The Mayas did love chocolate but not in the way how we love to treat ourselves with a piece of fine dark chocolate after dinner. For them chocolate was sacred, a crucial part of their identity and it had a significant economic value. The Mayas gave special importance to chocolate both in a spiritual and in a material sense.
Undoubtedly, chocolate is an important element of nowadays globalized food culture. We cannot really imagine Easter or Christmas without chocolate, neither our cuisine without the widespread confectionaries such as a brownie or a pain au chocolate. Chocolate was unknown in Europe until the 16th century. As the Spanish colonists brought cocoa beans to Europe from the Mesoamerican region, chocolate started its journey of becoming our beloved treat. According to archaeologists, cocoa beans were part of the Mayas’ diet as early as 1900 BC and they were domesticated around 1600 BC. Even though Mesoamerica is commonly known as the cradle of chocolate, the newest argument suggests that cocoa beans were actually traded and brought to the area from South America. There are evidences that some civilizations in South America already used cocoa as early as 5300 years ago.
The Mayas did not consume cocoa as a sweet, milky dessert like we do. They instead made a dense bitter liquid from the beans, which was stimulating and refreshing rather than relaxing like hot chocolate nowadays. They grounded the pealed cocoa beans and mixed them with cornmeal, chilli and sometimes cinnamon and then dissolved them in hot water.
The temple at the Myan city of Chichen-itza (Photo: stockvault.net)
For the Mesoamericans cocoa was a heavenly food, gifted by a feathered, snake-like god named Kukulkan in the Maya mythology and Quetzalcoatl in the Aztec mythology.
“When they had to communicate with their gods related to nature, rain, and the fertility of the earth, I'm sure they were pulling [cacao] out and drinking.” (www.smithsonianmag.com, Joel Palka, anthropologist, University of Illinois)
As chocolate was a sign of high status, they drank the bitter, brownish liquid at special occasions such as initiation rites, end of the Maya calendar and weddings. Drinking hot chocolate had a special role in the wedding ceremonies as the sign of sealing a marriage. As a symbolic elixir, chocolate was not only present at the beginning of new periods such as initiations and weddings, but it also had a special importance at funerals. Archaeologists have found many cocoa pots buried with people but it is questioned whether these pots were used at the ceremonies or simply buried aside the dead bodies. Even though cocoa was a significant element of the socio-cultural life of both the rich and the poor, chocolate was considered as a high-end food and it symbolised wealth and nobility. According to anecdotes the first time Europeans encountered chocolate was in 1519 when the Maya king invited Hermán Cortés, a Spanish colonist, to visit the court of Moctezuma where hot chocolate was served in golden cups.
The use of cocoa beans as currency clearly shows that the plant gained a particular importance in Mayan society. The Mayas never used coins; they mostly did barter trade with each other and the surrounding civilizations. According to the depicted situations on murals, ceramics and other object, the Mayas began to use cocoa beans as money around 250 BC to 900 BC. For example at the period of the Spanish conquest the price of one turkey was 100 cocoa beans. In addition, they did not only use the cocoa beans to assess the value of certain things, they also substituted them with clay, which is a close step to introduce money into the economical system.
The Mayas consumed a lot of cocoa, but the plant did not grow well in the surrounding area of the Maya cities. Thus, it was far more priced than other traditional plants such as maize and cactus. Some archaeologists believe that a drought which entailed a limited amount of cocoa supply led to a fall of the Maya civilization.
To sum it all up the Mayas great admiration of chocolate, they attributed special roles to the plant of the gods from being a stimulating drink of different kind of rituals to the mere economic function of paying taxes in jugs of cocoa beans. Considering the functions of the Mayas’ dark brown elixir, the cultural importance of our chocolate Easter eggs and Santa Clauses seems utterly trivial.