Medicinal and Ritual Uses of Chocolate in Mesoamerica

    Considered a gift from the gods

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    In Mesoamerica, the Mayans and Aztecs used chocolate for medicinal purposes and for their ceremonies. Although it may not be a crop native to the region, they thought it was discovered by the gods, who gave it to men. The Mayans held an annual festival with rituals in honor of the cocoa god Ek Chuah. Currently, there are various archaeological samples of these ceremonies.

    The use of chocolate began in the New World with the Olmec civilization (1500–500 BC), and it was mixed with spices for healing purposes or as a gift. The Mayan elites drank it as a normally hot drink and accompanied by spices and flavor enhancers that only the most powerful could afford. Spanish settlers rejected its spice content, which they substituted for sweeter ingredients. This is how it came to the Old World in the 16th century.

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    Thousands of pre-Columbian vessels have been found with engravings of the type: “this is a vessel for chocolate.” These were used as an element of the ritual for the afterlife, according to analysis of the remains.

    Very laborious process

    The ancient communities of Mesoamerica practiced a very laborious process to make cacao. First they fermented the cocoa to allow a series of chemical processes that, added to the increase in the temperature of the seeds, reduce the acidity. Finally, the beans are left to dry in the sun for days, they are roasted to grind it and the husk is removed. For these settlers, cocoa beans were so valued that they served as currency, and the drinks produced served as an offering to the gods and champagne of the time.
    As a medicine it served to attenuate the strong taste of medicines, or to reduce anxiety or asthma. It also provides a lot of energy and increases sexual appetite. Green cocoa, for its part, can have an intoxicating effect, with the consequent alteration of the mood.

    It is still unknown if the cacao tree is native to Mesoamerica, since a series of atmospheric conditions are needed for it to develop. However, there is no proof that cacao was introduced to South America by settlers before modern times. In Mesoamerica and South America there are caves that present a perfect microclimate for growing the cacao tree, but this possibility is still being investigated today.


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