The origins of chocolate can be traced back to the ancient Olmecs of southern Mexico. Chocolate was nothing like the beautifully wrapped sweets or chocolate bars of today, in fact it wasn't a sweet treat at all - it was highly revered and used as a bitter beverage by the Olmecs. Sadly the Olmecs didn't record the details of their ancient chocolate habit and so a lot of historical studies to do with the Olmecs are purely speculation. However there are pieces of archeology that can help us to understand these people a little better.
Ancient Olmec pods and vessels were discovered with traces of chocolate dating back to 1500 BC. This is the earliest source available so we do know that they had worked out the secrets of cacao beans by then. It is widely believed that the Olmecs only used chocolate as a ceremonial drink but yet again the lack of written history makes it difficult to be certain. It is safe to assume that the Olmecs passed on their chocolate knowledge to the later Mayan civilisation of Central America, when chocolate was not only consumed but loved and celebrated. Luckily for us the Mayans made records and so we know they used chocolate drinks for celebrations and to finalise important trade deals. Chocolate was held in very high regard by the Mayans but this did not mean it was strictly reserved for the rich and powerful. Chocolate was available to all Mayans, many households in this civilisation would enjoy chocolate with every single meal! The chocolate drank by the Mayans was a thick drink often mixed with chilli peppers, honey or water to disguise the bitter flavour.
If the Mayans loved chocolate, the Aztecs worshipped it! The Aztec civilisation believed that cacao was a gift from the Gods themselves and much like the Mayans, enjoyed it hot or cold, spiced and often in ornate containers. But they didn’t just use chocolate for enjoyment, they used it as currency. In Aztec culture these beans were considered to be more valuable than gold and they could be used to trade for food, farm animals, land or any other consumer good of the time. This high value also meant that for the average Aztec person, chocolate was out of reach. An upper class luxury, the only chance less wealthy people has to enjoy it was at weddings or other similar celebrations.
This brings us to the most famous chocolate lover in early South American history, the mighty Aztec King Montezuma II. The King famously drank litre upon litre of chocolate per day in order to keep his energy levels up as well believing it worked as an aphrodisiac. Montezuma was so protective of his cacao stash that he only ever shared it with his military in order for them to keep protecting him.
Born in the great South American civilisations, the early years of chocolate saw it consumed very differently to how it is today. But this all changed when the plant and its precious fruit reached Europe. Join us next time for Part II as we find out how chocolate became the industry it is today!