THE ANCIENT HISTORY OF CACAO

Last Updated on March 14, 2021 by Nick Baskett

Cacao, like coffee, is a global speciality crop that has experienced some trouble adjusting to climate change, a changing market, and industrialized agriculture. Unlike coffee which has only been cultivated for about 500 years, cacao has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years. By studying how ancient Amazonian’s cultivated cacao and fusing that information with modern genetics, we may be able to create a thriving and diverse future for cacao.

Archaeologists routinely rewrite the history for cacao as new evidence emerges throughout Central and South America. Until recently, archaeologists traced the origins of chocolate to Central American countries associated with the Mayans and Aztecs.

Cacao was immensely popular in their culture, so much so that it was commonly used as currency1. The scientific name of the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, literally translates to “Food” (Theo) “of Gods” (broma) in Greek. Cacao was more than just food to the Mayans.

It was used to treat medical ailments like an upset stomach or kidney issues. Cacao pods are found in many burial sites throughout Central and South America. The obsession with cacao is clear through archaeological evidence but recent findings trace the consumption of cacao back even farther to the Amazon rainforest. Ceramic containers found in the Mayo-Chinchipe region of Ecuador show that cacao was being used by the indigenous some 5,500 years ago.2

Things got even more interesting when plant geneticists began studying the archaeological sites of the Amazon rainforest. In the wild, plants produce many compounds but most of the compounds evolved to keep creatures from consuming the plant.

Some plants can create bitter compounds or poison to prevent consumption and others create physical defences such as thorns. Some plants, on the other hand, create compounds that attract specific creatures usually with the hope of pollinating or spreading their seed. Consider nectar to attract pollinators or a sweet strawberry to entice an animal to eat it and spread its seeds once digested.

When people decide to domesticate a plant, we want it to produce tons of huge sweet delectable fruit without all the nasty defences. If that plant does what we want it to, we plant it again and again.

Let’s use cacao as an example. The original wild cacao plant was likely focused on simply surviving and spreading its seed. If you took a bite out of the small seeds, you may have detected some sweetness but there was likely bitterness and astringency as with most wild plants. Overtime, however, someone likely stumbled across a cacao pod full of sweeter seeds.

Perhaps a cacao tree nearby had large fruit. Perhaps another tree was loaded with cacao pods. A plant breeder would experiment and cross these trees over generations until one of the resulting trees produced many huge sweet cacao pods.

Imagine you’re walking through a remote area of the Amazon rainforest, and you’re struck by the pristine environment and the lack of human interference. What plant geneticists are noticing, is that regions close to archaeological sites are chock-full of domesticated plant species including cacao and more than 85 other tree species.3

Much of the vegetation in the Amazon basin has been influenced by the genetics of these domesticated plants. Their genetics are hyper dominant and geneticists are now realising that more of the forest is structured for human use than you may imagine.4 The breeding work of the Mayans and Aztecs can still be seen today!

The cacao beans were traded all throughout the Pacific coast of South America to Central America and it even made its way to North America in what is present-day New Mexico and Utah.5

When archaeologists tested shards of pottery from Puebloan sites, they found chemical traces of cacao on specific vessels. Pottery shaped like tall pint glasses covered in elaborate designs were used specifically for drinking cacao and these were found 1200 miles (ca. 1,931 km) north of the growing region for cacao.

It was clearly a valuable currency in this vast trading network. Cacao is a shining example of successful plant breeding during the pre-colonial Amazon region and it was cultivated for thousands of years before anyone from the Old World got a chance to try it.

When Spanish conquistadors explored Mexico in 1521, they noticed the Aztecs’ obsession with cacao. The Aztecs would remove the beans from the pods, ferment them, dry them, and then grind them. They would mix the resulting paste with water and doctor it up with chile peppers or other ingredients such as vanilla or honey to make a frothy beverage.

