History & Culture

By Nick Saxby  ·  23rd August 2021  ·  History & Culture

The history of cocoa is a long and murky one. Not a lot is known about its origins, and what we do know has had to be deduced from vague hints within the historical record.

Once we move into the modern era, we face complex questions of cause and effect, agency, motivations, and – of course – a shedload of myths and urban legends. As they say (and this seems particularly relevant to chocolate), a lie travels halfway around the world before the truth has put its boots on!

And that seems to persist to this day. No other food carries quite the same cultural significance in the western world as chocolate, and it has become ingrained within many of our most popular holidays and social occasions.

So this is an attempt to give a brief overview of a lengthy history right up to the present day. It’s a long one, so feel free to navigate through the table of contents below.

Pre-Columbus America

Origins of Theobroma Cacao

Cocoa is now grown all across the world, in a band which stretches 20 degrees above and 20 degrees below the equator.

Although Ivory Coast is now the world’s leading cocoa-growing nation, Theobroma Cacao (otherwise known as the Cocoa Tree) first appeared in the Northern parts of the Amazon jungle, South America, at some point between 10,000 and 15,000 BCE.

Botanists believe that from the headwaters of the Amazon River Theobroma Cacao spread north, reaching the Orinco River and eventually Southern Mexico before it began to be cultivated.

However, mysteries remain unsolved. We have no record of how people first began transforming the bitter, astringent seeds hidden within the jewel-coloured pods of Theobroma Cacao into something which they could consume. Nor do we know how exactly the plant came to be domesticated.

Santa Ana De Florida (Ecuador)

Until recently, it was widely believed that the Olmecs of Mexico were the first people to drink and consume chocolate, from around 1500 BC.

This all changed in 2018. Our article on Ecuador details how archaeological evidence from a site in Santa Ana La Florida (home to the Mayo-Chincipe culture, 5500-1700 BC) suggests that people were in fact drinking cocoa-based beverages from the much earlier date of around 3500 BCE.

Olmecs, Maya, and Aztecs

Cocoa cultivation and consumption were major parts of life for the people of these civilizations. Our full article on cocoa in these cultures is coming soon.

Religious significance

To the people of Mesoamerica, cocoa was sacred.

From the Mayan origin myth to human sacrifices to the Gods, cocoa was so inextricable from people’s spiritual lives that we have dedicated a whole article to Chocolate and Mesoamerican Religion.


Given the religious significance of cocoa, you will be unsurprised to learn that the name Theobroma Cacao translates from Latin into English as ‘food of the Gods’.

This name was bestowed on the cocoa tree by the famed Swedish botanist Karl Linneaus in 1753 when he published his seminal work Species Plantarum.

The word cacao is derived from the Nahuatl word cacahuatl, derived in turn from the Mije-Sokean word kakawa. The word ‘chocolate’ can be traced back to the Aztec word “xocoatl”, referring to their original bitter, cocoa-based beverage.


There is speculation that cocoa was being used as currency as early as it was being consumed. As mentioned, the Mayo-Chincipe culture of Ecuador are believed to have been the first people to consume cocoa. Seashells found throughout the Chincipe basin indicate interactions between the Mayo-Chincipe’s contemporaries based on the Pacific coast. Archaeologists speculate that these seashells, which held great symbolic value, were traded for cocoa.

Cocoa was then used as a form of currency in the Maya and Aztec civilizations. It’s important position in people’s lives meant that cocoa was seen as having an inherent value, rendering it a secure form of currency which could be exchanged for goods at fixed rates.

During the Spanish conquest of the Aztec civilization, Hernán Cortés (the Spanish conquistador famous for claiming Mexico on Spain’s behalf) wrote to Emperor Charles V:

This fruit they sell ground, and esteem so highly, that it is used instead of money all over the country, and with it everything can be bought in the market place and elsewhere.

So there we have it. For the Aztecs and Mayans, cocoa was not only revered, but worth its weight in gold.

Enlightenment Europe

Chocolate in the 16th Century

Though it is universally acknowledged that chocolate first reached Europe via Spain, the date and circumstances of this event are unknown.

Popular belief would have it that Hernán Cortés first introduced cocoa to Europe, but the historical evidence for this is elusive. There are several opportunities that would have allowed Cortés to present the fruit to the Spanish nobility, the first of which would have been in 1519, when he dispatched a ship brimming with Mexican treasures to Spain.

The second opportunity would have been in 1528. Cortés arrived at the Court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, with the goal of receiving the honors and privileges he felt were owed to him in repayment for his conquest. It is documented that Cortés presented Charles with a magnificent array of Mexican wonders, including everything from obsidian to armadillos. However, nowhere in the sources for this event is cocoa listed.

The earliest solid piece of evidence we have is of an encounter between a delegation of Maya nobles and Prince Philip of Spain in 1544, facilitated by a group of Dominican Friars. The Maya offered Prince Philip a selection of gifts, and among these were receptacles of beaten chocolate.

