Cacao culture in Mesoamerica was extensive, influencing religion, medicine, commerce, and social customs. Below, we’ll break down some of the major ways in which cacao affected everyday life. Some of these cultural practices even carried over to Europe and North America as the knowledge of chocolate spread around the world.
In Mesoamerica, people used cacao beans as currency. Cacao could be used to buy food, pay taxes, or even purchase a prostitute or slaves. For example, you could buy a turkey hen for 100 cacao beans or a slave for the same amount. A prostitute might cost somewhere between 8 to 10 beans. When trading, a rabbit would cost about 10 cacao beans, a pumpkin was 4 beans, and a tamale went for one bean. They also traded cacao beans for commodities like cloth, precious stones, and ceremonial feathers.
The Aztecs greatly valued cacao. It’s rumored that King Montezuma II would drink gallons of chocolate in a single feast. However, due to climate restrictions, the Aztecs were not able to grow Theobroma cacao where they lived, so they were forced to import cacao beans from other regions in Mesoamerica. When the Aztec armies conquered a region that had access to Theobroma cacao, they would require these conquered regions to pay taxes or tribute in the form of food, textiles, and cacao beans. This was how the Aztecs maintained a steady supply of cacao beans in their capital city of Tenochtitlan.
At several archeological sites, researchers discovered the presence of cacao genetics in higher quality vessels. It appears that these vessels were specially designed and reserved for cacao. This supports the theory that access to cacao beans was an indication of social status. As a show of wealth and prominence, people in Mesoamerica owned special cacao vessels, called tecomates, and enjoyed cacao and chocolate at social gatherings. Oftentimes, chocolate drinks were a luxury item reserved for rulers, religious priests, and warriors at feasts and festivals.
HEALTH & MEDICINE
Cacao was believed to possess healing powers. Mesoamericans claimed that cacao gave you extra strength and increased libido. In early cacao culture, for medicine, the Olmecs would mix fermented pulp of the cacao fruit with cocoa powder and spices. Eventually, this drink was sweetened and used for non-medicinal purposes. Even so, the early belief that cacao could cure illnesses was adopted by the Spanish and other Europeans.
Mesoamerican cacao culture believed that chocolate was a strong aphrodisiac. The Aztecs claimed that chocolate gave men seductive powers, which could overpower any woman, and increased a man’s libido. For this reason, according to historical accounts, King Montezuma II and Aztec men consumed large amounts of chocolate during and after special feasts.
Cacao beans also played a role in significant religious and social rituals. It was used in Aztec human sacrifices - a piece of chocolate was given to those who were about to be sacrificed as consolation. Cacao beans functioned as dowries, played a role in wedding ceremonies in which the bride and groom would exchange five cacao beans, and as gifts during coming-of-age rituals for young men.
In Mesoamerica, archeologists discovered special cacao vessels inside tombs and at burial sites. It’s suspected that cacao beans and cacao vessels played a role in the funerary services of these early civilizations. It’s likely that these vessels were so highly valued in Mesoamerican cacao culture that they wished to take these with them into the afterlife.