The History of Chocolate

For most of its history, chocolate barely resembled the smooth, sweet chocolate candy confection enjoyed today.
For most of its history, chocolate barely resembled the smooth, sweet chocolate candy confection enjoyed today.

The history of chocolate is a rich one. From its earliest cultivation in ancient Mexico and Central America, through its journeys across the Atlantic, to the present, chocolate has been treasured commodity.

Yet for most of that history, chocolate did not resemble the smooth, sweet confection cherished today. And the roles it played in bygone days -- from nourishing beverage and sacred liquid to status symbol, money, and medicine -- gave it an importance that far surpasses its status among even the most devoted modern "chocoholics."


Chocolate is made from the seeds of the fruit of the cacao tree. The seemingly inedible, almond-size seeds, which are surrounded by sweet, tangy pulp, develop inside seed pods. The seed pods resemble footballs and grow out from the tree's trunk. The cacao tree is native to the tropical rainforests of Mesoamerica -- the ancient region that covered the southern and eastern portions of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras. The area was home to numerous, remarkably advanced civilizations prior to its conquest by Europeans.

No one knows for sure which of the Mesoamericans first came up with the idea of using cacao seeds to produce something edible. No decipherable written records exist from the earliest groups in the region. Evidence does show that the Maya, whose culture was at its heyday from a.d. 250 to 900 (referred to as the Classic Maya period), typically used cacao seeds to make a thick, bitter chocolate beverage. It is the Maya, therefore, who often get credit as the inventors of chocolate.

Yet some experts suspect that chocolate-drinking actually originated far earlier, around 1000 b.c., probably with the Olmec, who dominated the muggy lowlands of Mexico's Gulf Coast from about 1500 to 400 b.c. (The Gulf Coast forests provide ideal habitat for the cacao tree, which requires consistently warm temperatures, high humidity, and plenty of rain.) Indeed, cacao, the Mayan name for the tree and for chocolate, likely comes from the word kakawa, which was the name of the tree in the language spoken by the Olmec.

Whether it was the Olmec or the Maya who first discovered chocolate, however, it is the evidence from the Mayan civilization (and from the Aztecs who followed) that provides insight into how chocolate was gathered, made, and used and how highly it was valued in Mesoamerica.

Keep reading to learn more about the Mayans and how they used chocolate.

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Chocolate and the Mayans

The Mayans consumed chocolate by first harvesting the seeds -- or beans -- from cacao trees. They fermented and dried them, roasted them, removed their shells, and ground them into paste. (Much of that process remains unchanged to this day.) They often combined this paste with water, cornmeal, chili peppers, and other spices, then poured the spicy, bitter mixture back and forth between two containers to create a frothy head (a very popular feature).

This nutritious drink seems to have been the most common Mayan method of consuming chocolate. The elite would savor it at the end of a meal, much as modern diners might have a bit of brandy or port. (Cacao paste was probably added to corn gruel and consumed in other ways, too, but there is little surviving evidence to inform us about these uses.)


Although chocolate was clearly a favorite of Mayan royals and priests, commoners likely enjoyed the drink on at least some occasions, as well. Many ancient Mayan artifacts are decorated with paintings of the people gathering, preparing, or drinking cacao. It appears to have been a truly integral part of their religious and social lives.

The cacao bean and beverage were used in a variety of religious rituals honoring the Mayan gods -- the liquid chocolate sometimes standing in for blood -- and were considered "god food." The Maya even had a god of cacao.

In the tombs of their deceased rulers, they included cacao beans and various vessels and utensils associated with cacao consumption. The chocolate drink was also exchanged between bride and groom during the traditional marriage ceremony. And in preconquest Mayan baptismal rites, ground cacao beans mixed with ground flowers and pure water from tree hollows was used to anoint little Mayan boys and girls.

The Maya were so fond of chocolate that they not only gathered cacao beans in the forests, they learned to grow the trees in their gardens. Even Mayan groups living in the Yucatán, where the climate wouldn't support a tropical rainforest, apparently found ways to grow some cacao trees. The Maya also had extensive trade networks that helped ensure steady supplies of cacao throughout Mesoamerica, even in areas too cool or dry for cacao trees to thrive.