A Spanish chronicler for Cortes noted that in the royal warehouses of the Aztec king, Moctezuma II, there were hordes of gold, precious gems, and cacao.6 After the notorious episode of guns, germs, and colonization, Cortes brought many treasures back to Spain including cacao. Merchants like Francisco Carletti began importing cacao regularly in 1606 and it spread like wildfire throughout much of Europe.7

Cacao fit right in with other luxury imported goods and was reserved for the upper class and royalty. Although Europeans didn’t believe in a divine connection through cacao, it was still revered for centuries as a delicacy and medicine for an array of ailments.

Scholars would drink chocolate for a leg up in brainwork. Thomas Gage, the famous British officer would drink two cups in the morning, two cups in the afternoon, and he stated

when I was purposed to sit up late to study, I would take another… about seven or eight at night, which would keep me waking till about midnight. 8

With the demand of cacao skyrocketing, Europeans attempted to cultivate it in their Caribbean and South American colonies as they did with sugar cane. One of the key differences, however, is that cacao is a perennial tree that takes five years to bear fruit whereas sugar cane can be harvested the year it is planted.

Also, the first Spaniards to try cultivating cacao ran into a number of roadblocks. The domesticated Mayan and Aztec varieties taste incredible but many of them are susceptible to a plethora of diseases. The Spanish attempted to start cacao plantations all throughout the Caribbean and Central America but were met with earthquakes, blight, pests, and sometimes the plants just simply wouldn’t produce pods. 9 Although the wild cacao didn’t taste as great, it tended to be more resistant to disease.

Despite the difficulties with the cultivated cacao, Spaniards devised a clever way to keep a steady supply of chocolate flowing into Europe. The top shelf cacao came from the Caracas region in Venezuela but there wasn’t enough to meet demand so chocolate manufacturers began mixing it with inferior chocolate from Ecuador as a sort of filler.10

This practice still exists today among many of the large chocolate companies. Today’s chocolate bars are usually loaded with so much sugar, dairy, or vanilla that the quality of the beans is negligible. In the craft chocolate market however, the source and quality of cacao is paramount.

While Spain was trying to figure out the most efficient system for growing cacao, another issue arose with the source of labour. At the time, many cacao plantations were using indigenous people as slave labour but many plantation owners realized they had a tendency to flee.11

Their thousands of years of autonomous civilization may have made it difficult for them to transition into slaves. Because of this and an outbreak of smallpox, plantation owners found themselves lacking manpower.12

To keep up with the ever-growing demand from European elites, the Portuguese began transporting African slaves. 13 Along the slave/colonial trade route is also where we find the introduction of cacao to Africa in the late 19th century which still has a thriving cacao market to this day.14

Over the next few centuries, cacao imports became more consistent and the cultivation practices were honed. The next big shift in the history of chocolate came during the industrial revolution when the first “eating chocolate” arose in Europe.

A man by the name of Joseph Fry created the first chocolate bar by mixing cacao butter with cacao powder and soon after, well-known names such as Cadbury and Nestle hit the market. By riding the wave of industrialization, chocolate consumption exploded among all social classes, and we arrive to the present day industrialized chocolate market. (editors note – Fry’s is still a reputable name in the UK for chocolate).

While the large chocolate producers can get away with less than the best beans because of the other overpowering ingredients, the artisanal chocolate makers require high quality beans, because their bars are made almost predominantly out of cacao. These are the companies that tend to push for fair wages for cacao growers, and support ethical sourcing with direct trade.

In the last decade, the number of bean-to-bar chocolate producers has exploded in the US and many other countries, from the UK, and Europe, to Nordic countries, and Asia! The future of artisanal chocolate will require a great understanding of cacao’s history in order to grow incredible beans and create an ethical growing environment for farmers across the globe.

