All Roads Lead To… Chocolate

An exploration of cacao’s ancestral migration to the American Southwest

Where chocolate comes from—gathering cacao pods in Ecuador, ca. 1907. Photograph by the American Stereoscopic Company. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, item no. LC-DIG-stereo-1s20708.
By Jason S. Shapiro

The main benefit of this cacao is a beverage which they make called Chocolate, which is a strange thing valued in that country. It disgusts those who are not used to it, for it has foam on top or a scum-like bubbling.

José de Acosta, 1590

Chocolate and I have a long history.

One of my earliest childhood memories involves the aroma of fresh chocolate. I grew up in Milton, Massachusetts, a bedroom community just outside Boston, and only a couple of miles from where Walter Baker Chocolate, purportedly America’s oldest chocolate company, was established in 1765. The factory was still operating in the fifties and sixties, and when the wind blew from the east, we were suffused with the intoxicating essence of chocolate. More than sixty years later I remain an enthusiastic chocolate consumer.

As most astute readers will acknowledge, the mass-produced, industrialized, and affordable chocolate bar that we recognize today, whether wrapped in the iconic silver and brown foil or encased in that mythical golden ticket, is a recent invention. For more than 4,000 years people have treated chocolate, or more accurately cacao, as a treasured commodity. We have drunk it, eaten it, traded it, used it for money, cultivated it, and obsessed over it. People have pursued chocolate across time and space for centuries and have carried it from its place of origin to every continent on the planet.

Chocolate has achieved such a valued status that it has been accorded both a National Chocolate Day (September 28) and a World Chocolate Day (July 7). Likewise, there are more than sixty-five museums worldwide whose sole focus is presenting the story of chocolate; accordingly, the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science hosts Chocolate: The Exhibition, a traveling exhibition by Chicago’s Field Museum. It opens June 17 and will run through March 12, 2023.

Originally ingested as a bitter, spiced drink, chocolate is now consumed in an uncountable number of ways, from sweetened solid bars to truffles, coated fruits and nuts, and all manner of hot and cold beverages. Chocolate has become an essential ingredient in Western culture, and has gained prominence in films, television shows, literature, and music. What else could be a fitting vehicle for Willy Wonka’s infamous Golden Ticket than a luscious and intoxicating bar of chocolate? Even the late Anthony Bourdain devoted an entire travel program to chocolate. The cameras followed Bourdain to Peru and chronicled his involvement with the production of single-sourced, artisanal chocolate bars. However, long before chocolate in all its modern forms dominated the Western palate, it was the drink of kings, emperors, and presidents—hot chocolate frequently appeared at George Washington’s breakfast table. I intend to examine chocolate’s popularity, as well as consider how chocolate has linked the culinary and the cultural between the Americas and the wider world.

Eating chocolate, ca. 1886. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, item no. LC-USZ62-92565.

The diffusion of chocolate is linked to the European colonization of the Americas, but its initial spread was a much older process that began thousands of years earlier in the Amazon Basin. The Amazon preserves the greatest concentration of wild cacao species and is most likely where the plant evolved. Cacao (Theobroma cacao = “the food of the Gods”) is a tropical tree that produces thirty or so yellow or scarlet-colored pods, each containing twenty-five to forty inch-long seeds embedded within a whitish pulp. Although the pulp can be fermented into a kind of fruity drink, the seeds are the source of the substance we call chocolate.

Cacao processing is neither obvious nor intuitive, and requires several very specific steps in order to get the good stuff. Transforming raw cacao into chocolate involves harvesting the ripe pods, separating the seeds from the pulp, fermenting then drying the seeds, roasting them, and then finally winnowing the seed casings to create cacao nibs that are ground into a paste that can be dried and preserved, or hydrated for drinks. Perhaps the least obvious and most critical step for the preparation of drinks is frothing, agitating the mixture until a foam forms and really brings out the cacao’s flavor. Whether one pours the liquid back and forth between special jars as the Maya did, or uses a Spanish-developed molinillo whisk, frothing is the “secret sauce” behind cacao elixirs.

