Pre-Columbian: Chocolate, Culture and Religion, Essay Example

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Essay

Introduction

The chocolate consumed in several parts of the world today has an old history that traces its origin to the Equatorial South, Central America and the regions that surround and include the Amazon. Its oldest history can easily be linked to the people of Mesoamerica of the ancient times. The original only source of the chocolate was the Cacao seeds .Having many theories surrounding it, there are several beliefs that the chocolate was earlier on considered as food that inspires health and generates power to human beings. It was deemed divine in nature and was used as a form of currency on several occasions. It is due to this that a lot of importance was attached to it, making it survive generation after generation to exist today (Staller and Michael 312).

Other sources of information however present information that claims it was not men but monkeys who first discovered the Cacao plant from which the chocolate is originated. The Cacao plant has ball-shaped pods with very bright colors that look attractive from afar even as they hang on the trees. Monkeys easily identified these pods and picked them majorly for the consumption of the pulp that lies within the pods. The seeds that lay within these pods were however bitter and thus were discarded by the monkeys and even man as he later joined the primates in consuming the fruit. As these seeds were discarded by everyone allover and across, distribution took place and they sprouted all over the pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (Peskin and Edmund 15).

Background of the Pre-Columbian Native American and the Chocolate

Having a relatively long historical and archaeological record, the beans of Cacao which are used to make chocolate in today’s modern world have existed for quite some time. The process of making chocolate from these beans has been modified again and again in the several years since their discovery. The initial discovery of the ability of these seeds to produce sweet aroma and make chocolate is however linked to pre-Columbian Paleo Indians. This dates to years as far as 3500 BCE. The Mesoamericans who were basically pre-Columbian started using these beans at around the same time. As at the time, the beans were combined with several other ingredients, they were then grounded and a beverage which was bitter made out of them. This group of individuals had their professions based in hunting and gathering and they inhabited the southern parts of North America (Givetti and Howard 25) Agriculture found its way into these communities later as a matter of necessity. Part of the reasons that necessitated agriculture to these pre-Columbian communities was the Cacao tree. Between the years 240 to 910 CE, most Mesoamericans took the initiative that saw the trees increase in number. Many trees were taken from the rainforests and the equatorial regions. They were then replanted in farming fields where they could be tendered as they grew. From these fields, harvesting was very possible and the seeds could be easily separated from the other contents of the pods in large scales. The process of drying the seeds, roasting, fermenting and grinding them would then be undertaken. At the end of these, the products were made into a paste which was finally consumed.

Transformation from Fruits to Seeds; the Olmecs

Though not clearly known, the time of transformation when focus shifted from the fruit to the seed must have been between 1200 to 300BC. Some theories explain that there is a possibility that the seeds that were deemed bitter must have fallen on fire accidentally. As they burnt, the roasting aroma that they produced was sweet and full of the smell of chocolate. As such, the natives were attracted and thought more about getting rid of the beans any more. It is possible that they tried to roast the beans and found out that they would make what was later to become chocolate. Another theory explains that all the contents of the pod must have fermented at one time. They then resulted into a sweet pasty concoction that is related to a traditional one called Cacao Chica. As this occurred, the beans became softer and were easy to chew as they also fermented.

Though the theories that explain this transition are not clear, it is believed that they took place within the settlement of a tribe that was referred to as the Olmecs. The Olmecs are one of the most ancient tribes in this region. They dwelt in Central Mexico and their dominance spread mostly to the southern parts. They belonged to the tropical lowlands. They take credit for being the first in domesticating the plant and subjecting its beans to processes that would end in chocolate production. Within the tribe, cultural beliefs and traditional religion had it that these seeds improved health and inspired power and charisma. Archaeological reports of study trace an integration of the beans into the diet and food of the Olmecs from as early as 600BC (Smith 122).

The Pre-Columbian Mayans and the Chocolate

Considered in terms of cultural advancement and civilization; the Mayans grade first among other Mesoamericans. Their culture is viewed as one of the most sophisticated in relation to the rest. Their Classic Age, falling between the years 300 and 900 A.D. saw the origin of civilizations like construction of cities using pyramids, the development and construction of an advanced calendar and the creation of a written language. These people were considered as the first true devotees of Chocolates. They treasured the seeds of Cacao and all its products. In an all inclusive combination, it was prescribed as a mood enhancer and restoration drug. It did not take long before the chocolate became integrated into their culture and religion. As a result of the integration, chocolate was later used as a special gift, taken in several ceremonies and covered with a lot of mythologies (Peskin and Edmund 15).

Today’s archaeology has evidence of the specialty that was attached to the Cacao seeds among the Maya. Potteries and several other offerings and gifts have been traced from tombs that attest to this. In some of the potteries or paintings, there are pictures royalties that have been served with Cacao. There are other occasions when individuals or perceived deities are presented to fight over Cacao, thereby indicating that Cacao was important and necessary. It is however important to note that there were no chocolate bars or sweets as there are today. In several occasions, fried or roasted beans would be crushed and made into a crude paste that would then be mixed with several spices to produce a chilly like frothy paste. At other times, porridge and other dishes were made from a mixture of the cacao grindings in combination with several other ingredients (Givetti and Howard 25).

