indigenous roots OF CACAo...
ANCIENT & INDIGENOUS ROOTS OF CEREMONIAL CACAO
The history of cacao and her ancient & continuing connection to the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica is a huge and fascinating topic! I can't begin to cover it all here and my own learning in this area is ongoing, so what follows is really just an introduction, and one I'm constantly revising the more I learn...
I have chosen to focus mostly on the Maya people as they are the ones whose connection is the oldest, deepest and still strong today - communities particularly in Guatemala are also beginning to share some of their ancient ancestral wisdom with those of us from other cultures who are feeling called to learn more as we connect with this ancient sacred plant, and do so with respect for not only the medicine but the original keepers of this medicine.)
I am in the process of rewriting this section of my website as I integrate the learning from my most recent cacao training...I am deeply grateful to my teachers Kajib Tzik'in Chuj (Jessica), W'ukub K'at Saq'ik (Jerico) and Yasmira Chen Coc of the Chinimital del Ka'kaw collective, to Tata Mario, Tata Juan and Tata Miguel, to Cecilia Mendoza Chiyal, founder of Ruk'u'x Ulew women's collective of artisanal cacao producers, and to Solveig Barrios, founder and guide of the Mayan Wisdom Project, for the priceless opportunity to listen to and learn from this wonderful group of indigenous Mayan teachers.
In the ancient Mesoamerican civilisations of the Olmec, Maya and, later, the Aztec peoples, cacao was sacred and precious; cacao consumption was more widely enjoyed, more regularly, at all levels of Mayan society during the "classical" era; centuries later, their northern successors the Mexica, more commonly known now as the Aztecs) limited cacao to only the most elite levels of society. Cacao did not actually grown in the lands of the Mexica, it's a tropical tree, so the Mexica/Aztecs established trade routes down to the southern Mayan lands (although they were no longer a powerful imperial civilisation, the Maya peoples were still very much present during the brief period of Mexica/Aztec dominance.
The Maya in particular revered cacao, the sacred sister plant to maize (corn) in their mythology. The modern Maya people in contemporary times continue to cultivate, consume and revere cacao as a sacred plant; some Mayan communities have retained the ancient traditions and wisdom relating to cacao's spiritual and healing powers, and in places such as Guatemala, there is now much work being done by indigenous groups such as Chinimital del Ka'kaw to restore the ancestral teachings to those Mayan communities who lost their connection to cacao after the brutality of the Spanish invasion and colonisation process which all but outlawed cacao, often replacing cacao with coffee plantations and forbidding people from any form of nature-worship, which the Spanish perceived as satanic!
Cacao has always been associated with the sacred life force - Mayan mythology tells of the first humans - the "men of corn" being given cacao to animate their spirits - "women of cacao"; The ancient Mesoamericans were well aware of cacao's highly nutritious nature, and its power to stimulate and nourish the cardiovascular system, to strengthen the heart, to fortify the blood. Cacao was associated with blood: the Aztecs called cacao "xocoatl" (pronounced "shoh-koh-at" - a likely source for the European words for "chocolate")- the literal meaning of this is "heart-blood" - "yollotl" - heart and "eztli" - blood). For the Maya, cacao was also associated with cycles of birth and death; with the feminine, with darkness, with water and caves and night.
During the Classic period, Maya communities 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, although the idea of Mayan cacao ceremonies is really a western modern fantasy! What is true is that cacao has always been one of several sacred elements present in Mayan rituals and ceremonies - along with corn/maize, fire, copal (a tree resin incense), and flowers. Cacao's primary use in such ceremonies was & is as an offering - to the fire and to the earth - but ritual beverages including cacao were also consumed during some practices, and there are certain agricultural celebrations relating to cacao's stages of planting, flowering, and harvesting, in which cacao drinks are consumed by all in the community - this is a tradition which survives to the present day in some Mayan communities.
Westerners often associate Mesoamericans with sensational stories of blood rituals and human sacrifice (an association not helped by grossly historically inaccurate depictions such as the movie Apocalypto!). History tends to be written by the victors, and one way to justify the cruelties and injustices of the genocidal project of colonising the Americas was to portray the indigenous people as savages living a terrible way of life...
It's also possible that there were misunderstandings of symbolic practices which were unfamiliar to the invaders (although they spilt plenty of blood themselves...): Mayan blood rites of the nobility and priests involved some self-infliected ritual blood-letting; 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 - the most sacred food to the Maya, central to both their creation stories and their way of life. This was a sacred, respectful exchange, nothing like the sensationalised, depictions of cruel and painful enforced human sacrifice.
In fact, such rituals of offering sacrifice in return for the favour of the "gods", and for successful harvests, for example, can be found in the histories of many cultures around the world, including British and other European cultures. When studied in their context, there are profound reasons for such practices: David Carrasco explores this challenging topic in his interesting book "Religions of Mesoamerica".
Centuries after the classical Maya civilisation, the Aztecs gained control over more of Mesoamerica, and cacao became an important part of their culture too, although it did not grow in their lands. Because of this, they had to trade with communities in the south, and so 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 (not the Maya) also sometimes conducted sacrificial rituals involving the cutting out of people's hearts, and cacao was served to the "victims" before this act; it's not know whether this was because of cacao's heart-stimulating power or even perhaps to flood them with serotonin-boosters to help them somehow face their ordeal.
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". It also gives its name to the cardiac-stimulating compound theobromine, the main alkaloid found in cacao. (Learn more about cacao's many compounds & nutrients here.)
