You know what everyone loves about February — history lessons! Nah, just kidding. We know it’s chocolate! But did you know about chocolate’s dramatic role in Mexican history? First discovered all the way back in the time of the Aztecs, chocolate has become the ultimate gift, treat, drink, and luxury around the world.
Have you ever wondered where chocolate’s journey really started? Let’s dive in…
Who were the Aztecs?
The Aztecs were one of the earliest societies to form on the land that is now modern Mexico. After the founding of their capital city, Tenochtitlan, in the thirteenth century, Aztec culture and military power thrived for three centuries.
The Aztecs were people of innovation, science, creativity, and art — and above all, Aztecs valued themselves as great warriors. Much of modern Mexican society has roots in the rich and fascinating history of the Aztec Empire.
Cacao trees first appeared in Mexico and South America as long as 10 million years ago, flourishing in the rich temperatures and soil. Early Mesoamerican cultures like the Olmecs and the Maya were the first to discover the magic of cacao, but the Aztecs were the first to make cacao — and chocolate — an integral part of their culture.
Aztecs learned about chocolate from the Maya and the Toltecs, two Mesoamerican empires that began cultivating cacao trees as early as 600 AD.
Chocolate as a Gift from the Gods
The strange shape of cacao trees and the bright color of their beans made the Aztecs believe cacao was truly a gift from the gods. According to legend, the famous Mesoamerican and Aztec god Quetzalcoatl brought cacao from the heavens as a gift to humans.
Quetzalcoatl, also known as the Garden God, was the god of farming, agriculture, love, and food. When we consider the popularity of chocolate now as a superfood, romantic gift, and tasty treat, we can understand where that idea came from!
How Did the Aztecs Use Chocolate?
At first, the Aztecs followed the lead of their Mayan predecessors and turned cacao beans into liquor and paste. They fermented beans, ground them up, and mixed the grounds with vanilla, chili pepper, honey, and edible flowers. When boiled with enough water, the cacao paste turned into a spicy, frothy drink that was much more bitter than the Mexican hot chocolate we’re used to today.
The Aztecs believed this chocolate drink, served cold, gave people energy boosts and improved their virility and strength in battle. The great Aztec leader Montezuma is said to have drunk 50 cups of it a day!
Cacao found its way into many Aztec medical practices, and because it was so expensive to cultivate and prepare, most average people would only taste cacao once or twice in their lifetimes — for weddings or other special occasions.
Pay Your Bills with Chocolate
Cacao and chocolate became so popular that it ascended past its role as a medicine and beverage to become — currency! Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, was a bustling place of economy and innovation.
The constant trading between neighbors and merchants quickly outgrew the barter system, and the Aztecs turned to money equivalents like gold, cotton, and precious stones like turquoise. As cacao grew in popularity and significance, people began using the beans in place of money! In fact, cacao beans were eventually the Aztec Empire’s main currency, as valuable as gold — and valuable for the Empire, too, as cacao beans were heavily taxed!
Cacao beans were so important to Aztec culture and economy that it’s said they presented cacao to Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes when he asked for gold.
Chocolate as We Know It Today
Cortes’ invasion in 1519 signaled the end of the Aztec Empire, but the popularity and value of cacao beans only grew when they were brought back to Spain. Cacao plantations in Spanish colonies helped the tree thrive as a species, while the Spanish aristocracy stockpiled as much cacao and chocolate as they could.
Eventually, chocolate spread from Spain to become the height of luxury in Europe, and recipe changes from Spain, Italy, and France created the sweetened version of chocolate we know today.
Today, chocolate is considered a romantic gift, a treasured treat for children, and a crucial part of many holiday traditions. But it all started with a funny-looking bean discovered in Mexico — and an empire that brought chocolate to the world.
We don’t know about you, but we made ourselves hungry writing this story. To get a taste of this ancient medicine yourself, check out the Chocolate section of our dulceria. Or, read up on classic Mexican hot chocolate in our blog.