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Gift of the Gods: Chocolate in the Aztec Empire

Did the Aztecs invent chocolate? That depends on how you look at it. Chocolate as we know it has only existed for a couple of centuries, but drinking chocolate has a much longer past, stretching back into prehistory! Cocoa was of paramount importance to the people of Tenochtitlan, who ruled over much of central Mexico and beyond in the late medieval period, between 1428 and 1521 CE. These people are known as the Mexica, but you might know them by their other name: the Aztecs.

Chocolate came to Europe via the Aztec Empire. But how did it get there in the first place? Well, legend has it that the cocoa tree was taken from a sacred mountain by the feathered-serpent deity Quetzalcoatl. The god gave the cocoa to the Toltec people, and taught their women to make drinking chocolate. 

Cocoa Before the Aztecs

Chocolate’s consumption in Mesoamerica predates the migration of the Mexica people into the Valley of Mexico by several thousand years. The Aztecs inherited a rich legacy of chocolate consumption from other Mesoamerican societies!

The earliest archaeological evidence of cacao use dates back to almost 3500 BCE, in sites related to the Mayo-Chinchipe culture in modern-day Ecuador. The oldest traces of cacao in beverages in the area date back to 1900-1500 BCE. These traces are probably the remains of alcoholic, fermented beverages drunk by the Mokaya people in the Soconusco region on the border between Mexico and Guatemala. Soconusco remains a major cocoa-producing region for craft chocolate makers including Ritual, Vinte Vinte, Nearynogs and Puchero. (For a non-alcoholic taste of what people in prehistoric Mexico might have been drinking, take a look at Pacha de Cacao’s delicious cocoa pulp drink!)

Cacao products have been found in vessels from Olmec sites such as San Lorenzo. Archaeological digs have discovered cocoa in burial pits alongside the remains of human sacrifice victims.

Cocoa in the Mayan Civilisation

Cocoa is also frequently found at Maya sites from 2000 BCE right up to 250 CE! Like the Aztecs, Mayans made non-alcoholic beverages from the cocoa bean, rather than fermenting the pulp. The Aztec word for chocolate beverage, cacahuatl, is actually thought by some to derive from the Maya word kakaw (from which we get ‘cacao’)!

Cocoa had a vital place in Mayan mythology. The Mayan creation story tells us that humans were created from a mixture of the divine blood or the gods, and cocoa pods. Cocoa was part of the birth of humanity, but the cacao tree, which grows in shaded areas, was also associated with death. Like the older Olmec culture, the Mayans buried their dead with cocoa, to help them on their journey in the underworld. In the Mayan city of Palanque, there is a monumental stepped pyramid known as the temple of inscriptions, which crystallises cocoa’s fundamental role in Mayan cosmology: in its carvings, the city’s queen, Sak K’uk’, is depicted reborn as a cacao tree.

Nowadays, Mayan communities still grow cocoa – check out this article on Maya Mountain, an award-winning community of growers from the Q’eqchi and Mopan Maya communities in Guatemala and Belize.

Images left to right: art from the Olmec civilisation (Olmec monument 19, La Venta, 1300-400 BCE); Mayan plate showing a woman grinding cocoa (held by Choco-Story museum Brugge, photograph by Yelkrokoyade, CC BY-SA 3.0); Mayan sculpture of a nobleman offering cacao pulp (held by Choco-Story museum Brugge, photograph by Yelkrokoyade, CC BY-SA 3.0).

Aztec Cocoa: Society & Ritual

Chocolate played an essential role in Aztec culture, but no Aztec would recognise most of the bars we sell at Cocoa Runners! Rather than eating chocolate as a solid, the Aztecs enjoyed chocolate as a frothy drink made from cocoa beans. It was used in a wide variety of important social events, from diplomatic alliances to marital negotiations. Cocoa was drunk in religious rituals to commerce, and had roles in military and medical spheres!

Serving chocolate could be ritually important at ceremonies to mark betrothals, marriages, or other milestones. It was also a key feature of large festivities which brought the community together with singing and dancing.

Aztec cocoa was used as a medicinal beverage, mixed with a variety of other ingredients varying from tree bark to opossum tails, depending on the ills it was supposed to cure! Cocoa was used as a curative by people of all classes to treat digestive ills, infections, fever, or heavy coughs. It is even said that cocoa-based drinks made with the blood washed off a sacrificial knife could be given to sacrificial victims to bind them to their fate!

A ROYAL DRINK

In spite of its use as a cross-class medicine, cocoa was strongly associated with the Aztec elite. Although it may have been consumed by commoners on special occasions, the ruler and his entourage often drank it after their meals, making cocoa, a medieval Mexican equivalent to an after-dinner coffee or mint. Chocolate was a status symbol, consumed by nobles and wealthy merchants. Sometimes, it was given to warriors in reward for taking captives for sacrifice when in battle.

A sixteenth-century source describes this association of cocoa to the ruling elite as follows: 

‘all the places where there was cocoa were the rightful due of the rulers. Wherever cacao grew, their cacao fields everywhere were said to be their rightful due’

Sahagún, Primeros Memoriales

GETTING COCOA TO THE KING

Despite its importance to Aztec culture, cocoa was not native to the Aztec heartland. In fact its acquisition involved large networks of long-distance trade, and political power-brokering. The Aztec Empire was just that, an empire, and the lands and people it conquered sent tribute to their rulers. Often, this tribute included the highly prized crop of cocoa.

