History of Cacao 1, Where is Cacao from?
Hello my fellow chocolate lovers,
I am Takanori Chiwata, the chocolate engineer of COCONAMA CHOCOLATE.
Starting from this post, I would like to talk about the history of cacao and chocolate.
“Where is the origin of cacao and since when did they exist?” I am also going to explain about since when did humanity start eating cacao and how it became part of the snack that we enjoy everyday.
First of all, the scientific name of cacao is “Theobroma Cacao”, which translates to “food of god”. It is believed that they originated around the upper course of the Amazon River. It is recorded that humanity encountered cacao back in 1900 BC, and was harvested since the time of Olmec civilization. However, in 2018, research team from UBC found that cacao was used in Ecuador long before that, from 5000 BC.
I’m assuming that cacao , which was born around the Amazon river, took a long time and traveled through Ecuador and other regions and ended up in the hands of Olmec civilization.
Additionally, cacao is not made to crack its own pod to spread its seeds. I mean, they are pretty hard. So, it were the monkeys that helped the cacao with this process. The monkeys cracked the pod to savour cacao’s sweet pulp, remaining its bitter seeds.
This is how it slowly spread around.
And how were these cacao used by people back in the early time?
The history of cacao lines up with the formative stage of Mesoamerica (2000 BC to 200 BC). You will be able to see the history of cacao if you trace the history of Mesoamerica.
Mesoamerica is a term used for region which extends from central Mexico through Belize, El Salvador to the western half of Honduras. This is an important historical region where Olmeca, Maya, and Azteca civilization flourished. Cacao played an important role in these civilizations.
It looks like this on a map.
It is recorded that, carbonized cacao beans had been found from the remains of Olmec civilization, known for its Stonehenge, at the Pacific shore of southern Mexico. Afterwards, an image of cacao was spotted on the steles of Izapa(culture which rooted from Olmec civilization 200 BC-200 AD). This region is called “Soconusco”, and is known to be the producing area of cacao. You can even find remains in its cacao garden! It is to be believed that the word “cacao” was passed to Mayans by the people from Izapa who spoke Mixe-Zoque language. Additionally, in this region the remains of wild cacao was not found, therefore, it is very likely that they harvested cacao themselves.
Bringing back the topic of Olmec civilization, these people processed their food in a very interesting way. This method is called the “nixtamalization”, and used since 2000 BC. This process was done by simmering cooked hard pieces of corn in lime water or wood ash lye (sometimes along with cooked snail shells), and leaving it overnight. This made the shells of corn softer, allowing them to grind them easier.
The amazing part of nixtamalization is not just the fact that it made the cooking easier, but it also boosted up the nutrition of the processed food! Once the food is processed with lime water, it breaks down the protein and boosts the amount of amino acid. Nixtamalization allowed people to consume amino acids, which cannot be created in a human body, from foods like processed corn.
FYI, when Europeans brought back corn from their newly discovered continent, those who made corn their staple food suffered from nutrient deficiency as the nixtamalization was never introduced.
It is now known whether they used nixtamalization to process cacao, but if they did, that means they were successful alkalizing cacao(which is known to be a great finding later on) 4000 years ago! Just the idea of it is quite fascinating!
I would like to move on to the star of this topic, the Mayan civilization, but let’s save that for our next post.
With hopes that you will be able to encounter the perfect chocolate just for you,