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Mexicolore contributor Dr. Gabrielle Vail

The Food of the Gods: Cacao use among the Prehispanic Maya

We are deeply grateful to Dr. Gabrielle Vail, Research Scholar, Division of Social Sciences, New College of Florida (USA), for writing specially for us this highly informative introduction to the important role played by cacao among the ancient Maya.

Pic 1: The pod of the cacao tree, showing the seeds and pulp inside
Pic 1: The pod of the cacao tree, showing the seeds and pulp inside (Click on image to enlarge)

Many ingredients used in the foods we eat today came originally from the Americas, including corn or maize, the members of the squash family, and - a favorite everywhere! - chocolate, which is made from the seeds of the cacao plant. Originally domesticated in South America, cacao is known to have been present in the Maya area by sometime in the fifth or sixth century BCE. At that time, however, it is likely that it was the fruit, rather than the processed seeds, that were eaten or used to make beverages.

Pic 2: Replica lid of vessel found in a tomb in Río Azul that contained residues of cacao (as determined by chemical testing). Right: the glyph for cacao: ka-ka-wa
Pic 2: Replica lid of vessel found in a tomb in Río Azul that contained residues of cacao (as determined by chemical testing). Right: the glyph for cacao: ka-ka-wa (Click on image to enlarge)

We know that chocolate was made in a beverage form by the fourth century CE, based on various lines of evidence including the spelling of the word for cacao (as the syllables ka-ka-wa) on pottery vessels, which scientific testing has shown were used as containers for a beverage containing two signature elements of cacao - the compounds theobromine and caffeine. These vessels were placed in burials, where they were likely intended to provide food for the deceased on his or her journey to the afterlife. Mourners participating in funerary rituals were given cacao to drink as well.

Pic 3: Cacao pods grow directly from the trunk of the tree. The trees need an extremely moist climate to survive and thrive
Pic 3: Cacao pods grow directly from the trunk of the tree. The trees need an extremely moist climate to survive and thrive (Click on image to enlarge)

Cacao grows in pods directly from the trunk of the tree (i.e., not on branches). In order to make chocolate, the pods have to be cut open and the seeds (also called beans) extracted. Next, the seeds and pulp are fermented for several days (up to six), which allows the seeds to germinate briefly. This process is necessary to give the chocolate flavor to the end product.

Pic 4: Ingredients for preparing the cacao beverage, including the roasted beans and the flavoring achiote (being mixed in the upper left). The beans will be ground on the metate (grinding stone) in the background before being added to the drink
Pic 4: Ingredients for preparing the cacao beverage, including the roasted beans and the flavoring achiote (being mixed in the upper left). The beans will be ground on the metate (grinding stone) in the background before being added to the drink (Click on image to enlarge)

Once fermentation has taken place, the beans are left in the sun to dry, a process that normally takes one or two weeks. After this, the beans are roasted at temperatures ranging from 99 to 104 degrees C. to make chocolate, or from 116 to 121 degrees C. to make cocoa powder. Once this is complete, their outer shell is peeled off, and the beans are ready to be processed into chocolate, whether this is in solid or beverage form.

Pic 5: The Princeton Vase: the court of the other world with God L and the Twins as magicians
Pic 5: The Princeton Vase: the court of the other world with God L and the Twins as magicians (Click on image to enlarge)

The same ceramic vessels that include the hieroglyph for cacao also sometimes depict scenes that show ritual feasts involving the cacao beverage. Sometimes a sweetened version would be served, but more commonly a spicy version of the drink was made including ingredients such as chili peppers and achiote (see pic 4 for a modern version of this beverage). A vase in the Princeton Museum (pic 5) shows various courtly rituals taking place in a supernatural location, including the preparation of the chocolate beverage. Viewed on the far right is a woman who pours the chocolate beverage from one vessel to another in order to form the foam on top, which was an important component of the ritual drink.

Pic 6: A scene from page 12a of the Dresden Codex; taken from ‘Die Maya Handschrift der Königlichen öffentlichen Bibliothek zu Dresden’
Pic 6: A scene from page 12a of the Dresden Codex; taken from ‘Die Maya Handschrift der Königlichen öffentlichen Bibliothek zu Dresden’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Not only was the beverage served on special social and political occasions, but the seeds themselves played an important role in ancient Maya culture. The rulers of some ancient Maya cities demanded cacao beans as tribute (a payment of tax), and they also served as a form of currency. The discovery of cacao seeds made of clay and other materials suggests that people may even have tried to make counterfeit forms!
The prehispanic Maya books (called codices) illustrate the importance of cacao beans in ritual contexts. In this scene (pic 6), from the Dresden Codex, the god of sustenance K’awil holds a vessel with cacao beans. The caption reads “K’awil [and] the maize god’s sustenance [is] cacao. An abundance of food.” Other examples of cacao use in the Maya codices can be seen in the Maya Codices website (link below...)

