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Chocolate in Mesoamerica

A Cultural History of Cacao

Edited by Cameron L. McNeil

Publication Year: 2009

New models of research and analysis, as well as breakthroughs in deciphering Mesoamerican writing, have recently produced a watershed of information on the regional use and importance of cacao, or chocolate as it is commonly called today. McNeil brings together scholars in the fields of archaeology, history, art history, linguistics, epigraphy, botany, chemistry, and cultural anthropology to explore the domestication, preparation, representation, and significance of cacao in ancient and modern communities of the Americas, with a concentration on its use in Mesoamerica.

Cacao was used by many cultures in the pre-Columbian Americas as an important part of rituals associated with birth, coming of age, marriage, and death, and was strongly linked with concepts of power and rulership. While Europeans have for hundreds of years claimed that they introduced "chocolate" as a sauce for foods, evidence from ancient royal tombs indicates cacao was used in a range of foods as well as beverages in ancient times. In addition, the volume's authors present information that supports a greater importance for cacao in pre-Columbian South America, where ancient vessels depicting cacao pods have recently been identified.

From the botanical structure and chemical makeup of Theobroma cacao and methods of identifying it in the archaeological record, to the importance of cacao during the Classic period in Mesoamerica, to the impact of European arrival on the production and use of cacao, to contemporary uses in the Americas, this volume provides a richly informed account of the history and cultural significance of chocolate.

Published by: University Press of Florida

Title Page, Copyright

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List of Figures

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pp. vii-xii

List of Tables

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pp. xiii

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pp. xv-xvi

Although broader in scope than simply the Maya area, Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao is a welcome addition to our Maya Studies series. This volume situates the Maya in a wider cultural context by combining cutting edge studies from multiple fields to consider the origin and role of cacao...

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1. Introduction: The Biology, Antiquity, and Modern Uses of the Chocolate Tree (Theobroma cacao L.)

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pp. 1-28

For people in the United States and Europe, “chocolate” summons visions of rich desserts or boxes of sweets, and some aficionados may joke that chocolate is their “religion.” Chocolate is made from the seeds of the Theobroma cacao L. tree, commonly referred to as the ‘cacao tree’ (Figure 1.1). For many pre-Columbian...

Part I. Evolution, Domestication, Chemistry, and Identification of Cacao and Its Close Relatives

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2. Cacao and Its Relatives in South America: An Overview of Taxonomy, Ecology, Biogeography, Chemistry, and Ethnobotany

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pp. 31-68

Cacao belongs to an almost exclusively South American group of about forty species of small trees in the closely related genera Theobroma and Herrania. Along with the rest of the family Sterculiaceae, these genera have recently been subsumed into the larger Malvaceae family (Soltis et al. 2000), along with the...

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3. The Domestication and Distribution of Theobroma cacao L. in the Neotropics

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pp. 69-89

The origins, domestication, and distribution of Theobroma cacao L. are controversial and difficult to discern because of its wide geographical distribution; human intervention; and interbreeding between the two taxonomic subspecies that most certainly occurred in the early Colonial period; interbreeding may...

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4. The Jaguar Tree (Theobroma bicolor Bonpl.)

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pp. 90-104

Theobroma cacao L. is not the only culturally important species of the genus Theobroma in Mesoamerica. Since prehistoric times, T. bicolor also has been consumed and has been used for ritual purposes. This species, commonly referred to as pataxte or balamte, has frequently been called “wild cacao,” but it is...

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5. The Determination of Cacao in Samples of Archaeological Interest

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pp. 105-113

Although the use of cacao by Mesoamerican peoples has been discussed and documented since the early Colonial period, archaeologists have been hindered from discovering the breadth of its usage in rituals and daily life by its rare recovery from archaeological contexts. In 1989 the author was approached with...

Part II. Cacao in Pre-Columbian Cultures

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6. The History of the Word for ‘Cacao’ and Related Terms in Ancient Meso-America

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pp. 117-139

This study addresses a problem in linguistic reconstruction that is relevant to work on lexical diffusion in Meso-America and thereby to research on intercultural interaction that probably dates to the Preclassic period. It focuses on the origin and spread of the widely diffused form kakawa (and variants) as a word...

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7. Brewing Distinction: The Development of Cacao Beverages in Formative Mesoamerica

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pp. 140-153

In making this statement in their authoritative social history of cacao, Sophie and Michael Coe made an assumption shared by generations of scholars interested in the economic and ritual significance of cacao in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, ourselves included. This assumption was that cacao was originally...

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8. Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and other Tales from the Underworld

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pp. 154-183

Like all agrarian societies, the ancient Maya had an abiding and intimate relationship with the natural world. All manner of trees, plants, leaves, flowers, fruits, and roots found a place in their symbol system, and the flora that surrounded them, both wild and cultivated, were embedded in their spiritual...

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9. The Language of Chocolate: References to Cacao on Classic Maya Drinking Vessels

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pp. 184-201

The importance of cacao in Classic Maya society was not widely appreciated until the decipherment of glyphic texts on ceramics in the 1980s, when it became clear that seemingly countless ceramic vessels were inscribed with a dedicatory formula identifying them as drinking vessels for chocolate...

