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Mexicolore contributor Janine Gasco

Four Thousand Years of Cacao Cultivation and Use in Mesoamerica

We are sincerely grateful to Janine Gasco, Professor of Anthropology, California State University Dominguez Hills, for this highly informative article written specially for Mexicolore, based on her decades of extensive research in the key cacao-growing area of Soconusco in southern Mexico.

Pic 1: Cacao tree
Pic 1: Cacao tree (Click on image to enlarge)

Chocolate is often viewed as one of the greatest gifts the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica - Mexico and Central Mexico - have given the world. Today, we eat chocolate bars, chocolate pastries, and cookies, we drink chocolate milk, and on cold winter days, we drink hot chocolate. These products, however, are all quite new. The term “chocolate” itself was first used in Mexico or Central America in the 1500s, and eating, as opposed to drinking chocolate began only in the mid-1800s when new technology made it possible to produce solid chocolate. For most of its history, humans consumed cacao in beverages that most of us would not recognize and would certainly not call chocolate. In the tropical regions of the Americas where cacao has been grown for thousands of years, many people still prefer to drink cacao beverages using ancient recipes rather than eat chocolate bars. We will return to this topic below.

Pic 2: Opened cacao pod showing seeds and pulp
Pic 2: Opened cacao pod showing seeds and pulp (Click on image to enlarge)

Chocolate is made from the seeds of the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, an unusual tree where the fruit grows from the trunk. Inside the cacao fruit, typically called a cacao pod, is a sweet white pulp that surrounds the seeds (sometimes called “beans”) (Picture 2). Cacao trees can only be grown under certain conditions. Annual temperatures must average around 27°C (80°F), there must be at least two meters (6.5 feet) of rainfall per year, and cacao grows best in a shaded environment. In other words, cacao grows only in hot, humid, tropical forested environments.

Pic 3: Forest environment where cacao grows
Pic 3: Forest environment where cacao grows (Click on image to enlarge)

It would be misleading to talk about cacao orchards because traditional cacao farmers plant their cacao trees, which normally grow to a height of 6-10m (20-35 ft), under a natural forest canopy of trees that can reach a height of 30-35m (98-114 ft). The forest plots where cacao trees are planted (picture 3) do not look anything like fruit orchards where the fruit trees are usually the only thing planted. The forest environment is thought to be beneficial to the survival of the small flies called midges that pollinate the cacao flowers.

Pic 4: South America showing the upper Amazon region in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil, where cacao is thought to have originated
Pic 4: South America showing the upper Amazon region in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil, where cacao is thought to have originated (Click on image to enlarge)

Cacao originated in the upper Amazon basin of South America, perhaps in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and/or Brazil (picture 4) In South America, the evidence indicates that people used only the pulp of the cacao fruit, eating the pulp or using the pulp to make a sweet, refreshing drink that could also be fermented to produce a mildly alcoholic beverage.

Pic 5: Cacao residues were found on a pot like this from Soconusco around 1800-1900 BCE (from article by Powis et al. 2008)
Pic 5: Cacao residues were found on a pot like this from Soconusco around 1800-1900 BCE (from article by Powis et al. 2008) (Click on image to enlarge)

Organic materials from plants are rarely preserved in archaeological deposits, but the development of “residue analysis” now allows scientists to identify tiny traces of food remains on ancient pots. Thanks to residue analysis, we now know that almost 4,000 years ago people in southern Mexico were drinking a cacao beverage. Cacao residues have been found on drinking vessels from Veracruz and the Soconusco region of Chiapas that date to as early as 1800-1900 BCE (picture 5).

Pic 6: Cacao growing regions of Mesoamerica (from Bergmann 1969)
Pic 6: Cacao growing regions of Mesoamerica (from Bergmann 1969) (Click on image to enlarge)

Presumably cacao made its way from South America to Mexico via humans who passed cacao seeds from one community to another along the way. Lowland Soconusco and Veracruz have ideal environments for cacao cultivation. Over time, cacao came to be grown in several other tropical lowland regions of Mesoamerica.