The Pre-Columbian Toltecs and the Chocolate

The chocolate always survived all generations and groups. The control of Mayans was later to be overthrown by the Toltecs. Yet the Cacao would still survive. One of the main reasons the Maya and the Toltecs fought was to struggle over the control of lands that were major growing fields of the Cacao plants. This was extended to the trading rights that each group had over the Cacao markets and production. With the attachment of divine powers, the Cacao planting and trading became a major issue and continued to cause conflicts among several communities. The Toltecs overran the Mayans at around 900 A.D. The battle over the chocolate was then to proceed over a very long period of time.  In the culture of the Toltecs, a god known as Quetzalcoatl is believed to have been the one who allowed and gave men the beans of Cacao. The belief extends to state that he tutored men on how to tender the plant. As a result of revealing to men the power of this divine plant, the god Quetzalcoatl was cast out by other gods. He went away, but left a promise that he would return one day. The showing up of the Spanish was somehow then linked to Quetzalcoatl’s return by the Toltecs (Givetti and Howard 25).

The Pre-Columbian Aztecs and the Chocolate

The Aztecs formed another group that revered and attached a lot of mythologies on chocolates. Having a membership of not less than fourteen million individuals, the community commandeered a very large empire that was governed by organized and structured units. Their dominance existed more between the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. Within the tribe of the Aztecs, chocolate was a symbol of class. Only the rich could stock, trade and consume chocolates. There was a mark of nobility in the use of chocolates within the tribe. A lot of value was attached to the Cacao to the extent that it ended up being the currency and unit of measure. It is however worth noting that the use of the beans as currency extended long after the collapse of the Aztecs. This was in the markets of Central America and stayed until the mid of the nineteenth century (Duyff 150).

In the markets, a number of seeds were measured against an item. For example, a small rabbit would be sold for about thirty Cacao beans. Similarly, one turkey egg would go for three beans with one tomato equalizing one bean. Approximately twelve million beans were exchanged every year in this process of exchange and trading. The king was rumored to be the one who consumed the highest number of cups of chocolate per day; this believed to be an enhancement of health and strength. For the king, this number was about forty cups. Many of the rich and noble families also had large reserves of these beans. Some of the richest homes went as far as constructing vaults within their homes where they stashed large numbers of the seeds which formed the currency (Staller and Michael 312).

The Pre-Columbian Native American Chocolate and Religion

The Maya used chocolate during religious rituals, in most times, to stand in place of blood. Chocolate was used during baptisms and even in marriage ceremonies, where the groom and the bride shared it. As if to demonstrate the central role that cacao played in terms of religion, the Native Americans even had a Cacao god. They were, and are still made up of a majority of a pacifist religious sect, that was a result of the Puritans of the civil war in England, and the popular Pilgrim Fathers. The talk on chocolate and religion would not be sufficient without their role in it. Some of the renowned names in chocolate were the Quakers, who for a long time held a monopoly of chocolate use and making in the native English countries. Among others, Cadbury, Fry, and Rowntree are the most famous (Peskin and Edmund 15).

It is estimated that before the English civil war that involved the Parliament and King Charles 1st, the Quakers who emerged from the Puritans, had already started their religious association with chocolate. Being of the pacifist religious background, they were barred from most of the normal business activities, therefore as hardworking people who had strong faith in the work ethic, they got into food related activities and they prospered. Baking was a popular pass time and occupation for most of them since bread was esteemed as the spiritual “Staff of Life” and those who baked bread in England were the very first to include chocolate in cakes so it would be an automatic progression for them to begin making chocolate exclusively (Givetti and Howard 25).

On the other hand, the Aztecs had a strong conviction that cacao seeds initially came from a god who, from paradise, brought cacao to the planet Earth. They too used chocolate in most of their religious rituals. During most of the rituals and religious ceremonies, most of the herbs and plants eaten had religious connotations. Chocolate played a significant role in the Aztec culture and religion. Besides chocolate, there were some other drinks that were taken for ritual. Such other drinks included atole and itzpacalatl. A mixture of chocolate and water used to clean the blood from the sacrificial blade, itzpacalatl was a drink that was used in instances of a sad sacrifice and it presumably made the Aztecs forget about the sad sacrifice and make them go joyfully into the sacrifice (Smith 122)

Conclusion

The chocolate we consume today has its origin in the Mesoamerica of the ancient times. Some theories state that it was animals that discovered the cacao plant that was later to make chocolate. Man then followed suit. Others however give the credence of this discovery to religion as a divine revelation. Despite all these, it can not be disputed that the chocolate did form an integral part of the Pre-Columbian Native American groups. Among the groups involved with the chocolate were the Olmecs, Mayans, Toltecs and Aztecs. They used the beans of the chocolate to make chocolate which was not only consumed but also used in ceremonies. The beans that make the chocolate were considered as among the most precious gifts and offerings. Chocolate was revered and associated to kings. The beans were also used as currency and used for trade. Richer families used chocolate more than the poor ones as it was rare and expensive, and was believed to improve heath.

Works Cited

Duyff, Roberta Larson. American Dietetic Association complete food and nutrition guide. 3rd ed. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2006. Print.

Grivetti, Louis, and Howard Shapiro. Chocolate: history, culture, and heritage. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2009. Print.

Peskin, Lawrence  and Edmund Wehrle. America and the world: culture, commerce, conflict. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. Print.

Smith, Andrew. The Oxford companion to American food and drink. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Staller,  John and Michael Carrasco. Pre-Columbian foodways interdisciplinary approaches to food, culture, and markets in ancient Mesoamerica. New York: Springer, 20092010. Print.

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