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.