It remains an open question whether cacao trees diffused naturally from the Amazon, or were taken by groups of cacao cultivators to the warm, humid parts of Mesoamerica where the tree flourished. However those trees arrived, by roughly 1900 B.C.E. the Olmec people living along Mexico’s Gulf Coast were growing cacao and preparing beverages. The Olmec may not have been the first chocolatiers, but they provided us with something unique. Their word for chocolate, kakawa, is the source for the word “cacao.” It was adopted by the Maya whose word chokola’j means “to drink chocolate together,” as well as the Aztecs, who used the term choclatl that became “chocolate.” Cacao trees cannot grow in the Mexican Highlands, but the Aztec Empire imported huge volumes of cacao seeds as tribute from their vassal states located in warmer, wetter areas. Drinking spiced cacao became a defining social marker for Aztec royalty, wealthy individuals, and their military. Despite being cultivated in relatively few places, cacao evolved into a pan-Mesoamerican phenomenon and was used in ceremonial activities from central Mexico to Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras.

Cacao pod cut open, showing “beans” that produce chocolate and cocoa, plantation in Ecuador, 1906. Photograph courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, item no. LC-DIG-stereo-1s20714.

As with many investigations into the use and distribution of well-known commodities, the details often turn out to be older, more complex, and more extensive than what people had previously assumed. This is the case with cacao, which has some surprisingly old ties to the Southwest in general and New Mexico in particular. The distribution and consumption of chocolate has become part of the enduring question concerning connections with Mexico. No one disputes that Mesoamerican artifacts and cultural traits reached the Southwest, but they were so selectively distributed in terms of time and place that scholars have been debating the significance of those artifacts and traits for more than a century.

Everything we thought we understood about the range of cacao use changed in 2008 when University of New Mexico professor Patricia Crown collaborated with Jeffrey Hurst of the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition to study chemical residues on Ancestral Puebloan ceramics. Their analysis revealed unmistakable traces of cacao in association with unique ceramic cylinder vessels that were unearthed at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon in 1896. Using sophisticated chemical analysis, scientists have identified the existence of cacao by spotting telltale organic residues, specifically the alkaloid theobromine, a definitive marker for cacao.

Crown and Hurst’s conclusion that people in Chaco Canyon were drinking chocolate as early as 1000 C.E. was an unexpected surprise, and contributed to a more complex picture of inter-regional trade with perishable cacao somehow making the long journey north. The nearest Mexican cacao sources relative to Chaco Canyon were somewhere between 1,500–1,700 miles distant, across some of the most rugged country in North America.

The story of cacao in the Southwest has become more complicated in light of additional research. In 2011, professor Dorothy Washburn at the University of Pennsylvania recovered theobromine in residues from ceramics collected from Alkali Ridge, an eighth-century Ancestral Puebloan settlement in southeastern Utah. These findings indicate that people were drinking cacao in the Southwest almost two hundred years earlier than at Chaco Canyon. As with the Chacoan cylindrical ceramic containers, the Alkali Ridge findings are associated with a rather sudden appearance of new and distinctive pottery types. Those discoveries support the possibility that cacao may have been brought into the Southwest by groups of farmers moving north; people who knew all about maize-growing and pottery-making, and who were also familiar with cacao. These early farmers were nothing like the hereditary royals and other elites who monopolized cacao-drinking among the Maya and other contemporaneous Mesoamerican societies. The as-yet-unsolved conundrum is that the Alkali Ridge folks were pretty egalitarian in their social structure, yet they also consumed what archaeologists have heretofore considered to be “elite centric” cacao drinks.

The Alkali Ridge findings have implications when considering the nature of Mesoamerican contacts, but raise very specific issues for Chaco Canyon. We may never know for certain how cacao got to Chaco, but the existence of cacao residues suggests that whoever was walking around the Southwest with dried cacao seeds already knew what to do with them, including exhibiting a barista’s ability to quickly whip up spicy, frothy chocolate drinks. Specialized knowledge does not magically appear in a vacuum, and if Mesoamericans could have carried cacao to Alkali Ridge, it is plausible that, two centuries later, different Mesoamericans could have carried cacao seeds, together with their associated recipes, to Chaco Canyon. The Chacoans were clever and sophisticated people, but without having received some kind of “chocolate tutorial” from skilled cacao specialists, they would have been as flummoxed as the Spanish would be several hundred years later when they too were presented with cacao seeds for the first time.

If the idea of chocolate tutorials conducted by Mesoamerican merchants or immigrants is worthy of consideration, then the next logical question is, “Which Mesoamericans are we talking about?” One might speculate about societies living in western Mexico. These people lived hundreds of miles from cacao-growing regions, but there is evidence that suggests local highly socially ranked individuals were using cacao as early as the ninth century. As those west Mexican polities became larger and more integrated into the broader streams of Mesoamerican culture, they gained access to exotic stuff, including cacao.

