Colonial period chocolate making implements and ingredients. Photo by Nicolasa Chávez.


The artfully packaged chocolate boxes cherished today were not invented until 1868. How did this beloved delicacy change from a cherished food of the gods in liquid form to a desired food of love?

Colonial period chocolate making implements and ingredients. Photo by Nicolasa Chávez.


This Valentine season stores large and small fill up with festive chocolate items from elegant hand-crafted bonbons to heart-shaped boxes to tiny teardrop-shaped morsels wrapped in pink and red. One often thinks of chocolate as a delicious piece of candy or decadent chocolate bar, given as a token of romantic love and friendship. It is not commonly known that chocolate has an ancient history. Long before the popularity of Belgian, Swiss, and Dutch chocolate, cacao was farmed, produced and consumed by pre-Colombian cultures in Mesoamerica. It was used in religious ritual and ceremony. Chocolate is made from the seeds that come from pods that grow on the trunk of the cacao tree. The tree was given its name, Theobroma Cacao (Food of the Gods), in 1753, by botanist Carl von Linné, in reference to its pre-Colombian ceremonial roots. This original chocolate was a cherished drink instead of the hard candy that melts in one’s mouth today. The drink made from cacao seeds that were ground into a paste on a metate and mano should not be confused with our present-day watered-down version of hot chocolate that is made from cocoa powder (which is made from defatted alkalized powder). Pre-Colombian chocolate was a thick, frothy, bitter, and spicy drink, and remained so for thousands of years. The first edible, non-drinkable, chocolate candy was not created until the middle of the 19th century. The artfully packaged chocolate boxes cherished today were not invented until 1868. How did this beloved delicacy change from a cherished food of the gods in liquid form to a desired food of love?

The history of chocolate is as intriguing as the many flavors presented upon the palate.

Theobroma Cacao comes from the upper Amazon Basin and the rich tropical zones of Ecuador and the Orinoco Valley in Venezuela. In these regions it flourished in its natural habitat until it made its way north to present-day Mexico. The earliest evidence of chocolate dates from 3000 BCE in present-day Ecuador. Its next earliest use took place on the southeastern Pacific coast of Mexico from 1900-1400 BCE by the Barra culture and 1600–1000 BCE by the Olmec cultures. By 950-900 AC it was used in the Guatemalan highlands by the Quiche Maya and was referred to as a sacred food in the Mayan creation story. Archaeological scholarship dates the earliest presence of chocolate in New Mexico to the 10th century. Cylindrical vessels dating to c. 900 AC from Chaco Canyon were tested and showed traces of Theobromine. Whether chocolate use was a daily occurrence or used for ceremonial purposes is still unknown. By the time of the Aztec conquest in Mexico cacao beans were so highly prized that Aztec rulers exacted tribute from the other native tribes that they subdued.

The Spanish were the first Europeans to learn of this New World delicacy. Christopher Columbus encountered boats in the Caribbean carrying the precious cargo. He wrote about it on his fourth and final voyage in 1504. Hernan Cortes adopted the local customs of the Aztec by exacting tribute and also drinking chocolate. He served it at a royal banquet in honor of the visiting Viceroy as early as 1532. The first officially recorded cargo of chocolate arrived in the port of Sevilla in 1585. The consumption of chocolate spread throughout the Spanish colonies, including the Philippine Islands, and eventually throughout Europe.

The name we use today, chocolate, is directly descended from the Spanish spelling and pronunciation of earlier pre-Colombian terminologies. The Mayan chacau haa or chocol haa and the Aztec cacahuatl, or xocolatl, referred to the drink made from the paste of cacao beans ground on a metate and mano. In the Philippines xocolatl is spelled tsokolate and pronounced very much the same. The Aztec pronunciation perhaps came from the Mayan verb chokola’j which meant to drink chocolate together. The ground up cacao paste was also formed into bars or wedges for long-term storage and travel. Mayan and Aztec warriors and traders carried the wedges which were easily heated with a liquid. The drink itself was considered a meal and could sustain one for an entire day.

