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The Cacao Codex: The Maya, the Aztecs & the Story of Chocolate 26

A drink, a gift from the gods, a form of money and used in Mayan and Aztec ritual, cacao is the base ingredient of chocolate as we know it today. The modern world knows chocolate in its sweetened, processed form and as something that the Spanish conquistadors brought back to Europe as a symbol of everything exotic, mysterious and intoxicating about the New World. On a chocolate-flavoured tour through the Mayan and Aztec world in what is now Guatemala and Mexico, this is the real story of cacao.

The Mayan 'Hero Twins' receive the gift of cacao from the gods

Feb 12 2013

The Maya believed that cacao was picked off a tree as a gift from Hunahpu, one of two legendary twins of Mayan mythology. Cacao soon became one of the most important commodities in the Maya world and as well as being used in trade and ritual, it was also used to make a drink made from cacao bean paste, cornmeal, chili and water known as Xocola'j. Image Credit: Erin Deleon-Ahumada 07/05/2010

A Mayan noble buried at Rio Azul

Feb 13 2013

The Mayan settlement of Rio Azul, named after the nearby river just to the northwest, was established around 500 BC. As with other major Mayan cities and settlements, the rulers and nobles of Rio Azul were buried with ceramics, trinkets made from gold, obsidian and jade, fine textiles and luxury foods including cacao. Image Date: 07/31/1984

Mayan tomb with hieroglyphics, Rio Azul

Feb 14 2013

Rio Azul features some of the most elaborately hieroglyphed Mayan tombs ever discovered. This tomb is suspected by archaeologists to be the resting place of a ruler of Rio Azul named 'Six Sky' who is also suspected to be the son of King Siyaj Chan K'awiil II, a ruler of the Mayan city of Tikal which also lies in the Mayan Biosphere to the south of Rio Azul. Image Date: 03/05/1984

Mayan tomb with cacao and chocolate vessels, Rio Azul

Feb 16 2013

Among the archaeological finds at Rio Azul were a number of ceramic pots, including one pot with glyphs which specifically state its use a cacao pot and another identified as a 'screw-top chocolate pot', emphasising just how important cacao was to the inhabiting Maya. Astonishingly, when archaeologists began opening up Rio Azul's tombs and burial chambers, they found still in-tact remnants of cacao contained in the pots alongside which the Mayan royals and nobles had been laid to rest. Image Date: 04/05/1984

Mayan Pyramids at Tikal rising above the jungle

Feb 20 2013

Founded around 300 BC, Tikal is one of the most extensive Maya cities ever discovered. Tikal is located just over one hour north of the city of Flores, capital of Guatemala's Peten Department, and was itself the capital of one of the most powerful Mayan kingdoms in Mesoamerica. Image Date: 12/27/2015

Temple of the Jaguar at Tikal, resting place of Ah Cacao

Feb 21 2013

"Temple I", also known as the the Temple of the Jaguar, is one of Tikal's largest and most impressive structures and is also the resting place of a Mayan king known as Jasaw Chan K'awil, or 'Sky Rain'. Tikal once again highlights how highly cacao was regarded among the Maya as Jasaw Chan K'awil, one of the city's most famous rulers, was also known as 'Ah Cacao' which literally translates to 'He of Cacao'. Image Date: 04/02/2010

Ah Cacao, or 'Sky Rain', mural at Tikal

Feb 22 2013

As one of Central America's best known Mayan sites, Tikal's ruins have been restored by archaeologists on a number of occasions. Pottery found at Tikal features murals showing King Jasaw Chan K'awil, or 'Sky Rain', receiving a gift of cacao from what is suspected to be a farmer or trader. Image Credit: Scribbler.cz Image Date: 07/26/2015

Mayan ruins at Iximche

Feb 26 2013

Settled and founded in 1470, during the Late Postclassic Maya period, Iximche was one of the last Mayan cities to be established before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. 90% of the population of the area surrounding Iximche in the Guatemala Highlands is descended from the Kaqchikel Maya and, in the nearest modern city of Antigua, cacao is still processed and consumed in the classic Mayan way. Image Credit: Flickr - Stacy Image Date: 07/21/2007

Traditional Mayan-style cacao pressing, Antigua

Feb 27 2013

The city of Antigua Guatemala is renowned for its cacao and chocolate producing heritage which is also deeply rooted in the old Mayan traditions. Affectionately known as a 'Home of Chocolate', Antigua is home to its own Chocolate Museum just off the city's Plaza Mayor which showcases how the crop was used by the Maya and among the exhibits are traditional Mayan cacao presses designed in the form of a turtle. Image Date: 01/27/2015

