Chocolate, the Food of Maya Gods and Mortal Kings
For many decades archaeologists have meticulously studied the Maya Civilization. But as they continue their endless probe on how such talented people once lived, they have unraveled a wealth of information on their religion, ceremonial offerings, customs and traditions, including chocolate – a popular drink, much venerated by the Mayas, and now much loved by modern generations.
Chocolate, a name derived from the Maya word Xocoatl, was revered as a favored food of the Mayan gods during the golden age of the Maya Civilization in Belize in 500 BC. The Maya, once the world’s most advanced horticulturists, cultivated cocoa beans that were used throughout Mesoamerica as money.
Chocolate is probably best known in solid bar form, but it wasn’t always this way. For more than 90% of its history, chocolate was consumed only as a beverage.
Chocolate consumption dates back to the Classic Period of the Ancient Maya of Mexico and Central America (250 -900 BC). The Maya made it into a spicy drink, which they used in ceremonies. A particular favorite of Maya kings and priests, chocolate played a special part in royal and religious ceremonies. At sacred altars, Maya priests presented cocoa seeds as offerings to the gods and prepared chocolate as a drink for special religious ceremonies. When Maya aristocrats served chocolate drinks, they used lavishly decorated vessels made by specially trained artists.
The Maya were part of a trade network that extended well beyond the territory they occupied. Maya lands covered parts of southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Western Honduras. Long after the height of their political power, during the later Maya Post Classic Period (AD 900-1519), the ancient Maya supplied cocoa to the Aztecs (AD 1428-1521) of central Mexico.
Among the ancient Maya, chocolate was enjoyed by the rich and elite class. Historians say that chocolate was also a special drink reserved only for wealthy Aztecs – merchants, priests, decorated warriors, or kings like the famous Montezuma. Because cocoa was so valuable, conquered people who lived in cocoa-growing areas often paid tribute with cocoa seeds, which could be used as money for shopping at the market. Customers paid with cocoa to purchase food, clothes, and even kitchen tools.
When Hernando Cortés led Spanish soldiers to the Aztec capital around 1519, he found storerooms packed with valuable cocoa seeds. In 1521, Spain defeated the Aztec and changed their way of life forever. Contact between the Spaniards and people of the Americas affected the rest of the world too. It opened a gateway for the exchange of ideas and technology, and a new market in Europe for foods like cocoa.
Not long after cocoa arrived in Europe, some added sugar, a sweetener unavailable to the Aztec and Maya. By early 1700s, sweetened chocolate had become a favorite of European upper classes. Like the elaborate ceramic vessels of the Maya and Aztec kings, Europeans used hand painted cups that were seen as symbols of wealth, for drinking chocolate. Chocolate houses of the 1600s and 1700s were gathering places for men to enjoy a hot drink, discuss politics and socialize, and gamble. As the demand for chocolate skyrocketed, so did the demand for sugar to sweeten it. Between the 1700s and 1888, keeping up with the increasing demand for sugar to sweeten chocolate required the labor of millions of people to tend, harvest, and process sugar cane.
Throughout the 16th century, most cocoa continued to be cultivated in the Pacific coastal zones of southern Mexico and Central America. This production depended upon local laborers until the population was drastically reduced by the spread of European diseases.
But as the years have gone by many people still value the importance of chocolate. For indigenous communities in the southern part of Belize, the cultivation of cocoa beans has become their chief means of survival.
In the Toledo District of Belize, the organic cultivation of cocoa has become the most viable, economically friendly and long-term sustainable crop of Belize. With over 1,020 members, mostly from indigenous Maya villages, the Toledo Cocoa Growers Association has been cultivating organic cocoa, which is purchased by the UK’s Green and Blacks for the production of its award-winning Maya Gold chocolate bars. Belizean organic cocoa uses genetics which have been used in Belize for a thousand years. Its successful production throughout recent years was a good reason to celebrate the First Toledo Cocoa Festival on May 18th, 19th and 20th, 2007.
On the other hand, spa specialists at The Spa at Chaa Creek now use chocolate for its positive impact on health and beauty.
Chocolate has ambrosial qualities that stimulate a chemical reaction in the brain producing a feeling akin to when one first falls in love. Added to this sensory indulgence, chocolate contains over 300 different compounds that have a positive impact on beauty. Theobromine, a substance very similar to caffeine produces a slimming effect on the body; magnesium, potassium and calcium have a calming effect on the body therefore reducing stress; and polyphenols antioxidants thwart free radicals which are responsible for cell aging.
The use of chocolate at a Belizean spa, therefore, has given a new dimension to the use of cocoa in the local tourism industry. At the Lodge at Chaa Creek, guests can now indulge themselves in many Chocolatissimo spa treatments such as a Maya Chocolate Polish, Lovers Peppermint Chocolate Pedicure, Cocoa Massage or a Chocolate Fondue Wrap – all designed to enhance beauty.
These chocolate spa treatments combined with enchanting accommodations, candlelight dinners, and cocoa inspired cocktails and desserts can only combine to enhance the romantic travelers experience in Belize. After all, chocolate, once the food of Maya gods and Mortal Kings, is also the food of love in Belize and around the world.