The History of Cacao

Posted by Eric Berg on

The fascinating history of cacao, from its origins in Mesoamerica to its spread throughout the world, and its use as a food, medicine, and currency.

Cacao is a fascinating and beloved plant that has been used for thousands of years by people in Mesoamerica and beyond. This plant has had a long and interesting journey that has taken it from the jungles of Central America to the farthest reaches of the globe. In this blog, we will explore the history of cacao, from its origins in Mesoamerica to its spread throughout the world, and its use as a food, medicine, and currency.

The Origins of Cacao

Cacao is a plant that is native to Central America, specifically to the tropical forests of the Maya region, which covers parts of what is now Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The earliest evidence of cacao use dates back to at least 4000 BCE, and it is believed that the Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures cultivated cacao trees as early as 2000 BCE.
The Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures believed that cacao was a gift from the gods, and it played an important role in their religious and social practices. They used cacao in various forms, including as a beverage, as a medicine, and as a currency.

The Use of Cacao in Mesoamerica

The Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures consumed cacao in the form of a bitter, frothy beverage that was made by grinding cacao beans, mixing them with water and spices, and then pouring the mixture back and forth between two vessels to create a froth on top. This beverage was known as xocolatl, which means "bitter water" in the Nahuatl language.
Cacao was also used as a medicine in Mesoamerica. The Maya believed that cacao had healing properties, and they used it to treat a variety of ailments, including fever, coughs, and digestive problems. Cacao was also used as a stimulant and was sometimes consumed before battles or other important events to increase energy and stamina.
Cacao was also used as a form of currency in Mesoamerica. Cacao beans were highly prized and were used in trade and commerce, much like gold or silver in other parts of the world. In fact, cacao beans were sometimes used to pay taxes, and they were even used to buy slaves.

The Arrival of Cacao in Europe

Cacao remained largely unknown outside of Mesoamerica until the arrival of the Spanish in the late 15th century. The Spanish were fascinated by the exotic new plants and foods that they encountered in the New World, and cacao was no exception.
The Spanish initially saw cacao as a curiosity, and it was not until the 16th century that cacao began to be cultivated in Europe. The first cacao plantation was established in the Spanish colony of Trinidad in 1528, and cacao was later introduced to other parts of the Spanish Empire, including the Philippines and Indonesia.

The Use of Cacao in Europe

Cacao was initially consumed in Europe as a beverage, much like it was in Mesoamerica. However, the Europeans found the bitter taste of cacao to be unappetizing, and they began to experiment with ways to sweeten it. Sugar was added to the cacao beverage, and other flavors, such as cinnamon and vanilla, were also added.
Cacao soon became a popular beverage among the European aristocracy, and it was also consumed in coffeehouses and other public places. The first chocolate shop was opened in London in the 1650s, and chocolate soon became a popular luxury item throughout Europe.
Cacao was also used for medicinal purposes in Europe. It was believed to have a variety of health benefits, including the ability to cure diseases, improve digestion, and improve mood. Cacao was also believed to be an aphrodisiac, and it was sometimes consumed as a tonic to increase sexual potency.

The Industrialization of Chocolate

The 19th century saw the industrialization of chocolate production. Advances in technology allowed for the mass production of chocolate, and new techniques were developed to refine and improve the flavor of chocolate.
One of the key developments in the industrialization of chocolate was the invention of the conching machine, which was used to mix and refine chocolate. This machine allowed for the creation of a smoother, creamier chocolate, and it paved the way for the creation of new chocolate products, such as milk chocolate.

The Use of Cacao in Modern Times

Today, cacao is used in a wide variety of products, including chocolate, cocoa powder, and chocolate-flavored foods and drinks. Cacao is also used in cosmetics and other products, as it is believed to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Cacao is still an important crop in Central and South America, and it is also grown in parts of Africa and Asia. The majority of the world's cacao is produced in West Africa, and the demand for cacao continues to grow as more and more people around the world discover the pleasures of chocolate.


The history of cacao is a long and fascinating one, filled with stories of exploration, discovery, and innovation. From its origins in the jungles of Mesoamerica to its spread throughout the world, cacao has played an important role in the cultures and economies of many different societies.
Cacao has been used as a food, medicine, and currency, and it has been enjoyed by people from all walks of life. Today, cacao remains an important crop and a beloved food, and it continues to be celebrated for its unique flavor and its many health benefits.
The next time you enjoy a piece of chocolate or a cup of hot cocoa, take a moment to appreciate the rich and fascinating history of cacao, and the journey that this beloved plant has taken to reach your taste buds.

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