The History of Cacao
The History of Cacao
Disclaimer: The KAKAO Team is continuously learning about the history of Cacao, much of which has been lost over time due to the colonization of Central and South America. While we deeply honor and respect Cacao's origins, we are not experts and therefore are committed to being students of this wisdom right alongside each and every one of you.
The cacao tree is believed to have evolved over the last 10 million years in the Upper Amazon region in an area that now includes parts of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Its use as a drinking chocolate dates back 5,300 years to the Mayo-Chinchipe civilization in Ecuador. Traces of theobromine, the main plant compound found in cacao, was discovered in some of their pottery. In traditional Mesoamerican cultures such as the Toltecs, Olmecs, Maya, Aztecs and Incas, cacao was a revered as a sacred drink reserved for the social elite and royalty.
From its origins in the Amazon basin of South America, cacao traveled North to Southern Mexico where it was used by the pre-Olmec peoples, then the Olmecs, the Mayans and the Aztecs. Known as the "food of the gods" (Theo = god, broma = food), a scientific name given to cacao by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753, cacao was originally used in the form of drinking chocolate by the ruling class in sacred rituals, ceremonies, gatherings, and festivals.
The word ‘cacao’ stems from the Olmec and Mayan word 'kakaw'. 'Xocolatl' in the Aztec Nahuatl language means ‘bitter water' or 'bitter drink’. This is where the modern word ‘chocolate’ comes from. The Aztecs believed cacao was a gift from their god Quetzalcoatl and by the 15th century even used cacao beans as a form of currency, placing a value on them greater than gold.
The Aztecs prepared their drinking chocolate by pouring the hot liquid back and forth between vessels, creating a foamy froth. 'Xocolatl' was served in the high court of Montezuma, who ruled the Aztec Empire from 1502 to 1520. Montezuma II, Aztec emperor during the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, reportedly indulged in over fifty portions of 'xocolatl' a day, each presented to him in a golden chalice.
When Hernán Cortés, Spanish conquistador, arrived in the Aztec Empire in the early 1500s, he saw 'xocolatl' being served in the high court of the Montezuma. It is said that Cortes was the first to add sugar to the rather bitter drink. Though responsible for the eventual fall of the Aztec Empire, when he returned to Spain in 1528, Cortés brought cacao with him, initially introducing cacao to the modern Western world. Not long after, drinking chocolate became very popular amongst the Spanish elite. From Spain, drinking chocolate spread widely across Europe.
The Dutch chemist Coenraad van Houten, the first to make Dutch process chocolate, eventually used his father's press to remove a lot of fat out of the cacao beans. He created a paste that could be made into cacao powder. This press also made it possible to remix the powder with cacao butter, creating a thick, chocolatey liquor. Van Houten then treated his cacao powder with alkaline salts to remove the bitter taste and make the cacao solids more water-soluble, resulting in what we know today as Dutch process chocolate (cocoa). In 1847, Joseph Fry figured out how to use cacao powder and cacao butter to create a chocolate paste that he could mold into a rectangle, thereby producing the world’s first ever chocolate bar.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Cacao's Mayan History
In Mayan tradition, cacao continues to be revered, studied, and worked with both inside and outside of ceremony. We have recently been made aware of a family of Elders (the Cruz family) in Guatemala that are openly and generously sharing Cacao's history and wisdom. They lead traditional Mayan ceremonies (typically centered around the sacred fire), which Cacao is at times a part of (as both an offering and as a medicine).
The Indigenous peoples and Elders that have held this wisdom deserve to be honored and respected from start to finish when it comes to Cacao or any plant medicine for that matter. We wish their voices to be heard, as we know we have much to learn from them collectively. We stand wholeheartedly in sourcing and working with cacao in full integrity, in a way that contributes to the keepers of the medicine, versus taking it without consent, or worse, in a way that damages their communities.
While KAKAO sources from and focuses on the communities in Peru, we believe that the Cruz family in Guatemala is bringing something forward that is powerful in its own right. We encourage our entire community to learn about the history of Cacao as they are guided, and at the very least to offer gratitude, reverence and reciprocity when working with KAKAO.
We want to make it clear that the way in which we hold ceremony (both personally and in a groups) is by no means meant to replicate or replace traditional Mayan Ceremonies.
For a 10 minute documentary on the history of Cacao as told by the Cruz family in Guatemala, click here.