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10. The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking among the Ancient Maya

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pp. 202-223

The ancient Maya developed a complex society renowned for its monumental architecture, colossal sculptures, and portable carvings that adorned their towns and the bodies of the elite; for scientific and intellectual achievements in mathematics, astronomy, philosophy; and for the only true writing system...

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11. The Use and Representation of Cacao During the Classic Period at Copan, Honduras

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pp. 224-252

Cacao had a significant place in ritual at Copan, Honduras, from at least the Early Classic period (ca. A.D. 250–600), but probably long before. Within the human-produced mountains of the Copan Acropolis, Early Classic queens and kings were entombed with a diversity of comestibles containing cacao...

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12. Cacao in Greater Nicoya: Ethnohistory and a Unique Tradition

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pp. 253-270

In the first decades following the Spanish Conquest, Theobroma cacao L.—also known in ancient times as cacao, coco, cacaguat, cacaguate, and cacavate (Benzoni 1857:148; Oviedo 1851–55 v. 1:315, 318)—was one of the most valued commodities produced by lower Central American colonies located in Greater...

Part III. Cacao in the Colonial Period

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13. The Good and Evil of Chocolate in Colonial Mexico

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pp. 273-288

The cacahuaquahuitl (cacao tree) was highly valued among the Aztecs; its seeds were used as currency and also were made into cacahuaatl (chocolate), a prestigious beverage available mainly to the nobility, which served as a stimulant and in some forms as an aphrodisiac (Hernández 1959; Motolinia 1971). Cacao...

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14. The Itza Maya Control over Cacao: Politics, Commerce, and War in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

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pp. 289-306

The Itza, the last independent Maya kingdom, carried out a dynamic and active political and economic resistance to Spanish encroachment into their territory. For more than a hundred and fifty years, after Cortés’s first entrada into the Peten region in 1525, the Itza reconstructed an ancient central Peten exchange...

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15. Cacao Production, Tribute, and Wealth in Sixteenth-Century Izalcos, El Salvador

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pp. 307-321

The role of cacao as a luxury item and as money in the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican world is widely recognized (Bergmann 1969; Millon 1955a). As a luxury item, its use probably can be traced to the time of Initial and Early Formative village agricultural societies, dating to as early as 2000 B.C...

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16. Soconusco Cacao Farmers Past and Present: Continuity and Change in an Ancient Way of Life

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pp. 322-337

The Soconusco region of Chiapas, Mexico (Figure 16.1), is ideally suited for cacao cultivation, and in prehistoric and historic times the area was one of the principal cacao-producing zones of Mesoamerica (see Bergmann 1969; S. D. Coe and M. D. Coe 1996; Gasco 1989a; Gasco and Voorhies 1989; Lowe, Lee, and...

Part IV. Mesoamerican Cacao Use in the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

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17. Traditional Cacao Use in Modern Mesoamerica

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pp. 341-366

Many individuals in Mesoamerican communities continue to cultivate or purchase cacao, using it in beverages and foods and in rituals. The consumption of cacao is tied to many life passage events, particularly marriage and childbirth. It is an important ritual offering and has a range of associations...

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18. Cacao, Gender, and the Northern Lacandon God House

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pp. 367-383

The Northern Lacandon of Chiapas, Mexico, once performed their most critical rituals in the yatoch k’uj ‘god house.’ Women were excluded from most god house rites with a few exceptions, including a cacao-frothing ritual. Cacao, which was associated with females, was not the most important offering for the...

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19. Food for the Rain Gods: Cacao in Ch’orti’ Ritual

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pp. 384-407

The worship of rain gods is one of the oldest and most continuous religious traditions in Mesoamerica. This is not surprising, as the cultivation of maize, the main staple, depends on seasonal rainfall. Since the advent of agriculture, drought has been a serious threat to the subsistence economy of people in...

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20. Cacao in the Yukatek Maya Healing Ceremonies of Don Pedro Ucán Itza

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pp. 408-428

Maya use of chocolate in ceremonial contexts is increasingly well documented by epigraphers, iconographers, archaeologists, historians, and ethnographers. This wealth of information has made possible comparative analysis of a symbol system underlying variations across time and space. To this collaborative effort...

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21. From Chocolate Pots to Maya Gold: Belizean Cacao Farmers Through the Ages

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pp. 429-450

Belizean chocolate —the moniker does not carry the same cachet as Swiss or Belgian chocolate, does it? Although the heavily marketed European brands have gained global prestige and name recognition, the nations of reference are far away from the tropical climes in which cacao is grown today and was grown...


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pp. 451-514

List of Contributors

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pp. 515-517


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pp. 519-542

E-ISBN-13: 9780813040059
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813029535
Print-ISBN-10: 0813029538

Page Count: 544
Illustrations: 91 b&w photos, 97 drawings and maps, 14 tables
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Mayas -- Food.
  • Mayas -- Ethnobotany.
  • Mayas -- Agriculture.
  • Chocolate -- Latin America -- History.
  • Cacao -- Latin America -- History.
  • Drinking customs -- Latin America -- History.
  • Plant remains (Archaeology) -- Latin America.
  • Ethnopharmacology -- Latin America.
  • Latin America -- Antiquities.
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