The history of chocolate begins in Mesoamerica. Chocolate, the fermented, roasted, and ground beans of the Theobroma cacao, can be traced to the Mokaya and other pre-Olmec people, with evidence of chocolate beverages dating back to 1900 BC. The Aztecs believed that cacao seeds were the gift of Quetzalcoatl, the God of wisdom, and the seeds had so much value they were used as a form of currency. Originally prepared only as a drink, chocolate was served as a bitter, frothy liquid, mixed with spices, wine or corn puree. It was believed to have aphrodisiac powers and to give the drinker strength.
After its arrival in Spain in the sixteenth century, sugar was added to it and it became popular through Europe, first among the ruling classes and then among the common people. In the 20th century, chocolate was considered a staple, essential in the rations of United States soldiers at war.
Cultivation, use, and cultural elaboration of cacao were early and extensive in Mesoamerica, to which the cacao tree is native. When pollinated, the flower of the cacao tree eventually forms a kind of sheath, or ear, 20" long hanging from the branches. Within the sheath are 30 to 40 brownish-red almond-shaped beans embedded in a sweet viscous pulp. While the beans themselves are bitter due to the alkaloids within them, the sweet pulp may have been the first element consumed by humans. Evidence suggests that it may have been fermented and served as an alcoholic beverage as early as 1400 BC.
While researchers do not agree which Mesoamerican culture first domesticated the cacao tree, the use of the fermented bean in a drink seems to have arisen in Central America. Scientists have been able to confirm its presence in vessels around the world by evaluating the "chemical footprint" detectable in the microsamples of contents that remain. Ceramic vessel with residues from the preparation of chocolate beverages have been found at archaeological sites dating back to the Early Formative (1900-900 BC) period. For example, one such vessel found at an Olmec archaeological site on the Gulf Coast of Veracruz, Mexico dates chocolate's preparation by pre-Olmec peoples as early as 1750 BC. On the Pacific coast of Chiapas, Mexico, a Mokaya archaeological site provides evidence of cacao beverages dating even earlier, to 1900 BC.
Earliest evidence of domestication of the cacao plant dates to the Olmec culture from the Preclassic period. The Olmecs used it for religious rituals or as a medicinal drink, with no recipes for personal use. Little evidence remains of how the beverage was processed.
The Mayan people, by contrast, do leave some surviving writings about cacao which confirm the identification of the drink with the gods. The Dresden Codex specifies that it is the food of the rain deity Kon, the Madrid Codex that gods shed their blood on the cacao pods as part of its production. The consumption of the chocolate drink is also depicted on pre-Hispanic vases. The Mayans seasoned their chocolate by mixing the roasted cacao seed paste into a drink with water, chile peppers and cornmeal, transferring the mixture repeatedly between pots until the top was covered with a thick foam.
By 1400, the Aztec empire took over a sizable part of Mesoamerica. They were not able to grow cacao themselves, but were forced to import it. All of the areas that were conquered by the Aztecs that grew cacao beans were ordered to pay them as a tax, or as the Aztecs called it, a "tribute". The cacao bean became a form of currency. The Spanish conquistadors left records of the value of the cacao bean, noting for instance that 100 beans could purchase a canoe filled with fresh water or a turkey hen. The Aztecs associated cacao with the god Quetzacoatl, whom they believed had been condemned by the other gods for sharing chocolate with humans. Unlike the Maya of Yucatán, the Aztecs drank chocolate cold. It was consumed for a variety of purposes, as an aphrodisiac or as a treat for men after banquets, and it was also included in the rations of Aztec soldiers.
Pueblo people, who lived in an area that is now the U.S. Southwest, imported cacao from Mesoamerican cultures in southern Mexico or Central America between 900 and 1400. They used it in a common beverage consumed by everyone in their society.
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