A Culture of Cacao and Chocolate

From Mesoamerica to Today’s Traditional Producers

By Laura Caso

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In the southern regions of Mesoamerica in what is today Mexico and Guatemala, the historical Lacandon and Manche Maya developed complex methods that produced what we now call “the chocolate triad,” referring to the associated planting of cacao, vanilla and annatto. Chocolate originated in those regions, obtained from the seeds of the cacao tree—a species that only flourishes in certain regions depending on their climate, altitude and soil type. Pre-Hispanic cultures considered cacao a scarce, valuable product, especially beyond those regions where it is produced.  

The arrival of the Spaniards altered these systems and traditional production methods; the newcomers often took possession of the most fertile and suitable land for growing cacao, as in the case of Chontalpa, Tabasco.

Cacao tree, Pichucalco, Chiapas.

Cacao cultivation in Mesoamerica dates back to the Early Formative period (2000-1000 BC). The Olmec culture was probably the first to domesticate it and to create the complex process for transforming cacao into chocolate. In a large collection of Olmec pottery found at the San Lorenzo site, traces of the alkaloid chemical theobromine prove that the Olmecs had cacao-based beverages. The Olmec culture appears to have also established the roots of cacao’s symbolic and ritual relations with blood, sacrifice, power and the elites. The Mesoamerican nobility consumed drinks made with cacao at official meetings and marriage ceremonies, as also using it as an offering to accompany rulers to their final resting place. 

The richly decorated gourds and vessels used for drinking cacao held great ritual significance for the various Mesoamerican groups, becoming symbols of the nobility and their power. Glyphs on Mayan vases from the Classic period indicate their association with cacao; such symbols generally describe the usual content and ownership of the vessel. Hieroglyphic inscriptions referring to cacao appear in ornately patterned earthenware from the Classic period, convey the existence of various kinds of cacao and of different cacao beverages. The presence of chemical compounds of theobromine and caffeine in residues found inside the vessels confirms that they were used for drinking chocolate. The possible geographical and temporal distribution of these vessels for drinking chocolate seems to mark changes in the flavorings added to the drink over time and regions of the Mayan area.   

Spanish missionary priest and ethnologist Bernardino de Sahagún writes about how Mexica noblemen used to drink cacao made with tender vanilla (tlilxochitl), ear flower (hueynacaztli) or honey. To prepare this concoction, people in pre-Hispanic times used roasted and ground cacao, adding a small amount of washed, ground and cooked maize to thicken the liquid; other ingredients added during the milling process included vanilla, ear flower and annatto. In his book Monarquía Indiana, Spanish churchman Juan de Torquemada refers to how indigenous people drank cold cacao whereas “the Spaniards are accustomed to drinking it hot, and they call it chocolate.” The Mayan dictionary of Motul (1577), attributed to Franciscan friar Antonio de Ciudad Real, defines chacau haa as “chocolate,” although accurately translated; it should be “hot water.” Possibly the Spaniards developed their taste for the drink after discovering it in New Spain’s southeastern region, where the indigenous Maya population consumed it as one of many cacao-based drinks. 

Turning cacao beans into chocolate involves both physics and chemistry, requiring a four-step procedure—fermenting, drying, roasting and sieving—that goes back 3,000 years. The Spaniards gave the name chocolate to the paste and to the drink made by diluting it with boiling water to be consumed on its own or mixed into a maize-flour beverage called atole.  Apart from the cacao, in the Colonial period, new spices were added to this chocolate: some from the Old World, such as cinnamon, pepper, aniseed and sesame seeds, and others from the Americas, such as ear flower, long pepper (mecaxuchitl), vanilla and annatto.

Copper pitcher (chocolatera) and a ceramic saucer and cup specially designed for drinking chocolate, known as a mancerina.

Francisco Hernández, a court physician and naturalist (1570), refers to chocolate as an “addictive drink,” because people imbibed it in the morning, at midday, in the evening, and before going to sleep. One could say that members of New Spain’s high society—particularly women— had become addicted to chocolate. British Dominican Friar Thomas Gage (1648) referred to how women complained that “they are not able to continue in the church while a Mass is briefly huddled over, much less while a solemn high Mass (as they call it) is sung and a sermon preached, unless they drink a cup of hot chocolate, and eat a bit of sweetmeats to strengthen their stomachs.” The custom of drinking chocolate during religious services was common among upper-class ladies, and ecclesiastical authorities tried but largely failed to stamp out this practice. The connection between women and chocolate allowed them to use this drink as a means of administering love potions, poisons, enchantments or showing affection for the opposite sex by offering a delicious cup of foaming chocolate. 

Yet, people across all social strata consumed chocolate; the difference lay in the quality and quantity of the ingredients, as well as how often they consumed this drink. As Thomas Gage put it, “the meaner sort of people, as Blackamoors and Indians, commonly put nothing into it but cacao, achiote, maize and a few chiles with a little aniseed.” It was precisely this unrestrained consumption, mainly in Mexico City and later in Spain and elsewhere in Europe that led the Spaniards to exploit South American cacao.  It was considered of  inferior quality, but available in more significant quantities, as in the case of Guayaquil cacao, that accepted far more sugar, making the trade-in chocolate highly profitable.

