Cacao: Indigenous Network to Global Commodity

By Rebecca Friedel

A Coveted Tree 

Theobroma cacao is a coveted tree known as the source of the globally celebrated chocolate, initially known as xocolatl in Nahuatl. The fruits of cacao are a variety of berry known as drupes. Drupes grow from pollinated flowers on the tree’s trunks and lower branches, each containing between 20 and 40 pulp-covered seeds, colloquially known as beans. The beans were considered a valuable resource and commodity in precolonial times and hold a similar status today.

Originally domesticated in the tropical lowlands of South America, cacao quickly spread to Mesoamerica where it gained salient cultural status as far back as the Formative Period. This world-renowned plant also tells a story of shifting strategies of interaction and knowledge production during the early modern period. This era of imperial expansion saw a variety of European entities seeking to benefit from the economic goods and networks native to the Americas. Cacao was one of the most important of these networks, specifically the production, distribution, and consumption of its seeds.

The cacao tree is a delicate plant that needs specific conditions to grow and ultimately fruit. Knowledge of these conditions forms a body of deep cultural understanding of cacao’s cultivation, reflected in Indigenous ideologies and practices. European expansionism not only led to the distribution of cacao across the globe but also to the appropriation of the knowledge of Indigenous people. Primary sources from the early modern period document such dynamics between Native human and wild-grown plant populations of the Americas and the colonizers who sought to control them.

Early Recipes

Initial imperial strategies in the so-called New World allowed for the documentation of Native perspectives by Native individuals. The earliest representations of cacao from the early modern period come from a Mexica herbal known as the Badianus manuscript, a collection of elaborately watercolor-painted plants with their associated names in Nahuatl and recipes for treating various ailments written in Latin. This herbal was completed in the 1550s by at least two Nahua men, Martín de la Cruz, an Indigenous nobleman and physician, and Juan Badiano, an instructor of Latin, at the Franciscan school of the Colegio Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco. Now held by the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City, the manuscript has been reproduced in a number of ways since its original creation. Through its original and reproductions, the historically deep and broader Indigenous ideologies surrounding Theobroma cacao are captured.

Colorful herbal drawing of trees
Image of cacao and other plants from the Badianus Manuscript. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The herbal’s watercolors illustrate anatomically accurate plant structures situated within particular stages of the reproductive life cycle of cacao. These details indicate that the Mexica had an intimate understanding of cacao’s biology, a level of knowledge not found in contemporaneous herbals authored by non-Natives. Consequently, the knowledge of cacao within the Badianus has a broader spatio-temporal history, developing across Mesoamerica well before the arrival of Europeans and the formation of the school in which de la Cruz and Badiano created the herbal.

Ancient Ideologies

The association of cacao with curing particular ailments in Mexica recipes echoes what was known about the plant by Mesoamericans for thousands of years. In their cosmologies, the cacao plant is connected to maize, a staple crop throughout and beyond Mesoamerica that was highly mythologized. This connection of maize and cacao, typically conceptualized as a life cycle, is also exemplified by a broader ideology regarding a cycle of subsistence. The cycle includes a sequence of alternating a forest garden, where cacao is grown, with milpa, where maize is grown. This milpa/forest garden cycle is a subsistence strategy that was, and still is, central to providing sustenance to millions of neotropical inhabitants.

Etched Maya Bowl
Bowl with Anthropomorphic Cacao Trees from Early Classic Maya Period, 400-500. Image Courtesy: Dumbarton Oaks

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