The Exploratorium

...Chocolate       Page Three

Cacao God
  The Cacao God of the Classic Maya, from a bowl engraving.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Aztecs had an advanced and powerful civilization located in what is now central Mexico. Many people believe that the Aztecs first developed chocolate. However, chocolate goes back much farther. The ancient Maya, who inhabited what is now parts of southern Mexico and Central America, certainly consumed chocolate. In fact, the word "cacao" is Mayan: as early as 500 A.D., the Mayans were writing about cacao on their pottery. Some think chocolate may be even older, dating back to the Olmec civilization that preceded the Maya.

"Metate" cacao grinder
Woodcut of a "metate," used with an element much like a rolling pin to grind cacao beans into paste for making chocolate drinks.  

The chocolate of these Mesoamerican civilizations was consumed as a bitter-tasting drink made of ground cacao beans mixed with a variety of local ingredients. An officer serving with Cortez observed Motecuhzoma, the ruler of the Aztecs, drinking fifty flagons of chocolate a day. The frothy beverage, which was sometimes made with water, and sometimes with wine, could be seasoned with vanilla, pimiento, and chili pepper. It was thought to cure diarrhea and dysentery, and was believed to be an aphrodisiac. Cortez is said to have tried the beverage, but found it too bitter. He did, however, write to King Carlos I of Spain, calling "xocoatl" a "drink that builds up resistance and fights fatigue."

For many Europeans, drinking chocolate (especially before it was sweetened) was an acquired taste. Spanish missionary Jose de Acosta, who lived in Peru in the late 1500s, described it this way:

What's in a Name?
There is some confusion about the derivation of the word "chocolate." The Merriam Webster Dictionary, and many other sources, state that it comes from the Aztec, or more accurately Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs), word chocolatl. Michael Coe, Professor of Anthropology at Yale, and author of The True History of Chocolate, presents a different view. He argues that the word chocolatl appears in "no truly early source on the Nahuatl language or on Aztec culture." He cites the distinguished Mexican philologist Ignacio Davila Garibi who proposed the idea that the "Spaniards had coined the word by taking the Maya word chocol and then replacing the Maya term for water, haa, with the Aztec one, atl." One other possibility is that chocolate is derived from the Maya verb chokola'j, which means, "to drink chocolate together."

"Loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant to taste. Yet it is a drink very much esteemed among the Indians, where with they feast noble men who pass through their country. The Spaniards, both men and women, that are accustomed to the country, are very greedy of this Chocolaté. They say they make diverse sorts of it, some hot, some cold, and some temperate, and put therein much of that 'chili'; yea, they make paste thereof, the which they say is good for the stomach and against the catarrh."

Soon chocolate would make its way across the Atlantic -- first to Spain, and then to the rest of Europe. The first official shipment was made in 1585 from Veracruz to Seville.


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