Spanish settlers brought it up the Camino Real into New Mexico in large enough quantities to maintain the daily practice of drinking the beverage. Chocolate appears as early as 1600 on inventory lists of the provisions brought up by New Mexico’s first governor, Juan de Oñate. Throughout the colonial period the drinking of chocolate was a common part of the daily ritual of the merienda, an extended “snacking” and relaxing period in the late afternoon/early evening, in which family and friends shared and conversed and relaxed. Recipes in Mexico and New Mexico during this time included a combination of Old and New World spices and flavorings for the drink. Pre-Columbian ingredients from Mexico included vanilla, honey, chile, allspice, achiote (annatto), and local flowers, nuts and seeds.

European spices brought by the Spanish included lavender, almonds, anise, citrus, rosewater, ambergris, musk, jasmine, cloves, cinnamon, orange blossom. They also added milk, cream, and sugar. Colonial New Mexican recipes included nuts, seeds, almonds, chile, and cinnamon. Upon the opening of the Santa Fe Trail, 19th century travelers from the United States mentioned the rich frothy drink in their travel journals.

Pre-Colombian cultures, colonial traders, settlers, and 19th century chocolatiers had one thing in common, their love of the flavors and the euphoric, or otherworldly, feeling one experiences after consumption. Many in our contemporary world believe chocolate to have aphrodisiac qualities and believe this to be the reason it is gifted as a symbol of love. The chemical makeup of chocolate does, indeed, create an altered state and is responsible for one’s sense of wonder, joy, and euphoric transformation; however, it is not an aphrodisiac. It does contain the love-inducing chemical phenethylamine (PEA) which triggers the release of endorphins and augments activity of dopamine. PEA triggers the giddy and restless feelings associated with being in love. Chocolate also boosts serotonin, our feel-good brain chemical. Another important chemical, anandimide, which is in the cannabinoid family. Anandimide binds to the same receptor sites in the brain as THC, thus producing a global feeling of euphoria. The term anandamide itself comes from the Sanskrit word meaning “bliss”.

Indeed, it is bliss that many feel in the cold winter months when drinking a nice warm cup of hot chocolate, when letting a spoonful of chocolate mousse melt on one’s tongue, or when biting into a favorite bonbon or truffle. For one brief moment, and a little while after, one does feel a sense of giddiness and euphoric love. Many have recorded or talked about experiencing a chocolate high. It is easy to see why chocolate was given during ancient rituals and ceremonies to transport one to the realm of the gods, or why it is given now as an expression of love and friendship during the month of February.

A photo of bread being dipped into a bowl of melted chocolate
Barcelona Chocolate. Photo by Nicolasa Chávez.





Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post/article does not necessarily represent those of the New Mexico Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.




Nicolasa Chávez, a fourteenth generation New Mexican, is a historian, curator and performance artist, whose work concentrates on the rich multicultural heritage of New Mexico and the connection between New Mexico and the Spanish speaking world. Her exhibitions include New World Cuisine: the Histories of Chocolate, Mate y Más, The Red that Colored the World, Flamenco: From Spain to New Mexico, and Música Buena: Hispano Folk Music of New Mexico. She was an invited guest curator at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan, for the exhibition Possibility of the Crafts: The Third Triennial of Kogei, which highlighted the traditional arts of New Mexico. She is a contributing author to the publication A Red Like No Other: How Cochineal Colored the World (Skira Rizzoli Press) and the author of The Spirit of Flamenco: From Spain to New Mexico (Museum of New Mexico Press) and A Century of Masters: the NEA National Heritage Fellows of New Mexico (LPD Press) which won a New Mexico Book Award. She performs and conducts lecture/demonstrations on the history of Flamenco, Spanish Dance, and Argentine Tango and currently serves as the Deputy State Historian for our great state of New Mexico.