Among the best practices that passed to from Mayan to Aztec culture were ingenious growing methods particular to that geography, which the Maya had developed over centuries. Such effective and enormous crop-producing techniques were due in part to expansive (and advanced) irrigation techniques. In swampy regions an intricate canal system was made that allowed for far more irrigation than that of traditional chinapas (raised planting beds and fields). They would use human waste as fertilizer (Grube 58).
Though they grew cacao prolifically, the Maya did not practice mono-culture, as the Spaniards would after conquest. They farmed cacao in balance with other plants in an early version of silvaculture, preserving certain wild plants in their natural habitat without cultivation or domestication (74). Plantation farmers practiced intensive agriculture techniques that needed ample labor, usually in the form of slaves. These slaves predominantly came from central Mexican regions and given to the Maya (Phillips, 330-31). They were given to the Maya by the Aztec empire and then used for various purposes, one of them being free labor.
The Maya farmed cacao in canal-irrigated shaded plantations, household ‘kitchen gardens’, and ceremonial ‘sacred gardens’ (75). Established farmers with plantations sourced crops to offer for food and for tribute. Parcels of land designated for growing were less the farmer’s personal property than the property of the society and thus subject to tributes and various other forms of regulation. Kitchen gardens, on the other hand, were devoted to a specific set of plants that were mainly used for seasoning, cooking, and medicinal purposes. These were private family plots in rural areas with ample space, and their yields were not necessarily shared with others. Royal and elite kitchen gardens, called ‘sacred‘, were established in the cities, especially near temples for which they supplied ceremonial and medicinal crops. Farmers practiced intensive agriculture techniques that needed ample labor usually in the form of slaves. These slaves predominantly came from central Mexican regions and given to the Maya by the Aztec empire and then used for free labor (Phillips 330-31).
In that sense, the Aztecs practiced ‘smart conquering’, adopting the effective practices and products from conquered peoples. In fact, Mayan methods of growing and preparing cacao were fully incorporated into Aztec life, such that when European conquerors arrived in Mexico less than a century after Aztec conquest, they credited those practices to the Aztecs. The Florentine Codex, compiled by Franciscan Friar Bernardino de Sahagún c. 1550, describes the specialized pots and methods of making chocolate from cacao used by professional “sellers of fine chocolate” who sold it at the market. That job, he notes, was reserved for criolla, or women of Spanish descent who were born in the colonies and thus has mixed heritage (Sahagún 93).
Cacao appears in Book 10 of the codex, devoted to the people of Mesoamerica under the Aztec Empire. In fact, Sahagún writes not about cacao, but about chocolate, the drink prepared from the bean, to emphasize the fact that for the Aztecs, the confection was a ritualized part of cultural life. Women who prepared it had special skill—which had been passed down from Mayan foremothers to Aztec women and then on to criolla, who in turn taught it to missionaries who sent that knowledge to Spain. The Spanish also readily took to the idea of plantation farming and slave labor, which led in under a century to large-scale plantations and a devastating slave-trade from the West Coast of Africa. From the late Mayan Empire, through the Aztec conquest and Spanish occupation of Mesoamerica up to our day, the story of cacao has always been about sacred power, social ritual, and ingenious farming, as well as conquest and exploitation.
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.