The cacao bean is the dried and fully fermented fatty seed of Theobroma cacao which is from the family Malvaceae. Other members of this family include okra and cotton. Pronounced “ka cow”, Cacao beans are the base of all chocolate products.
History of cacao
Native to the Americas, the cacao tree was long believed to be indigenous to the foothills of the Andes in South America’s Amazon and Orinoco basins (today this region is known as Colombia and Venezuela). But, more recent research into the patterns of Cacao’s DNA diversity have identified 10 distinct genetic clusters. This study has identified several genetic clusters that originated around Iquitos in modern Peru. This latest research suggests that this is where cacao originated and was most likely first domesticated. Iquitos city is known as the “capital of the Peruvian Amazon”. The city is located in the Great Plains of the Amazon Basin, surrounded by the Amazon, Nanay and Itaya rivers. It is the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road – it’s only accessible by river or by air.
There have been numerous archaeological digs that have found cacao residuals on pieces of pottery throughout Central America and Mexico. These various containers have been chemically tested and have found cacao being consumed in Honduras between 1400 and 1500 BC, and at a site on the Gulf Coast of Veracruz, Mexico in around 1750 BC. But the oldest site with cacao residue stained pots is located on the Pacific coast of Chiapas, Mexico that dates back to around 1900 BC. This shows that the initial domestication of cacao by the Mokaya (pre-Olmec people) was probably related to the making of a fermented, alcoholic beverage.
The word cacao is derived from the Olmec people who prospered in Pre-Classical Mesoamerica (1200 – 400 BC). The Olmec are considered the forerunner of the later Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Mayans (2600 BC – 1500AD) and Aztecs (1250 – 1521AD). The Olmec inhabited an area on the Gulf of Mexico that are the modern day states of Veracruz and Tabasco, Mexico. The word Cacao is derived from the Nahuatl word “cacaua” (this language has been spoken in central Mexico since at least the 600 AD). Most Etymologists are of the opinion that the word cocoa is actually a spelling mistake of the word cacao. This mistake most logically occurred because it was easier to pronounce, and subsequently overtook the correct word.
The Spanish were the first Europeans to be introduced to cacao which was in a beverage shared with the Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés when he met with Moctezuma (1502-1520) the ruler of the Aztec empire in 1519. Cortés wrote about the large amount of this beverage that Moctezuma consumed during their visit.
The cacao beverage was introduced to Spain in 1520’s and by the end of 16th century had a growing legion of enthusiasts. By the middle of the 1600’s cacao was widely accepted in both England and France and the rising popularity of the beverage led to cacao plantations being established in the Caribbean, by the French, as well as in Venezuelan and the Philippines, by the Spanish.