As tribute, Cocoa was transported to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, from distant areas like the tributary province of Xoconochco. In the modern day, this province is Soconusco in Chiapas, where a series of craft chocolates from Cuna de Piedra originate. On the open market, cocoa was traded in Chontalpa in Tabasco. Large quantities of cocoa were brought to Tenochtitlan on the back of merchants or porters who travelled across the empire on foot.

Aztec merchants or porters transport goods through the empire, carrying loads of up to 23-30kg on foot (or 24,000 cocoa beans!).

Once in Tenochtitlan, the cocoa would have been kept in imperial storehouses and sold in marketplaces. Cocoa was so valuable to the Aztecs that it was even used as a form of currency. It truly was an economic powerhouse!

Aztec Cocoa Preparation

The cacahuatl of the Aztecs would have been made by women of all classes, through an elaborate, multistep process.

Aztec women of all classes made cacahuatl (drinking chocolate). The process of making the drink was elaborate and difficult. It required such skills and was so important that an Aztec woman destined for sacrifice could avoid her grisly fate if she was sufficiently gifted in chocolate making!

The process was as follows:

First, the best cacao beans were selected and dried. They may also have been fermented or toasted. Then, the beans were ground on grinding stones called metates, which look a bit like a flattened-out mortar and pestle. Similar stones are used in stone-ground Taza chocolate, following ancient Mexican traditions.

Illustration of a Metate

The ground chocolate was mixed with water and other ingredients such as maize flour and flowers. It was then strained and ‘filtered’ to ‘purify’ the drink’s contents.

Finally, the beverage was poured back and forth from one vessel to another at a height to aerate it and create its characteristic froth. The final drink was a bit like an Aztec latte!

European-style illustration of an Aztec woman pouring chocolate from one vessel to another to create a froth (Codex Tudela)
European-style illustration of an Aztec woman pouring chocolate from one vessel to another to create a froth (Codex Tudela)

The drink was served cold after meals, in lavishly decorated vessels. These beautifully painted cups could be made of hollowed-out gourds, earthenware, or even gold, depending on the drinker’s status. 

Extra-Special Inclusions

The Aztecs’ chocolate beverage was consumed with a variety of different ingredients. Some, like chili and vanilla are familiar to us, while others seem really weird: would you want to drink hot cocoa mized with liquid rubber and potentially hallucinogenic magnolias?

We drink chocolate with ground up flowers. We drink chocolate with wild honey. We drink chocolate with big-ear spice. We drink chocolate with nothing beaten in. We drink chocolate with [liquid] rubber. We drink chocolate with vanilla. We drink imitation chocolate. Chocolate with octli. Octli; wine [made from Agave]. Chocolate with chilies. Chocolate with vanilla. Chocolate with magnolia blossoms“.

Sahagún, Primeros Memoriales

As we can see from this account by a 16th-century missionary, drinking chocolate was not only served sweetened with honey or vanilla. It could also be refreshing, spicy, salty, or inebriating. The Aztecs clearly got quite creative with their recipes!

Chocolate and the Conquistadors

When the Spanish arrived in modern-day Mexico, they were offered cocoa-based drinks. To the indigenous peoples, cocoa served a diplomatic purpose.

The Spanish did not immediately adopt the habit of drinking chocolate. Their initial descriptions of the beverage mostly describe it as repulsive, or an acquired taste. (Though occasional exceptions depict it as refreshing and nourishing.) Nonetheless, the Spanish encouraged cocoa production during early colonial years, and extracted it as tribute from indigenous communities. Cocoa beans continued to be used as a currency in New Spain for years after the conquest.

Missionaries picked up on chocolate’s religious significance. They encouraged indigenous people to offer cocoa beans to Christian icons, as they had to their old gods. The old and new religions mixed, spawning such strange hybrids as the Christ of Cocoa in Mexico City. The true beneficiaries of these offerings were Catholic priests, who grew wealthy and consumed chocolate regularly.

The conquest decimated Aztec society, and led to the lifting of social restrictions on cocoa consumption. Chocolate-drinking spread through to different sectors of society, although it remained an indicator of prestige. Over the course of the sixteenth century, chocolate drinking became increasingly common among the colonial elite. Colonists and missionaries also brought chocolate back to Europe, where it became popular with the Catholic clergy. By the early seventeenth century, chocolate truly began to take hold in the New World!

Chocolate in Europe! Portrait of a gentleman holding a cup of chocolate, by Alexis Simon Belle (17th century)

Aztec Influence in the Modern Day

To this day, you can find a variety of cocoa-based drinks in cocoa-producing areas of Mexico. The area’s rich pre-Hispanic chocolate-drinking traditions live on!

The Aztec practices of cocoa drinking were inventive, versatile, and significant. Cocoa presents us with a glimpse of the complexity of Aztec culture: hierarchical, deeply religious, but with a penchant for pleasure and celebration. 

Although we can’t ourselves try authentic Aztec chocolate, modern chocolate bars retain many elements of it. Modern and Aztec chocolate share the processes of fermenting, drying, and grinding cocoa beans. Modern chocolate has also inherited Aztec flavours, using ingredients such as honey, chili, and vanilla. We certainly have Mesoamerican cultures to thank for the gift of chocolate making!

If this article has piqued your interest, why not try some of our bars which bring a taste of chocolate’s Mesoamerican heritage?

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