To answer the question of how chocolate was discovered and made, we’ll need to travel north from South America and the Amazon rainforest to Mesoamerica - a historical region linked by culture that spanned from present-day central Mexico down to El Salvador and Honduras.
As we now know, Theobroma cacao trees originated in the Amazon. Following the evidence like breadcrumbs, cocoa beans were likely traded by land and sea routes from South America to other regions. Genetic signatures of Theobroma cacao show that the trees were domesticated and farmed as it made its way to Central America and as far north as Mexico.
In this region, which we’ll now refer to as Mesoamerica, there were several ancient civilizations that thrived between 1500 BCE to 1500 CE, namely the Olmecs and the Maya people. Archeologists have found that genetic analysis of artifacts, artwork, and even linguistics support the theory that these civilizations consumed cocoa beans and were the first to discover the process of making chocolate during this time period.
The Olmecsare believed to be the first to domesticate the Theobroma cacao tree, as well as the first to ferment the pulp found in cacao pods into an alcoholic beverage.
The Olmecs were an ancient civilization that lived along the Gulf Coast of southern Mexico between 1600-350 BCE, and they were a major civilization within the great Maya Empire. Studying their ancient artifacts, the Olmecs revered Theobroma cacao and it played a significant role in the civilization’s mythology and religious beliefs. They called it kakawa, which is where we derive the word cacao.
As early as 1500 BCE, the Olmecs practiced fermenting, roasting, and grinding cocoa beans. In their culture, cocoa was primarily used for religious and funerary purposes. Eventually and likely from Mayan influence, the Olmecs made a concoction using fermented pulp from the cacao pods and ground cocoa beans mixed with spices for rituals and medicinal use.
It’s believed that the Olmecs passed on their knowledge and reverence for cocoa to the greater Maya Empire.
The Maya Empire
Although the greater Maya Empire was introduced to cocoa by the Olmecs, they perfected what they had learned, and even created a god of cacao. Archeological findings show that the Maya people invented the warm chocolate beverage that was widely consumed in Mesoamerica and built the first cocoa plantations. Recent discoveries confirmed that they were also the first to eat chocolate as food.
The Maya Empire was comprised of indigenous groups that lived in southern Mexico and the Yucatán Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras between 1800 BCE to 900 CE. At its peak, the empire had a population of two million people who resided in three main regions: the northern Maya lowlands in the Yucatán Peninsula; the southern lowlands of Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, and Honduras; and the southern Maya highlands of Guatemala.
Archeologists found that the Maya Empire was the first to ferment, dry, roast, and grind cocoa beans into a paste, and then this paste or chocolate liquor was mixed with a combination of water, cornmeal, chili, and other spices like vanilla, cinnamon, and even magnolia to make a frothy chocolate beverage in 450 BCE.
The Maya people harvested cocoa beans, which they called cacahuatl. Despite not having the ideal climate of the Amazon, they successfully set aside areas specifically to farm Theobroma cacao trees in Central America in 600 BCE. This supplied cocoa beans all across Mesoamerica. These became the first cocoa plantations, and the act of gathering cocoa beans and consuming chocolate at Mayan feasts and other significant ceremonies was immortalized in Mayan artifacts.
In 2001, archaeologists working with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History uncovered fragments from a 2,500-year-old plate - that would have been used in 600-500 BCE - in the northern Maya lowlands. The plate tested positive for theobromine and caffeine that is found in cocoa beans. This confirmed that the Maya people not only drank chocolate as a beverage, but they also made and ate chocolate possibly as a spice or sauce for food.