Not the Discovery Channel

What we really know about the past

A Short History of Chocolate

I was going to write about dogs and humans and our history together. In-fact I was going to avoid any nods what-so-ever to Valentines Day. But Julie from is plying me with delicious chocolate goodness and asked me for a couple of tidbits for her blog post. The unfortunate part of this exchange for you, oh reader, is that you get stuck with my mental morsels of information and I get to eat deliciousness.

This is why I write

In 2007 I was at a conference where the big event was a talk given by Nisao Ogata, the director of the Programa Arboles Tropicales Centro de Investigaciones Tropicales at the University of Veracruz, which besides having pretty much the most amazing name for a research centre, is also doing a lot of interesting work on the spread of cacao. His talk was quite engaging, and the subject matter both delicious and interesting.

So lets talk about chocolate.

First, it’s important to distinguish between chocolate and cacao. It’s actually pretty easy. Chocolate is sweet, cacao is bitter. Well, raw, unprocessed cacao is bitter. It is the seed of the Theobroma tree. As an aside, theobroma means food of the gods. Well, it really doesn’t, but it’s how its translated. Theo is greek for God, but bromos (the Greek work Broma is from) means oats. So really it’s God Oats. Which I kind of like better.

Like I said before I got all etymologically distracted, the seeds from the cacao tree are really bitter. They have to be fermented before they even start to develop any recognizable flavour. They are then roasted and ground, then liquefied into chocolate liquor (I checked-it has no booze in it). If you press this liquid you get two different substances, cocoa solids and cocoa butter. By combining these two you get baking chocolate, and by adding a variety of other fat (say from condensed milk) and sugars in varying amounts you end up with the various versions of sweet chocolate that everyone loves. White chocolate, by the way, is made without any cocoa solids.

There is a great deal of debate about how many species of cacao plants exist in the world, but there are three major groups. One from the northern amazon basin, called Forastero, one from Criollo from Central America, and a hybrid between the two called Trinitario. Some genetic tests seem to point to all of the different forms being a modified version of the Forastero, suggesting the origin of these trees from somewhere in South America. Though there is no evidence that any South American peoples cultivated cacao, they did use the seed pod to make a fermented drink. However we don’t know when this started. Interestingly there is a bunch of evidence to suggest that, farther north in Honduras, the earliest consumption of cacao was also not from the seeds, but the fermented pulp of the seed pod.

these things


In 2007 a team of archaeologists found trace amounts of theobromine, an alkoid found in cacoa, in a  pottery vessels found in Honduras with dates ranging from 1100 to 900 BC.  Rosemary Joyce, an anthropologist from Berkeley, believes that the shape of the earliest vessels correspond closely with vessels traditionally used to hold chicha, a type of beer found all over mesoamerica, mostly made from corn, but with the addition of all sorts of other things, including cacao.

Joyce believes that changes in these vessels, including ones with theobromine found on them, reflect the change from brewing the fermented pulp of the cacao pod, to brewing the fermented seeds. These later vessel correspond in shape to the types of pots require to brew the frothy fermented drink from cacao seeds. A version of this is still served in Oaxaca today, and is called Tejate.

it's like chocolate milk, but with corn!

The earliest versions of this drink were likely alcoholic, as much as 5%. In 2008 more chemical tests show theobromine in bowls from Chipapas and Veracruz, dated to between 1900-1500 BC. Unfortunately you have to read Spanish to follow that link, sorry about that. I couldn’t find the types of vessels that they found it in, but the description of them as bowls not jugs may point to the no-necked variety like the early ones in Honduras.

Joyce believes that the fermentation of the seeds (a huge step in creating edible chocolate of any kind) was likely a by-product of the fermenting of the seed pod. Once again (read my agave post a few weeks back), the human desire to get plastered results in the discovery of something else. It’s a good thing we like to drink or we might never have started farming at all.

Chocolate consumption doesn’t really take off until the later Central American Civilizations get their hands on it. Well, I guess they always had their hands on it, but as these civilizations grow, the chocolate drink- still a frothy mixture of water, chili peppers, cornmeal and some other stuff- including vanilla– becomes an elite drink. The Aztecs sought it out as tribute from conquered nations, and cacao beans were used as money-  they were even counterfeited. Chocolate became a symbol of elite power and standing, and non-elites (archaeological speak for poor people) were not allowed to drink it. It became a very powerful symbol of authority, used in upper class rituals and religious ceremonies-even marriages.

You should know that through-out the world (and most of human history) religious and spiritual ceremonies were not really that all-inclusive. Often they play out some sort of power imbalance, but I’ll write more on that latter. To illustrate my point about chocolate being for the rich and powerful, here is a picture of a Mayan Lord being given his cacao, some people have interpreted this as him refusing to let the other mayan person touch it. Though of course, we’re not really sure whats going on here, but it’s a fun image.

Back off, get your own chocolate

The Aztecs and Maya continuing sipping their chocolate until the Spanish show up in the late 15th century. Columbus apparently brought some cocao beans back to Spain with him, though it would have to be during his fourth voyage, since he didn’t touch the mainland until his third and that was down south by Venezuela. Cortez brought some back with him, but it was Spanish friars who introduced it around Europe. The first recorded commercial shipment was in 1585 from Veracruz to Seville and chocolate processing was kept a secrete in Spain for about 20 years, when it moved to Italy and then France. By the early 18th century it had spread all over Europe and chocolate houses (combined with coffee houses) became notorious hotbeds of gambling and political intrigue. The famous English White’s Gentleman’s club (not a strip club!) was originally named Mrs. White’s Chocolate House. All this time chocolate was still being drunk. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that the cocoa press was invented. This squeezed chocolate liqueur making the cocoa butter and solids we talked about earlier. These then could be formed to make the harder more bar-like chocolate we are used to.

So, the very first chocolate was drunk over a thousand years ago, but it took until the middle of the 19th century to make it into a bar.

I should note that there are many reported health benefits to chocolate. Even in pre-contact mesoamerica chocolate was used in a variety of medicines. It was also used in a variety of European folk medicines. Doctors for the 17th centuries couldn’t stop singing its praises. I’m not sure how good their science was-these were the guys who thought that blowing tobacco smoke up someone’s butt would resuscitate someone who drowned. However, it turns out that in this case they may have been right. Some studies show that dark chocolate can help with heart disease and high blood pressure. The cocao tree itself also has a variety of different medicinal benefits, though most of them are not from the cacoa seeds, but rather the bark and leaves. And while it’s true that the Mayan’s did see cacao “as a heavenly gift” and believed it had magical and spiritual powers, you shouldn’t believe the health benefits of chocolate based solely on their belief system. Partly because it was an elite drink, and not used by all Mayans, but manly because the guys who did use it as a transcendental experience also ran barbed ropes through their tongues, cut their ears and genitals, bled on to bread an ate it. Okay, so the eating the bread thing is suspect, but they definitely did the other stuff.

Personally, I'd take the chocolate and corn drink

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s