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Cocoa in World History

Cocoa in World History

There is no denying that cocoa has played a major role in the development of both Mesoamerican and European History. Even today, fortunes are won and lost on the price fluctuations of this highly sought-after commodity, as traders bet on the moves of cocoa futures. Cocoa is produced in mass amounts in only a handful of countries around the world, many of which are not always politically or economically stable.

Recent discoveries in Honduras showed traces of cocoa on cups and plates dating back to 2000 B.C. Between 200 and 900 A.D., the Mayan culture celebrated cocoa as a central part of their agriculture, economy, medicine and religion.

Still used today, the word ―cacao‖ is derived from ancient Olmec and subsequent Mayan languages (―kakaw‖), while the term ―cacahuatl,‖ also related to the root origin of cacao, is from ancient Aztec.

In 1737, Swedish scientist Carolus Linnaeus named the tree that produces these unsightly, yet highly prized cocoa bean pods ―Theobroma cacao‖—literally meaning ―cocoa, food of the gods,‖ in a reference to the mythical history of the tree among ancient Mesoamericans.

Cocoa as Medicine

While cocoa was a celebrated and valued part of ancient Mesoamerican society, ancient records have also revealed more than 150 uses of cocoa for medicinal purposes.

The Europeans were first introduced to cocoa by the Spanish conquistadors around 1505 A.D. By the mid-1600s, European healers were ―prescribing‖ cocoa as a medicine to stimulate the health function of the spleen and digestive tract as well as a cure for all manner of other ailments and diseases. Cocoa was valued as a means to heal colds and cough attacks, enhance mental acuity, fight inflammation and improve overall nutrition.

Some Noted Mentions of Cocoa in History

Thomas Jefferson: “The superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the preference over tea and coffee in America which it has in Spain”(1).

William Clark (famed explorer): “I felt my Self [sic] very unwell and derected [sic] a little Chocolate which Mr. McClellan gave us, prepared of which I drunk about a pint and found great relief…”

Baron Justus von Liebig (German chemist): “Chocolate is a perfect food, as wholesome as it is delicious, a beneficent restorer of exhausted power. It is the best friend of those engaged in literary pursuits.”
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (lawyer, politician): “It has been shown as proof positive that carefully prepared chocolate is as healthful a food as it is pleasant; that it is nourishing and easily digested… that it is above all helpful to people who must do a great deal of mental work.”

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