- Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao
In 1519, Cortés and his men watched the Emperor Moctezuma consume a frothing beverage he termed cacahuatl, made from the seeds of a tree the Maya called kakawa. According to Cortés, Moctezuma's subjects also used those seeds as currency. Today, Mesoamericans no longer use cacao seeds as money, but they continue to consume a number of cacao-based beverages. Understanding the changes and continuities in cacao and chocolate usage in Mesoamerica over the past millennia represented by these two brief descriptions underlies Cameron McNeil's edited volume, Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, winner of the Society for Economic Botany's Mary W. Klinger Book Award. The volume brings together twenty-eight experts in fields from botany to pharmacology and chemistry to linguistics, art history, anthropology, and archeology to study the cultivation, uses, and meanings of cacao and chocolate among the peoples of Mesoamerica from ancient times to the present. The result is fascinating.
McNeil organized the book both thematically and chronologically. The authors of section one struggle to determine when and where the cacao tree originated, who first domesticated it, and, most importantly, who first used the seeds to make beverages and foods. In the other three sections researchers ask how Mesoamericans grew and consumed cacao in the pre-Columbian, Spanish Colonial, and late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, respectively.
The scholars involved utilize many methodologies, given their various disciplines. Yet whether they are analyzing chemical residues, translating Maya glyphs, interpreting texts and images, or interviewing contemporary Maya healers, those methods represent the most recent trends in the researchers' respective fields. The authors' application of new developments in Nahua and Maya studies—especially in reading Maya glyphs and Nahua texts—to the study of cacao in Mesoamerican society prior to the arrival of the Spanish is one of the contributing factors in its importance. They confirm some findings that are relatively well known: that cacao was the basis for a number of beverages and sauces; that it was a form of currency; and that it was a valuable item of trade and tribute. In doing so, they confirm much of the research of earlier scholars, particularly René Millon and Sophie Coe. They also, however, broaden our understanding of cacao's usage, [End Page 175] making clear that cacao was as important as maize to Mesoamericans, both symbolically and materially. In particular, they show us that cacao played an essential element in contract negotiations as well as many religious rituals, frequently being paired with maize as its opposite. Finally, we also learn that many Pre-Colombian conflicts in the region developed from struggles to obtain or protect access to cacao.
These findings on cacao's role in the Pre-Columbian period serve as the basis of comparison for the research on cacao's usage during the colonial period and twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Here, important continuities and changes emerge. For example, we learn that during the colonial period the Itzá Maya attacked their neighbors to guarantee supplies of cacao and to prevent those neighbors from forming alliances with the Spanish; Nahuas who offered cacao to pre-Columbian deities made similar offerings to an image of Christ in the Mexico city cathedral throughout the colonial period; Mesoamerican artists painted images of trees, cacao pods, and monkeys on the walls of pre-Columbian temples and palaces and used similar motifs to paint the walls of a Catholic monastery in colonial Mexico; the Maya used cacao beans in healing rituals prior to the arrival of the Spanish and continue to do so today, although in different ways. These insights into the past and the present usage and meaning of cacao and cacahuatl make Chococlate in Mesoamerica a must read for anyone interested in the region or the ways in which historical legacies impact the present.
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