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The Story of How Chocolate Conquered the World

Since its domestication, cacao, more commonly known as chocolate, has carried a strong cultural significance in Mesoamerica, and over time become beloved by all cultures of the world.

Spread across the jungles of the Gulf Coast of Mexico are colossal carved stone heads which belong to the Olmecs, whose civilization lasted from 1500 to 400 BCE. The Olmecs are believed to have occupied a large part of current-day southern Mexico and were the first to grow cacao beans. They drank it as a bitter beverage used for ceremonial purposes.

The Olmecs undoubtedly passed their cacao knowledge on to the Maya, who used the unsweetened drink in celebrations. Cacao beans were roasted, ground to powder, and maize was added. This powder was mixed with water and shaken vigorously until foam appeared. Wealthy people kept the drink in special screw-top pots.

Pictured is a Mayan screw-top jar from the 5th century AD. The dried residue inside was analyzed and found to be chocolate. It is on display at Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología in Guatemala.

The secret of preparing chocolate was handed down to the Aztecs from the Maya, who revered it as a divine drink. The Aztecs took chocolate admiration to another level. They believed cacao was given to them by their gods. It was so highly valued it became a form of currency.

Pictured is a Cacao tree from the Codex Tudela, a richly illustrated manuscript recording customs and rituals of the Aztecs, found in the collection of Museo de América, Madrid.

When Spanish conquistadors arrived in Central America in the early 1500s they learned about chocolate and brought cacao beans back home with them. The Spanish created different recipes for making chocolate using sugar, cinnamon, and other spices. Chocolate was so revered that it was reserved for the Spanish nobility and they kept chocolate a secret from the rest of the world for almost 100 years. It was not until the mid-1600s that chocolate was introduced to the French royalty and became popular with Louis XIV and his court in Versailles. The king saw a new money-making opportunity and France started to manufacture and sell chocolate, quickly becoming a craze in Paris, the rest of France, and soon all over the world.

Works cited:

James, Peter, and I J Thorpe. Ancient Inventions. New York, Ballantine Books, 2015.

“Cacao in Olmec Society | Gastronomy Blog.”,

Longcore, Matthew. “The Mesoamerican Origins of Chocolate Featuring EHRAF Archaeology.” Human Relations Area Files - Cultural Information for Education and Research, 20 Mar. 2020,

Woods, Michael, and Mary B. Woods. Ancient Agriculture: From Foraging to Farming. Minneapolis, Runestone Press, 2000.


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