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Mexicolore contributor John Henderson

The early history of chocolate

We’re most grateful to Dr. John Henderson, Professor of Anthropology at Cornell University, New York (USA) for this most useful and informative ‘long view’ of the early history of chocolate, reminding us that an all-important part of chocolate production is the making of a refreshing fermented (alcoholic) cacao drink...

Pic 1: Representation of a place called Valley of Cacao, Codex Vindobonensis, pl. 44 (detail)
Pic 1: Representation of a place called Valley of Cacao, Codex Vindobonensis, pl. 44 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Only five centuries ago, chocolate – now a mass-marketed sweet, gourmet fetish, commodity, and global icon – was enjoyed only by the Aztecs and their contemporaries in Mexico and Central America. Chocolate was central to social and ritual life in ancient Mesoamerica and it was a staple of indigenous medicine. The seeds of the cacao tree from which chocolate drinks were made were, naturally, greatly valued and their small size made them an effective form of money. Chocolate was not the only drink made from cacao, though, and the other ways in which it was prepared and served suggest one way in which the process of producing chocolate from the seeds of the cacao tree may have been developed.

Pic 2: Ritual drinking of cacao: Codex Borgia, pl. 3 (detail)
Pic 2: Ritual drinking of cacao: Codex Borgia, pl. 3 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Serving chocolate – as a drink, with a variety of additives, but almost always unsweetened – was an essential part of every important occasion: religious rituals [eg Codex Borgia - see picture 2] of all kinds; social ceremonies attending births, marriages [eg Codex Zouche-Nuttall - see picture 3], and funerals; and special meals at every social level from feasts organized by lords to maintain their power to hospitality offered by household heads anxious to enhance their status and influence.

Pic 3: 8-Deer (‘Jaguar Claw’) receives a jug of cacao from the hands of his wife 13-Snake (‘Flower Snake’), Codex Zouche-Nuttall pl. 26
Pic 3: 8-Deer (‘Jaguar Claw’) receives a jug of cacao from the hands of his wife 13-Snake (‘Flower Snake’), Codex Zouche-Nuttall pl. 26 (Click on image to enlarge)

Descriptions of cacao serving in the palace of the Aztec emperor give a good idea of the pageantry that accompanied it. Bernal Díaz, a soldier with the invading Spanish force, tells us that Motecuhzoma’s servants “brought him in cups of pure gold a drink made from the cocoa-plant, which they said he took before visiting his wives... I saw them bring in a good fifty large jugs..., all frothed up, of which he would drink a little. They always served it with great reverence.”

Pic 4: Pouring cacao to froth it; Codex Tudela fol. 3r
Pic 4: Pouring cacao to froth it; Codex Tudela fol. 3r (Click on image to enlarge)

Production of a froth was an essential element of chocolate serving and would have been a possibility for those in much more modest socio-economic circumstances. Normally accomplished by pouring the chocolate back and forth between pottery vessels [see pic 4], frothing – unlike the processing steps that produced the chocolate flavor – was necessarily done at the time of serving. The same is true of the addition of chile peppers, flowers, and other flavorings and garnishes. These elements of performance would have significantly increased the value of the chocolate drinks in the eyes of the guests who witnessed them, thereby intensifying their social obligations to the host and magnifying the enhancement of status and influence that accrued to him.

Pic 5: Excerpt from ‘A curious treatise of the nature and quality of chocolate’ by Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, London, 1640
Pic 5: Excerpt from ‘A curious treatise of the nature and quality of chocolate’ by Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, London, 1640 (Click on image to enlarge)

Chocolate was also an important element in the arsenal of medicinal specialists, and its assumed curative properties were widely touted when the drink was introduced to Europe following the Spanish invasion of Mesoamerica. A Spanish medical text, translated into English in 1640 [see pic 5], advises that “besides that it preserves health ... it causeth conception in women, hastens and facilitates their delivery; it is an excellent help to digestion, it cures consumptions, and the cough of the lungs, the New Disease, or plague of the guts, and other fluxes, ... jaundice, and all manner of inflammations ... It ... cures the [kidney] stone, and ... expels poison, and preserves from all infectious diseases.”

Pic 6: Fermenting cacao
Pic 6: Fermenting cacao (Click on image to enlarge)

The chocolate drink required an elaborate preparation process that began with fermenting the seeds in the pulp that surrounds them in the cacao pod [see pic 6], an essential step in developing the distinctive chocolate flavor. The fermented seeds were washed, dried, often toasted, ground, mixed with water, and sometimes chile peppers, maize, flowers, and other additives. But, as in South America, where the wild ancestors of cultivated cacao are native, cacao was also the source of other kinds of beverages. Often, the pulp that surrounds cacao seeds in the pod was fermented into a cacao chicha, or beer.

Pic 7: Woman pouring chocolate from one jug to another to froth it: detail from a Maya polychrome vase; Princeton Art Museum (Kerr K511)
Pic 7: Woman pouring chocolate from one jug to another to froth it: detail from a Maya polychrome vase; Princeton Art Museum (Kerr K511) (Click on image to enlarge)

Archaeological evidence documents a history of production and consumption of cacao drinks in Mesoamerica stretching back to at least 1600 BCE, but it is not certain that they always involved the chocolate preparation. Representations of frothing [see pic 7] seem to indicate that chocolate drinks were in use by about CE 600. Earlier evidence of cacao beverages does not indicate whether they were chocolate or chicha.

