Cocoa, History and curiosities of a sacred plant

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The cocoa tree is native to the Amazon basin, where its pulp has been fermented to prepare alcoholic beverages. However, during the 2nd millennium BC it acclimatized in Mesoamerica, where it was domesticated by the Olmecs, the first great civilization of Mesoamerica, who were pioneers in the use of its seed, both in a ritual, monetary and nutritional manner.

The Olmecs, located in the Gulf of Mexico around 1600 BC, had a great influence on later cultures or those with which they coexisted over time, such as the Toltec, Aztec or Mayan culture, developing very good commercial relations – in fact, it seems that Their trade networks extended to present-day Nicaragua. In recent archaeological excavations, Olmec vessels have been found that confirm what was suspected: that this people already used cocoa fruits, grinding them and cooking them in water and with different spices to obtain chocolate. Thus, we know that the Olmecs used individual ceramic containers to consume the cocoa brew, but also that they used it to serve and offer, ceremonially, in medium-sized vessels decorated with ritual symbols. We also know that they used the cocoa seed as an exchange, serving as currency, which indicates the level of importance it had for them. Over the centuries, the Olmecs extended the use and knowledge of the cocoa plant to the Toltec, Mayan and Aztec civilizations.

A Toltec legend tells, through the Tonalámatl Codex (a pictorial guide used by Mexica priests, magicians and sorcerers), that the god Quetzalcoatl, “the feathered serpent”, god of life and fertility, stole from the gods the cacao tree. Shortly after, he arrived as a man in the city of Tula, which the Toltecs defined as a paradise on Earth, where he ruled. He then gave the men a small bush with red flowers that offered dark fruits with which the gods prepared a drink intended only for them. Quetzalcoatl planted the tree and asked Tlaloc, god of rain, to feed it with its water and Xochiquetzal, goddess of joy and love, to decorate it with flowers. When the tree bore fruit, Quetzalcoatl collected the pods, toasted the fruit, ground it and then beat it with water in gourds, thus showing the Toltecs how to prepare chocolate. The Toltecs used the fruit to make this concoction and also as currency, as it was considered a symbol of wealth. It is said that thanks to this, the Toltecs became rich and wise, artists, builders. This had its consequences, because the gods, suspicious that men drank a drink only for gods, intoxicated Quetzalcoatl with pulque, who understood that he had to disappear from the human plane and left, throwing the last cocoa seeds near the sea. , and promising to return.

Cocoa began to have great importance during the classic period of the Mayan culture, between 150-900 AD. The Mayans considered cocoa to be a sacred element in any of its forms. We know its use by the Mayans especially through the cultural legacy they left us in vessels, reliefs or codices. In them, cocoa always appears related to high-ranking figures, which is why it is associated with the elite. It is mainly represented in images that report social ceremonies, such as love unions, where the couple share a cocoa gourd as a symbol of their union, or funerals, where cocoa is an essential companion of the deceased to the underworld.

Also the cultivation of cocoa itself was subject to rituals. For example, farmers who worked with this plant had to remain sexually abstinent for thirteen nights before planting. The cacao tree was sacred to the Mayans and was associated with the south and therefore with the underworld, as opposed to corn. Its protective animal is the jaguar.

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The Mayans developed many ways to prepare chocolate from the cocoa bean. They combined the tender cocoa pod with honey, which they called “k’ab kakaw”, on other occasions they mixed it with pinole and annatto, or with ground dried chilies, or with the native vanilla of the region. They also fermented it lightly with honey and added pochote seeds and leaves of a Chiapas flower, the orejuelo, with a strong peppery flavor. We know that they drank it foamy and that to increase its foam they added the cocoa flower (cacaoaxochitl). They also took it by adding pulque, or corn, or mixing cocoa water with ground corn.

It was the Mayans who provided the Aztecs with the cocoa seed. We know that its tree only occurs in tropical areas with temperatures above 18º and at an altitude of less than 1200 meters, so it could not be grown in Teotihuacán. It became a product associated with luxury along with jade, precious feathers and jaguar skins.

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Mayan ceramic vessel for drinking ceremonial chocolate that represents the monkey god with cocoa fruits. Toniná Museum, Chiapas

Furthermore, during the expansion of the Aztecs (between 900-1521 AD), its demand increased and it began to be an obligatory tribute for the new producing provinces. In the Aztec account books we find that they received an annual rate of 980 loads of cocoa, each load being about 25 kilos. Furthermore, thanks to some codices and later accounts from Spanish colonists, we know that a rabbit cost four cocoa seeds and the company of a woman cost ten seeds.

With the arrival of the Spanish to the Mexican coasts in 1519, the then top leader of the Aztecs, Moctezuma, confused the conquistador Hernán Cortés with Quetzalcoatl himself, and believing that the god had once again taken human form, he offered him an ostentatious banquet. of welcoming. The conqueror Bernal Díaz del Castillo tells us first-hand in his work “True History of the Conquest of New Spain” what the banquet was like and the importance that chocolate had in it (remember that this was the first time that Europeans tried cocoa, among many other things that would soon become an indispensable part of their diet):

“…from time to time they brought in some fine gold cups with a certain drink made with cocoa, which they said was to have access to women; and then we didn’t look into it; more than what I saw, that they brought about 50 jugs made of good cocoa with its foam, and from that he drank and the women served him while drinking with great respect…because Moctezuma was fond of pleasures and singing… and when he finished eating he also They put three very painted and gilded pipes, and inside they had liquidambar mixed with a herb called tobacco, and after they had danced and sung to him and raised the table, he took the smoke from one of those pipes, and very little by little and with “that fell asleep.” And later: “…they make a very healthy and healthy type of drink which is made of corn and cocoa, and they add certain quality spices to it, which are apricots and pepper and flowers; They call this chocolate and drink it hot.”

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Madrid Codex. The god Chac and the goddess IxChel exchange cocoa beans.

Francisco Hernández, another Spanish conquistador, described various drinks based on cocoa: “the property of these compound drinks is to excite the venereal appetite; The simple refreshes and nourishes greatly. Another type of drink is made with 25 cacahoapatachtli beans, the same number of cocoa beans and a handful of Indian grain (corn), none of the things mentioned above are usually added, which are hot, since only refreshment and refreshment is sought in this drink. nutrition”.

Thus we see that, in addition to its ceremonial use, it also had other uses as medicine, since through the oil extracted from the seed, ointments and ointments were prepared to treat ailments such as dry skin, cracked lips, burns, breasts. pain from parturients or hemorrhoids. It also continued to be used as an exchange currency, coexisting with other Spanish currencies.


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