Before knowing when chocolate was first used, it is useful to understand how it was used, as its original use had no resemblance to how we consume it today.
Chocolate Began as a Native American Drink
The first known use of chocolate was by the Maya between 500 to 600 C.E. in the south Yucatan.
European explorers to central America discovered cocoa plantations being grown by both the Azetcs and the Incas. The beans were so esteemed that they were used as money.
But for consumption, they weren’t chewed or prepared into anything like the chocolate we eat now.
The beans were made into a drink called cocolatl.
They roasted the beans and then ground them into pastes between stones and made them into cakes. These cakes could be mixed with water to make the drink.
Sometimes vanilla, honey, or other flavorings were added. By all accounts, this drink was not all that pleasant.
It was bad tasting, astringent, and fatty (the fat would separate into globules and just float around unpleasantly) at least according to some people who experienced it at the time.
This didn’t stop the Emperor Montezuma from drinking 50 jars per day of the stuff. If you believe the legend. 1
Archaeologists glean a lot of information from printed references to chocolate and painted scenes depicting its use. There are also ceramic vegetables adorned with artwork concerning chocolate and in some of these vessels can still be found chemical residue of cacao. Analyzing this residue shows that chocolate was used in several different drinks and gruels in a variety of different pots. One of the most famous of these vessels is a lidded vessel from Rio Azul. Scientists from Hershey Corporation first identified chemical traces of chocolate from this vessel in 1990.
The Mayan cacao vessel shown below, from Walter’s Art Museum in Baltimore, is about 13 inches high and 9 inches wide and presumed to date from 250-550 C.E. The hieroglyphic text on the cup confirm that it is a drinking vessel (and quite a large one at that), saying kakaw yuk’ib or “the cacao drinking cup of…” The text also names the giver of the cup and its owner, a father and son, neither of which are known from other historical documents but who must be either of a royal family or at least of nobility, judging by the ornate art on the cup and from the elaborate naming text.
The cup features the Maize God as an embodied cacao tree, wearing a bejeweled headdress topped with a sprouting cacao tree. Cacao trees also adorn the lid and its knob is also a cacao tree with a (broken) bird who may represent a deity. There are also cacao pods on the vessel and overlapping bands of cacao leaves which unite the text and image panels.
Many Mayan Hieroglyphic texts show scenes of chocolate use, most commonly as a type of frothy drink. It was obviously important in royal courts but it also seems to have been a popular drink for wedding ceremonies. Even today, Mayan descendents tells us that cacao seeds continue to be used as a wedding gift from the family of the groom to the bride’s family. It is also important as an offering in other contexts, supporting its historical use as a unit of currency. 2
Chocolate Drinking in Spain
Although you would probably assume that tea or coffee was the first known caffeine containing beverage to hit Europe, chocolate actually came earlier. In 1528, chocolate was displayed by Cortes in Spain, fresh from his conquest of Mexico. Tea and coffee came later that century. However, although chocolate at first spread wider than those beverages, tea and coffee soon outstripped its popularity. 3
The cacao tree could not be grown in Europe, but Spain, by the early 1600’s, controlled much of the cacao producing lands, while Portugal controlled most of the rest. Spain became the dominate chocolate drinking couuntry of Europe, and making elaborate chocolate drinks was quite common by the beginning of the 17th century, with recipes that included pounded cacao beans, Mexican chile peppers (or peppercorns in a pinch), ground flowers such as vinacaxttides (little ears) and mesasuchil; cinammon, almond and other nuts; sugar, and sometimes annato for color.
It is believed that the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) originated in South America, either in the rainforests in Venezuela, in the upper Orinoco River region, or in the Amazon basin of Brazil. Today, the trees are grown in Mexico, Central and South America, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. Although they are still sometimes grown on small farms, much of the chocolate we eat comes from large plantations owned by companies. 4
- Beckett, S. T. The Science of Chocolate. Cambridge, UK: RSC, 2008
- Grivetti, Louis, and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate History, Culture, and Heritage. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2009.
- Hudson, Charles M. Black Drink: A Native American Tea. Athens: University of Georgia, 1979.
- Morganelli, Adrianna. The Biography of Chocolate. New York, NY: Crabtree Pub., 2005