Check out the next section to learn how the Aztec civilization valued chocolate.

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Chocolate and the Aztecs

The Aztecs learned about chocolate from the Mayans, and they developed their own special appreciation for it.

Sometime after a.d. 1200, the Aztecs migrated from western Mexico to the cities in the central valley and went on to conquer many of the areas previously ruled by the Maya and other groups. From the resident Maya, the Aztec learned how to produce and prepare chocolate -- and they learned to value it immensely, as well. But in their new arid home in central Mexico -- the seat of their vast empire -- they could not grow cacao trees. So the Aztec rulers began demanding cacao beans as tribute from the peoples they conquered. Aztec merchants also plied their extensive trade routes to purchase the beans from lowland Mayan areas outside their own empire.


For the Aztec, too, cacao had deep religious and symbolic meaning. They attributed its discovery to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. According to one of their myths, the Aztec received cacao when Quetzalcoatl descended from heaven on the beam of a morning star, carrying a cacao tree stolen from paradise. The Aztec, in turn, made offerings of cacao beans to their gods and used the chocolate drink -- which they called cacahuatl, for "cacao water" -- as a ceremonial beverage.

The Aztec loved cold chocolate drinks (unlike the Maya, who preferred theirs warm), but in the far more rigid Aztec communities, only special individuals -- rulers, priests, great warriors, leading merchants, and honored guests -- were officially allowed access to this beverage. The Aztec valued cacao even above silver and gold and believed wisdom and power came from consuming it.

In time, cacao became so highly prized in Aztec society that the beans themselves were used as money. They could buy clothes, food, and other supplies. The elite continued to enjoy their chocolate beverages, of course, but the poor were far more likely to use their few, precious beans to buy food and other necessities.

Once the Spanish conquered the new world, they, too, discovered chocolate. Keep reading to learn about chocolate and the Spanish.

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Chocolate and the Spanish

It was only a matter of time before the secret of chocolate spread beyond the Mesoamericans, and that journey began with the Spanish conquests in the New World. Christopher Columbus may have been the first Old World explorer to come across cacao beans. In his fourth and final voyage to the New World, Columbus, along with his son Ferdinand and their crew, happened upon Mayan traders in two large canoes.

As was their habit, the Spaniards captured one of the canoes to get a look at the kinds of goods that were traded and valued in this new land. Among the canoe's contents were fine clothes, weapons, even a copper bell, as well as a large number of unfamiliar beans. Columbus showed no interest in a load of what to him seemed worthless beans, but Ferdinand did note that when any of these beans fell to the ground, the natives would scramble to retrieve each one "as if an eye had fallen" from their heads. Columbus didn't bother bringing any of these strange beans back to Europe.


The true introduction of cacao to the Spanish invaders most likely came in 1519, when conquistador Hernán Cortés landed on the Yucatán Peninsula and met the Yucatán Maya. Like Columbus, Cortés was unimpressed by the beans, at least at first. He was far happier with the exotic treasures he found when he marched west, defeated the great Aztec ruler Montezuma, and conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1521.

At the time, Tenochtitlan was the largest city in the world, and it was crammed with the bounty of a vast and powerful empire. In addition to the gold and other riches Cortés craved, he found enormous stores of cacao beans. Indeed, there may have been as many as a billion cacao beans in the royal treasury at one time.

While Cortés found the chocolate beverage of the natives nearly undrinkable, he and his fellow invaders could not help but recognize the value the beans had among the Mesoamericans. As the Spanish conquerors took over as rulers and Spanish colonists began living among and marrying the natives, the traditional Mesoamerican uses of cacao were adopted or adapted by the Spanish settlers. They continued to use the beans as money for everyday purchases. But they found ways to make the chocolate drink more to their liking by warming it and adding spices and sweeteners with which they were more familiar.

The Spaniards also came up with their own name for this warm cacao beverage, one that was easier for them to pronounce: chocolate. (There is disagreement over the exact origins of this word, but one strong theory is that it came from combining the Yucatec word for hot, chocol, and the Aztec word for water, atl, to form chocolatl, which the Spanish invaders would have pronounced chocolaté.)

