A Maya lord forbids an individual from touching a container of chocolate

The Ancient History of Chocolate, Gift of the Gods


In today’s society, chocolate is a commonly available food product, and comes in many forms, including blocks, paste and powder. Several centuries ago, however, chocolate was considered a luxury item, and came only in one form – as a drink.

An Aztec woman preparing the cacao drink. The liquid was poured from a height to create a froth or foam on top.

An Aztec woman preparing the cacao drink. The liquid was poured from a height to create a froth or foam on top. Public Domain

Chocolate is produced from the cacao tree, which is native to Central and South America. Based on chemical analysis, the earliest known consumption of cacao may be dated back to between 1400 and 1100 B.C. At that early stage, it was not the cacao seeds, but the pulp of the fruit that was used. The sweet pulp was fermented so as to produce an alcoholic beverage. It was only later on that the cacao seeds were used. Still, it was much different from the chocolate we are used to today.

A cacao tree with fruit pods in various stages of ripening.

A cacao tree with fruit pods in various stages of ripening. Public Domain

When the Spanish conquistadors came into contact with the Aztec civilization, they also came across the cacao drink. Incidentally, ‘chocolate’ is derived from the word xocolātl, which means ‘bitter water’ in Aztec. Although chocolate has its origins in the Aztec language (formally known as Nahuatl), it has been suggested that the Aztecs may have inherited the recipe from earlier Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Mayans or the Olmecs.

Cacao seeds were fermented, roasted, and ground into a paste. The cacao paste would then be mixed with water or wine, ground maize and a variety of flavorings. These flavorings include chili pepper, vanilla, allspice and honey. The mixture would then go through a process called frothing, in which it is poured back and forth from pot to cup until a deep foam was formed on the top.

MORE

Not necessarily for everyday consumption, cacao was of great value, symbolically and economically. Pods were used in trade to the point where they were sometimes counterfeited by filling the plant pods with soil. The ‘bitter water’ was consumed by nobles and warriors, in a ritual with purpose and solemnity. It was believed the plant was of the gods, associated by the Aztecs with Quetzalcoatl.

Aztec. Man Carrying a Cacao Pod, 1440–1521. Volcanic stone, traces of red pigment.

Aztec. Man Carrying a Cacao Pod, 1440–1521. Volcanic stone, traces of red pigment. Brooklyn Museum/Wikimedia Commons

When cacao was brought to Europe by the Spanish, the drink was transformed by an ingredient not available to the Aztecs – sugar. This made the taste of the drink more appealing, and became popular among the Spanish nobility and officials of the Roman Catholic Church. It was only later that chocolate became popular in other European courts, as the Spanish seemed to have been keeping the secret of chocolate to themselves.

In France, for instance, the marriage of Anne of Austria to Louis XIII in 1615 popularized the drink among the French aristocracy, as the queen was a chocolate enthusiast. Chocolate had a harder time penetrating the markets of Protestant England, however, as the drink was associated with popery and idleness. Eventually, the craze for chocolate also hit London, though it did not really catch on. Still, several ‘chocolate houses’ sprang up in London, where the elites of society could indulge in decadence and rowdy behavior.

Chocolate soon became a fashionable drink of the nobility after the discovery of the Americas. The morning chocolate by Pietro Longhi

Chocolate soon became a fashionable drink of the nobility after the discovery of the Americas. The morning chocolate by Pietro Longhi; Venice, 1775–1780. Public Domain

It was during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries that a change in the way people consumed chocolate occurred. Firstly, the invention of hydraulic and steam chocolate mills in France in the 18th century allowed chocolate to be processed faster and at a lower cost. Then, in 1828, the cocoa press was invented by Coenraad Johannes Van Houton. This machine removed the fat from the cacao seeds to produce cocoa powder, the basis for most chocolate products today. With this new ingredient, chocolate could be produced in the many forms we are familiar with today. These technological advances also resulted in a higher demand for raw cocoa in Europe. Soon, cocoa trees were planted as a cash crop in British, French and Dutch colonies near the equator, where the natural conditions were suitable for these trees.

A Lady Pouring Chocolate (1744) depicting drinking chocolate paraphernalia.

A Lady Pouring Chocolate (1744) depicting drinking chocolate paraphernalia. Public Domain

As one may expect, the workers on these cocoa plantations were often slaves. It may be surprising to some, however, that such labor is still being used today by the chocolate industry. It has been claimed that children are being used as slaves on cocoa plantations in West Africa, in particular the Ivory Coast and Ghana, where cocoa is an important export crop. This cocoa would eventually end up as the chocolates on the shelves of our convenience stores and supermarkets. It is indeed horrifying to think that much of the sweet chocolate we see today is being produced through the hard labor of child slaves.

Featured image: A Maya lord forbids an individual from touching a container of chocolate. Public Domain

References

Garthwaite, J., 2015. What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate. [Online]
Available at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/?no-ist

Green, M., 2013. The surprising history of London's lost chocolate houses. [Online]
Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/uk/london/10515620/The-surprising-history-of-Londons-lost-chocolate-houses.html

Gregory, A., 2013. Chocolate and Child Slavery: Say No to Human Trafficking this Holiday Season. [Online]
Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amanda-gregory/chocolate-and-child-slave_b_4181089.html

Righthand, J., 2015. A Brief History of the Chocolate Pot. [Online]
Available at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/brief-history-chocolate-pot-180954241/?utm_source=twitter.com&no-ist

The Field Museum, 2007. All About Chocolate: History of Chocolate. [Online]
Available at: http://archive.fieldmuseum.org/chocolate/history.html

University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2007. The Earliest Chocolate Drink of the New World. [Online]
Available at: http://web.archive.org/web/20071202095415/http://www.museum.upenn.edu/new/news/fullrelease.php?which=306

Wilson, B., 2009. Aztecs and cacao: the bittersweet past of chocolate. [Online]
Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/6194447/Aztecs-and-cacao-the-bittersweet-past-of-chocolate.html

www.foodispower.org, 2015. Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry. [Online]
Available at: http://www.foodispower.org/slavery-chocolate/#

By Ḏḥwty

Comments

The fault is of their parents. We like slaves and chocolate.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Ancient Technology

The four-handled tureen adorned with dragons, birds and spikes
Chinese archaeologists have discovered ritual tureen and “soup bowls” next to a badly decomposed body in a Zhou dynasty-era tomb. Among the remains there were also uncovered two wine vessels, which experts suggest were probably used as part of the funerary rituals.

Ancient Places

Healing Temple of Aesculapius (Asklepios) by Robert Thom
In the ancient world, many cultures built elaborate temple complexes dedicated to their healer gods - Imhotep in Egypt and Asklepios in Greece for example. These gods were recognized as having the power to cure supplicants from a variety of ailments within sleep and sacred dreams. Those who desired healing might travel many hundreds of miles to reach such a temple

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article