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The History of Chocolate

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.

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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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