Europeans first discovered chocolate in 1519 when the explorer Cortes and his men drank “chocolatl” with the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma. The ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures, however, cultivated and traded cacao for many centuries before the Europeans even considered sailing away from their coastline. Though the Mayan culture was declining as the explorers reached the continent, history reveals that the cacao was an important part of their culture as much as the Aztec civilization that the Europeans experienced first-hand.

Growing Cacao

The lowland-dwelling Mayan Indians thrived during the years 200 BC to AD 1550, and cultivated cacao in private house gardens and large plantations from the Pacific coastline to the Gulf coast. Unlike the Mayans, the Aztecs lived in the highlands and had to reach out to the coastal areas to plant and grow cacao for its rulers and warriors. The plantations reached as far south as modern-day Honduras and El Salvador. The Mayan god, Ykchaua, served as the patron of cocoa merchants and the Aztec god of agriculture, Questzalcoatl, brought the cocoa tree to earth from paradise.

Chocolate Currency

The ancient Aztec and Maya cultures used cacao as currency. The plant’s seeds that grew so readily in the lowlands were extremely valuable in the drier climates. They were also used as gifts and tributes to emperors and as offerings in religious ceremonies when transformed to liquid. Baskets of cacao, maize and feathers were traded in the market and used as a reference for measurement.

Making Liquid Chocolate

The Mayan people ground the cacao seeds and mixed them with water to make a bitter and foamy drink for its kings and nobleman. The men of status consumed the drink from grand vessels. The Aztecs added other flavorings to their bitter liquid chocolate, such as vanilla, chili, maize and flowers. Typically, the drink was poured from above to create a frothy liquid and served at a cool temperature. An associate of Cortes wrote that the cacao liquid was so powerful, whoever drank a cup of it could walk for a whole day without eating anything else.

Medicinal Uses

In addition to using cacao and liquid chocolate as currency, the ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures understood its medicinal properties. They drank chocolate mixed with liquid from the bark of the silk cotton tree to help relive stomach and intestinal problems, and to cure infections. Other ancient cacao recipes were used to lower fever and prevent fainting. Hernandez supposedly drank the cacao liquid as an aphrodisiac and reported that too much could make you drunk.