Do you love a cup of hot chocolate with lots of sweet marshmallows? Did you know that kids just like you drank hot chocolate over a thousand years ago?
The Maya people in Northern Belize were drinking hot chocolate as far back as 600 BCE. Although many people think that the Mayas discovered chocolate, the Olmec people who lived in Mexico from 1500-400 BCE were actually drinking a chocolate concoction even earlier. Do you enjoy your food with some extra zing? In their book The History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael Coe describe how the Olmec crushed the cacao beans, mixed them with water and spices, and then added chilies and herbs for a spicy drink. Or maybe you would have enjoyed some of the other things the Olmec added to their chocolate, such as honey for a sweeter drink and also flavorings from flowers and vanilla.
But guess what. Some people say chocolate was being enjoyed even before the Olmec. In 2007, a researcher named Terry G. Powis found some leftover cocoa in ceramic dishes at the Mokaya Archeological site at Paso del la Amada, in Chiapas, Mexico. This site dates back to 1900 BCE—placing the discovery of cocoa far earlier than anyone ever imagined!
Chocolate: so many possibilities!
Mayan nobleman offering cocoa paste. Image courtesy of Yelkrokoyade,
What is unique to the Mayas was the fact that chocolate was so central to their lives, and how they used chocolate in so many different ways. They served chocolate drinks at weddings and other special events, although Royal Mayas regularly drank these drinks whenever they wanted. The Mayas used cocoa beans as money so they could trade with their neighbors. Most importantly, cocoa beans were very important in their religion. They made offerings of cocoa to their gods so they would bless their marriages, births, animals and crops. In fact, the name of the cocoa bean itself—Theobroma cacao—means, “food of the gods.”
So, how did the Maya eat their chocolate? They didn’t have Hershey’s or other kinds of candy bars like we do today. They had to harvest cocoa beans from the cacao tree, and then dry the beans for about a week, before pounding them into a paste, which was used to make several types of beverages and gruel. Cocoa by itself is very bitter, so the Maya, like the Olmec, flavored their hot chocolate with spices, chili peppers and later honey from their beehives. They never mixed the cacao bean paste with milk to make hot chocolate the way we do today. Instead, they used hot water to mix a cocoa drink that could be served hot or cold and was usually bitter.
The Maya even used chocolate as medicine. They believed that cocoa could improve your health. Today we know that cocoa powder and dark chocolate contain powerful antioxidants that build up our immune systems and can even help protect us from high blood pressure.
You can enjoy Maya hot chocolate today!
Maya hot chocolate recipes have been passed down through generations. You can find a delicious recipe here, along with several other Maya recipes including a frozen version of Maya hot chocolate. Don’t forget the marshmallows!
Download and print these fun Activities to review what you learned about chocolate!