Ancient Roots

From Ancient Roots

History of Cacao

history of cacao

Cacao is a celebrated drink in modern day Mesoamerica.

This is how we discovered the joys of cacao – through the cafes in Chiapas and Oaxaca (in Mexico) that are exclusively dedicated to the supply of delicious, frothy cacao – and sometimes churros and other sweet treats to go with it.

Cacao is still used as an offering in some Mayan rituals in Chiapas and in Guatemala. These ceremonies are quite different from cacao ceremonies as they are shared in the Western World, but there is no doubt that cacao is still used as an offering for the Gods.

History of Cacao

Mesoamerican and South American peoples have been preparing and drinking cacao for millennia and the history is rich. There is a lot we don’t know, the below is by no means an attempt at a providing a comprehensive history, it does provide an indication of the unique and ancient history of this very special chocolate beverage.

Cacao and churros
Delicious frothy cacao & churros that we enjoyed in Chiapas, 2019
Raw Cacao Beans

History of Cacao Through the Ages



It’s considered by anthropologists that the Olmecs first used cacao as a ceremonial drink, although there aren’t written records of this, pots and vessels uncovered from this ancient civilization do show traces of theobromine– the unique chemical in cacao.

Ancient pottery



Historical written records show that Mayans had embraced cacao as a sacred food. Mayan mythology says that cacao was discovered by the god Sovereign Plumed Serpent on a mountain and gifted to the Mayan peoples. The Maya celebrated an annual festival every April to honor Ek Chuah, (God of Cacao).

Chocolate drinks were being used ceremonially to mark celebrations and to finalise transactions of significance. At the same time however, there is evidence to suggest that the availability of cacao was so widespread, that many people were simply drinking cacao as the delicious, spicy, chocolate drink that it is. Anthropologists believe that at this stage, cacao was rarely sweetened but was flavoured with locally available herbs and spices ranging from chilli, vanilla, and magnolia.



Similar to the Mayan tradition, Aztec peoples also believed that cacao was gifted to them by their god Quetzalocatl (also called ‘Plumed’ or ‘Feathered Serpent’), who discovered cacao on a mountain with other treasured foods.

It seems that in Aztec culture, cacao was reserved for the elite – specifically for preists, high government and military officials and distinguished warriors. Evidence also suggests that cacao was reserved for adult males.

Cacao beverages were served to those who had been selected as human sacrifices in the annual festival to honour Huitzilopochtli (God of War & the Sun) and to Yacatecuhtli (God of Traders) in the annual November festival of Panquetzaliztli. It is thought that these offerings of cacao were intended to comfort and prepare these beings before they met their fate.

In the Aztec culture cacao was depicted as one of the major World Trees, watching the South, representing death, blood, and ancestors in the colour red.

Famously, the Aztec ruler Montezuma II is said to have consumed gallons of cacao each day for energy and as an aphrodisiac. He even fed it to his armies prior to battle!

Aztec Empire capital
Depiction of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire

Mixtec & Zapotec


Records show that for Mixtec and Zapotec peoples, cacao played a significant role in religious life, with cacao being reflected in mythological scenes. In the 12th century, cacao was used as the seal of the marriage Mixtec ruler 8 Deer at Monte Alban, in Oaxaca.

Many cacao pots were also buried with people, it is unclear however if these dishes were buried with their owners simply as precious items or whether the dishes were used as part of the funeral ceremony.

Monte Alban
Monte Alban in Oaxaca, Mexico

Spanish & European


Spanish conquistadors also loved cacao! It’s not entirely clear when or how the Spanish were first acquainted with cacao – some tales suggest that it was at the court of Aztec ruler Montezuma. However, within a century cacao had been introduced to Europe and was being used for both the culinary and medicinal uses in Western Europe. Cacao plantations were subsequently established in the Caribbean and Philippine colonies.

After the 1880s, cacao was well and truly established as the chocolate we know today!

Cacao as Currency!

Just like gold and silver are today, cacao beans were once used as currency. There is even evidence of clay ‘cacao beans’, which it is believed may have been counterfeits for the real deal!

The quote on the left that captures the view of 16th C secretary to Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortéz Cortez, López-Gómara, describing how cacao beans were used as currency in a marketplace in Tlatelolco (today a northern suburb of Mexico City).

Cacao as Medicine

There is evidence that in Olmec, Maya and Aztec peoples, cacao was used both as a primary remedy and also as a vehicle to deliver other medicines. Colonial Spanish documents show that this knowledge was shared and Europeans started to use cacao for its remedial effects. For example, the ‘Florentine Codex’ dated 1590 suggested a remedy of cacao beans, maize and the herb tlacoxochitl (Calliandra anomala) to alleviate fever, shortness of breath and heart conditions. It seems that cacao was used by medical practitioners as a tool to improve digestion, mental fatigue, stimulate the production of breast milk and even as an aphrodisiac.

Cacao pod and beans

Take a deep dive into the history of cacao! Find the weblinks and full references to journal articles that inspired and informed us.

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