Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


(Theobroma cacao)

By Hugh Murphy

Cacao trees are a tropical evergreen whose seed pods contain the primary ingredients for chocolate. The tree itself is indigenous to Southern Mexico, Central and South America with origins in tropical South America. It can reach 40 feet tall, but it is particularly sensitive to direct sun and is consequently grown in the shade of larger trees (Gomez-Pompa, 248-9). Mature cacao trees have broad, spear-shaped leaves and produce approximately 30 large, oval seed pods a year.

Cacao has been an important crop for both the economies and cultures of many indigenous peoples of the tropical Americas. Cacao trees are delicate and highly susceptible to disease; seeds therefore, were expensive and consumed primarily by Mayan and Aztec warriors and nobility (Gomez-Pompa, 248; Davidson, 177).  Historian Peter Limburg writes that during the time of the Hernán Cortés Spanish invasion (1520), chocolate “was so highly valued that the cacao beans from which it was made served as currency.  One hundred beans was the price of a slave among the Aztecs” (Limburg).  Cacao was also used during religious services to anoint newborn children and to honor the gods (Davidson, 177).


Preparing chocolate from cacao beans happens twice a year during harvest.  Ripe seed pods are picked and sliced open, revealing a mixture of beans and pulp.  The contents of the pod are removed and left to ferment in the sun.  This fermentation process breaks down the plants sugars and helps to develop the chocolate flavor.  The beans are then dried or roasted and ground into a powder.  One cacao tree produces an annual yield of 1-2 pounds of dried beans per year (Davidson, 176).  


While the Mayans and Aztecs added cacao to a variety of foods, they consumed it primarily as a beverage (Hall, 138).  Ground cacao was mixed with water and spiced with chili, vanilla, honey, ear flower petals or a number of other ingredients.  It was then poured back and forth between containers to produce a frothier liquid.  While the Mayans preferred their beverage hot, the Aztecs preferred it cold (Davidson 176-7).  The Aztec emperor, Montezuma, reportedly drank 50 cups of chocolate a day from golden challises that were used once and thrown away (Terrio, 76). 

Cortés carried samples of chocolate back to Spain when he returned in 1528 (Limburg).  Its popularity spread throughout Europe and created a demand that outweighed supply.  To meet this demand, European colonialists developed cacao plantations in territories closer to European shipping routes.  Plantations popped up in the West Indies and Caribbean islands.  By the 20th century cacao cultivation had traveled even farther East to Sri Lanka, Sumatra and Java.  Today, most of the world’s chocolate comes from West Africa (Davidson, 178). 

Chocolate is a high calorie food with a 3.5 ounce serving containing nearly 600 calories.  These calories come primarily from fat and sugar.  It also contains significant amounts of protein and iron and the stimulants caffeine and theobromine (Davidson, 180).

Facts and Photos

Works Cited

Arturo Gomez-Pompa, Jose Salvador Flores and Mario Aliphat Fernandez. “The Sacred Cacao Groves of the Maya.” Latin American Antiquity, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Sep., 1990), pp. 247-257. Published by: Society for American Archaeology.

Cutler, Charles L.  O Brave new Words ! Native American Loanwords in Current English. Norman, OK. University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Grant D. Hall, Stanley M. Tarka, Jr., W. Jeffrey Hurst, David Stuart and Richard E. W. Adams. “Cacao Residues in Ancient Maya Vessels from Rio Azul, Guatemala.” American Antiquity, Vol. 55, No. 1 (Jan., 1990), pp. 138-143.  Published by: Society for American Archaeology.

Limburg, Peter. Stories Behind Words: The Origins and Histories of 285 English Words.  Bronx, N.Y. H.W. Wilson Company. 1986.

Terrio, Susan J. “Crafting Grand Cru Chocolates in Contemporary France”

American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 98, No. 1.  (Mar. 1996.) Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association.