Author’s note: A lot of the information on how the Maya viewed and ate and drank cacao comes from the Classic period. This is because this period has the most text information from painted texts and pictures on ceramics, which come from the context of what is understood to be the elite class. The Maya codices, understood to be from the Postclassic period, are another source of information on the Maya view of cacao.
Other than corn, one of the foods most talked about when it comes to
Maya cuisine is cacao. It comes from the cacao (Theobroma cacao), also
known as the chocolate tree, which the ancient Maya cultivated for its
fruit as well as its seeds – from which they made cacao. The ancient
Maya viewed cacao as a precious substance, and used it as food as well
as for religious and economic purposes.
Found only in wet, tropical lowlands, the cacao is found in
Mesoamerica and the Amazon Basin. The tree has leathery and long
leaves and a wide trunk. The tree produces pink flowers on its trunk
and branches—flowers whose smell repels human noses. After these
bloom, the tree produces its edible, red-brown fruit pods with sweet
flavored flesh and twenty to fifty seeds.
The ancient Maya, who in the Yucatan Peninsula at least, grew
plantations of cacao trees, possessed methods to grow the trees well.
They pruned the trees to make them grow more seedpods (this happens
with some other plants as well), and they had to keep the trees out of
It is understood that the ancient Maya began using cacao seeds as a
food source 2,000 years ago or so. Based on a vessel with a spout that
comes from Belize, cacao consumption started somewhere around 600 BC
to around 400 BC.
Cacao usage has been found throughout the Classic period in the
southern lowlands of the Maya world. But in the northern area of the
Maya world, the Yucatan Peninsula, archaeologists have only found
cacao consumption as far back as the Late Classic.
To begin the process of making cacao, the Maya first opened the
seedpod and removed the seeds, which were white in color and bitter.
Then they fermented the seeds for several days, decreasing the
bitterness and bringing out the chocolate flavor. After fermentation,
the seeds were roasted and shelled. The ancient Maya then mashed the
seeds into a paste and it was this paste that they used for in food.
Four hundred seeds makes a pound of chocolate -- a bag of baking chips
is about twelve or fourteen ounces, four to two less ounces than a
pound. This means it takes about 10 to 20 pods to make a pound of
Cacao Drinks and Foods
The ancient Maya made different kinds of drinks (hot and cold ones)
via the medium of cacao. They would flavor their chocolate drinks with
such things as chilies and seeds such as annatto. Another ingredient that
the ancient Maya would sometimes use is honey.
Of the different kinds, a well-known kind of drink the ancient Maya
made included chocolate and corn, and was a frothy/foamy drink that
was savory. The foam was considered the best part of this drink.
However, drinks weren’t the only food the ancient Maya used cacao for. They
also used cacao in gruels.
The vessels that the Maya used for the serving of cacao-based drinks
come in a range of shapes. The most common kind of vessel the Maya
used for chocolate is a basic cup. More rare is the spouted vessel
that looks like a teapot.
In the ancient Maya religion, cacao seeds were a kind of offering to
the gods. In the Popol Vuh – a book recording Quiche Maya myths –
chocolate was something that came out of the mountain Paxil, when it broke open.
Beyond mythological meaning, it is also understood that people drank
the foamy chocolate drink during their wedding ceremony.
Other than having a religious significance, cacao also served a
function in the ancient Maya economy: cacao seeds were used as a kind
Some of what is known about what the Maya made using chocolate comes
from chemical analysis of residues on the bottom of ceramics. Hershey
Corporation was the first to discover the chemical signature of
chocolate in 1990, using a lidded vessel discovered in Rio Azul.
The Free Dictionary: Encyclopedia: Cacao
Farming and Hunting"; Emory Dean Keoke, Kay Marie Porterfield; 2005
"Chocolate - History, Culture, and Heritage"; Louis E. Grivetti, Howard-Yana Shapiro; 2011