The mysterious Olmecs are considered one of the first major civilisations of Pre-Classical Mesoamerica, preceding other important ones like the Mayans and Toltecs. Linguists have in the past pointed out references to the word ‘cocoa’ in vocabulary and depictions from the Olmec times, also indicating that it was savoured as a drink in round ceramic jars called ‘tecomates’. Thus, the genesis of chocolate may have occurred almost 3000 years ago.
Centuries after the end of the Olmec civilisation, the Mayans spread across southern areas of Mexico, from the Yucatán peninsula to Guatemala. Prolific in astronomy, mathematics and picture writings, Mayan books manifested the existence of cacao and its divine association.
Theobroma cacao was the taxonomic name
given to a cocoa tree by Carl Linnaeus,
the 17th-Century Swedish botanist, who
formalised binomial nomenclature. Linnaeus
named it after the belief of the Mayans
and Aztecs that cocao was the ‘food of the gods’
and wanted to ensure the belief was
maintained. In Greek, ‘Theo’ means god or
godly, and ‘broma’ means food.
The Mayans held the cocoa tree in extremely high esteem, and believed that cacao pods were the gift from the gods. The books from the period often depicted deities and religious processions, and the frequent use of cacao pods in such ceremonies became evident, with text likening cocoa to divine food.
The bitter brew of cocoa was the drink of Mayan nobility. They drank it as a porridge thickened with ground maize or in slender versions. Quite in contrast to the sweetened and multi-flavoured form of today’s drinking chocolate, the favourite ingredient to add flavour was chili.
Toltec and Aztec Tales
The mystifying fall of the Mayans saw the settlement of the Toltecs in the region, which also later became home to the Aztecs. The Toltecs had a firm belief that their king, Quetzalcoatl, was the ‘god of air’ and was destined to bring cocoa seeds from the Garden of Eden to humans, teaching them how to cultivate the divine plant. However, following political turmoil and during ill health, Quetzalcoatl sailed away from his kingdom, vowing to return and reclaim his place in a pre-destined year, which was 1519. The Toltecs and Aztecs since then recited the predicted return of the king, which also became part of Aztec folklore.