Chocolate Today

Did you have hot chocolate during the cold weather this past week?  If so, you can thank the ancient Maya.  Their work domesticating cacao has led to the chocolate we know today.

On Tuesday, Feb. 4 Rosemary Joyce will be in Houston to talk about the Maya innovation of plant domestication that brought about chocolate.

A renowned Mayanist from Berkeley, Dr. Joyce has spent her career working in Honduras.  New research shows that chocolate was probably domesticated much earlier than thought.  In addition, scholars thought that chocolate was a drink reserved only for the elite.  Now, because of analysis of chocolate residue on some pots from the American Southwest, perhaps chocolate was much more widely enjoyed – good news for everyone!

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The role of cacao in trade and payment in the market was quite significant. Cacao beans were reliable payment for most anything sold in markets. Cacao served as a form of currency widely accepted around the Mesoamerican kingdoms. In a sixteenth century colonial account, a man named Jose de Acosta writes, “with five cacao beans one thing can be bought, and with thirty another, and with a hundred another, without haggling.” Cacao was so valued that archeological digs have discovered collections of counterfeit beans. This was the early equivalent of a modern day criminal printing fake money.

Maya art often depicted images of the exchange of cacao as gifts between gods.  The attached image depicts such an exchange between the Maya rain god Chac and the moon goddess IxChel (Madrid Codex)

Chocolate beverages captured the attention of Spanish invaders right away.  Spaniards would take chocolate back to Europe with them, and from there it would eventually circle the globe and become the elixir of delight that is still coveted today.

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