Pic 7: Removing the seeds and pulp from a cacao pod (top); drying the fermented cacao seeds (middle); roasting the cacao seeds (bottom)
Pic 7: Removing the seeds and pulp from a cacao pod (top); drying the fermented cacao seeds (middle); roasting the cacao seeds (bottom) (Click on image to enlarge)

It is likely that ancient Mesoamerican peoples, like their South American counterparts, initially used only the pulp of the cacao fruit to make their cacao-based drink. But in Mesoamerica, people eventually discovered that tasty drinks could also be made from cacao seeds. Using the seeds, however, required more complex processing. First, the pod is opened and the seeds and pulp are removed and placed in a receptacle such as a basket or wooden box, where the mass of pulp and seeds ferment for several days with the pulp slowly evaporating, leaving only the fermented seeds. The fermentation process involves a chemical change that improves the flavor of the seed. The seeds are then sun dried and toasted. The toasted seeds are ground and mixed with other ingredients to make cacao-based drinks (see the sequence in Picture 7).

Pic 8: Using molinillo to make a cacao drink. Inset: making a molinillo from the molinillo tree (Quararibea funebris)
Pic 8: Using molinillo to make a cacao drink. Inset: making a molinillo from the molinillo tree (Quararibea funebris) (Click on image to enlarge)

The various drinks made with cacao seeds in Precolumbian Mesoamerica were not called chocolate and they do not resemble what we call chocolate. During the Classic Maya period (ca. 300-900CE) some polychrome pots were used to drink cacao-based beverages, and in some cases, the hieroglyphic inscriptions refer to different kinds of cacao drinks such as sweet cacao (probably made with honey), foamy cacao, and fresh cacao. Some references identify a drink that was made of both maize (corn) and cacao, and chiles also were used in cacao-based drinks. In Precolumbian times and even today, cacao-based drinks have been served frothed. Frothing can be achieved by pouring the liquid back and forth between receptacles or by using what is called today a molinillo (picture 8).

Pic 9: Aztec long-distance merchants. Florentine Codex
Pic 9: Aztec long-distance merchants. Florentine Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

In Precolumbian Mesoamerica, cacao played many roles in addition to being used in drinks. It was used in birth, marriage, and funerary rituals, and it was popular during feasts. It played a role in economic affairs as a common item for trade (picture 9) as a valuable product that was paid as tribute (tax), and cacao seeds served as currency. It has been noted that in ancient Mexico, money really did grow on trees! Cacao also was believed to have health benefits, and several of these have been confirmed by modern scientific research. First, cacao contains stimulants and can contribute to feelings of euphoria (well-being and intense happiness). It can reduce inflammation, it is a diuretic (promotes the excretion of urine from the body), it can act as a cough suppressant, it may have antimicrobial properties, it may contribute to improved cardiovascular health, and it is an effective emollient (something that moisturizes and soothes the skin). It is important to remember, however, that these are properties of cacao seeds, and turning cacao seeds into sugary sweets eliminates the benefits. No, eating chocolate bars that consist mainly of sugar will not improve your health!

Pic 10: Cacao seller, Florentine Codex
Pic 10: Cacao seller, Florentine Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

Whereas early evidence for cacao use in Mesoamerica comes exclusively from the regions where it was grown, over time people in other parts of Mesoamerica began to value cacao. By the first centuries CE, people in highland zones where cacao cannot be grown knew about and presumably consumed cacao (e.g., Teotihuacan). By around 1000CE cacao use had spread as far as the American Southwest (Utah and New Mexico). By the Late Postclassic period (ca. 1200-1521CE), demand for cacao had increased dramatically, and cacao was being widely traded and consumed across Mesoamerica and beyond, it was sold in markets (picture 10) and cacao seeds were used as currency.

