The Sacred Cacao Tree

Genome researchers found that domestication of cacao originated in Central America about 3,600 years ago. Archaeologists found evidence of it dated to 1900 B.C. in the Pacific coastal plains of Guatemala and Chiapas where it was revered and traded by the Olmec. Izapa, a Late Formative Olmec site in Chiapas, was a particularly rich source of cacao  because it was very hot and located on a wet hill made of volcanic soil. The trees are evergreen, grow about 13 to 26 feet tall, bear fruit after three years, can live up to 100 years and grow well in the shadow of tall trees in humid forests above 60º F. They need moisture year-round, so during prolonged dry seasons irrigation is necessary. 

The tree’s flowers and fruits or pods grow directly on the trunk, each around 11 inches long and 4 inches wide averaging about a pound. The colors range from reddish to green, and change to yellowish-orange as the fruit matures. The pods contain 20 to 40 beans enveloped in a sticky, white pulp.  And the beans inside are large and flat and can be eaten raw. A tree will produce about 40 pods, which makes about 4.5 pounds of chocolate. The Classic Maya word for the beans and the beverages derived from them was kakaw. Some believe the word “chocolate” derived from the Maya word chokola’j, “to drink cacao together.” 

According to Maya mythology, the Plumed Serpent gave cacao to the first humans who were created from maize by divine grandmother, goddess Xmucane. In April each year, the Maya celebrated a festival to honor the cacao god, Ek Chuah. A thousand years later, the Aztec believed that cacao  pods were brought to them by the god Quetzalcoatl who obtained it inside a mountain filled with other plant foods.

Mentioned frequently in the Maya inscriptions as a trade good and an elite consumable, kakaw was an array of beverages rather than a single drink. These are described as “honeyed kakaw,” “flowered kakaw,” “bright red kakaw, “black kakaw,” “ripe kakaw,” “sweet kakaw,” and “frothy kakaw.” They also toasted the beans and used them to make gruels and porages, adding such things as honey, chile peppers, annatto (to make them red), fruit juices, flower blossoms and vanilla. And through fermentation, they produced a cacao flavored  alcoholic beverage.

A study by anthropologist Joanne Baron, published in Economic Anthropology, revealed that cacao beans, “originally valued for their use in status display, took on monetary functions within the context of expanding marketplaces among rival Maya kingdoms. These products would eventually go on to serve as universal currencies across the different Maya regions and were used to finance state activities, as well as household needs. By the time the Spanish had arrived in the early 1500s, kakaw products were being used to pay tribute to rulers, to buy and sell goods at the marketplace and pay workers.” 

The sacks of kakaw shown in the Bonampak, Chiapas murals were labeled with the kakaw glyph surmounted by a number which archaeologist and epigrapher David Stuart deciphered as 5 pik of forty thousand beans. He also notes the frequent use of a 3 pik—twenty-four thousand beans—a label which coincides with a count of cacao beans that was considered a “carga” in Postclassic highland Mexico. At the time of the conquest, a “load” of kakaw—24,000 beans—was worth twice as much in Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) as along the Gulf coast. A rabbit cost 10 beans, and a porter 20 beans for a short trip. A new cloth mantle cost 80–100 beans. A 1545 document written in Aztec Nahuatl states that a turkey was worth 200 cacao beans, a tamale worth one and the daily wage of a porter at the time was 100 beans. It was also noted that dishonest traders made counterfeit beans by stripping the husks of the beans, filling them with sand, and mixing them with genuine beans. Careful customers squeezed each bean to test it.

Europeans learned about cacao when the Aztec lord Moctezuma served it to the Spaniards at Tenochtitlan in 1519. Cortés and his men wrote about the vast quantities the emperor consumed and how it was carefully whipped into a frothy beverage by attendants. The beans and the beverage were introduced to the Spanish court in 1544 by Kekchi Maya nobles who were brought to Spain by Dominican friars. By 1600, chocolate had spread throughout Europe and England.

The health benefits of cacao are many. The beans are loaded with antioxidants, fat, carbohydrates, protein, flavonoids and minerals including calcium, magnesium, sulfur, copper, iron, zinc, potassium and oleic acid (a heart-healthy essential monounsaturated fat) and vitamins including E, B2, B1, B5, B3 and B9. Chocolate has been shown to aid relief from high blood pressure, cholesterol, obesity, constipation, diabetes, bronchial asthma, cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, and various neurodegenerative diseases. It’s an aid to rapid wound healing and skincare, and it helps to improve cardiovascular and brain health. What’s more, cacao also possesses mood-enhancing properties and exerts protective effects against neurotoxicity.