Cacao, sugar and spices were the ingredients for the chocolate drink in the American colonies and later, in Europe, converted many into true chocoholics. Following the introduction of South American cacao, people started producing blends of cacao beans of varying quality, depending on the preference and spending power of the different consumers. Good chocolate required the finest cacao, which came from Tabasco, Soconusco or Caracas (Venezuela). Excessive demand led to adulteration and the questionable practice of using a chocolate paste made from poor-quality cacao with the addition of maize (and sometimes even earth and brick dust) to increase the bulk of the final product.

In Madrid, chocolate was for sale on the street and not only in candy stores, showing the madrileños’ passion for it. The authorities had to prohibit this street trade in chocolate in 1644 because the price signaled the product’s dubious quality, and in paste form, its ingredients were a mystery. This adulterated chocolate contained large quantities of sugar, cinnamon, annatto, chile, breadcrumbs, maize flour and ground-up, dried orange peel. A jícara of chocolate cost 12 cuartos and its price could drop to five and a half reales. Giving a clue about the quality of the drinks sold on the street, Caracas cacao cost five or six reales per pound, and Guayaquil cacao, despite being “truly foul,” cost between three and four reales. Guayaquil cacao made chocolate affordable for all social classes; as it was the cheapest and bitterest, more sugar and thickening agents could be added. 

During the 18th century, New Spain was the leading buyer of cacao because it had become part of every social class’s essential diet, especially in Mexico City. We know that merchants from Mexico City and Puebla went to the Soconusco for cacao, bartering it for flour and other goods from New Spain and Europe. We also know that the city of Oaxaca was famous for making the “best chocolate in the Americas,” evidently using cacao from Tabasco and Soconusco. 

In the mid-19th century, patterns of consumption began to shift. Chocolate lost its colonial-era reputation as an “addictive drink.” At the same time, as cacao became scarcer, coffee began to be grown in higher quantities in states such as Veracruz and Chiapas. 

In Mexico, the states with the highest current levels of cacao production are Tabasco and Chiapas. However, Colima, Michoacán, Nayarit, Oaxaca and Veracruz produce this crop on a smaller scale. Traditionally in Mexico, cacao is used in drinks, either in chocolate or water—the standard preparation in most of the states in southeastern parts of the country—or else with milk or atole, a maize flour drink known as champurrado. Tlaxcala and Puebla also offer popular cacao-based drinks, served cold and frothy, with ingredients including ground cacao, maize, fava beans, spices and sugar. 

Tabasco’s chorote is another such beverage prepared using a cacao paste and maize dough that people drink cold; the Chontal Maya consumed it as if it were food. And the list goes on: in Chiapas people enjoy tascalate, a drink made with ground cacao, maize and annatto; and in Oaxaca, téjate is cacao ground up with maize, mamey pits and a flower called rosita de cacao. Consuming these cacao-based beverages has allowed the subsistence of cacao plantations and small plots for various crops, where the growers consume most of the cacao themselves.

Selling cacao, Zacatelco, Tlaxcala.

In recent years, people have begun championing Mexican cacao once again, attempting to position it on the international market as part of the “bean to bar” craft chocolate movement, and by categorizing cacao as a “superfood.” Although this interest has reactivated trade and investment in Mexican cacao, mainly the criollo variety, it has also had a negative impact by focusing solely on developing the international market. It is worth recalling that the global market only pays five percent of the final value to cacao producers. 

Although Mexican research institutes have taken steps to conserve criollo cacao, no one has taken into consideration the vital role played by the indigenous and campesino communities in preserving such varieties. By developing new clones of improved seedlings, these farmers have maintained and protected them, yet they fail to receive just recognition or financial reward. 

Small-scale cacao producers are currently facing a difficult situation because younger generations are migrating away from rural and cacao-producing areas, put off by the hard work of looking after cacao plantations and processing the beans, and by the low pay. Detrimental government programs disregard farmers’ traditional knowledge about the crop and their environment. They propose the introduction of other plant varieties, such as allspice and cedar trees; although connected with cacao, these plants are unsuitable as they produce too much shade and end up creating conditions that spawn fungal diseases such as frosty pod rot.

In the early 1900s, the Mexican government introduced disease-resistant cacao varieties such as forastero, trinitario and amelonado that were more productive than criollo or native cacao. They almost led to the extinction of the criollo varieties, now the most highly prized by the gourmet chocolate industry. Criollo cacao beans, as during the colonial period, are out of reach for most Mexicans, with a bar of specialty chocolate costing 100 pesos per 100 grams (around US$4.20).

For a culture of cacao and chocolate to continue to exist and flourish in Mexico, we must recognize the part played by traditional, multi-crop agricultural systems.  These agrosystems use the appropriate shade trees and combine species that provide food, fruits, and lumber, as well as medicinal plants, which have proved successful ever since Early Formative times. Changing these delicate systems has proved counterproductive and can cause irreparable damage to campesinos’ and indigenous people’s food systems and the very existence of Mexico’s excellent cacao.

Chontal children eating cacao.


Laura Caso Barrera, research professor at the Colegio de Postgraduados, Puebla Campus, has worked on the cacao-annatto-vanilla agricultural systems of historical Maya groups. She coordinated the book Cacao: producción, consumo y comercio: del período prehispánico a la actualidad en América Latina (Madrid: Iberoamericana; Frankfurt: Vervuert, 2016, 408 pp.) I am grateful for the valuable information provided for this article by the cacao producers of Pichucalco, Chiapas, Claudia Hernández, Ezequiel Hernández and Mario A. Cantoral from San Antonio El Cocal.