Cacao Sails to Spain

While the Spanish explorers who conquered Mesoamerica in the early 1500s were likely the first Europeans to be introduced to chocolate, it is believed that the first chocolate to reach the Old World arrived in 1544. In that year, Dominican friars, who had traveled to the New World to convert the natives to Christianity, purportedly took a delegation of Mayan nobles from Guatemala back home to Spain to meet with Prince Philip (Philip II). The delegation brought with them the most valuable items from their culture, including gift jars of beaten cocoa, mixed and ready to drink.

The Spanish nobility quickly took to this new and exciting beverage, as did Catholic priests in Spain, who used the high-energy drink to sustain themselves during religious fasts. But it seems the Spanish wanted to keep the chocolate discovery from the rest of Europe. For close to a century, Spain hid the secret of the cacao beans, restricting their processing exclusively to monks hidden away in Spanish monasteries.

Indeed, the secret was so well kept that when English pirates boarded what they thought was a Spanish treasure ship in 1579, they mistook its huge cache of cacao beans for a worthless load of dried sheep's droppings. In frustration, the pirates torched the whole ship, not realizing that they were destroying a cacao trove that would eventually be worth a king's ransom in their homeland.

As the drink became more and more popular among upper-crust Spaniards, it developed into a profitable industry for Spain, which began planting the cacao trees in its overseas colonies. As a result, Spain also became home to the very first chocolate factories, where the dried, fermented beans shipped from the New World were roasted and ground.

Eventually, with the decline of Spain as a world power, the secret of cacao leaked out, and the Spanish Crown's monopoly over the chocolate trade came to an end. By the mid-17th century, the knowledge of cacao had spread like wildfire to Italy, France, Germany, and England.

As the knowledge of chocolate spread, so did its many uses. Keep reading to learn about chocolate's medicinal history.

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Chocolate's Medicinal History

Chocolate's medicinal history can be traced back to its early popularity in Europe. Chocolate, so often seen as unhealthy today, was originally promoted in Europe as a healing tonic. And in those days, folks were always on the lookout for anything that might help prevent or cure disease. It was, after all, a time before the modern understanding of disease and the effective treatments that followed.

European medicine was still mired in the medical theories and practices of the Classical Greeks. This system, handed down from the likes of Hippocrates and Galen, held that disease resulted from imbalances in four substances, called humors, found naturally in the human body. These substances were phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile, and each was classified as either hot or cold, moist or dry. To keep the humors in balance or to remedy the imbalances thought to cause disease, a person would need to eat foods or take medicines that were likewise considered inherently hot or cold, wet or dry.


These ancient theories about health and disease would eventually be disproved, of course, but in the meantime, the nutritious, energizing drink from the New World was assigned various attributes (although physicians of the time often disagreed about what these were) that made it seem beneficial for restoring and maintaining humoral balance.

In 1570, the royal physician to Philip II, the ruler of Spain, actually recommended chocolate to his majesty for, among other things, reducing fevers and easing stomach discomforts. As chocolate spread through Europe, physicians of the time chimed in with a variety of chocolate prescriptions. Over the next few hundred years, chocolate would be tested or prescribed for more than 100 different medicinal uses, from stimulating the nervous system and improving digestion and bowel function to treating health problems ranging from anemia and poor appetite to mental fatigue, poor breast-milk production, tuberculosis, fever, gout, kidney stones, and poor sexual appetite.

While the cacao beans and the chocolate drink were most often prescribed as internal treatments, some doctors also made special topical preparations containing cacao beans, cacao bark, cacao butter, and even the leaves and flowers of the cacao tree to treat burns, cuts, and skin irritations.

From Treatment to Treat, European-Style

While its purported health-preserving and curative powers had much to do with the initial enthusiasm for chocolate in countries across Europe, its new and unique flavor and unheard-of energizing effects (chocolate arrived in Europe at about the same time as coffee and tea, giving Europeans their first experience of the stimulating effects of caffeine) no doubt helped to make it a much-craved mainstay among Europe's elite.

