No other food carries quite the same cultural significance in the modern western world as chocolate. It’s a staple of celebrations, popular holidays, and social occasions. But how did chocolate get to this position? What is the history of chocolate?
Read on to find out! This page contains an overview of the long, twisty history of chocolate. We’ll take you from the prehistoric Amazon rainforest to the Aztec empire, from 17th century gentlemen drinking chocolate to slave-worked plantations in the West Indies, and beyond! If you encounter a topic you want to know more about, just click the links to individual articles to take a deep dive into the most interesting episodes of chocolate’s history.
- History and Culture
- A Natural History of Cocoa
- Cocoa’s Earliest Uses
- Chocolate Travels to Europe
- Cocoa’s Cultural Relevance
- Beyond Drinking Chocolate
- Find Out More…
A Natural History of Cocoa
Theobroma Cacao (the cocoa tree)
Cocoa is now grown all across the world, in a band which stretches 20 degrees above and 20 degrees below the equator. But it didn’t originate there!
Theobroma cacao (the scientific name of the cocoa tree) first appeared in northern parts of the Amazon rainforest in South America, sometime between 10,000 and 15,000 BCE. Botanists believe that Theobroma cacao spread north from there, reaching the Orinoco river. Through this route, the plant spread to Ecuador and Southern Mexico, where it was likely first cultivated more than 5000 years ago.
However, many mysteries remain unsolved. We don’t know how people first realised that the bitter, astringent seeds hidden inside jewel-like cacao pods could be transformed into something edible, even tasty!
Theobroma cacao: what’s in a name?
The scientific name Theobroma cacao is in two parts. The first, Theobroma, is derived from Greek and translates roughly to ‘food of the gods’. We think this name really suits it, because chocolate is not only sublimely delicious, it also has religious significance for many cultures.
The second part of the scientific name, cacao, comes from the Nahuatl word cacahuatl. Nahuatl was the main language of the Aztec empire, and cacahuatl means cocoa tree, or tree bearing cocoa pods. The word “chocolate” can be traced back to a chocolatl or xocoatl, the Nahuatl word for the bitter, cocoa-based beverage drunk by the Aztecs.
Theobroma cacao was named according to the historic Linnaean system for classifying living organisms. The system gives each species a two-part Latin name, naming first its genus (the family of plants or animals to which it belongs), and then its individual species. Theobroma cacao was actually named by Carl Linnaeus, a famous Swedish botanist and the inventor of the system! It was included in his 1753 work Species Plantarum (Species of Plants). Linnaeus was interested in cocoa – in 1741 he had written about the plant’s medicinal properties!
Cocoa’s Earliest Uses
Chocolate in MesoAmerica
Traditionally, the Olmec people of Mexico were the first people to consume chocolate, from around 1500 BCE. Recent evidence, however, suggests that chocolate was already being cultivated and used by the Mayo-Chinchipe culture in Ecuador around 3500 BCE.
Early traces of drinking chocolate appear in archaeological sites relating to the Maya and Olmec civilisations, beginning in around 2000 BCE and 1500 BCE respectively. In Olmec culture, chocolate seems to have been associated with religious rituals; remains of cacao-based drinks have been found buried alongside sacrificial victims. Similarly, chocolate held a pivotal role in Mayan society, even featuring prominently in their creation myths.
(In the image on the right, you can see an engraving from the classical Maya period, of a priest offering up cocoa pods to the gods.)
In the medieval period, the Aztecs integrated chocolate into the building of their Empire. The Aztecs conquered cacao-producing regions and collected cocoa beans as tribute from the peoples who became subjects of the Aztec Empire. Like the Mayans before them, the Aztecs drank chocolate as a frothy spiced beverage. In Aztec culture, this drink was reserved for the elite, and was used in both royal feasts and religious ceremonies. Read more about chocolate in the Aztec empire here!
Cocoa as Currency: Worth its Weight in Gold?
Cocoa may have been used as currency for as long as it’s been consumed. The Mayo-Chincipe culture of Ecuador are believed to have been the first people to consume cocoa. Sacred seashells found in the Chinchipe basin indicate that the Mayo-Chinchipe traded with people on the Pacific coast. Cocoa pods may have been used in bartering.
Later, both the Maya and Aztec civilisations used cocoa as a form of currency. Cocoa’s important position in cultural life gave it inherent value. This made it a secure form of currency which could be exchanged for goods at fixed rates.
(Nowadays, when we think of chocolate currency we might think of chocolate coins like the ones pictures. These are actually Hanukkah gelt, part of Jewish tradition, which you can read about here in our article on chocolate and religion!)
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:
William Clarence-Smith, in his book Cocoa and Chocolate: 1765-1914, describes how cocoa beans continued to be used as currency into the late 18th century in Central American countries including Guatemala and Costa Rica. In Costa Rica, an official exchange rate was set between cocoa beans and silver, as traders used cocoa pods for large-scale commercial operations. In Nicaragua, cocoa beans continued to be used as currency for small transactions right up to the late 19th century!
Chocolate Travels to Europe
When Hernán Cortés and his band of Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico, they quickly encountered chocolate. Historical records tell us that when Cortés arrived in the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan, he was given chocolate to drink by Montezuma, the Aztec emperor. This makes sense, as chocolate was a valuable good in the Aztec Empire, and was used in diplomatic missions.
Indeed, the first recorded evidence of chocolate in Europe is as a diplomatic gift, given to Prince Philip of Spain in 1544. Philip was given chocolate by Kechki Mayans, who had come over to Spain with Dominican friars. The fact that this interaction was recorded doesn’t mean that 1544 was the first date that chocolate was brought to Europe. As Sophie and Michael Coe explain in their True History of Chocolate, the 16th century saw constant interaction between Spain and conquered territory in the New World. There were many opportunities for chocolate to cross the ocean on Spanish ships, although the first official shipment of cocoa beans reached Seville in 1585. By the early 17th century, drinking chocolate was a staple of life in the Spanish court.