Could west Mexican groups have expanded their networks northward and traded goods, resulting in cacao at Chaco Canyon? It’s certainly plausible, but irrespective of how cacao got to Chaco, there seems to have been a very select group of Chacoans who got to drink it. Beyond their elevated social status and an association with Pueblo Bonito, we don’t know much about who these people were or what they thought about those exotic cacao drinks. In other words, there are plenty of intriguing cacao questions that remain unanswered.

Chacoan society dissolved by the thirteenth century, and chocolate usage in the Southwest seems to have dissolved then as well. There are a few Mesa Verde and subsequent period sites where traces of theobromine have been discovered, but the sample numbers are small, and there are no findings of cacao among Ancestral Puebloans after the 1400s. Moreover, there do not appear to be accounts of cacao usage among historical Pueblo societies, so chocolate beverage consumption did not continue as part of any ongoing ceremonial or cultural activity. Chocolate eventually made a triumphant return to New Mexico, but it required a few hundred years and an entirely different group of people to provide it.

Prior to 1500, no one in Europe had ever seen or heard of cacao. That was about to change as cacao was drawn into the “Columbian Exchange,” the name given to the transfer of technologies, plants, animals, and diseases as they were carried by people between Europe, the Americas, and everywhere else. The worldwide distribution of chocolate began unwittingly during Christopher Columbus’s fourth voyage, when on August 2, 1502, he encountered a Maya trading canoe from which he seized the crew and their merchandise that included things described as “almonds,” but which were actually dried cacao seeds. Neither Columbus nor his crew knew anything about those seeds, but within a short time they would enthusiastically embrace knowledge the Maya and others already had; namely, how to transform those little brown seeds into enticing and nutritious drinks.

Ancestral Pueblo pottery dating from 1100 A.D., from Room 28, Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Photograph courtesy the American Museum of Natural History Library, image no. ptc-3521.

In 1519, during Hernán Cortés’s  military campaign from Veracruz to the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlan, he was approached by two Aztec emissaries.

When the Spanish saw them eating, they too began to eat turkey, stew, and maize cakes, and enjoy the food with much laughing and sporting. But when time came to drink the chocolate that had been brought to them, that most highly prized drink of the Indian, they were filled with fear. When the Indian saw they would not drink, they tasted from all the gourds and the Spanish then quenched their thirst with chocolate and realized what a refreshing drink it was. —Diego Duran, 1964

Cortés was sufficiently impressed to describe cacao in a letter to the King of Spain in which he wrote, “Cacao is a fruit like the almond which they grind and hold to be of such value that they use it as money throughout the land and with it buy all they need in the markets and other places.” Cacao was so valuable that some Indigenous “entrepreneurs” learned how to make highly realistic counterfeit seeds out of clay. As with everything else of value in the Americas, the Spanish sought all the cacao they could find. Following their destruction of the Aztec Empire, they continued to collect huge amounts of cacao by expropriating existing Aztec tribute systems, forcing cacao growers to serve Spanish instead of Aztec needs. Over time Spanish colonials not only adapted to cacao, they innovated with novel recipes, as well as with newly invented tools with which to froth and serve chocolate drinks.

The earliest documented presence of cacao in Spain occurred in 1544 when some Dominican friars brought a Mayan delegation to the Spanish court. Among the exotic items the Maya gifted to Prince Phillip of Spain were containers of frothed chocolate beverages. We do not know Phillip’s reaction, but within a short time, it was game on for chocolate consumption in Europe as it became a hugely popular, mass marketed commodity. In other words, although Spain had “conquered” cacao, one could conclude that cacao had conquered Spain, and the rest of Europe as well.

By the mid-1600s, cacao had been introduced to Italy and England, and was becoming the beverage of choice among the European upper classes who had the time and resources to spend an afternoon sipping aromatic chocolate drinks. Within a century, millions of pounds of cacao were being grown on tropical plantations throughout the Caribbean region in order to feed European demands. Cacao quickly became an important component of Spain’s colonial economy because of its popularity as a consumable as well as its ongoing use as a medium of exchange. By the late sixteenth century, consumption of chocolate beverages was well ensconced along the Spanish colonial frontier; among the wealthy, drinking chocolate became quite fashionable. As the frontier was extended further north into New Mexico, the practice of cacao drinking was carried along with the Spanish flag.

