As the class prepares to visit a cacao farm tomorrow to better acquaint ourselves with Mayan culture, a staple worth some serious discussion is the cacao seed. That being said, disregard any impulsive image of the ancient Maya as living in a chocolate-filled paradise a la Willy Wonka’s fantastical chocolate factory. But all the same, to say that the ancient Maya were a society of chocoholics may not be so far from the truth. In the words of archeologist Keith Prufer, the ancient Maya regarded cacao as “an intimate ritual product implicated in areas of social identity and reproduction that transcend economic and political status” (Prufer & Hurst 2007).
As Prufer explains in his article published in association with the Hershey Food Technical Center, entitled “Chocolate in the Underworld Space of Death,” the cacao seed held a diverse set of connotations for the Maya. On one hand, cacao was an integral instrument in transitioning the individual from one stage of life to the next (birth, initiation, marriage, etc.). But at the same time, archeologists also believe that cacao acted as a sort of Mayan currency, as a luxury beverage ingredient for societal elites, and as an occupational tool which Mayan shamans utilized when performing rituals (Prufer & Hurst 2007). All in all, cacao took a prominent but complex position in Mayan society, making it a topic worth close analysis as the class looks toward encountering descendants of the very people who held it in such esteem.
Prufer’s paper proves a particularly interesting discussion of cacao as it explains the seed’s function facilitating the Mayan relationship with the underground realm of the divine. As the Maya saw it, human life followed a cyclical construction, rising from the land at birth and returning to the land at death. In turn, cacao was seen as mediating human interaction with the earth by being present both at birth and at death (Prufer & Hurst 2007). However, it is the latter event which archeologists like Prufer are most concerned with as the cacao seeds included in cave burials can preserve until modern discovery, like those in the Bats’ub Cave of southwestern Belize. As Prufer explains, this cacao may have been included in burials as a type of sustenance for the deceased’s journey, or perhaps as a form of entry payment to the afterlife (Prufer & Hurst 2007). Either way, cacao facilitated the connection between the mortal surface world and the divine underground realm, and in this way the Maya regarded the seed as necessary for a proper life cycle.
Still, I find it most interesting that the reason why the cacao seed of all objects received such elevated status from the Maya remains a mystery to researchers. It would seem that the Maya could have assigned such sanctity to other natural objects that seemed to connect the mortal surface world with the divine underworld. Consider water, a natural resource following a cycle much like the Mayan human lifecycle. In the same way that the Maya believed humans to emerge from and then return to the ground, so did water come up to the Earth’s surface in Mayan cenotes and soak into the ground as rainfall. As such, water effectively exemplifies that strong parallels can be drawn between the Mayan worldview and other natural items besides cacao, leaving one to speculate which of the seed’s qualities led to its characterization as an elite good.
As it were, other scholarly analyses provide a wealth of claims as to why cacao rather than another natural resource like water may have developed into a Mayan cultural staple. For one, cacao pulp could be fermented into a chocolate drink called chicha, a status good reserved for Mayan elites given its decadence and for shamans because of its mind-altering ability. Lavish chocolate foods were also prepared by elites using cacao, further associating luxurious and sacred connotations with the seed (Henderson 2007). Cacao had its appeals even from a pragmatic perspective, for it is easily transported and preserved. Granted, these scholarly claims remain somewhat speculative, but they nonetheless beginto illuminate why cacao may have first come to maintain elevated status among the Maya.
But in closing, perhaps our own trip to the Mayan homeland will serve to temporally contextualize these mysteries surrounding the cacao. That is, while a great deal of the seed’s original ancient significance may be lost, the relationship between the Maya and cacao has continued to evolve over the millennia. In fact, Prufer goes on to track some of this evolution in his discussion of extant documentary sources from the years following European settlement of the Yucatán (Prufer & Hurst 2007). As such, perhaps observing the modern role of cacao in the lives of Mayan descendants will help further complete our understanding of the dynamic and long-standing relationship between seed and man. And if it so happens along the way I have to taste some cacao first-hand, then I suppose I will have no choice but to partake in the name of scholarship.
Henderson JS, Joyce RA, Hall GR, Hurst WJ, & McGovern PE (2007) Chemical and archaeological evidencefor the first cacao beverage. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 48:18937-18940.
Prufer K, & Hurst WJ (2007) Chocolate in the underworld space of death: Cacao seeds from an early Classic mortuary cave. Ethnohistory, 54:273–301.
Sean Drake is a sophomore from Cincinnati, Ohio. As a double-major in Classics and Environmental Studies, his main interest is the intersection of ancient civilizations and the environment. As a result, he is interested in the link between the native Maya and their homeland. On the side, Sean loves to scuba dive as well as run as captain on the USC Marathon Team. He hopes to one day pursue a career in coastal management.