Gradually, chocolate was transformed from medicine to luxury drink, with each country developing chocolate-drinking preferences, rituals, and accessories and adding unique flavorings to suit local tastes. The chocolate beverage from Mesoamerica took on an international flair, with the Spanish adding cinnamon and vanilla; the Italians experimenting with perfumed flavors such as ambergris, musk, lemon peel, and even jasmine; and the French contributing cloves -- and a lot more sugar.

Chocolate crosses the pond in the next section. Keep reading to learn about chocolate in America.

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Chocolate in America

The drink that so captivated continental Europeans made its way across the English Channel by 1650. But the English viewed all the exotic ingredients added to chocolate in Spain, Italy, and France as excessive. Instead, they added water to small amounts of chocolate, sometimes mixing in milk, eggs, sherry, port wine, and orange blossoms, as well.

The growing popularity of the drink led to the opening of the first "chocolate house" -- The Coffee Mill and Tobacco Roll -- in London in 1657. Patterned after the coffeehouses of the day, chocolate houses provided a place for people (mostly men and, because chocolate went for 15 shillings a pound, mostly the wealthy) to sip chocolate, smoke tobacco, conduct business, talk politics, and even gamble.


Chocolate in England was produced primarily by Quakers, who gradually developed a near monopoly over chocolate-making in the British Empire. Fry, Cadbury, and Rowntree are probably the best known of these early Quaker chocolate makers. Because of their religious beliefs, Quakers were barred from many typical business activities, but they were allowed to turn their hands to food-related trades. Viewing bread in its biblical role as the "staff of life," the Quakers became great bakers, and soon they were adding chocolate to their cakes, cookies, and pies.

As Quakers and other colonists began to seek freedom in the New World, they brought with them their knowledge of how to produce chocolate. Chocolate reached the American colonies from England by the mid-1700s, and in no time, New England ship captains began filling their cargo holds with cacao beans from the tropics to supply this new market.

In the colonies, anyone with the cash to pay for it was allowed to drink chocolate, but in effect, it remained as it had been for most of its history -- a luxury beverage for the wealthy. Thomas Jefferson, for example, fell in love with the chocolate drink when he was ambassador to France and began importing cacao beans and chocolate to Monticello.

That exclusivity would finally change for good, however, with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, which sparked the transformation of chocolate into a milder-tasting solid confection and finally put it in the hands of the masses. The masses, in turn, embraced chocolate and began a love affair that continues in the Western world to this day.

Keep reading to learn about the birth of chocolate candy.

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Chocolate Candy

Cocoa in the form of chocolate candy arrived after some trial and error. Even before the turn of the 19th century, there were "factories" dedicated to grinding cacao beans into a paste that could be formed into wafers or small cakes. These cakes, in turn, could be mixed with water to make chocolate.

This liquid chocolate, however, was a far cry from the smooth, creamy cocoa, or hot chocolate, we drink today. The paste did not mix well with the water, so it produced a thick, gritty beverage that still retained much of the bitter taste of the cacao from which it was made. What's more, every step of the chocolate-making process was still essentially performed by hand, limiting how quickly it could be produced and making it an expensive commodity.


The first step toward a modern cocoa that could be enjoyed by all came in 1828 in Holland. In that year, a chemist by the name of Coenraad Johannes Van Houten patented a process that used a machine to squeeze most of the fat (cocoa butter) out of the cacao paste, resulting in a finer and more stable cocoa powder that could be produced cheaply and efficiently. (The cocoa butter, an expensive fat, could then be sold for use in other products.) To make the cocoa powder mix well with water or milk, Van Houten then treated it with alkaline salts (a process referred to as "Dutching").

The result was a smoother, less bitter cup of cocoa that was cheaper and more convenient for the consumer to prepare. Manufacturers soon discovered that the new cocoa powder could also be mixed with cocoa butter and sugar to form a thinner paste that in turn could be poured more easily into molds and would hold its shape once cooled. The modern chocolate bar was born.

These Industrial Age developments, along with the invention of milk chocolate, allowed for faster and cheaper production of milder forms of chocolate. For the first time in its history, chocolate was placed within reach of the common man, woman, and child. The rest, as they say, is history.

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Written by Carol Turkington

Originally Published: Nov 18, 2007