WHAT IS A TRADITIONAL MAYAN CACAO CEREMONY? IS THERE ACTUALLY SUCH A THING?
Mayan traditions have evolved over the last couple of thousand years! Theirs is an ancient and living culture and, as you would expect, some traditions have survived, whilst others - such as, for example, the elite classes' blood-letting rites, appear not to have.
In fact, there are three occasions where Maya communities in some areas of Guatemala do hold what could truly be called "cacao ceremonies": these are nothing like what is being offered in the west, they are ancient agricultural celebrations which honour the trees and mother earth - the closest equivalent in eg Britain would be wassailing.
These traditional Mayan "cacao ceremonies" take place over several days, in the cacao forests, and involve the entire community: they celebrate the planting, first flowering and harvesting of pods from the theobroma cacao trees.
My Mayan teachers, experts in the history, culture and traditions as well as cultivation of cacao, are very clear that really, there is no such thing as a "Mayan cacao ceremony" in the way that these events are often now presented.
There are, however, other sacred rituals which involve cacao (and other traditional elements of Mayan sacred offerings such as fire, corn, flowers and copal incense) - these are known as "kotzij' ", meaning "flower" or "offering" - since cacao is regarded as a sacred gift, to be first offered to the earth and other sacred energies, the ancient Elders and ancestors, before being received with thanks as the gift and blessing cacao is.
More broadly, it's worth noting that Maya culture is not homogenous - there are over 30 languages and different communities have their own traditions: some communities have entirely lost their cacao traditions, whilst others have been able to carefully preserve them over not just hundreds but thousands of years.
The way westerners are sharing cacao in ceremony is a contemporary fusion practice, whether inspired by accounts of Mayan traditions, traditional Amazonian plant medicine ceremonies, or the eclectic new age approach of those inspired by Keith Wilson at Lake Atitlan. (It's worth noting that Keith himself is very clear that he is not offering an indigenous cacao ceremony and has never claimed to, however much a lot of new age cacao practitioners like to refer to Mayan tradition in their marketing!) Different approaches will speak to different people. Many indigenous teachers and cacao producers now express delight that there is growing interest in cacao and a great appetite to learn more about the power of what they have always known is a sacred and wonderful healing medicine, although of course there are concerns about how this medicine is being shared by those who are not directly part of the ancestral tradition. The best way seems to be to learn from indigenous teachers, to work with cacao sourced from ethical, indigenous cacao farmers and producers, and to always acknowledge these sources and not give ourselves titles we are not entitled to!
AMAZONIAN ROOTS OF CACAO?
As a plant, cacao's roots have recently been traced back to the Amazon jungle in South 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. This doesn't mean they had the same relationship with cacao as the Mesoamericans, culturally - but it shows that the tree itself has its origins there, so it's likely that indigenous peoples of South America consumed cacao in some form at least!
Indigenous peoples in South America do consume the fruits of the theobroma cacao tree, but they historically used the fermented pulp rather than the seeds, and any sacred rituals relating to drinks made from the seeds have long-since disappeared, although some contemporary South American cacao practitioners are now seeking to return these practices to their own countries, inspired by the surviving Mesoamerican traditions and resurgence.
RECOMMENDED INDIGENOUS CACAO SOURCES:
Buying ethical, fairly traded organic cacao varieties from indigenous peoples is not only a more authentic source of ceremonial cacao, but also, importantly a way to support communities who continue to face genocide, the theft and destruction of their land, and - for Amazonian communities - pressure to work for the cocaine, logging and oil industries. Here are three sources I can highly recommend: (Ruk'u'x Ulew and Forever Cacao are easily sourced in the UK, Ka'kaw Chinimital is significantly more costly to get shipped here, but I still wanted to mention this cacao!)
RUK'U'X ULEW ("Heart of the Earth") - Mayan cacao from Guatemala: this is a richly intense & delicious, vibrant small-batch hand-roasted artesanal cacao produced by an indigenous women's collective in San Marcos La Laguna, founded by the lovely Cecilia Mendoza Chiyal (one of my cacao teachers on the Mayan Wisdom Project's cacao training course.).
If you are in the UK, I recommend Ticiyotl Medicinal Arts on etsy as a good source. (and if you are not in the UK, you can find other international sources via their site. In the USA, I think Soul Lift Cacao are your best source.)
FOREVER CACAO -
For many years, I shared ceremonial-grade heirloom Criollo cacao from Forever Cacao, a lovely & small but very efficient, reliable 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. You can use my "CACAOFOX" code when buying from their website :)
This was the first cacao I ever consumed in ceremony; it's also the cacao I was initiated with during my apprenticeship training - this cacao will always hold a special place in my heart, and buying it supports indigenous families, allowing them to have a livelihood working for an ethical, sustainable industry, rather than the cocaine, oil or logging industries many in the Amazon rainforest are forced to work for in order to survive.
KA'KAW CHINIMITAL - Mayan cacao from Guatemala:I can also recommend the cacao cultivated and produced in the most traditional way, free of all industrial processing & plastics, working with cacao harvested from ancient cacao forests, by the Chinimital del Ka'kaw indigenous collective - three of the teachers on the Mayan cacao training I undertook are members of this collective. This is truly authentic sacred, ceremonial cacao. The cost of this cacao is more than other varieties but this reflects partly the huge amount of work which goes into the farming and production of this cacao, and also the many charitable projects which sales of this cacao contribute to, in Mayan communities throughout Guatemala...You can buy this cacao via the Mayan Wisdom Project's online shop.