Mesoamerica: Make Your Own Chocolate

Cacao tree

Cacao tree

We get chocolate from the seeds of the cacao tree. Originally, cacao trees only grew in Mesoamerica: Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. In ancient times, the Olmec, Toltec, Aztec, and Maya people lived in this area. Because cacao trees only grew there and in no other part of the world, for a very long time only these people knew about chocolate.

Each of these groups learned that the seeds from the cacao tree were edible. Because these groups traded and interacted with each other they may have shared this information. However these ancient people learned to use the seeds, by around 1900 BCE their use was widespread. That means cacao seeds have been used for 3920 years!

For these ancient people, cacao was thought to be a gift from the gods. It was so important that the scientific name of the cacao tree, Theobroma, means “food of the gods.”

Maya ceramic cup

A Maya cup from the MOA collection.

In ancient times, cacao seeds were almost always made into a chocolate drink. Cacao seeds and the chocolate drink were so important that eventually they were used in many ways and all parts of Mesoamerican life. They were used to show wealth and importance. Special containers were created to store beans in and to drink chocolate from. Cacao beans were used as medicine. They were thought to give extra strength and heal illnesses. People used cacao beans as money. They could be used to buy food, pay taxes, or for trading. Cacao beans and the chocolate drink were used as offerings to the gods. You might use one of the bowls to hold the beans and place out for the gods. Cacao beans were also used as dowries, during wedding ceremonies, as part of funerals, and given as gifts.

Maya bowl

A Maya bowl like this one from the MOA collection may have been used for offerings.

To learn more about the history of chocolate, check out this video.

How do you get chocolate from cacao seeds?

Cacao beans

Cacao beans

The ancient Mesoamericans created the process which has remained largely the same over the thousands of years since then. First, chocolate is grown on a cacao tree. The trees develop large pods and they ripen from yellow to orange. Once ripe, the pods are cut or knocked down. To get the seeds from the pod it is peeled open like a banana. The seeds inside are white and look like rows of teeth. The seeds are put into piles and left for about seven days to ferment. Next the seeds are spread out in the sun to dry for another seven days. This is when they turn brown. The dried beans are taken to a factory where they are cleaned (removing twigs, stones, and other debris). Then the seeds are roasted and cooked for flavor. Next, the shell of each seed is removed to extract the nib, which is the inner seed. That is the edible part. Today, the nibs are ground into a pure chocolate liquid form called chocolate liquor. The liquor can be further processed into two components: cocoa solids and cocoa butter. All three of these can be made into chocolate we eat.

In ancient times, the cacao seeds were ground on a huge metate, a grinding stone. The metate would have a fire underneath to melt the nibs. The nibs would be ground into a paste, then the chocolate paste was mixed with hot boiling water, cornmeal, and spices (black pepper, spicy chilies) to create the chocolate drink. It was not sweet like we think of chocolate today. All the ingredients were mixed with a special chocolate stirrer. You drank this chocolate drink from a special cup. Many Maya people still make a form of this chocolate drink today.

Maya gourd cup

This gourd cup from the MOA collection was used for drinking chocolate.

In this video you can see how the chocolate drink is made.

Let’s Make Chocolate!

Warning: Adult supervision and help is required for this activity.

You will need:
Mixing bowl
Mixing spoon or spatula
Heatproof bowl
Measuring cups/spoons
Candy molds (you can substitute ice trays)
1 cup powdered sugar
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1/3 cup powdered milk (you can substitute regular milk)
3/4 cup coconut oil
2 tablespoons vanilla extract (optional)
Other optional add-ins: nuts, dried fruit, rice crispies


If you don’t want to cook, here’s another chocolate activity:

Make Chocolate Goop

This stuff is truly amazing because it’s completely edible. It looks like a solid and when you pick it up, it starts to stay that way until it magically slimes down your fingers!

You will need:
4 cups cornstarch
4 tbsp cocoa powder
2 1/2 cups water

Pour cornstarch into a large bowl
Add cocoa powder and stir well to combine
Add water and stir

Categories: Cultures Up Close