Pic 11: Soconusco cacao tribute to the Aztecs. Codex Mendoza, fol. 47
Pic 11: Soconusco cacao tribute to the Aztecs. Codex Mendoza, fol. 47 (Click on image to enlarge)

What was it like to live in a region where the economy was based largely on cacao cultivation? To answer this question, we turn to the Soconusco region of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas where, as noted above, some of the earliest evidence for cacao use in Mesoamerica was found. I have worked for four decades in the Soconusco region. Much of my research has focused on the role of cacao in the region from the Precolumbian era to the present. In Aztec times, and perhaps earlier, Soconusco was famous for its abundant, high quality cacao, and in the late 1400s the Aztec Empire conquered the region and collected cacao in tribute from Soconusco residents. At least five tons of cacao per year (picture 11) were carried on the backs of porters from Soconusco to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, over 1000km. away.

Pic 12: Painting ‘La cioccolata del mattino’ (The Morning chocolate), Pietro Longhi, 1775-1780
Pic 12: Painting ‘La cioccolata del mattino’ (The Morning chocolate), Pietro Longhi, 1775-1780 (Click on image to enlarge)

After the Spanish invasion of the Americas, Spaniards quickly noticed that cacao was highly valued by native peoples, and in Soconusco, the indigenous population began to pay tribute to the Spanish King in cacao, a practice that continued for over 200 years. Whereas initially the Spaniards found traditional recipes for cacao-based drinks unappealing, within decades, a new drink, chocolate, begins to appear in documents, and a key ingredient in this new chocolate drink was sugar. Sugar, first domesticated in New Guinea but widely used across Eurasia by the 15th century, was introduced to the Americas by the Spaniards, and was quickly adopted and became a plantation crop. The new hot chocolate drink, made with cacao, sugar, and flavorings such as cinnamon (also introduced) soon became a fashionable drink throughout Europe as well as colonial New Spain (picture 12). And Soconusco cacao, so highly esteemed by the Aztecs, also became favored in Europe. Soconusco cacao was preferred by the royal household in Spain throughout the Colonial period.

Pic 13: Copper axe, found at Late Postclassic archaeological site in Soconusco
Pic 13: Copper axe, found at Late Postclassic archaeological site in Soconusco (Click on image to enlarge)

Few details are available for Late Postclassic period Soconusco regarding cacao cultivation itself, but archaeological evidence provides indirect evidence about the impact of the growing cacao trade on local residents. Excavations at Late Postclassic town sites uncovered large quantities of imported goods like obsidian (volcanic stone) tools and metal objects such as copper axes (picture 13), bells and rings that were presumably brought to Soconusco by long-distance merchants who travelled to Soconusco to trade for Soconusco cacao.

Pic 14: Chinese porcelain, found at Colonial archaeological site in Soconusco
Pic 14: Chinese porcelain, found at Colonial archaeological site in Soconusco (Click on image to enlarge)

This pattern continued into the Colonial period, and excavations at a colonial townsite uncovered relatively large quantities of imported goods, including metal goods, glass, and ceramics from as far away as China (picture 14). An early colonial manuscript notes that in one small Soconusco town, fifteen of the 18 families owned cacao trees that ranged from a low of 200 trees to a high of 3,200 trees, perhaps a continuation of a Precolumbian pattern. From other colonial documents, we know that indigenous farmers in Soconusco grew cacao in their forest plots alongside vanilla and achiote, two ingredients of traditional cacao-based drinks.

Pic 15: Bag used to transport cacao beans for CASFA
Pic 15: Bag used to transport cacao beans for CASFA (Click on image to enlarge)

By the late nineteenth century, cacao cultivation was in decline and coffee had become the dominant export crop of the Soconusco region, a pattern that prevails today. Nevertheless, many people continue to grow cacao today in the region, usually on small parcels of forested land, and due to a growing demand worldwide for high quality chocolate, local organizations in Soconusco, like the Centro de Agroecología San Francisco de Asis A.C. (follow link below), are working with local farmers to improve cacao production, promote cacao exports, and ensure that farmers get fair prices for their cacao (picture 15).

