Maya people associated cacao with the underworld

Cacao has played many roles through the centuries
Cacao seeds - Photo: Mariana Bazo/REUTERS
Mexico City
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Chocolate, the ultimate comfort food, a delicacy in itself. It has its origin in cacao, a precious fruit that has played many roles through the centuries.
Imagine, in Maya culture, cacao was associated with the underworld!

Tomás Pérez Suárez, researcher at the Center for Mayan Studies of the Institute of Philological Research Institute (Instituto de Investigaciones Filológicas) of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México abbreviated UNAM) explained that symbolically, maize is associated with the diurnal or the world above, because it grows with sunlight, while cacao is associated with the nocturnal, since it is a plant that develops in the protective shadow of cacahuananche tree.

The researcher added that the original word for cacahuananche would be cacahuhuatl (cacao) and nantzin (mother), meaning “the mother of cacao”.

In Mesoamerican thought, dichotomy does not exist. The diurnal does not represent good and the nocturnal does not represent bad either, both are complementary.

"There is little information on how cacao was used in Maya rituals, but from the context narrated in clay vessels we determined it was mostly used in funerary contexts," Pérez Suárez said.

According to the researcher, there are at least 22 cacao species and the vast majority are found in the north of the Amazon and Orinoco River, between Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil.

In Mesoamerica, there are only two varieties, Theobroma bicolor and Theobroma cacao, the latter being marketed worldwide.

Maya people were the first to domesticate cacao and possibly expanded it throughout the region to Teotihuacan.

Tomás Pérez Suárez emphasizes the fact that the precious fruit was used as currency in the Mexica empire, where the trade and production of cacao were centralized in Tenochtitlan.

Cacao contains theobromine, an alkaloid that stimulates endorphin production, the reason why chocolate is linked to happiness and it is even considered a natural antidepressant.

Theobroma, cacao's scientific name was granted by the botanist Carlos Linnaeus in the seventeenth century, and it is a compound word. -Theo of Greek origin means God, and -broma of Latin origin means delicacy, translated as the "delicacy of the gods".