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Food of the Gods

Origins of Chocolate By 1502--when Columbus encountered a Maya trading canoe carrying cacao beans along the Caribbean coast--the cultivation and trade of cacao was widespread in Mesoamerica. In fact, cacao was one of the region's most valued trading commodities. Scholars believe that the canoe found by Columbus was most likely on its way to Mexico with a crop of beans that had been harvested in Costa Rica. Anthropologists have found indirect evidence of cacao consumption as early as 800-1100 BC. Ancient sculptures, wall murals, and other art depict the use and preparation of chocolate. The hieroglyph for cacao, deciphered as ka-ka-wa, looks like a fish. This symbol has been found on many vessels and bowls, the oldest of which is the so-called Rio Azul vessel, which dates to 500 AD. Excavated from a Maya burial site in Guatemala in 1984, it contains chocolate residue. The Aztec believed that the god Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent and gardener of paradise, brought cacao seeds from heaven and taught them how to grow the tree. Ancient Mesoamerican cultures used cacao as a form of currency and as a ritual beverage. Cacao, as valuable as gold and gems, was depicted in Aztec paintings as being presented in tribute to the emperor and offered to the dead.

Top: Cacao tree.


The Aztecs were chocolate connoisseurs. The chocolate drink served at Montezuma's court was only for nobility, warriors or merchants. Spicy and bitter, it was served cold and frothy. Occasionally, honey, corn or seasonings such as peppers, achiote, and vanilla were added. Chocolate Production The strange-looking tree that is the source of chocolate was named Theobroma cacao, food of the gods, over 200 years ago by the great Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus. The bright red or yellow cacao seed pods grow directly from the trunk of the tree. Each pod contains 30-40 almond-like white seeds in a sticky, unappetizing pulp that resembles insect larvae. Scientists generally agree that the native people of South America were initially attracted to this cacao pulp for its sweetness. But no one knows for certain what led to the discovery of chocolate in the bitter and inedible raw seeds. Cacao trees grow only in the regions within 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator. Scientists believe that the first species of cacao grew in South America; over twenty strains currently grow in Latin America. The ancient Mesoamericans, who domesticated the plant, cultivated cacao on the borders of the tropical rainforest or in small orchards within the forest in an ecologically sound way. Although most cacao is now produced in Africa, it is still grown in the lowlands of Chiapas and Tabasco in Mexico where even today it is considered a sacred crop.

Top: Balam Ha cacao. This fruit is thought by researcher, Kirsten Tripplett, to be a descendent of the ancient cacao used by the Maya. Maya cacao, also known as wild, or sometimes feral, cacao, is very rare in its old homeland today. A young student of the Agricultural College in Belize interns at the Hummngbird Citrus Ltd. chocolate factory during harvest time. Careful removal of low-quality or damaged seeds requires steady concentration and attention. More than ten thousand pounds of seeds must be inspected each year.


Chocolate stirrers (molinillos). Chocolate, in the form of powder or cakes, is combined with heated water or milk to make a drink. The exact history of these distinctive stirrers is uncertain. They may have been introduced by the Spanish, or developed in the Spanish colonies. During Pre-Conquest times, chocolate was stirred and whipped-up by pouring the mixture back and forth from one pot to another. The molinillo is placed with the decorated head down into the bowl and twirled between the palms.



Europe Discovers Chocolate The Spanish got their first taste of chocolate in the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlán, located on an island that is now the site of Mexico City. It is widely believed that Cortes introduced chocolate to Spain when he returned to court in 1528. The Spanish, who controlled the supply of cacao until the late 17th century, kept its manufacture a court secret for almost a century. Sugar was introduced to chocolate production when the Spanish imported sugar cane from the Canary Islands and planted it in Mexico. They also began to combine chocolate with seasonings such as vanilla, cinnamon, and anise. This form of chocolate soon became a favorite drink among the Spanish in Mexico and eventually of those in Spain. But it remained a luxury item for the wealthy, as it was heavily taxed. The use and cultivation of chocolate has continued to evolve from pre-Columbian times to the 21st century. Like fine wine and cheese, there is a broad diversity of chocolate varieties, which, combined with production methods, influences chocolate quality. Much of today's cocoa is grown on plantations. Cocoa farming entails a process of hand-harvesting with machetes, fermentation, drying and roasting in order to produce the raw material for chocolate. Like coffee, the fermentation and roasting processes creates subtle differences in the flavor and color of the resulting chocolate--the longer the process, the better the flavor and higher the cost. For example, it takes up to ten days to produce the black gold, oro negro, required for premium chocolate. Antonio Carletti, an Italian merchant, is credited with introducing chocolate to Italy in 1606 after visiting a cacao plantation in Central America. He presented a report on it to Ferdinand I de Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany. Through the marriages of European royalty and the travels of the clergy, knowledge of chocolate spread quickly through the continent. It did not, however, become widely used until many years later. In 1828, Dutch chocolate maker Coenraad Van Houten fundamentally changed the way chocolate was made with his invention of the cacao press. Ancient Techniques Key to Chocolate's Future The market for chocolate is expanding, and manufacturing techniques are continually being refined and improved. Yet because the rainforests where cacao is cultivated are fast disappearing, scientists are now re-examining ancient cultivation methods to better plan for the growth in demand for chocolate. By preserving a system of agriculture that has existed for thousands of years, cacao, the people who grow it, and rainforests can be assured of a viable future.

Hummingbird fruit variation. This image presents some of the diversity of variety and fruit morphology found in the Hummingbird Citrus Ltd. cacao plantation in Belize (formerly owned by the Hershey chocolate company). The cacao surrounds a Postclassic Maya archaeological site being studied by the Dept. of Archaeology, Boston University. There are at least fifteen cacao varieties present; most are of South American origin.


Top: Final fermentation at Hershey Chocolate. A lengthy fermentation process must occur in order to transform bitter alkaloids and oils into a product with characteristic chocolate flavor. Here, a worker transfers two thousand pounds of fully fermented seeds for the final stage of cacao processing: drying by forced heat.


Seeds drying. A drying platform outside of the Hummingbird Citrus Ltd. chocolate factory. Here the seed is dried when the rains are few and the days sunny and relatively dry. This method of air drying is based upon the age-old method of seed drying used by traditional Maya throughout Central America and Mexico.


Supplemental hand-outs at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology are made possible in part by a generous grant from the William Randolph Hearst Foundation. PHOEBE A. HEARST MUSEUM OF ANTHROPOLOGY



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