ANCIENT & INDIGENOUS ROOTS OF CACAO...
“One can argue that the Maya turned the consumption of cacao into an art form.”
- Dr Cameron McNeil, archaeobotanist quoted in an article in the Guardian
ANCIENT & INDIGENOUS ROOTS OF CEREMONIAL CACAO
In the ancient Mesoamerican* cultures of the Olmec, Maya and Aztec peoples, cacao was sacred and precious. Of these three cultures, the Maya are undoubtedly the ones most closely connected to cacao through ancient and living sacred ancestral practices. The Maya revered cacao; during the Classic Period, they cultivated cacao trees in their gardens and people from all social groups were allowed to drink cacao for certain occasions such as weddings; cacao was also strongly associated with childbirth, and newborns. Kings and priests also consumed cacao (mixed into a frothy bitter chocolate drink with ground maize (cornmeal), chile peppers, vanilla beans & black pepper) as part of their royal and religious ceremonies. Mayan blood rites of the nobility and priests involved blood-letting (both self-inflicted and sacrificial), and as part of the ritual, their blood ran through a portal representing the physical and spiritual realms. This blood was "itz" - cosmic sap, believed to contain "ch'ul", the soul or spirit, which spoke to and nourished the gods and animated and invigorated the world. In return for the offering of blood, the gods sent maize - another sacred food to the Maya, central to both their creation stories and their way of life.
*"Mesoamerica" refers to southern Mexico and much of Central America: Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador & western Honduras).
The Maya believed that one of the most sacred offerings was that of blood. Images from ancient religious texts sometimes show Maya priests dripping a blood offering onto cacao pods."
- Justin Kerr, (text for The Field Museum Chicago's 2007 exhibition "Chocolate Around the World")
As the Aztecs (more accurately called the Mexica - which gives you an idea where they originated!) gained control over more of Mesoamerica, cacao became an important part of their culture too. In Aztec society, cacao became more of a luxury drink, reserved for members of the elite: rulers, priests, decorated warriors and honoured merchants were the only ones allowed to drink cacao , and the only ones who could afford it - everyone else used cacao for money as it was so valuable. (The main Aztec lands were too far north to grow cacao, which needs tropical latitudes & plenty of rain, so they traded for it)
The Aztecs prepared their chocolate drink in much the same way as the Maya, but they also added achiote (the seed of the annatto tree), to give the cacao a deep blood-red shade for ritual use, as an offering to the gods: again, there was a recognised connection between sacred cacao and sacred life-blood (which was the most precious thing which could be offered.). Given that cacao stimulated the heart & therefore blood circulation, this connection was even more potent: sacrificial victims were given cacao, (called "yollotl eztli" - "heart-blood") to drink before their hearts were extracted and their life-blood was offered to the gods. The Aztecs believed that without these sacrificial offerings of blood, the Sun would not rise; so these sacrificial rituals ultimately sustained the world. Cacao's vivifying power was linked to spiritual restoration through these rituals.
(Incidentally, cacao's status as both literal and symbolic food for the gods inspired its western scientific name, "theobroma cacao" - in ancient Greek, "theo" = god and "broma"= food"; "cacao" came from the Mayan word "ka'kau". (Theobromine, a cardiac stimulant, is the main alkaloid found, almost exclusively, in cacao.) Learn more about cacao as a superfood here.
MODERN DAY INDIGENOUS MAYAN PEOPLES
It's my understanding that there was never a specific "Mayan cacao ceremony" but rather, cacao was and still is one of several sacred plants whose medicine is used ritually during different ceremonies, as well as being consumed in daily life. (See"Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao" -edited by Cameron L.McNeil - for a scholarly but thorough look at the history of cacao and also her contemporary use in Mayan communities.
AMAZONIAN ROOTS OF CACAO?
As a plant, cacao's roots have recently been traced back to the Amazon jungle in South America (it's not clear whether she travelled by her self or via humans up into Central America!); the greatest genetic diversity of cacao trees is found in the Amazon, which points to this as being the original birthplace of cacao; and in 2018, traces of cacao were found in 5000 year old ceramic vessels in Ecuador. It's possible that both the tree and the sacred traditions travelled north from the Amazon several thousand years ago. Some cacao has travelled full circle though: the prized Criollo variety of cacao, originally native to Mesoamerica, has seemingly travelled back south - Criollo trees are now very rare in places like Guatemala; most Criollo cacao these days is found in South America. (Forastero, a more bitter variety, is more common in much of the Americas nowadays.)
CACAO WHICH SUPPORTS INDIGENOUS PEOPLES
I source my ceremonial-grade heirloom Criollo cacao from Forever Cacao, a small, ethical company in Wales who buy direct from the Ashaninka indigenous communities in the Rio Ene region of the Amazon in Peru. This family-business was the first to ship ceremonial cacao to Europe; you can learn more about their work here. This was the first ceremonial cacao I ever drank, and it remains my favourite...
"Ceremonial grade" cacao (a term perhaps partly inspired by the concept of "ceremonial grade" Japanese matcha tea?) - is sometimes only vaguely defined. I believe it's not simply about using pure cacao paste/licor (as opposed to more processed forms of cacao). I would say ceremonial cacao needs to be organically cultivated & harvested by indigenous peoples, and fairly traded: there's nothing sacred about cacao which involves exploitation of humans, lands or waters where the cacao grows. (I would also personally opt for Criollo or Arriba Nacional varieties of cacao, from a taste point of view.)
For education about the history of cacao, I've learned a lot from Michael & Sophie Coe's book "The True History of Chocolate" and Cameron L McNeil's academic anthology Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. For education about modern day Mayan cacao traditions and wisdom, I've found online workshops and ceremonies by Nana Marina Cruz , a Tz'utujil Mayan wisdom keeper and ceremonialist in Guatemala, to be very interesting and informative (these are often hosted by Sneha Sacred). I also find Ruk'u'x Ulew 's instagram account to be authentic and educational - they are a Mayan women's collective, founded by Cecilia Mendoza Chiyal, a Kaqchikel Mayan also based in Guatemala.
There are many organisations which campaign for the rights of indigenous people, their sovereignty, land rights and freedom to continue living their traditional ways of life; perhaps the most prominent is Survival International: Survival's work began over 50 years ago, to support indigenous peoples of the Amazon; they now campaign on behalf of tribal peoples all over the world.
(History sources include Michael & Sophie Coe's book "The True History of Chocolate", Cameron L McNeil's academic anthology Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao; the Guardian news article "Origin of Chocolate Shifts 1400 miles and 1500 years" , Justin Kerr's writing for The Field Museum Chicago's 2007 exhibition "Chocolate Around the World", and James R Keller's book "Food Film & Culture")
Learn more about cacao & my ceremonies: