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Professor Bernard Ortiz de Montellano

Question for November 2006

How much energy can you get from one cocoa bean? Asked by Westwood Farm Junior School. Chosen and answered by Professor Bernard Ortiz de Montellano.

Pic 1: To the Aztecs a bag of cocoa beans was equivalent to a stuffed wallet!
Pic 1: To the Aztecs a bag of cocoa beans was equivalent to a stuffed wallet! (Click on image to enlarge)

Chocolate has a long and interesting history in Mesoamerica. From the very beginning of Mesoamerican culture some 3500 years ago, it has been associated with long distance trade and luxury. The Soconusco area on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala (Pic 2), thought to be the original source of Olmec culture, was, and remained, an important area of cacao cultivation. It was a very desirable prize, even as late as the Aztec empire. One of the tasks of the pochteca, the long-distance Aztec merchants, was to bring to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, the prized products of the Soconusco area.

Pic 2: map showing the Soconusco region of SE Chiapas, Mexico (no. VIII, dark green, at the bottom), near the border with Guatemala today and beside the Pacific Ocean
Pic 2: map showing the Soconusco region of SE Chiapas, Mexico (no. VIII, dark green, at the bottom), near the border with Guatemala today and beside the Pacific Ocean (Click on image to enlarge)

The Nahuatl name for chocolate, cacahuatl, that became cacao in Spanish was used from the very earliest times. Dakin and Wichtman argue that chocolate was named cacahuatl because cacao seeds look like little bird eggs. In the Maya area, hieroglyphs spelling out kakaw can be seen on a vessel dating between AD 460-480 found in Río Azul (Pic 3). It is really interesting that chemical analysis found that there were chocolate remnants in the bottom of the pot.

Pic 3: Painted Maya chocolate pot found at Río Azul (Guatemala)
Pic 3: Painted Maya chocolate pot found at Río Azul (Guatemala) (Click on image to enlarge)

Chocolate was beaten into a froth before it was drunk. Dakin and Withman have proposed that the Nahuatl word chocolatl literally means “beater-drink,” although this word is not found in very early Nahuatl documents. Froth was also produced by pouring the drink back-and-forth from a height. One of the earliest images of this froth-producing process is the Maya Princeton Vase (Pic 4).

Pic 4: A Maya woman pouring chocolate from one vessel to another, depicted on the Princeton Vase (Late Classic Maya)
Pic 4: A Maya woman pouring chocolate from one vessel to another, depicted on the Princeton Vase (Late Classic Maya)

Vessels filled with frothy chocolate being offered to deities are often seen in codices (Pic 5), or in ceremonies such as marriage (Pic 6). These foamy vessels could also be filled with octli, the alcoholic drink made with fermented agave sap, but they can sometimes be told apart because pulque vessels are decorated with the half moon representing the nose ornaments of the pulque gods (Pics 7 & 8).

Pic 5: Chocolate as an offering to the sun god Tonatiuh, Codex Laud (original in the Bodleian Libary, Oxford)
Pic 5: Chocolate as an offering to the sun god Tonatiuh, Codex Laud (original in the Bodleian Libary, Oxford) (Click on image to enlarge)

Cacao beans were worth transporting for long distances because they were luxury items. In Aztec times, the privileges of the elite (the royal house, nobles, pochteca [merchants], and warriors) included having more than one wife, wearing cotton clothing, building houses with more than one floor, and only this nobility was allowed to drink chocolate.

Pic 6: Chocolate offering in a marriage ceremony, Codex Zouche-Nuttall
Pic 6: Chocolate offering in a marriage ceremony, Codex Zouche-Nuttall (Click on image to enlarge)

In modern times people are used to chocolate being sweet, but that is not how the Aztecs prepared it. The Aztecs made chocolate with water, not milk, and drank it cold. They used a variety of additives. It was occasionally mixed with honey, but one of the preferred additives, strange as it may seem, was chilli. Chocolate was also mixed with a variety of flowers, and sometimes it was thickened with atole, a corn gruel. There were numerous variations, including a “red” variety made by adding annatto dye (achiote).

