Kakaw trees can’t tolerate high altitudes or temperatures below 60º F. They need moisture year-round, so during prolonged dry seasons irrigation is necessary. Given these considerations, they were domesticated in the Pacific coastal plains of Guatemala and Chiapas around 1000 B.C., at the height of the Olmec civilization at San Lorenzo. The area around Izapa, a Late Formative site in Chiapas, was a particularly rich source of kakaw (cacao) because it was very hot with volcanic soil.
The variety of cacao grown in the Maya area is called theobroma bicolor—“pataxte” in Mayan. The tree’s flowers and fruits or pods grow directly on the trunk. Each fruit is around 11” long and 4” wide with an average weight of one pound. The color ranges from reddish to green, but it changes to yellowish orange as the fruit matures. The pods contain 20 to 40 beans enveloped in a sticky, white pulp. The beans are large and flat, and are sometimes eaten raw. Each tree will produce around 40 pods, yielding about 4.5 pounds of chocolate. It has been suggested that the name “chocolate” derives from the Mayan word chokola’j, “to drink cacao together.”
Mentioned frequently in the inscriptions as a trade good and an elite consumable, it seems kakaw was an array of beverages rather than a single drink. Beverages are described as “honeyed kakaw,” “flowered kakaw,” “bright red kakaw, “black kakaw,” “ripe kakaw,” “sweet kakaw,” and “frothy kakaw.” The ancients toasted the beans and used them to make gruels and porages. Additives could include honey, chile peppers, annatto (to make it red), fruit juices, flower blossoms and vanilla. And through fermentation, they produced a cacao flavored alcoholic beverage. Perhaps because kakaw concoctions were such an imported extravagance, some of the inscriptions specify the cities where and when they were served.
This palace scene from Dos Pilas shows flowers being presented to the seated lord. In front of him is a platter of kakaw pods.
A study by Joanne Baron, published in Economic Anthropology, revealed that cacao beans, “originally valued for their use in status display, took on monetary functions within a context of expanding marketplaces among rival Maya kingdoms. These products would eventually go on to serve as universal currencies across the different Maya regions and were used to finance state activities, as well as household needs. By the time the Spanish had arrived in the early 1500s, these (kakaw) products were being used to pay tribute or tax to leaders, to buy and sell goods at the marketplace or pay workers.”
The kakaw sacks shown in the Bonampak murals were labeled with the kakaw glyph surmounted by a number which David Stuart deciphered as 5 pik of forty thousand seeds. He also notes the frequent use of a 3 pik—twenty-four thousand seeds—label, which coincides with a count of cacao seeds that was considered a “carga” in Postclassic highland Mexico. At the time of the conquest, a “load” of kakaw—24,000 beans—was worth twice as much in Tenochtitlan as along the Gulf coast. A rabbit costs 10 beans, and a porter charged 20 beans for a short trip. A 1545 document written in Nahuatl states that a turkey was worth 200 cacao beans, a tamale worth one, and the daily wage of a porter at that time was 100 beans. It was also noted that dishonest traders made counterfeit beans by stripping the husks of the beans, filling them with sand, and mixing them with genuine beans. Careful customers squeezed each bean to test it.
Counting Kakaw Beans
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 205)
OUR EARLY TRAINING HAD TO DO WITH TRADING, TERRITORIES, the names of places, rulers, ministers and counting. We learned the value of goods, especially those desired by lords, noblemen and holy men. We learned hand signs, not only to trade and speak with foreigners but also to signal each other under conditions of scouting and attacking. We learned how to use vines, moss on the side of trees and the stars as directional pointers. Especially, we learned which goods would be traded in the various markets.
To learn how to show respect to power and speak in our trading partner’s favor, we put on hats and bargained with each other. Instead of using stones and sticks for counting, Pech taught us to use lucina shells for “zero,” kakaw beans for “one’s,” and flat hands for “five’s.” A hand covering our chins stood for “twenty.” In the counting trial, we had to place and call, sum and subtract numbers in orders of thousands because kakaw beans were traded in “loads”—cloth bundles of eight thousand, what one man could carry.
Excerpt from Jaguar Sun (p. 98)
BY THE THIRD DAY IN THE MARKETPLACE AT IXKUN, SO many warriors and farmers were coming to have me rework their cherts and flints, Eagle fixed the exchange at two, four or eight hundred kakaw beans depending on how long it took me to do the work. After another day, a line formed. I was spending nearly as much time counting kakaw and shell beads as I was shaping stone, so Eagle had one of the assistants do the counting for me. It felt good to be contributing to the expedition, but by the end of the day, the muscles in my chopping arm were chattering. And I was out of Strong Back. Darts came by several times and stopped to watch me work. Whenever I looked at him or nodded he turned away.
Checking For Counterfeit Beans
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 67)
In the days leading up to Grand Procession, the counters and court scribes examined every needle, bead, feather, hide and kakaw bean. Day and night, a band of guards walked the perimeter of the compound while others armed with spears, axes, knives and flint-tipped darts walked the patio. Two of them stationed at the stairway searched everyone who came and went, including those of us who lived on the compound.
Pouring Kakaw To Make Foam
Excerpt from Jaguar Wind and Waves (p. 67)
For the feast I had arranged for the ministers to sit on reed mats in a circle. Lime Sky and her assistants prepared maize leaf tamales, most stuffed with turkey, others with paca meat. Four of my serving women had never been to court before, so I worried that they would drop or spill something—or not understand a minister’s gesture. Along with the tamales we served roasted grubs with mashed beans and platters of cooked chayote greens topped with crumbled roasted squash seeds that she dusted with chili powder. For the beverage we served chih with lime juice and honey. The final offering, an extravagance usually reserved for lords and their ladies, was kakaw poured into tall cups from the height of the server’s breast to raise a dark brown foam.
(Photo of the palace scene courtesy of Justin Kerr “Maya Vase Database”)
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