Chocolate’s 4,000-year history began in ancient Mesoamerica, present-day Mexico. It’s here that the first cacao plants were found. The Olmec, one of the earliest civilizations in Latin America, was the first to turn the cacao plant into chocolate. They drank their chocolate during rituals and used it as medicine.
Centuries later, the Mayans praised chocolate as the drink of the gods. Mayan chocolate was a revered brew made of roasted and ground cacao seeds mixed with chilies, water, and cornmeal. Mayans poured this mixture from one pot to another, creating a thick foamy beverage called “xocolatl”, meaning “bitter water.”
The cacao tree was originated and cultivated in Central and South America. The seeds from these cacao trees were then used to make a variety of products. Now, cacao trees are “cultivated around the equator, and can be found in the Caribbean, Africa, South-East Asia, and even in the South Pacific Islands of Samoa and New Guinea” (Spadaccini, 23rd online edition).
Cacao beans consumption can be traced back to ancient Mayan in 500 A.D. and were later on developed for more uses (e.g. spicy drink) in the Aztec civilizations in Central and South America where cacao trees grow abundantly in the forest (Young, 1994).
How Chocolate Is Made
Chocolate is made from the fruit of cacao trees, which are native to Central and South America. The fruits are called pods and each pod contains around 40 cacao beans. The beans are dried and roasted to create cocoa beans.
It’s unclear exactly when cacao came on the scene or who invented it. According to Hayes Lavis, cultural arts curator for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, ancient Olmec pots and vessels from around 1500 B.C. were discovered with traces of theobromine, a stimulant compound found in chocolate and tea.