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Chocolate and The Aztecs, 1200 – 1521




The Aztecs were an ancient nomadic people who by the 1400s were gradually gaining control over a huge expanse of Mesoamerica. Their territory ranged all the way from northern Mexico to the Maya lands in Honduras.

Cacao quickly became key to the Aztec’s vast trade empire—not only as a luxury drink, but also as money, offerings to the gods, and payment to rulers.

The Aztecs couldn’t grow cacao, so they traded for it.  The cacao tree will not flourish in the dry highlands of central Mexico, at one time the seat of the Aztec empire. So the Aztecs traded with the Maya and other peoples in order to receive a steady supply of seeds for chocolate.

In Maya lands south of their own, Aztec traders filled woven backpacks with cacao. Then these men hauled their precious cargo on foot to the Aztec capital city, Tenochtitlan (ten noch teet LAN), today the site of Mexico City.

Aztec rulers required ordinary citizens and conquered peoples to pay a tax, also called “tribute.” Because cacao was so valuable, conquered peoples who lived in cacao-growing areas paid tribute with cacao seeds.

Cacao cups, ocelot skins, feathers, greenstone beads, and many other goods were just a few of the items people could use to pay tribute.

The Aztecs processed cacao into chocolate just like the ancient Maya. To make the seeds lighter during transport, Aztec merchants most likely traded for cacao that had already been fermented and dried.

Once these seeds were obtained, the Aztecs then roasted and ground the cacao using a griddle and a mano and metate, just like the Maya.

The Aztecs flavored their chocolate drink with a variety of seasonings.  Like the Maya, the Aztecs made their chocolate into a frothy, bitter beverage and mixed it with cornmeal, chile peppers, vanilla beans, and black pepper.

Different ingredients changed the texture, flavor, color, and purpose of the brew. To turn the chocolate a deep, blood-red shade for ritual use, the Aztecs added achiote (ah chee OH tay), the seed of the annatto tree.

Unlike the Mayans, drinking chocolate was a luxury few Aztecs could afford.

In the Aztec world, cacao seeds were worth a fortune—for paying tribute to rulers, for buying things in markets, and for making offerings to the gods.

Only the Aztec elite (rulers, priests, decorated warriors, and honored merchants) held the social status and economic position to savor the drink.

Chocolate was the Aztec food of the gods.  According to one Aztec legend, the god Quetzalcoatl (ket sal koh AH tul) brought heavenly cacao to Earth.

Eventually, Quetzalcoatl was cast out of paradise for the blasphemous act of giving this sacred drink to humans. (The gods felt that only they should have access to chocolate.) Priests often made offerings of cacao seeds to Quetzalcoatl and these other deities.

In Aztec markets, cacao seeds served as cash. When Aztec people went shopping, they used cacao seeds to buy and sell everything from cooking pots to clothes and food. The seeds were valuable and easy to carry—like having a pocket full of coins.

Cacao was valuable partly because the Aztecs couldn’t grow it themselves and had to import it from far away. And for this reason, cacao wasn’t for sale in markets—merchants kept the seeds locked up like money in a cash register.

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