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
We know most about the use of cacao in what is now southern Mexico and Central America; but cacao was recently discovered to have been consumed in Ecuador, South America, 5000 years ago. We don't know how those ancient South Americans used cacao but we know for sure that a few thousand miles north, and centuries later, cacao was being used for sacred purposes, so this is where most interest in cacao's ceremonial uses tends to focus on...
In the ancient Mesoamerican cultures of the Olmec, Maya and Aztec peoples, cacao was sacred and precious. The Maya in particular revered cacao; during the Classic Period, they cultivated cacao trees in their gardens and apparently people from all social groups were allowed to drink cacao sometimes - especially as part of wedding ceremonies; kings and priests also consumed cacao (mixed into a frothy bitter chocolate drink with 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 (corn) which was another sacred food to the Maya, and central to both their creation stories and their way of life.
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")
Ceramic cups containing traces of cacao, and clearly decorated with scenes showing sacrificial rites and ritual cacao consumption, have been found in the tombs of Mayan nobles, suggesting a clear connection between cacao and the "cosmic sap" of life - throughout the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica, it seems cacao was deeply connected to the sacredness of blood as the life-force, and also the sacred rituals of blood sacrifice...Cacao was also associated with resurrection and rejuvenation however; and makes many appearances in Mayan sacred mythology. It's my understanding that there was not a specific "Mayan cacao ceremony" but rather, cacao was one of several sacred plants whose medicine was used ritually during different sacred ceremonies, as well as being consumed in daily life.
The Aztec civilisation came from further north than the Maya, and about five hundred years after the Mayan "collapse", as the Aztecs 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 of the Aztecs 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; and so cacao also had a vivifying power 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 PEOPLES IN CACAO'S HOMELANDS
Indigenous Mayan communities continue to live where they always have, in Southern Mexico and throughout Central America - particularly Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. Though they have suffered a great deal under centuries of colonial oppression and genocide, they have kept their culture and traditions alive, they still speak their native languages - there are many Mayan languages (and often, they do not speak Spanish).
Their native ritual and ceremonial traditions involving cacao have been sustained in private during centuries of oppression. It seems that, although cacao's sacredness was lost to a lot of the world when she was commodified as chocolate, in her homelands, there were those who never forgot her true sacredness. In Mayan communities around Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, for instance, each newborn child is presented with cacao beans; these beans are to be carried with them throughout their lives, and eventually will be buried with them...The sacred connection between cacao and life-blood continues.
I continue to do my own learning on this subject as I think it's important to be informed & respectful towards the peoples & culture whose birthright is cacao. (If you are interested, I highly recommend the workshops organised by Sneha Sacred, working with Mayan Tz'utujil healers/wise women who are beginning to share their ancient healing traditions and cacao practices with people outside of the Mayan community, so that the medicine and traditions can be honoured, preserved and of benefit to all life on the planet.)
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. This discovery revealed the existence of a previously unknown culture, the Mayo Chinchipe; and traces of cacao (in a form suggesting it had been ground into a paste for drinking) have been identified in fancy ceramic vessels in funeral offerings, found in tombs, suggesting that perhaps these ancient South Americans were already using cacao in sacred rituals and drinking cacao ceremonially. So it's very possible that both the tree and the sacred traditions travelled north from the Amazon several thousand years ago.
CACAO WHICH SUPPORTS TRIBAL PEOPLES
I source my ceremonial-grade Criollo cacao from Forever Cacao, a small, ethical company in Wales who buy direct from the Ashaninka tribal peoples 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. (Crucial to the sacred energy of the cacao is the fact that no harm, no exploitation is involved, and those who live in closest relationship with the land, and with the medicine, benefit directly.)
*If you are interested in learning more about and supporting the rights of indigenous peoples all over the planet, I highly recommend checking out and supporting the work of Survival International: I've been supporting their work in various ways since 2010; they campaign globally on behalf of tribal peoples and their right to live on their own ancestral lands, continuing their own way of life as non-colonised free human beings who have remained in harmony with the land, living in partnership rather than dominating & destroying the Earth and all her beings. They are an excellent organisation, founded 50 years ago to protect Amazonian indigenous peoples, but now campaigning for peoples worldwide.
(History sources include Michael & Sophie Coe's book "The True History of Chocolate", the Guardian news article "Origin of Chocolate Shifts 1400 miles and 1500 years" , iJustin 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: