Although a web-based fable gently jokes that chocolate was discovered by an Arab Muslim scholar named al-Khakolati, it is clear that the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) is native to the Americas. Most wild members of the genus Theobroma appear to have evolved in the tropical lowlands of South America, but only T. cacao seems to have spread northward, traveling from the Amazon Basin up to and across Central America and into Mexico. Some botanists suggest that the cacao tree arrived in eastern Mexico and adjacent areas of the Yucatán Peninsula on its own; others claim it came through cultural diffusion and was independently domesticated there as well as in South America.

My good friend and fellow ethnobotanist Charles Miksicek identified the oldest wood remains from cacao trees in Mesoamerica at the Cuello site in Belize, where they were estimated to be at least twenty-nine hundred years old. Cacao plant artifacts have also been found among archaeobotanical remains in Honduras that date back to 3100 BCE.

In prehistoric times in South America, the theobromine-ich pulp was made into a fresh, fruity beverage or fermented into a mildly alcoholic one. There, cultivated varieties were initially selected for their edible pulp, while selection for the seeds was stronger in Mesoamerica. Cacao pulp is still used to ferment alcoholic beverages and vinegar in Panama and perhaps in Colombia as well. Depictions of cacao pods on Peruvian pottery vessels have been tentatively identified and dated as being twenty-five hundred years old. Cacao seeds were not used to make caffeinated beverages there, perhaps because other South American beverage plants, such as yerba mate, guarana, and yoco, pack a much more potent punch of caffeine.

In contrast, Mesoamericans greatly values the effects of both the caffeine and theobromine in the seeds of their four prehistoric cacao varieties. The Nahuatl-speaking Mexica tribe also used the larger pods of three of the varieties as a form of currency. After the arrival of Europeans and Africans in Mexico, the two gene pools of cacao were hybridized, so that both the edible pulp and seeds found in cultivated cacao have qualities not found in their wild and semicultivated precursors. Nevertheless, it was the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica who devised elaborate means of fermenting and extracting chocolate from cacao seeds that underlies how cacao is processed today.

Kakaw, the oldest known term for this plant and its products, appears to have come from the ancient Mixe-Zoque languages now spoken in the Mexican states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Tabasco, and Veracruz. From there, it diffused into many languages, including those in the Mayan family. Choko-atl, the rather problematic Nahuatl term, was not recorded until the sixteenth century and may not have been used in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica at all. It is also unclear when chocolate became one of the signature ingredients in the sauces for meats that evolved into moles, which have peculiarly Old World formulas and ingredients, as discussed elsewhere in this book.

Remarkably, it has been recently confirmed that the Anasazi of Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, which reached its peak as a trade center between 900 and 1300, were ritually consuming chocolate-based drinks in Mayan-style cylindrical pottery vessels thousands of miles north of where chocolate naturally occurred. That means that chocolate may have entered the cuisines of the southwestern United States by 1000 to 1125, well before the use of domesticated chiles there, which may have not occurred until after 1450.

It appears that once Jews immigrated to Mexico and Central and South America, they quickly understood the medicinal, culinary, and even psychotropic value that chocolate had to offer. By the seventeenth century, Jewish merchants in Mexico and Jamaica were among the primary merchants moving cocoa to other Jewish spice traders in Amsterdam, London, and Lisbon. They also played critical roles in modernizing and diversifying chocolate processing. Among these innovative immigrants was Benjamin d’Acosta de Andrade, a Portuguese-born Jew who founded the first of several chocolate-processing operations in Martinique in the Lesser Antilles in the mid-seventeenth century. Later, in the last decades of the eighteenth century, American Jews such as Aaron Lopez and Levy Solomons, both living in the northeastern United States, developed chocolate processing and trade with Europe’s most accomplished confectionaries, many of whom first advanced artistry with chocolate in the Netherlands. 

Crown, Patricia L., and W. Jeffrey Hurst. “Evidence of Cacao Use in the Prehispanic American Southwest.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencs, 2009: www.pnas.org_cgi_doi_10.1073_pnas.0812817106.
Grivetti, Louis E., and Howard Yana-Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. New York: Wiley & Sons, 2009.
MacNeil, Cameron L., ed. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2006.
Minnis, Paul E., and Michael E. Whalen. “The First Prehispanic Chile (Capsicum) from the U.S. Southwest/Northwest Mexico and Its Changing Use.” American Antiquity 75 (2009): 245-58.
Image Credit:
With permission from: 
Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey
University of California Press