Long before the Swiss or French made names for themselves carefully crafting cacao beans into gourmet works of art, early Americans were enjoying the flavors of chocolate. The ancient Mayans and Aztecs actually forged a relationship with this food centuries before it became a sensation elsewhere.
It is believed by many that these early Americans were the very first to discover the magical flavor of the cacao bean. Although they partook in a great deal of chocolate, it wasn't anything like what a chocoholic today would expect. Rather than eat rich bars of fanciful flavored sweets, the Aztecs and Mayans drank their chocolate in a spicy concoction. Their creation was quite bitter as compared to modern chocolate-based drinks, but it was still considered a treat by those lucky enough to taste it. In fact, these natives believed the drink was so special it was worthy of their gods.
To these ancient people, cacao was a very special crop indeed. Their reverence for cacao is evidenced in ancient glyphs and in the remains of many vessels from their civilizations. Archaeologists have found a variety of artifacts from all over Central and South America that feature chocolate beans heavily in the artwork. The chocolate drink appears to have been used rather frequently in religious ceremonies.
From present-day Mexico and Belize to Guatemala and beyond, cacao grew wild in the rainforests and it was here that the ancients first stumbled upon the bean. Although cacao cultivation began from wild crops, there is evidence to show that the Mayans began to grow their own trees within their backyards. The importance of this harvested crop is also noted in ancient works of art.
The Mayans and Aztecs eventually passed on their love for cacao when the Spaniards landed in the Americas. The bean was brought back to Europe, but it actually took several centuries for its transformation from bitter drink into sweet confection to take place.
Christopher Columbus is credited with first coming in contact with the beans, but it is noted that he paid them little regard. It wasn't until Cortez conquered the Aztecs did cacao get the credit it was due.
From the rainforest of Central and South America to confection shops in Europe, the little cacao bean has a history that dates back centuries into the past. The bean now sits at the center of an international trade that amounts to a multi-billion-dollar business. This confection has successfully traveled from the rainforests to grocery store shelves throughout the world.