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.
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.
The beans 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.
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. They made chocolate drinks with vanilla or chili peppers in them. And they made 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”.
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.
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