Mayan step pyramid at Takalik Abaj ruins

Mar 2 2013

Dating back to roughly 200 BC, the Mayan ruins at Takalik Abaj seemingly spill out of the surrounding lowland jungle on Guatemala's Pacific coast. Featuring ruins which exhibit architecture from both the Mayan and earlier Olmec cultures, Takalik Abaj was one of the largest pre-Spanish centres in this part of modern day Guatemala. (Wikimedia Commons) Image Credit: Simon Burchell Image Date: 12/17/2008

Mayan hieroglyphic stela and altar, Takalik Abaj

Mar 3 2013

Dozens of altars are scattered all over Takalik Abaj and each one is accompanied by its own stone stela engraved with elaborate Mayan glyphs. In Takalik Abaj's heyday as the major settlement on the Pacific coast, gods, Mayan priests and shaman would use these altars in religious ceremonies which included cacao being roasted as a ritual offerings to the gods. Image Date: 07/16/2012

Cacao pod growing in the jungle surrounding Takalik Abaj

Mar 4 2013

For the Maya, Takalik Abaj was the most important commercial centre on the Pacific coast and the city controlled the movement of cacao throughout the region. Takalik Abaj sat at the epicentre of a vast trade network stretching from the Valley of Mexico down to South America, along which the city's cacao was exchanged with other Maya city states, as well as with settlements from other Mesoamerican cultures, for obsidian, jade and gold. Image Date: 09/28/2012

Mayan Cacao Mural, Dresden Codex

Mar 5 2013

This mural, featured and restored at a number of Mayan sites in Guatemala and detailed in the Dresden Codex, shows Chaac, the rain god, and Ixchel, the moon goddess, exchanging cacao. Showing that even the Mayan gods revered cacao as a luxury item and exchanged it among themselves, the mural highlights just how vital cacao was in relation to Mayan trade and commerce. Image Credit: Dresden Codex Image Date: 09/21/2015

"Temple I" - Mayan step pyramid at Comalcalco

Mar 8 2013

Reaching its zenith around 550 CE, 'Comalcalco' literally means 'Clouded Sky' in the Chontal Mayan dialect and the city was located in Tabasco's largest cacao producing area. Unique to Comalcalco, and highlighting just how rich the old Mayan city became through trading its rich supplies of caoao, the bricks used in the construction of its lavish pyramids and temples were elaborately decorated with glyphs and cemented together using mortar made from roasted and crushed oyster shells and seashells. Image Date: 12/06/2014

Stone mask carving of the Mayan sun god at 'Temple IV', Comalcalco

Mar 9 2013

Comalcalco is famous for its elaborate carvings. As one of the main gods honoured at the site, Kinich Ahau, the sun god, had ritual offerings made to him by the Maya at Comalcalco in the form of luxury items such as maize, honey and incense. Due to Comalcalco being the biggest producer of cacao in the region, Kinich Ahau was also honoured by the Maya with as much cacao and as many chocolate-cacao drinks he could ever want. Image Date: 11/19/2008

Nestle cacao pickers at modern day Comalcalco

Mar 10 2013

The Mayan cacao harvesting legacy in Tabasco continues to this day and twenty percent of the state's cacao comes from the area surrounding the ruins at Comalcalco. So plentiful, rich and fertile were Comalcalco's cacao supplies that modern day chocolate moguls Nestle have followed in the footsteps of the Maya and set up their own cacao harvesting operation in the area. Image Date: 04/08/2014

Volcán Tacaná, Chiapas

Mar 14 2013

Volcán Tacaná, or Tacaná Volcano, is the second highest peak in Central America. At over four thousand metres in height, the mountain sits in the Sierra Madre de Chiapas range which straddles the border between northern Guatemala and southern Mexico. The peak makes the volcanic earth in southern Mexico's Xoconochco region, in modern day Chiapas, perfect for agriculture and crop cultivation and this was one of the main reasons why the Maya and later arriving Aztecs valued the area so highly. Image Credit: Flickr - Eduardo Robles Pacheco Image Date: 06/22/2009

The ruins of Izapa, Chiapas

Mar 15 2013

First constructed by the Olmec civilisation in roughly 1500 BC and later inhabited by the Maya, Izapa is thought to be the site were the Maya first developed their calendar system. The Maya first took control of the Xoconochco region of what is now the Mexican state of Chiapas from 400 BC, and many of Izapa's glyphs and artwork, most notably the carvings of crocodiles, frogs and clouds, symbolize the area's heavy rains which combine with the volcanic soils to create perfect crop-growing conditions. Image Credit: Eduardo Robles Pacheco Image Date: 07/27/2013