Europe gets a Taste for Chocolate
Early European opinions of chocolate were mixed. In 1565, an Italian named Girolamo Benzoni wrote that ‘chocolate seemed more like a drink for pigs than a drink to be consumed by humans’. Benzoni had never tried chocolate, though. Years earlier, in 1524, a Fransican priest named Father Toribio de Benavente who visited Mexico as a missionary, wrote that chocolate ‘is good and it is considered as a nutritious drink.’
When chocolate first arrived in Europe, it was taken as a medicinal drink. The idea was that it would help bring the humours of the body back into balance. Yet people soon came to appreciate chocolate for its unique taste and filling qualities. As demand for chocolate rose, coffee houses began to sell it – and soon enough chocolate houses arose, giving gentlemen a place to enjoy the new drink in company.
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, because entry fees were charged at the doors of chocolate and coffee houses, chocolate quickly became a favourite drink of the elite.
Coffee and chocolate houses were a far cry from modern cafes. Instead of hosting young professionals working at laptops, these establishments were known for anarchy and licentiousness. Chocolate houses were a hotbed of gambling and sedition: they were places where people gathered to talk politics, and share forbidden ideas.
One famous chocolate house, Cocoa Tree Coffee House, had an underground tunnel to take plotters and traitors safely out of the premises. Alarmed at the unrest fomenting in coffee shops, Charles II put out an edict in 1675 banning public houses from selling coffee, tea, or chocolate. The new law encountered massive popular resistance and, to chocolate-drinkers’ delight, was rescinded after only a few weeks. Perhaps the law’s case was weakened by the fact that Ozdina’s chocolate house on St James’s Street was a favourite haunt of the King and his mistresses!
Cocoa’s Cultural Relevance
Chocolate and Religion
Chocolate was popular not only in the raucous cocoa houses of Restoration England, but also with the Catholic church of Europe. From Mesoamerican sacrificial rituals to ecclesiastical dilemmas, chocolate and religion prove an unlikely but persistent pairing.
In 16th and 17th Century Europe, fasting was a major part of Catholic religious life. The calendar was marked by over 100 days of fast per year. The rules of fasting were complex, but prohibited animal products. Chocolate, of course, is plant-based, but its status was fraught. Was it a food or a drink? Could it be consumed on fast days? The argument got so hot that in 1666 Pope Alexander VII had to step in, apparently declaring that ‘liquidum non frangit jejunum’ (liquids do not break the fast) in relation to drinking chocolate.
Chocolate in America: Back to the New World!
Enlightenment Europe had become infatuated with chocolate, and its colonies in North America soon followed suit.
Chocolate first landed in Florida in a Spanish ship in 1641, but the first American chocolate house opened in Boston in 1682. By 1733, cocoa beans were a major colonial import in America, and chocolate was enjoyed by people from all walks of life. Records show ladies drinking it for breakfast, and gentlemen feasting on venison and chocolate!
Believe it or not, the Boston Tea Party helped make chocolate part of American culture. The ‘Tea Party’ was in fact an act of political protest. A group of American colonists, angry at rising taxes from the British parliament, boarded docked ships in Boston Harbour. Tea was one of the commodities being taxed, and the rebels threw almost 350 chests of tea overboard. The protests led to tea boycotts among revolutionarily-minded Americans, and chocolate became the breakfast beverage of choice.
The Revolutionary War itself was fuelled by chocolate. Future founding father Benjamin Franklin had been selling ‘very good Chocolate’ alongside books and writing supplies since 1739. When war broke out, he helped provide American soldiers with rations, including chocolate! Chocolate was even offered to soldiers as payment instead of money, when funds got tight.
Beyond Drinking Chocolate
Most of the chocolate we eat is consumed in the form of chocolate bars. But these are a pretty new invention! Chocolate bars’s history is short; having actually only been around for the past couple of centuries: before that, most chocolate was drunk rather than eaten.
The first commercial chocolate bar was created by Fry and Sons in 1847. It was made possible by an invention from 1828. In 1828, Coenraad van Houten created a machine for pressing the fat from cocoa beans. This allowed for the separation of cocoa solids and cocoa fat or cocoa butter. Cocoa butter is the main ingredient in white chocolate, while cocoa solids are the key for milk and dark chocolate. Cocoa solids are more stable and easier to work with than full-fat chocolate. Chocolate bars were created by mixing defatted cocoa powder with melted cocoa fat.
Other modern inventions, such as conching, tempering and couverture paved the way for even more variety in chocolate consumption!
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!
The Modern Steward, a 1692 recipe book by an Italian cook named Antonio Latini, contains the first mentions of chocolate ice cream. It is described as ‘iced’ or ‘cold’ chocolate, and listed alonsgide sorbetti (iced fruit juices). Since hot chocolate at the time was often made with milk, sugar and spices, an iced version would have been recognisable as a complex version of the chocolate ice creams we know today. The idea caught on quickly, and chocolate ice cream became a favourite of the aristocracy in 17th- and 18th-century France, Italy and Spain.
In 1695, James Lightbody published a recipe book titled Every Man His Own Gauger. This book included the first recipes for ‘Chocolate Cakes and Rowles’, and recommended eating chocolate paste on toast. These late 17th-century experiments began a trend that’s only continued into the modern day. Nowadays, almost any food has a chocolate version: there’s chocolate salami, chocolate crisps, even chocolate bagels! The possibilities are endless.