Chocolate history begins in ancient times. Unlike the history of many modern products, the history of the invention of chocolate remains entrenched in mystery. When studying the regions that began using chocolate as a religious rite, it becomes even more compelling to observe the “rite” of modern indulgences.
While you may not have considered that your favorite cheat meal may have religious origins, you may be interested to find out! Read on to learn how an ancient ritual became a modern one.
Chocolate History: The Discovery of Cacao
Cacao trees populate South and Central America. Chocolate, like so many modern products, was invented as a result of using local vegetation to meet a need or fill a desire. Cacao trees grow hearty pods that contain about 40 beans. These beans are what we call cacao – they are the essence of chocolate. When dried and roasted, they become cocoa beans.
We’re not sure exactly who discovered this process or when, but evidence exists from as early as 2000 B.C. that Native South Americans, called the Olmecs, used cacao as a drink for ceremonies and rites. They had no recorded history so we’re not sure exactly how they used the cacao pods. We do know that the Olmecs passed it to the Mayans, however.
Cacao in Transition
The Mayans drank chocolate as the Olmecs did and also expanded its use to include sacred rites and celebrations. Even business deals often finalized with a mutual cacao drink. Despite this, cacao became a staple used by people of all social and economic statuses, not just the extremely wealthy.
Aztecan emperors believed it had energizing, even sexually enhancing properties. Their passion for the drink grew so intensely that they passed it to the Spanish. We’re not sure how it arrived in Spain, but one prevailing report suggests that Christopher Columbus brought it back with him in 1502. Another purports that Cortes received it directly from the Aztecs he conquered.
Spain fell in love with the drink and used it in many social indulgences throughout the 1500s. This of course led it to seep into the entire European upper class (unlike in South America, cacao was an expensive import in Europe, reserved only for the wealthy).
Chocolate History in the Modern Day
European palettes weren’t as satisfied with the naturally bitter cacao as its native users. They added sugar and cinnamon to spice it up, making way for the natural evolution to what we now know as hot chocolate. The Spanish brought it to the Americas, which eventually led to the invention of cocoa powder by Coenraad Johannes van Houten, a Dutch chemist.
Inevitably, a company capitalized on manufacturing the product on a large scale. In 1847, J.S. Fry and Sons thought of the idea to turn the popular drink into a solid bar. This led to them to form Nestle with the Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter. The rest is history: more companies, greater supplies of chocolate, and demand that will never end.
Chocolate history begins as a native American tradition and ends with a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate of firms that manufacturer millions of solid chocolate bars and drinks every year. Whether you love the stuff or indulge only occasionally, there’s no mistaking chocolate as a staple of civilization even today.