19 Apr Chocolate – From Ancient Medicine To The Perfect Commodity
Whenever we catch word about chocolate, our minds immediately visualise a box of bonbons, a chocolate bar, chocolate cookies, or a bunny. We mostly associate chocolate with eating and not drinking, and the most common adjective to use on the topic seems to be “sweet”. But did you know chocolate wasn’t always perceived as what we think of today? For ages, people conceptualised chocolate in the form of a bitter beverage, an idea which had to shift and develop in many ways for it to reach the present picture.
The history of chocolate
The history of chocolate can be traced back to one of the earliest civilisations in Latin America, the Olmec people, who were the first to harvest beans from a cacao tree and turn it into chocolate. The first known use of chocolate was hence determined by the Olmec who used it in rituals and also as medicine. It wasn’t until much later that the Mayans created a correlation between chocolate and wealth (i.e. social status) by praising the former as “the drink of the gods”.
This correlation is still very much present in our modern society, where nations that were historically oppressed and whose existence on the global map was being threatened – the Balkans, Latin American countries, and even territories of Poland and Spain, for example – still see chocolate as a luxury treat that is only “permitted” for special occasions. Therefore, residents of these countries normally buy high-quality chocolate for birthdays of a special someone or religious celebrations, such as Easter and Christmas, while they consume “worse”, lower-quality chocolate items as snacks on daily basis. Meanwhile other, economically stronger countries like France, the UK, Canada, Japan and the US, rather perceive chocolate as an ever-present commodity which enhances the citizens’ day-to-day life and positively influences their mindset, state of being, and behaviour.
What’s even more interesting, however, is that the etymological roots of the word “chocolate” reach as far back in history as to the Aztec word “xocoatl”, which gave name to the bitter drink brewed from cacao beans. It wasn’t until the coinage of the Latin name for cacao tree, Theobroma cacao (“the food of gods”) which draws parallels with the idea the Mayans had about chocolate, that the idea of chocolate involved food in solid form. It was this denomination which caused chocolate to slowly pass from being drunk in the form of a bitter beverage to the consumption of numerous solid chocolate products that come to mind today.
It’s evident that the exact moment when chocolate was born is extremely hard to pin down, but it’s clear that it was cherished and praised from the start. What’s more – in pre-modern Latin America, cacao beans were considered valuable enough to be used as currency! People traded one bean for a tamale, while with 100 beans they could purchase a good turkey hen. Just imagine that idea would still be in place today; what do you think you could buy with 10 cacao beans? It will be interesting to see what the future has in store for chocolate and its development, especially given the fact that different cultures still see it differently.
History Channel. (2017) History of chocolate: Cocoa beans & xocolatl, History.com. A&E Television Networks. Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-americas/history-of-chocolate#who-invented-chocolate (Accessed: April 19, 2023).
Magazine, S. (2008) A brief history of chocolate, Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-chocolate-21860917/ (Accessed: April 19, 2023).