See “Chocolate gets its sweet history rewritten” by Erin Blakemore, National Geographic, October 31, 2018See the UNESCO webpage: https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/6091/

See “Persistent effects of pre-Columbian plant domestication on Amazonian forest composition”, C. Levis et al, Science, March 03, 2017

See “How the Amazon’s Cashews and Cacao Point to Cultivation by the Ancients”, Nicholas St. Fleur, New York Times, March 3, 2017

See “Cacao in Chaco Canyon” by Michael Mozdy, Natural History Museum of Utah, August 4, 2016

This source was an incredible historical analysis of cacao with a very deep list of citations and references. Citations 6-13 are sourced from this work. See Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Volume 120, No.2, “The significance of cacao production in the Amazon region during the late colonial period: An essay in comparative economic history”, Dauril Alden pp. 103-135, specifically page 104 for this citation

C. J. J. Van Hall, Cacao (London, 1914) page 4

An incredibly detailed history of cacao was to be written by Roland Denis Hussey in the 1950’s but he met an untimely end. His approximately 800 citations were found to be full of vital information about the history of cacao.

See W. H. Johnson, Cacao: its Cultivation and Preparation (London, 1912), pp. 76-113

See Alexander von Humboldt, Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America during the years 1799-1804 , tr. Thomasina Ross (3 v., London, 1852) page 61

Many citations discuss this but Dauril Alden points to Colin MacLachlan, “The Indian Labour Structure in the Portuguese Amazon, 1700-1800”

Many historical accounts estimate 40,000 people died of smallpox between 1743-1750 and a significant portion of those deaths were natives.

This is interesting. Since a solid market of cacao to Europe couldn’t be easily established, a company was formed from private and public investors buying shares. This money funded African slaves, an armed fleet, and created an almost guaranteed cacao trade route between Brazil and Portugal. Source: Manuel Nunes Dias, “Fomento ultramarine e mercantilismo: a companhia geral do Grao-Para e Maranhao (1755-1778)”

See “The Early Introduction of Cacao to West Africa” by F. N. Howes, 1946 in the Journal titled African Affairs

1.See “Everything you don’t know about chocolate” by Melissa Clark published in the New York Times on February 11, 2020

2.See the UNESCO webpage: https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/6091/

3.See “Persistent effects of pre-Columbian plant domestication on Amazonian forest composition”, C. Levis et al, Science, March 03, 2017

4.See “How the Amazon’s Cashews and Cacao Point to Cultivation by the Ancients”, Nicholas St. Fleur, New York Times, March 3, 2017

5.See “Cacao in Chaco Canyon” by Michael Mozdy, Natural History Museum of Utah, August 4, 2016

6.This source was an incredible historical analysis of cacao with a very deep list of citations and references. Citations 6-13 are sourced from this work. See Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Volume 120, No.2, “The significance of cacao production in the Amazon region during the late colonial period: An essay in comparative economic history”, Dauril Alden pp. 103-135, specifically page 104 for this citation

7.C. J. J. Van Hall, Cacao (London, 1914) page 4

8.An incredibly detailed history of cacao was to be written by Roland Denis Hussey in the 1950’s but he met an untimely end. His approximately 800 citations were found to be full of vital information about the history of cacao.

9.See W. H. Johnson, Cacao: its Cultivation and Preparation (London, 1912), pp. 76-113

10.See Alexander von Humboldt, Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America during the years 1799-1804 , tr. Thomasina Ross (3 v., London, 1852) page 61

11.Many citations discuss this but Dauril Alden points to Colin MacLachlan, “The Indian Labour Structure in the Portuguese Amazon, 1700-1800”

12.Many historical accounts estimate 40,000 people died of smallpox between 1743-1750 and a significant portion of those deaths were natives.

13.This is interesting. Since a solid market of cacao to Europe couldn’t be easily established, a company was formed from private and public investors buying shares. This money funded African slaves, an armed fleet, and created an almost guaranteed cacao trade route between Brazil and Portugal. Source: Manuel Nunes Dias, “Fomento ultramarine e mercantilismo: a companhia geral do Grao-Para e Maranhao (1755-1778)”

14.See “The Early Introduction of Cacao to West Africa” by F. N. Howes, 1946 in the Journal titled African Affairs

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