Given all that, it’s no surprise that ancient societies considered cacao “sacred,” and that it also plays an enormous role in modern society. Most of us love the taste of chocolate. And the satisfaction it brings is like being wrapped in a warm blanket. Given the stresses of life and all the goodness that chocolate contains—the less refinement and sugar the greater the health benefit—it’s one of life’s simple pleasures. Indeed, chocolate is special, set apart. Sweet or not, this unique flavor can serve as a reminder to honor and express the attributes that make us special and set apart from other living species, those that make us more fully human. Among them are increased awareness, empathy for and consideration of others, compassion, kindness, generosity, courage, flexibility, forgiveness, gratitude, honesty, humor, imagination, morality, patience, tolerance, wisdom, wonder. Now, whenever I’m about to indulge in chocolate in any form, I want it to serve as a reminder that everyone and everything is “sacred,” simply by virtue of being.

What you see before you, my friend is the result of a lifetime of chocolate. 

Katharine Hepburn

A little bit of sweetness can drown out a whole lot of bitterness.

Francesco Petrarca

Chocolate is a gift of love to yourself.

Sonja Blumenthal

Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.

Forrest Gump

Below are excerpts from my novels (The Path Of The Jaguar Trilogy), passages that relate to the significance of kakaw (cacao) in the lives of the ancient Maya. 

Counting Kakaw Beans

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 205)

OUR EARLY TRAINING HAD TO DO WITH TRADING, TERRITORIES, the names of places, rulers, ministers and counting. We learned the value of goods, especially those desired by lords, noblemen and holy men. We learned hand signs, not only to trade and speak with foreigners but also to signal each other under conditions of scouting and attacking. We learned how to use vines, moss on the side of trees and the stars as directional pointers. Especially, we learned which goods would be traded in the various markets. 

To learn how to show respect to power and speak in our trading partner’s favor, we put on hats and bargained with each other. Instead of using stones and sticks for counting, Pech taught us to use lucina shells for “zero,” kakaw beans for “one’s,” and flat hands for “five’s.” A hand covering our chins stood for “twenty.”  In the counting trial, we had to place and call, sum and subtract numbers in orders of thousands because kakaw beans were traded in “loads”—cloth bundles of eight thousand, what one man could carry.

Kakaw Valuation

Excerpt from Jaguar Sun (p. 98)

BY THE THIRD DAY IN THE MARKETPLACE AT IXKUN, SO many warriors and farmers were coming to have me rework their cherts and flints, Eagle fixed the exchange at two, four or eight hundred kakaw beans depending on how long it took me to do the work. After another day, a line formed. I was spending nearly as much time counting kakaw and shell beads as I was shaping stone, so Eagle had one of the assistants do the counting for me. It felt good to be contributing to the expedition, but by the end of the day, the muscles in my chopping arm were chattering. And I was out of Strong Back. Darts came by several times and stopped to watch me work. Whenever I looked at him or nodded he turned away. 

Checking For Counterfeit Beans

Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 67)

In the days leading up to Grand Procession, the counters and court scribes examined every needle, bead, feather, hide and kakaw bean. Day and night, a band of guards walked the perimeter of the compound while others armed with spears, axes, knives and flint-tipped darts walked the patio. Two of them stationed at the stairway searched everyone who came and went, including those of us who lived on the compound.

Pouring Kakaw To Make Foam

Excerpt from Jaguar Wind and Waves (p. 67)

For the feast I had arranged for the ministers to sit on reed mats in a circle. Lime Sky and her assistants prepared maize leaf tamales, most stuffed with turkey, others with paca meat. Four of my serving women had never been tot court before, so I worried that they would drop or spill something—or not understand a minister’s gesture. Along with the tamales we served roasted grubs with mashed beans and platters of cooked chayote greens topped with crumbled roasted squash seeds that she dusted with chili powder. For the beverage we served chih with lime juice and honey. The final offering, an extravagance usually reserved for lords and their ladies, was kakaw poured into tall cups from the height of the server’s breast to raise a dark brown foam.


For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

I welcome your feedback at <>

My portfolio site:

My photo books: <> 

(Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in “Search)

One thought on “The Sacred Cacao Tree


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: