In the West, chocolate is thought of as a sweet, sugary treat that the majority of the population is introduced to as children where it quickly becomes a favorite delight for the palate. However, chocolate has a long history of use as a nutritious food, a valuable medicine, and as a sacred healing rite in spiritual rituals in ancient Central American culture that has been largely forgotten by the West.
The cultivation of Chocolate dates back at least 3,000 years in Central America. There, the Olmec civilization who was the mother civilization to both the Mayans and the Aztecs, prepared cacao nibs into a hot, frothy beverage which was drunk to provide both unrivaled nutritional sustenance, an uplifting and sustained energetic state, as well as one of spiritual awareness. It became such an integral part of Olmec society that it passed on to its successors, the Maya who remained in the southern rainforest and the Aztec who settled in the northern highlands.
The Mayans and Aztecs continued to refine the Olmec recipe into their own beverages, adding other regional plants and herbs such as chili pepper, cinnamon, as well as honey to enhance both the effects and flavor of the beverage. The Mayans referred to the beverage as Xocalatl while the Aztecs referred to it as Chocalatl. When the Spanish arrived, they adopted their best translation of the Aztect word as “Chocolate.”
By 1400AD, the Aztec empire had expanded to encompass much of the highlands of Mexico, finding themselves far away from the lush lowlands of southern Mexico and central America where their precious cacao grew. This region was still controlled by the declining Mayan empire, but not for long. The Aztec empire found itself with Cacao as a currency, and Mayan cacao trees as their money mills. The Aztecs insatiable demand for cacao as a food, medicine, and currency, became a driving economic force in the Aztec’s expansion of trade routes and the eventual takeover of the Maya. When the Aztecs pushed South and conquered the Maya, they forced them to pay a tax to the Aztec empire in the form of cacao beans so that they could continue to fuel the highland Aztec economy with their most valued commodity.
A note on the value of Cacao in Aztec society: It was literally a currency that grew on trees and one could trade their cacao beans for goods and services just like money. A rabbit could be traded for 10 beans while a slave went for 100. It is for this reason that the poor would save their beans instead of drinking them. King Montezuma of the Aztec empire was obsessed with the drink, and was said to consume bowl after bowl of chocolatl in public as a show of extravagance and opulence.
When the Spanish arrived in 1519, King Montezuma and his men introduced Cortez and his men to their prized “Chocolatl” beverage. For the Aztecs thought that Cortez was the god Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent god who was responsible for all vegetation including their sacred cacao trees. Quetzalcoatl was the most deified God of the ancient Aztecs and they had been waiting for him to return for a very long time according to prophesies. Instead, he simply brought ruin to the Aztecs through war and smallpox.
When Cortez brought Chocolate back to Europe, it was mixed with vanilla, sugar and milk to cut the bitterness and it fell into great favor with the higher class.