The History of Cocoa

Cacao is indigenous to Mexico and Central America. The first civilization of the Americas, Olmecs of Mexico (1400 BC - 400 BC) used cacao for chocolate drinks. It was highly regarded, a drink for the elite only. The word cacao, originally pronounced kakawa was reconstructed by linguists as a vocabulary item in proto Mixe-Zoquean family of languages, by about 1000 BC, at the very height of Olmec civilization. (From The True History of Chocolate by Sophie and Michael Coe).

It was Izapan civilization (AD 250-900) that took the cacao culture from the Olmecs and gave it to the Maya whose culture succeeded the Izapan in the lowlands of what are now Chiapas of Mexico, Peten of Guatemala and Belize. Eventually in the 10th century AD the Mayans were overpowered by the Toltecs in Mesoamerica, the Toltecs passed on their civilization to the Aztecs who replaced them. The word chocolate comes from the Maya and Toltec word cacahault and the Aztec word xocoalt.

The first European encounter with cacao took place during Columbus' voyage. On August 15, 1502 he came across a Mayan trading canoe with cacao beans on the island of Guanja, now known as Bay Island, 30 miles north of mainland Honduras.

Columbus knew the cacao beans he encountered to be sort of almonds and that the Mayan people treated them as precious things, he had no idea of their use in the preparation of the revered chocolate drink.

Though there may have been an early introduction of cacao on European soil, the first written account suggests that in 1544 Dominican Friars took a delegation of Mayan nobles from Alta Verapaz in Guatemala to visit Prince Philip in Spain. These noblemen took some beaten chocolate along with many other items as gifts for Prince Philip. It was not until 1585 that the first official shipment of the beans reached Spain from Veracruz. By the first half of the 17th century recipes for hot chocolate with various spices like sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, red chili, achiote, etc. were used among the Spanish elite, and sweet, solid chocolate preparations were also documented.

Later on, English travelers introduced cacao in England. It is easy to imagine that convents and friars must have played an important role in propagating the product throughout Europe. Like coffee, chocolate also underwent scrutiny regarding its pros and cons associated with health. Eventually it survived all that to become king of the universal palate.