Pic 7: In this depiction from a painted ceramic vessel, the maize god’s head may be seen among the cacao pods growing from the tree.  Vessel housed in the Museo Popol Vuh, Guatemala City
Pic 7: In this depiction from a painted ceramic vessel, the maize god’s head may be seen among the cacao pods growing from the tree. Vessel housed in the Museo Popol Vuh, Guatemala City (Click on image to enlarge)

Cacao seeds were also used in rituals to mark special occasions, such as the birth of a child or the initiation of marriage negotiations. The importance of the plant went beyond the delicious concoctions made from its seeds, however. The cacao tree itself was held to be sacred because of its associations with the god of maize and his rebirth in the Underworld. According to the account related in the manuscript known as the Popol Vuh, the maize god was sacrificed by the Underworld lords but was reborn when his head was placed in a tree. A vessel related to this mythological episode shows the maize god’s head growing from a cacao tree (pic 7).

Pic 8: This illustration, based on a carved panel from the sarcophagus of the well-known 8th century ruler Pakal of Palenque, depicts Pakal’s mother, Lady Sak K’uk’, reborn as a cacao tree
Pic 8: This illustration, based on a carved panel from the sarcophagus of the well-known 8th century ruler Pakal of Palenque, depicts Pakal’s mother, Lady Sak K’uk’, reborn as a cacao tree (Click on image to enlarge)

This mythological episode is concerned with the creation of humans as well, who are said to be formed from maize seeds found within the mountain of Paxil. Not only was maize found there, but so were the seeds of various plants, including cacao, which the god of sustenance K’awil transported to the earth (see pic 6), where it became known as “the food of the gods.”
The story of the maize god’s journey to the Underworld, his death there at the hands of the Underworld lords, and his subsequent rebirth can also be interpreted as an allegory relating to the planting of the maize seeds (which are buried in the earth), the growth of the maize plant, and the eventual harvesting of the ears of corn. Many Maya people today, like their ancestors in the Classic period (250-900 CE), believe that the ancestors come back to life in the form of trees.

Pic 9: The caption accompanying this illustration on page 52c of the Madrid Codex reads “Chaak and Lady Earth are given their cacao”
Pic 9: The caption accompanying this illustration on page 52c of the Madrid Codex reads “Chaak and Lady Earth are given their cacao” (Click on image to enlarge)

Reports written during the 16th and 17th centuries by Spanish friars (after the conquest and colonization of the Maya area) stress the importance of cacao in certain rituals, including a ceremony in which it was used to anoint children who had reached the age of puberty. Depictions of cacao from the prehispanic period show that it was also given as an offering as part of agricultural rituals, ceremonies in which the participants bleed themselves as an offering to the gods, and in marriage rituals. Some of the many contexts it appears in can be seen in the online Maya Codices Database (link below...)
Picture 9, from the Madrid Codex, depicts a marriage ritual. The two participants are shown holding honeycomb, which was one of the offerings given. The cacao beverage was an important part of the ritual as well and may be seen in the vessel placed between the two figures, signified by the glyphic spelling ka-ka (the wa is missing).

Pic 10: Get it all from ‘my-pod’...!
Pic 10: Get it all from ‘my-pod’...! (Click on image to enlarge)

Suggested readings and resources:-
• Coe, Sophie, and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, Thames and Hudson, New York, 2013
• Vail, Gabrielle, and Christine Hernández. The Maya Hieroglyphic Codices Database and Website. Available online at www.mayacodices.org. [Do search on “cacao.”]

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1, 3 &4: photos by and courtesy of Gabrielle Vail
• Pic 2: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 5 (K511) & 7 (K5615): images courtesy of Justin Kerr, from the Maya Vase Database (see link below)
• Pic 6: Illustration from: E. Förstemann, Die Maya Handschrift der Königlichen öffentlichen Bibliothek zu Dresden. Mit 74 Tafeln in Chromo-Lightdruck. Verlag der A. Naumannschen Lichtdruckeret, Leipzig, 1880
• Pic 8: illustration by and courtesy of Simon Martin
• Pic 9: image scanned with permission from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Madrid Codex (Codex Tro-Cortesianus), Graz, Austria, 1967
• Pic 10: image scanned from our own copy of Cocoa: All About It by ‘Historicus’, London, Sampson Low, Marston & Co. Ltd., 1896.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 01st 2014

emoticon DID YOU KNOW...?
* Chocolate was unknown to Europeans prior to the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica
* Ancient Mesoamericans found cacao helpful for numerous maladies. Applied externally, cacao was used to sooth burns and disinfect wounds, and it was also effective against bronchitis
* Cacao butter, in addition to being used to make fine-quality chocolate, is also an important ingredient in cosmetics and skin-care products.

Learn more about the use of cacao beans as currency in ancient Mexico...

Mayacodices.org website
Justin Kerr’s Maya Vase Database website
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