayans who first introduced chocolate to Europe in 1544, when a group of KekБchi Mayan nobles from Guatemala were brought to Spain by Dominican friars, and there presented a chocolaty drink to Prince Phillip. Today, cacao cultivation is spread across the world, yet still Belize- once part of the heart of Mayan civilization- continues to be one of the foremost sources of cacao, with Southern Belize having served as the worldБs first source commercial cacao production. One of the first countries to advocate for organic cocoa production- Green and BlackБs- itself originates from Belize, and in 1993 launched the worldБs first fair trade chocolate bar, БMayan GoldБ. While the Mayan civilization may be a thing of the long distant past, the Mayan people still live in Belize, and many of them still today drink the bean in the same spirit as their ancestors: hot, bitter and frothy, and sometimes with a spike of chili powder. Devin Windelspecht is a sophomore at Northeastern University in Boston MA where he majors in international relations. б Devin is responsible for background work on many of the articles on the site, as well as some science writing. Image Sources Mayan ruins

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