A few months ago I traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, before the annual Society for American Archaeology conference. A colleague and I stopped at a local chocolate shop that boasted 100% cacao products. The drinks were incredible, and I even brought home a chocolate bar to tide me over for the next few weeks.
This visit got me thinking about chocolate and its rich history in the Americas. You probably already know that chocolate (known as Cacao theobroma) comes from the western hemisphere. You might even know that cacao as we know it is overly sugared and milky, nothing at all like the frothy chocolate drink consumed by the people of ancient Mesoamerica.
But do you know just how many different kinds of cacao existed in Mesoamerica? The truth is, we don’t even know for sure! With each new discovery of archaeologically-excavated cacao pots, we gather information from the chemical residue on the pots, as well as the hieroglyphic writing that provides a description of the kind of beverage the pot would have carried.
Scholars are creating lists of different descriptions of cacao as they come across them. Here are just a few varieties:
- Fruity cacao (yutal kakaw)
- Sweet cacao (tzah kakaw)
- Honey cacao (kaab’il/chaab’il kakaw)
- Cherry cacao (suutz kakaw)
- “Gruel-ish” atole cacao (sa’al kakaw)
- Wild/Foresty cacao (te’el kakaw)
- Fresh, wild cacao (tzih te’el kakaw)
- Drunk [inebriating] cacao (kal- kakaw)
It appears that the possibilities were endless.
Of course, this isn’t new to us– who hasn’t had chocolate-dipped strawberries or cheesecake? We know that chocolate has an endless sea of combinations, and we owe that knowledge to the domesticators of the plant: the ancient Mesoamerican people.
Looking for more information about cacao? Check out the books below, as well as my online course about the history and use of cacao in Mesoamerica!
- The True History of Chocolate, Sophie Coe
- America’s First Cuisines, Sophie Coe
- Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao (Maya Studies), Cameron L. McNeil (editor)
Beliaev, Dmitri, Albert Davletshin, and Alexandre Tokovinine. “Sweet cacao and sour atole: Mixed drinks on Classic Maya ceramic vases.” In Pre-Columbian Foodways, pp. 257-272. Springer, New York, NY, 2010.
Hull, Kerry. “An epigraphic analysis of Classic-Period Maya foodstuffs.” In Pre-Columbian Foodways, pp. 235-256. Springer, New York, NY, 2010.