Pic 8: Map showing the Ulúa valley in its regional context
Pic 8: Map showing the Ulúa valley in its regional context (Click on image to enlarge)

The earliest evidence of cacao beverages comes from the Gulf coast of Mexico, the Soconusco region on the Pacific coast of Mexico, and the lower Ulúa valley region of Honduras – the premier cacao-producing regions of invasion-period Mesoamerica [see pic 8]. The presence of theobromine in residues in pottery serving and drinking vessels demonstrates that cacao drinks were being consumed in these regions well before 1000 BCE. Because theobromine is present in cacao pulp as well as in cacao seeds the chemical evidence does not indicate whether the drinks in question involved the chocolate preparation. This period is likely near the time at which cacao was introduced into Mesoamerica from its Amazonian homeland. Since there is no evidence of the chocolate preparation in precolumbian South America, it is very likely that the earliest cacao beverages in Mesoamerica were cacao chicha.

Pic 9: Puerto Escondido Chotepe phase serving vessel sherds
Pic 9: Puerto Escondido Chotepe phase serving vessel sherds (Click on image to enlarge)

Excavations at Puerto Escondido in the lower Ulúa valley have documented a long history of settled village life and pottery-making beginning about 1600 BCE and continuing until about CE 1000. The forms and decoration of early pottery indicate strong connections with other regions. Initially Puerto Escondido was linked with communities in Soconusco and beginning about 1100 BCE it participated in the Olmec world. Even the earliest pottery at Puerto Escondido (some of the earliest in Mesoamerica) features well-made, elegantly decorated small bottles, jars, and bowls [see pic 9] – the kinds of vessels that would be used in special-occasion feasting and precisely analogous to those devoted to cacao-serving in later Mesoamerica. Theobromine residues indicate that cacao beverages were in fact served and consumed in these vessels at least as early as 1200 BCE. (Vessels from the earliest complex have not yet been tested chemically). These vessels were not uniformly distributed throughout the village, but concentrated in certain households. During the early Olmec period they are directly associated with what is clearly the largest and most elaborate residence in the community. Cacao-serving at Puerto Escondido was clearly part of a pattern of special-occasion entertaining that served to create and enhance the social distinction of the community’s leading families.

Pic 10: Barraca Brown bottle of the type used in early Puerto Escondido
Pic 10: Barraca Brown bottle of the type used in early Puerto Escondido (Click on image to enlarge)

The intoxicating effects of cacao chicha would certainly have contributed to the making social occasions special. Two pieces of evidence provide indirect support for the inference that chicha rather than chocolate that was served in these contexts. The earliest cacao-serving bottles at Puerto Escondido [see pic 10] have long narrow necks that would not be suitable for creating a froth in the usual way, by pouring the chocolate back and forth between two vessels. The apparent absence of grinding tools of the kind that would be needed to process cacao seeds from the earliest deposits at Puerto Escondido is also suggestive, but only a small fraction of the village of this period has been excavated.

Pic 11: Bodega Brown spouted jar of the type used in early Puerto Escondido
Pic 11: Bodega Brown spouted jar of the type used in early Puerto Escondido (Click on image to enlarge)

The hypothesis that the earliest cacao beverages were based on fermented pulp has the virtue of suggesting how the chocolate preparation process might have originated. Realization of the effect of fermentation on cacao seeds – likely the result of incomplete straining of seeds from the fermented pulp – offered new ways of enhancing the presentation of cacao. The seeds, with their newly developed chocolate flavor, could be ground and added as a garnish and condiment as the drink was served. About 800 BCE, a new jar form with a wide mouth as well as a spout [see pic 11] appeared at Puerto Escondido. These vessels could have been used in frothing and may reflect the development of the chocolate preparation. If so, another prominent element of performance was part of the process from the beginning.

Further Reading:-
• Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames and Hudson
• Dillinger, Teresa L., Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Escárcega, Martha Jimenez, Diana Salazar Lowe, and Louis E. Grivetti, L. 2000. Food of the gods: cure for humanity? A cultural history of the medicinal and ritual use of chocolate. Journal of Nutrition Supplement 130: 2057S-2072S
• Henderson, John S. and Rosemary A. Joyce. 2006. Brewing distinction: the development of cacao beverages in Formative Mesoamerica. In Cameron L. McNeil (ed.), Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, pp. 140-153. Gainesville: University Press of Florida
• Henderson, John S., Rosemary A. Joyce, Gretchen R. Hall, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Patrick E. McGovern. 2007. Chemical and archaeological evidence for the earliest cacao beverages. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 104(48): 18937-18940
• Joyce, Rosemary A. and John S. Henderson. 2007. From feasting to cuisine: implications of archaeological research in an early Honduran village. American Anthropologist 109(4):642-653
• McNeil, Cameron L. (ed.). 2006. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. Gainesville: University Press of Florida
• Powis, Terry G.//Cyphers, Ann//Gaikwad, Nilesh W.//Grivetti, Louis//Cheong, Kong. 2011. Cacao use and the San Lorenzo Olmec. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 108(21):8595-8600.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Image from the Codex Vindobonensis scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pic 2: Image from the Codex Borgia scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1976
• Pic 3: Image from the Codex Zouche-Nuttall scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1987
• Pic 4: Image from Codex Tudela (original in the Museo de América, Madrid), scanned from our copy of the Testimonio Compañía Editorial facsimile edition, Madrid, 2002
• Pic 5: Public domain
• Pix 6, 9, 10, 11: Photos by and courtesy of John Henderson
• Pic 7: Photo by @ and courtesy of Justin Kerr (mayavase.com)
• Pic 8: Map courtesy of FAMSI (famsi.org).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Dec 04th 2015

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