Pic 7: Jug of pulque/octli at a wedding, Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford)
Pic 7: Jug of pulque/octli at a wedding, Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) (Click on image to enlarge)

Cacao beans were not only consumed as a drink, they were also used as money. We have information about their value in early colonial times: the daily wage for a porter, a good turkey hen, or a hare was worth 100 beans; a turkey egg was 3 beans, and a large tomato was worth one bean. As Sophie Coe put it, to drink chocolate was equivalent to using a twenty dollar bill to light one’s cigar in our culture. The image of a bag full of cacao beans was the Aztec hieroglyph for the number 8000 (Pic 9).

Pic 8: Drunkards, Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford): notice the bowls containing octli (pulque)
Pic 8: Drunkards, Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford): notice the bowls containing octli (pulque) (Click on image to enlarge)

Cacao is quite nutritious. An average cacao bean weighs one gramme. We can talk in terms of about 100 beans or grammes, because that is a common unit for measuring nutritional values. One hundred grammes of bitter chocolate (the nearest equivalent to cacao beans) contains 53 grams of fat, 245 calories, 10.7 grams of protein, minerals (78 mg calcium, 384 mg phosphorous, 6.7 mg iron), and vitamins (60 units vitamin A, 0.05 mg thiamine, 0.24 mg riboflavin, and 1.5 mg niacin). Additionally, chocolate is very rich in flavonoids, the same antioxidants that have been credited with making red wine and the “Mediterranean diet” healthy.

Pic 9: Tribute of 8,000 sheets of bark paper- the number 8,000 represented by a bag of cacao beans, xiquipilli in Náhuatl (Codex Mendoza - original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford)
Pic 9: Tribute of 8,000 sheets of bark paper- the number 8,000 represented by a bag of cacao beans, xiquipilli in Náhuatl (Codex Mendoza - original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) (Click on image to enlarge)

Although the Aztecs did not eat many of the foods that we eat today (beef, pork, chicken, and milk for example), they did have a healthy, well-balanced diet. Their only domesticated animals were turkeys and a particular kind of dog; they ate a wide variety of fish and fowl, as well as deer. Actually, when we look at the large variety of items they consumed, we see that the Aztecs ate practically anything that flew, crawled, or swam. In my book (see below) I show that an Aztec diet, composed of the immemorial Mesoamerican (and American Indian) triad of maize, beans and squash plus chile and tomato would provide a high protein, low fat diet that satisfied all the recommended amounts of minerals and vitamins.

Further reading:-
* Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe. 1996. The True History of Chocolate, New York: Thames & Hudson.
* Karen Dakin and Søren Wichmann. 2000. “CACAO AND CHOCOLATE A Uto-Aztecan perspective,” Ancient Mesoamerica, 11: 55–75.
* Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano. 1990. Aztec Medicine, Health, and Nutrition. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Illustrations:-
Pic 1: Ian Mursell, Mexicolore
Pic 2: www.famsi.org/reports/01052/images/fig01.jpg
Pic 3: www.mayaexpeditions.com/images_big/big_archaeology/rio_Aazul/rio_azul_chocolate_vase_b.jpg
Pic 4: www.ithaca.edu/faculty/jjolly/precolumbian/greatgoddess.htm
Pic 5: Codex Laud, folio 14 (scanned from the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, 1966)
Pic 6: Codex Zouche-Nuttall folio 26 (scanned from the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, 1987)
Pic 7: Codex Mendoza, folio 61r (scanned from the Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938)
Pic 8: Codex Mendoza, folio 71r (scanned from the Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938)
Pic 9: Codex Mendoza, folio 25r (scanned from the Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938).

See another image of pouring chocolate...

Professor Bernard Ortiz de Montellano has answered 3 questions altogether:

How much energy can you get from one cocoa bean?

Would there have been more diseases among the English than among the Aztecs at that time?

How did the Aztecs know that this (fifth) world would end in an earthquake?

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