One description of cacao use in colonial New Mexico was provided by Don Diego de Vargas, the commander responsible for the 1692 Reconquest of New Mexico following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. De Vargas described meeting a Pueblo leader and wrote, “I ordered him to enter my tent, greeting him kindly with warm words and chocolate, which he drank with the fathers, the others who were present, and me.” De Vargas may have been a tough and unyielding colonial administrator, but he had absorbed the traditional Aztec concept of hospitality that used chocolate drinks to lubricate the wheels of diplomacy … and conquest. Cacao-drinking remained part of colonial culture in New Mexico, especially among the upper classes and Catholic Church officials who offered hot chocolate beverages at banquets or other situations involving important or honored guests.

Over time, two aspects of traditional cacao usage changed. For thousands of years cacao had only been consumed as a beverage, rather than eaten as a solid confection. These conditions shifted as early as the sixteenth century, when cloistered Spanish nuns in Mexico learned how to use sugar and other ingredients to produce the world’s first chocolate candies. Those enterprising nuns foreshadowed the popular “Chocolate Giants,” such as John Cadbury and Milton Hershey, by centuries.

The second and not unrelated aspect is that cacao was traditionally treated as a specialty item accessible to social elites. It does not matter if we contemplate a ninth-century Maya lord, a seventeenth-century Spanish colonial administrator, or an eighteenth-century English lord—for the most part, until the industrialization of chocolate production, those people drove the market for cacao. A big exception were the eighteenth-century American colonies into which large volumes of chocolate were imported and apparently enjoyed by all classes. With the industrial revolution, mass production of sweetened chocolate became possible, and by the early nineteenth century, the powdered drink that came to be known as Dutch cocoa was invented, with improvements to the production of solid chocolate following soon after. The monopoly of the elites was over, and soon anyone who desired chocolate could have as much as they could buy.

Trademark certificate
Trademark registration by H. L. Pierce for Walter Baker & Co.’s Premium Cracked Cocoa. brand Cracked Cocoa, 1888. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, item no. LC-DIG-trmk-1t15264.

Well into the nineteenth century, New Mexico’s cacao culture remained tied to Mexico and the Camino Real, rather than to the growing economic engine of the United States. Although there was a history of chocolate production and consumption among eastern seaboard colonies, there was apparently no hurry to expand the market for “eastern chocolate” into the West. For example, there is not much evidence for chocolate products being transported along the Santa Fe Trail, at least moving east to west. Josiah Gregg, in his mid-nineteenth century book about the Trail, Commerce of the Prairies: The Journal of a Santa Fe Trader 1831-1839, noted that “no one can hesitate to do homage to their [Mexicans’] incomparable chocolate, in the preparation of which the Mexican surely excel other people.” In other words, chocolate was not unknown along the Trail in the nineteenth century, but it was primarily associated with Mexican traders.

Unlike in modern Mesoamerica, where cacao is still incorporated in food and drinks and holds an important place in rituals, contemporary Indian and Hispanic communities in New Mexico do not use chocolate in that manner. Irrespective of longstanding connections between the Southwest and Mesoamerica, they remain distinct cultural regions. Despite the growing corpus of evidence supporting the use and distribution of cacao in the Chaco and post-Chaco world, for reasons we do not understand, cacao usage simply stopped and was not carried forward by descendant communities.

Nevertheless, chocolate’s legacy in the Southwest has persisted into the modern era: Follow your nose to Kakawa Chocolate House in Santa Fe, and co-owner Bonnie Bennett will be happy to talk about all things chocolate. On a recent visit, she encouraged me to sample a few thousand years’ worth of chocolate elixirs. From a 2,400-year-old spiced Mayan concoction, to a seventeenth-century Italian citrus-infused recipe, to more contemporary preparations, I literally drank my way through the history of chocolate.

And isn’t that the ultimate purpose? For centuries, cacao has offered the promise of great wealth and the lure of something mysterious. But at the end of the day, what people really want to do is to eat it, drink it, and revel in the wonderfulness that is chocolate. The Golden Ticket, it turns out, was under our noses all along.

The author gratefully acknowledges the many useful comments, suggestions, and observations from Bonnie Bennett, Dr. Eric Blinman, Dr. Patricia Crown, and Dr. Richard Ford.

Jason S. Shapiro, J.D., Ph.D., is a retired archaeologist living in Santa Fe. In addition to several prior contributions to El Palacio, Dr. Shapiro is the author of Before Santa Fe, The Archaeology of the City Different (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2008), the first comprehensive synthesis of the Santa Fe region.