However, this by no means proves 1544 to be the date that chocolate was first brought to Europe. As Sophie and Michael Coe note in their True History of Chocolate, it should be kept in mind that there was constant interaction between Spain and its conquered possessions in the New World throughout the 16th Century, meaning opportunities to introduce chocolate to Europe were abundant.

The first official shipment of cocoa beans reached Seville in 1585, and by the first part of the 17th Century, drinking chocolate was a staple of Court life.

At first, Europeans perceived chocolate as a medicinal drink, a drug which could be used as part of the humoral system. Yet people soon came to appreciate chocolate for its unique taste and filling nature, and with the advent of chocolate houses, its reputation became associated more with recreation than remedy.

Chocolate Houses and drinking chocolate

Chocolate arrived in England in the mid 1600s and made a big hit in London, where chocolate houses sprung up on many street corners.

Enhanced with spices and exotic flavours, the chocolate drunk in these houses was far richer and headier than what we know today. Moreover, with entry fees being charged at the doors of chocolate houses, this drink quickly became a beverage of the elite.

However, unlike today’s coffee shops, these establishments quickly became known for anarchy and licentiousness, a hotbed of gambling, hobnobbing, and politicking.

One famous chocolate house, The Cocoa Tree, had an underground tunnel to take plotters and traitors safely out of the premises. Not surprisingly, Charles II tried to have them banned in 1675. To the chocolate-drinkers’ delight, he was unsuccessful. Perhaps Charles’s case was weakened by the fact that the chocolate house Ozdina’s of St James’s Street was a favourite haunt of the King and his mistresses!

Chocolate & Christianity

Chocolate was popular not only in the raucous cocoa houses of Restoration England, but the Catholic churches of Europe. From Mesoamerican blood rituals to ecclesiastical dilemmas- chocolate and religion prove an unlikely but persistent pairing.

In 16th and 17th Century Europe, Catholics were expected to fast for over 100 days of the year in an attempt to regularly purify the flesh. The rules of fasting were complex, but what is clear is that animal products were strictly prohibited on these days, giving rise to the tradition of “fish friday”.

For the Catholic nations of Spain, France and the states that made up Italy, chocolate presented a problem- was it a food, or was it a drink? And could it be consumed during the ecclesiastical fast?

The religious order known as the Jesuits had worked extensively in South America and knew the nutritional benefits of chocolate, and actually traded cocoa. They rather conveniently argued that drinking chocolate was an inoffensive and effective solution to hunger on fast days.

Despite some opposition from the Dominicans, who raised qualms based around the pagan history of chocolate, the Jesuits were able to gain the approval of Pope Gregory XIII. Later, they even got an official declaration by Pope Alexander VII in 1666, who stated “Liquidium non frangit jejunum”, which translates roughly as “it’s fine. It’s only a drink. It doesn’t break the fast”.

Chocolate in America

Enlightenment Europe had become quickly infatuated with chocolate, and its colonies in North America soon followed suit. Chocolate even became embroiled in the American battle for independence.

Chocolate first landed in Florida in a Spanish ship in 1641, but it is thought that the first chocolate house actually opened in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1682. By 1733, Cocoa Beans were a major American Colony import, and chocolate was enjoyed by people from all walks of life.

On December 16th 1773 however, the Boston Tea Party helped to cement drinking chocolate’s status as the all-American draft. In response to being taxed without representation in the British parliament, a large group of Colonists boarded docked ships of taxed tea at Boston Harbour and threw 342 chests overboard. This act of protest, along with many a tea boycott, helped to shift beverage consumption even further towards drinking chocolate.

In the Revolutionary War that followed, chocolate was rationed to the military and even offered to soldiers as payment instead of money! Remember the Mesoamerican use of cacao seeds as currency? It seems that history truly does repeat itself.

Ice Cream and cakes

Today, no bakery would be complete without an assortment of chocolate brownies, cakes and other cocoa-based treats. However, ‘cooking’ with chocolate actually began with ice cream.

A recipe book dating back from 1692 by Antonio Latini titled “The Modern Steward” contains the first recipe for chocolate ice cream (and the first recipe for tomato ketchup!).

It was clearly a hit, with chocolate ice cream becoming a favourite of the aristocracy in 17th and 18th Century France, Italy and Spain. It is likely that chocolate ice cream catalysed the move away from simple fruit-based sorbets, sherberts and ice creams towards the array of flavours we enjoy today.

Our full article on the history of cooking with chocolate is coming soon.

Industrial Developments – coming soon

Belgium & Couverture

Rudolf Lindt and the Conche

Theodor Tobler and Tempering

Henri Nestle and Milk Chocolate

Joseph Fry and the first chocolate bar

Cadburys, trademarks and gift boxes

Hersheys and lipolysis

The rise of confectionery

Cocoa butter and cosmetics

How did chocolate spread around the world? – coming soon

20th-century Growth – coming soon

Modern Day – coming soon

Religion and Customs – coming soon

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