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The Maya: Cacao's First Culture (Part I)

Maya woman pouring chocolate to froth it. Vase, c. 750AD, Princeton University Art Museum

The Maya were the first culture in what is now known as Mesoamerica to domesticate cacao. Mayan people were predominantly found in the regions we now call Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and Southern Mexico. Areas along the western border of Guatemala, Tikal, and northern Belize were the regions, believed, which the Maya grew most of their cacao. Their elite crop, grown extensively since 300-600BCE (Grube 32-33) was cacao. For growing cacao they were in a prime location geographically due to the extensive systems of swaps and lowlands on the Yucatán peninsula. The Maya believed in sacrifice of an ample variety to the Gods. They would offer large portions of their food to the Gods, and various blood and animal sacrifices were common. According to their beliefs, extremely painful trials of self-inflicted wounds and piercings appeased the Gods.

As part of the elaborate ‘tribute’ system through which the Maya paid homage to their gods, the people to their leaders, and later the Maya to the conquering Aztecs, they offered their precious crop, cacao, in the form of the raw bean and as the chocolate confection (265). This practice of giving only the beans in either form allowed common people to reserve and consume the healthful pulp that covered the bean. Thus, everyone could have cacao and give the cacao bean up as tribute. Such tributes to both gods and human rulers appear to have been very large: according to the Codex Mendoza (46), a source for pictographic explanations of Mayan life, the Maya would send 200 loads of cacao to the Aztec in a single installment.*

Cacao tributes stem from the role cacao played in Mayan cosmology. It was not the plant considered the source of cosmic power, but was rather a form of power that flowed from the gods to the people, and back again in the form of tribute. The source of the life of the Gods was the Ceiba tree, known also as The World Tree. This tree was said to be sacred because it was the embodiment of a common axis that linked levels of the universe. When fields were being cleared the Ceiba tree was not cut down or removed (Grube 281-84). While cacao might not be center of creation for the gods, it sustained them as health-sustaining nourishment and, as the Dresden Codex shows, was offered back to each other as a gift (Dreiss and Greenhill 9-14).

Such a sacred crop required the protection of the fertility goddess. There are many pots and statues that depict old and young gods with cacao growing out of their bodies, particularly their abdomen, such that it appears to be fruit of their center of power, similar to the way that pods grows off the trunk of the cacao tree. While there is no concrete evidence that there was a god of cacao, the maize deity appears to have acted as a double deity of both maize and cacao (Dreiss and Greenhill 14-18), which elevates cacao’s sacredness.** The fact that cacao appears attached, literally, to so many gods could also mean that cacao wasn’t specific to any god, but rather an aspect of the divine itself.

Many neighboring peoples would try to control the cacao producing regions in Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras because they desired the continuous supply of cacao. These neighboring kingdoms were not able to conquer the powerful Mayan kingdom so they were left to make trade for the cacao they wanted. The growing season was fairly short, but that did not exempt the farmers from tributes. Before the Aztec conquest of the peninsula in the 15th century, the Maya and the Aztecs traded cacao, obsidian, and other precious items. As the Aztec desire for cacao and other local products grew, even mass trade no longer produced a great enough supply and they made war on the Maya (Weaver 261-62).

After conquering a region the Aztec set up a tribute system which their territories would have to make biannual payments of cacao, cotton, and other precious items. As we have seen, this system of tributes was not an alien concept to the Maya. As they once made large tributes to their Gods, the Maya now made tributes to their rulers the Aztecs. During the time of avid trade, more than just cacao, cotton, and obsidian were traded. An exchange of ideas, beliefs, innovative thinking, and customs accompanied the material products exchanged since the beginning of relationship between the ancient Mayan and Aztec peoples... (post will continue on 6/6/16)

* Special thanks to archeologist Dr. Glenna Nielson-Grimm at the Natural History Museum of Utah for sharing her knowledge about Mayan glyphs and her research on the cacao residue on ancient ceramic vessels and sherds, which is helping to determine the use of cacao in the period before the Maya.

** According to the Mayan origin story, the first mother created humans out of maize dough, which is why the Maya are called the ‘maize people’. Mayans described the creation of the world as they would the layout of a milpa (maize field). This shows not only that agriculture was important to the Mayan way of life, but that agriculture was the way they understood the cosmos. Cultivating maize was not only the human origin story, but also that of the world itself for the Maya. Consequently, the god of maize was powerful. Maize was a key component in Mayan worship and the tortillas prepared for ceremonies were only to be made by men, as women were considered too spiritually unclean (Grube 82-83).


The Book of Tributes: Early Sixteenth-Century Nahuatl Censuses from Morelos. Ed. S.L. Cline. Los Angeles: UCLA Latin America Center Publications, 1993.

Codex Mendoza: Aztec Manuscript. Facsimile at the Bodleian Library. Ed. Ross Kurt, 1978.

Dreiss, Meredith L., and Sharon Edgar Greenhill. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 2008.

Grube, Nikolai. Maya: Divine Kings of the Rain Forest. Potsdam: H.F. Ullmann Publishing GmbH, 2012.

Penafiel, Antonio. Monumentos del Arte Mexicano Antiguo… Berlin: A. Asher, 1890.

Phillips, Charles. The Complete Illustrated History: Aztec & Maya. New York: Metro Books, 2014.

Sahagún, Bernardino de. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. Eds. and trans. Charles Dibble and Arthur Anderson. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1981.

Weaver, Muriel Porter. The Aztecs, Maya, and Their Predecessors: Archaeology of Mesoamerica. 3rd ed. San Diego: Academic Press, Inc., 1993.

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