Cacao pod growing at Izapa ruins

Mar 16 2013

The decline of the Maya civilisation coincided with the rise of the Aztecs and they arrived in Xoconochco in 1486, intent on expanding both their empire and trade routes. Nearby Volcán Tacaná and the wet climate made Xoconochco's volcanic soil extremely rich and fertile and this exceptional cacao producing environment was highly prized by the Aztecs. Unlike the Maya, cacao was exclusively reserved for Aztec nobility and before long it was being shipped back to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, with Izapa now subjugated and sending cacao as tribute to Axayacatl, the newly ruling Aztec emperor. Image Credit - Choco-story (http://choco-story-brugge.be/) Image Date: 10/26/2014

Monte Alban, Oaxaca

Mar 20 2013

The Zapotec culture originally settled the area now known as Oaxaca, constructing the city of Monte Alban in 500 BC and the region was absorbed into the Aztec empire in the early fifteenth century. Famous for producing a cacao drink which was a favourite among the Aztec ruling elite, the modern city of Oaxaca is located just under ten kilometres to the east of the ruins. Image Date: 10/07/2007

A 'Tejatera' in San Andrés Huayapam, Oaxaca

Mar 22 2013

Just under eight kilometres northeast of Oaxaca City, the town of San Andrés Huayapam is widely considered to be the birthplace of a cacao-based drink known as Tejate. Tejate is made from cacao beans, roasted maize flour and the ground up petals of an exotic plant which became known to the Aztecs as 'Cacaoxochitl'. Today, the petals are known as 'rosita de cacao' and they give Tejate its highly pungent and unique flavour which is why the Aztecs prized it so highly. So enamoured were the Aztecs with Tejate, that they considered it the drink of Quetzalcoatl, god of wind, the earth and the sky, and Emperor Moctezuma I was said to drink up to fifty cups of Tejate daily, each serving presented to him in a golden cup. Today, San Andrés Huayapam is home to a group of female chefs known as 'tejateras' , who are considered to be the custodians of the famous cacao-based drink. Image Credit: Flickr - Krista Image Date: 11/24/2009

The shadow of Popocatépetl, Mexico City

Mar 23 2013

The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was founded in 1325 and after the city fell to Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors in 1521, it was demolished and re-christened as Mexico City. Tenochtitlan and Mexico City are polar opposites of each other, however one of the only remaining constants between the old Aztec capital and Mexico's modern capital is the volcanic shadow of Popocatépetl in the distant skyline. Image Date: 02/14/2012

Aztec Emperor Moctezuma I presented with a cacao drink

Mar 24 2013

For the Aztecs, cacao and 'xocalatl', or chocolate, were a gift from the gods and the trees which produced cacao pods were considered to a bridge between earth and heaven. Aztec emperors demanded it from conquered peoples as tribute and it was commonly used in religious rituals, including being fed to victims before the infamous Aztec human sacrifices were performed. Image Credit: Image Credit: Aerogaby (Blog Author) Image Date: 09/30/2015

Aztec Cacao Traders at Tenochtitlan

Mar 25 2013

The Aztec capital was home to Tlatelolco, a market which acted as the commercial and financial core of the Aztec empire and cacao played a major role in its trade. It was here that cacao became a form of currency for the Aztecs and Spanish chroniclers recorded how the beans were used, with examples being how a turkey egg cost three cacao beans and an avocado would cost one cacao bean. At the opposite end of the cacao market, eight hundred cacao beans would fetch a block of jade and one thousand cacao beans would purchase a slave. Image Credit: Aztecgoldchocolate Image Date: 10/14/2011

"Calveras" at Mercado de Coyoacán, Mexico City

Mar 26 2013

In the markets of today's Mexico City, the metropolis built on top of Tenochtitlan, the influence of the way the Aztecs revered cacao is still visible in abundance. Markets all over the city, such as Mercado de Coyoacán - itself the site of an old Aztec trading plaza - still pay homage to the significance of both cacao and the at times bloodthirsty Aztec symbolism of the skull in the form of skulls made from chocolate known as 'calveras'. Image Date: 02/11/2014

Chocolate and cacao on sale at La Merced Market, Mexico City

Mar 27 2013

In markets like La Merced in modern Mexico City, cacao and chocolate from all over the country is bought and sold just as it was in Tenochtitlan at the height of the Aztec empire. The old Aztec and Mayan way of preparing cacao as a savoury food also lives on as Mole, a fiery sauce made with chocolate chili peppers and spices. Even the word 'Mole' comes from the Aztec word for sauce, 'mōlli', and it remains a favourite of Mexican cuisine to this day. Image Date: 07/16/2012

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