Pic 16: Market vendor selling bags of pinol and tazcalate in Escuintla market
Pic 16: Market vendor selling bags of pinol and tazcalate in Escuintla market (Click on image to enlarge)

During my earliest visits to Soconusco, I was introduced to several cacao-based drinks that were unlike anything I had ever tasted. This brings me back to the comment I made at the beginning of this report where I noted that many people in cacao-growing regions of Mesoamerica still prefer to drink cacao-based beverages that are based on ancient recipes. In Soconusco (and elsewhere in Chiapas) there are three popular drinks that use cacao seeds and corn as the basic ingredients:
1. pinol: Toasted corn, toasted cacao, toasted seeds (vary but include mamey, and pataste, which is a relative of cacao), and other flavorings such as cinnamon are all ground together to make a powder that is then mixed with water and sugar and ideally frothed. Many women make pinol powder at home and sell it in the markets.
2. tazcalate: Similar to pinol but with the addition of achiote/annatto, seed used for red coloring and mild flavor. Like pinol, tazcalate powder is typically made at home and sold in the market.

Pic 17: Pozol de cacao, Escuintla market
Pic 17: Pozol de cacao, Escuintla market (Click on image to enlarge)

3. pozol de cacao: Pozol (not to be confused with the soup, pozole) is basically corn masa used with water to create a drink, somewhat similar to atole, a common corn-based drink in other parts of Mesoamerica. Pozol de cacao (sometimes called pozol negro) is simply corn masa with toasted and ground cacao seeds added, another home-made product sold in the market (picture 17).

Pic 18: Making agua de cacao
Pic 18: Making agua de cacao (Click on image to enlarge)

In addition to these corn and cacao based drinks is the local version of what was discussed earlier as the first cacao-based drink, agua de cacao (picture 18) the liquid that drains from the pulp of the cacao fruit. Some people report that they sometimes let the agua de cacao ferment for a few days.
These beverages are similar to those reported in colonial and other historical documents and in ethnographic reports from regions across Mesoamerica where cacao is grown.
After almost 4,000 years of cacao cultivation in Mesoamerica much has changed. Yet in some of the places where cacao has a long history, places like Soconusco, there are threads of continuity in the ways that cacao is grown and consumed.

Pic 19: Girl in Soconusco enjoys a treat, sucking the sweet pulp from a cacao seed
Pic 19: Girl in Soconusco enjoys a treat, sucking the sweet pulp from a cacao seed (Click on image to enlarge)

Further Reading:-
• Bergmann, John F. The Distribution of Cacao Cultivation in Pre-Columbian America 1969. The Distribution of Cacao Cultivation in pre-Columbian America. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 59(1), 85-96
• Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames and Hudson
• Gasco, Janine. 2006. Soconusco cacao farmers past and present: continuity and change in an ancient way of life. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, C. McNeil, ed., pp. 322-237. University Press of Florida, Gainesville
• Gasco, Janine. 2017. Cacao and Commerce in Late Postclassic Xoconochco. Rethinking the Aztec Economy, Deborah Nichols, Frances Berdan, and Michael E. Smith, eds. pp. 221-247. University of Arizona Press, Tucson
• McNeil, Cameron L. (ed.). 2006. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. Gainesville: University Press of Florida
• Powis, Terry G., W. Jeffrey Hurst, María del Carmen Rodríguez, Ponciano Ortíz C., Michael Blake, David Cheetham, Michael D. Coe & John G. Hodgson. 2007 Antiquity Vol 81 Issue 314 December 2007 (http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/ProjGall/powis/index.html).

Picture sources:-
• All images by and courtesy of Janine Gasco, with the exception of:-
• Pic 5: from article by Powis et al. 2008
• Pic 6: from Bergmann 1969
• Pix 9 & 10: images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 11: image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, London
• Pic 12: from Wikipedia (chocolate).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 12th 2018

emoticon Q. What do we call the action of scattering cacao seeds on a large mat to dry them?
A. A podcast...

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