Where does chocolate come from?
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History of Chocolate

Cocoa fruit
Cocoa pods grow right from the trunk of the
cocoa tree! (Thanks World Cocoa Foundation)

April 2016 - Chocolate comes from cocoa beans, which grew on trees in Central America and South America starting probably about 100 million years ago; cocoa trees may have gotten their start on the lower slopes of the Andes Mountains. Cocoa trees can only live in hot, rainy places near the Equator.

Cocoa beans
Cocoa beans (Tom Neuhaus, Project Hope and Fairness)

The trees bear large orange fruit, about the size of small pumpkins. You pick the fruit, and many small beans are inside, like peas inside a peapod. The raw beans are really good for you, full of vitamin C and magnesium, but they're bitter. They also have a fair amount of caffeine in them, like coffee or tea, and can help you work harder than you could without cocoa. People probably ate cocoa beans as soon as they got to Central America, maybe about 15,000 BC. By 3000 BC, Valdivia people in Ecuador, and probably their Norte Chico neighbors in Peru, were farming cocoa - our word "cocoa" comes from the Quechua (Inca) word.

Maya cacao god
Maya god of cocoa, with cocoa pods

Cocoa farming spread quickly north to Central America. By around 2000 BC, pre-Olmec people in Central America (modern Mexico) were grinding up the beans and making them into a hot or cold spicy chocolate drink with vanilla or chili peppers in it or a sort of spicy porridge with corn and chilis in it. Sometimes people sweetened chocolate with honey. Many people of Central America and South America - the Olmec, the Zapotec, the Moche, the Maya, the Arawak, the Tupi, the Inca, and the Aztecs - liked chocolate. Our word chocolate probably comes from the Aztec phrase "cacaua atl" which means "cacao drink".

clay pot in the shape of a cocoa tree with a frog climbing it
Moche clay pot in the shape of a frog
climbing a cocoa tree (ca. 500 AD)

By the 600s AD, Maya and Arawak farmers were growing cocoa trees instead of picking wild cocoa, though Tupi people were probably still gathering wild cocoa. Maya people said that the god Quetzalcoatl had brought cocoa trees down from heaven and given them to people to farm. During the 1400s AD, the Aztec Empire controlled most of Central America. The Aztec government made people pay a lot of their taxes in cocoa beans, because they were expensive and you could store them for a long time. By this time, Aztec merchants also sold cocoa beans to the Pueblo people to their north, who lived too far north to grow their own cocoa. Cocoa became an important trade item. But once the government made people use cocoa beans as money, most people couldn't afford to actually eat them anymore, and only rich people drank the chocolate drinks.

Later History of Chocolate
Learn by Doing - Chocolate Mousse Project

Biblography and further reading about chocolate:

Chocolate Mousse Recipe
Chocolate Strawberries Recipe
Chocolate Cake Recipe
More Latin American food
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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