Cocoa and its use in ancient Mesoamerica

“Cocoa had profound symbolic, ritual and medicinal connotations throughout Mesoamerica”

Olmecs, Maya, Toltecs , Aztecs, and other Mesoamerican ethnic groups (obviously in different historical periods) created abundant cocoa drinks, both cold and hot. Despite this, there is no historical evidence indicating its use in the solid state, i.e. in the form of chocolate, which in fact was invented a few centuries later in Europe.

The use that is still made of cocoa in Central America is mostly in the form of a hot drink, and in some cases, recalling what was the ancestral drink based on water, cocoa and corn. In Southern Mexico, there are numerous cocoa-based drinks: one among them, "Pozol", a cocoa drink typical of Chiapas.

It is sad to write this part, but the colony has obviously had very complex, often tragic, developments, contributing to marginalizing the indigenous communities in every possible way who have unfortunately lost a good part of their ancestral knowledge and traditions over time (we will perhaps talk about this in a future another post).

El Salvador, which was part of the Kingdom of Guatemala to the west, was the major center of cocoa cultivation in the entire Kingdom between 1500 and 1800 AD. This area with rich and fertile soil, known as "Los Izalcos", was rich in indigenous communities of Mayan and Nahuat Pipil descent, who had learned the work of cultivating native cocoa for centuries. So much so that some archaeologists have begun to think that it was precisely from El Salvador, at its point of exit through the port of Acajutla, that the criollo cocoa (we are obviously talking about the genetically pure one) was then transported to the other Spanish colonies in the South America.

Written testimonies at the time of the Spanish colony say that cocoa was dried and toasted, fragmented and then ground until the production of cocoa paste, using the same "tool" to grind corn, the "metate".

The cocoa paste, with a rough texture, was then mixed with water, corn, vanilla, chili pepper and/or other local spices . The Mesoamerican peoples did not know sugar, this took over with the arrival of the Spanish.

Before the Spanish invasion, which occurred in 1518 AD with Hernàn Cortés on the coasts of eastern Mexico , cocoa was only "cultivated" in Mesoamerica or at least this is what is known until now even if there is a current debate on what the exact origin, and only after the great success in the Spanish court due to its aphrodisiac effect it soon became much sought after by all the courts of Europe, starting what was then the expansion of cocoa crops also in Africa and Asia, aimed precisely at improving the supply of cocoa itself so that it could reach what were the first European chocolate factories.

Hernán Cortés himself wrote a letter at that time to Charles V - the then King of Spain -, assuring that: " cocoa could sustain the strength of a soldier for an entire day" and that it was a powerful "tonic".

The last Aztec emperor Moctezuma II, before his death - which occurred at the hands of troops led by Cortés himself - is said to have drunk at least 50 cups of cocoa a day to stimulate his libido. The aphrodisiac properties were already known back then. It is also said that the Maya used to celebrate puberty with propitiatory rituals with cocoa and scented water (Yucatàn).

Photo: Moctezuma II, last Aztec King in his meeting with Hernàn Cortès

When we talk about ancestral cocoa, let's remember that it was not only the Maya who used it, but also other indigenous peoples of other cultures and other languages, and in different eras. It would be erroneous to attribute its use only to the Maya, when we know that the Olmecs had been using it since 1800 BC, therefore since very ancient times.

The Mesoamerican peoples (including the Maya and Aztecs ) considered cocoa as part of the sacred, and there is much archaeological evidence of its use as early as 1800 BC in this region. The spiritual relationship of cocoa with these peoples and in general between the various Mesoamerican ethnic groups seems to be established.

To clarify: "Mesoamerica" ​​is the region that includes southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, part of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, in which some of the major pre-Columbian civilizations developed.

But at what point was cocoa consumed according to historical evidence?

  • Weddings of the nobles;

  • Military victories;

  • Conclusion of successful commercial expeditions;

  • To accompany the deceased towards the descent into the underground world and therefore during funeral ceremonies.

  • Celebration of the beginning of puberty

  • Like money

This plant was so important that, in the Popol Vuh (the sacred book of the Maya) it was considered one of the four cosmic trees located in the directions of the universe, making it a symbol of the "sacred" and the "divine".

Photo: Tazumal - Archaeological complex dating back to the Mayan era - El Salvador


UNAM, Mexico

Encyclopedia Britannica

Maya image cc: University of Oregon

Evidence of the use of El Salvador cocoa from the Maya Joya del Cerèn site

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