Posted in Reference
Theobroma Cacao, to give the cocoa tree its botanical name, is an evergreen that grows to between four and eight metres tall, and thrives only in a small band that extends twenty degrees to the north and south of the equator.
It is difficult to know for sure how far back humans have known of or cultivated cocoa trees. However, evidence in the form of ceramic vessels which contain cocoa residue shows that its produce was being used to make some sort of alcoholic drink at least as far back as 1900BC, by a people known as the Mokaya. The Mokaya were a pre-Olmec culture that lived in the south eastern Socunusco region of Mexico and parts of West Guatemala, and are held to have developed some of the earliest known permanent settlements in Mesoamerica.
It would seem appropriate to assume that the Mokaya may have grown cocoa, given that they had adopted a way of life that relied more upon agricultural subsistence. However, current thinking points towards the Olmecs as the first major civilization to have domesticated and cultivated cocoa, and to have understood the processes required to consume the cocoa bean, as opposed to the alcoholic drink that was made using the pulp from the cocoa pod.
Cocoa drinks carried religious significance. The Aztecs and the Mayans who after the Olmecs continued to grow cocoa, believed that their respective gods, Quetzalcoatl and Kukulkan, bestowed the cocoa tree upon humans as a gift. As such, the drinks were often used in religious ceremonies as offerings to the gods.
The basic recipe was ground, roasted cocoa beans added to cold water. It tasted extremely bitter, although the edge was taken off it with the addition of spices such as chilli. The mixture was then frothed by pouring it from one vessel to another repeatedly- akin to a modern day milk shake.
This drink was reserved for the elite, such as priests and royalty. Cocoa beans were used as a currency before the Spanish conquest throughout Mesoamerica. As such, the act of drinking cocoa was surely a blatant display of personal wealth and prestige- imagine smoking tobacco through a £20 note.