Where Does Chocolate Come From? The History of Chocolate and Chocolate Bars

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All of us are quite familiar with chocolate and most of us love it. We crave it when we have gone without it for a long time. A few bites of it can help cheer up a miserable day. A gift of it makes us beam with pleasure. But what is the history of chocolate? Where does chocolate come from? When did humans first start consuming chocolate and discover its potential? 

Swiss and Belgian chocolates might be famous all over the world, but when did they learn of chocolates themselves? How did it get from South America, the home of the cacao tree, to the wider world? 

Let’s journey back in time and around the globe as we find out more about the origins of this delicious sweet treat. And spoiler alert: it was not at all sweet when mankind first got its hands on it!

What Exactly is Chocolate?

Modern chocolate is sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter, prepared from the cacao beans that grow on the cacao tree. No, it cannot be eaten as is and needs to go through an extensive process before it is edible. The cacao beans need to be fermented to remove the bitterness, dried, and then roasted.

The seeds removed from the cacao beans are ground and mixed with a variety of ingredients, including cane sugar before they become the sweet chocolate that we know and love.

But originally, the process of making and eating chocolate was quite different, making it rather unrecognizable to us modern humans.

where-does-chocolate-come-from-the-history-of-chocolate

The Cacao Tree

The cacao tree or cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) is a small evergreen tree originally found in South and Central America. Now, it is grown in many countries around the world. The seeds of the tree, called cacao beans or cocoa beans, are used to make chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, and cocoa solids.

There are many different cultivars of cacao now. Cocoa beans are widely grown by large-scale plantations and individual farmers with smaller plots of land. Interestingly enough, it is West Africa and not South or Central America that produces the largest amount of cocoa beans today. Ivory Coast produces the largest percentage of cocoa beans in the world at present, at about 37 percent, followed by Ghana.

When Was Chocolate Invented?

Chocolate has a very long history, even if it is not quite in the form that we know today. The ancient civilizations of Central and South America, the Olmecs, the Mayans, and the Aztecs all had chocolate from about 1900 BCE. Even before that, in about 3000 BCE, the native people of modern-day Ecuador and Peru were probably farming cacao beans.

How they used it is not quite clear, but the pre-Olmec people of modern Mexico made a drink from cacao beans with vanilla or chili peppers in them in 2000 BCE. Thus, chocolate in some form has been around for millennia.

Where Did Chocolate Originate?

The simple answer to the question, “Where does chocolate come from?” is “South America.” Cacao trees first grew in the Andes region, in Peru and Ecuador, before they spread to tropical South America as a whole, and further to Central America.

There is archaeological evidence of the Mesoamerican civilizations making drinks out of cacao beans, which can probably be considered the first form of chocolate prepared in human history.

cacao-beans
Cacao beans

Archaeological Evidence

Vessels found from ancient civilizations in Mexico date the preparation of chocolate as far back as 1900 BCE. In those days, according to the residues found in the vessels, the white pulp in the cacao beans was probably used to make drinks.

Vessels found in Mayan tombs from 400 CE contained residues of chocolate drinks. The vessel also had the word for cocoa on them in the Mayan script. Mayan documents indicate that chocolate was used for ceremonial purposes, implying that it was a highly prized commodity.

The Aztecs also began using cocoa after they had taken control of large parts of Mesoamerica. They accepted cacao beans as a payment of tribute. The Aztecs likened the extraction of the seeds from the pods to the removal of the human heart in a sacrifice. In many Mesoamerican cultures, chocolate could be used as currency.

Central and South America

Given the archaeological sites in Mexico and Guatemala, it is clear that some of the earliest production and consumption of chocolate took place in Central America. Pots and pans used in this era show traces of theobromine, which is a chemical found in chocolate.

But even before that, dating back to about 5000 years ago, pottery has been found in archaeological digs in Ecuador with chocolate residues in them. This is not a surprise, considering the origins of the cacao tree. Thus, we can safely conclude that chocolate traveled first from South America to Central America, long before the Spanish discovered it and took it back to Europe.

pots-full-of-cacao-beans-and-grinded-cacao

Farming Cacao

Cacao trees have grown wild for millions of years, but their cultivation was not an easy process. In nature, they grow to be very tall, although, in plantations, they are not more than 20 feet in height. This meant that the ancient people who first started farming them must have had to experiment quite a bit before they could figure out ideal weather and climate conditions for the trees.

The earliest proof of humans farming cacao was of the Olmec people from the Preclassic Maya period (1000 BCE to 250 CE). By 600 CE, the Mayan people were growing cacao trees in Central America, as were Arawak farmers in northern South America.

The Aztecs could not grow cacao in the Mexican highlands since the terrain and weather did not provide a hospitable environment. But the cacao bean was a highly prized import for them.

Chocolate As a Drink

Various versions of chocolate drinks can be found today, whether that is a warm cup of hot chocolate made from a box of drinking chocolate or flavored milk like chocolate milk. It might be surprising to know that a drink was possibly the very first variation of chocolate ever made.

Historians and scholars say that the Mayans drank their chocolate hot while the Aztecs seemed to prefer theirs cold. In those days, their roasting methods were probably not sufficient to rid the beans of all of their bitterness. Thus, the resulting drink would have been frothy but bitter.

The Aztecs were known to season their chocolate drink with a variety of things, from honey and vanilla to allspice and chili pepper. Even now, various South and Central American cultures use spices in their hot chocolate.

a-sculpture-of-an-aztec-man-holding-cacao-fruit
A sculpture of an Aztec man holding cacao fruit

The Mayans and Chocolate

There is no talking about the history of chocolate without mentioning the Mayan people, whose early relationships with chocolate are quite well-known, given how far back that history was. They did not give us the chocolate bar as we know it today. But with their cultivation of cacao trees and long history of preparing chocolate, we quite possibly would not have had chocolate without their efforts.

Mayan chocolate was made by cutting open the cacao pod and taking out the beans and pulp. The beans were left to ferment before being roasted and ground into a paste. The Mayans did not usually sweeten their chocolate with sugar or honey, but they would add flavoring like flowers or spices. The chocolate liquid was served in beautifully designed cups, usually to the richest citizens.

The Aztecs and Chocolate

After the Aztec Empire took over parts of Mesoamerica, they began to import cacao. Places that farmed the product were made to pay it as a tribute to the Aztecs since the Aztecs could not grow it themselves. They believed that the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl had given chocolate to humans and had been shamed by the other gods for it.

Etymology

The Olmec word for cocoa was ‘kakawa.’ The word ‘chocolate’ came into the English language via Spanish, from the Nahuatl word ‘chocolātl.’ Nahuatl was the language of the Aztecs.

The origins of the word is not clear, although it is almost certainly derived from the word ‘cacahuatl,’ meaning ‘cocoa water.’ The Yucatan Mayan word ‘chocol’ means ‘hot.’ So it may have been the Spanish joining together two different words in two different languages, ‘chocol’ and ‘atl,’ (‘water’ in Nahuatl).

Spread To the Wider World

As we can see, chocolate has had a long history before evolving into the chocolate bars we know today. The people responsible for bringing chocolate to Europe and introducing it to the world at large were the Spanish explorers traveling to the Americas.

Spanish Explorers

The chocolate arrived in Europe with the Spanish. Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Columbus first came across cocoa beans when the former undertook his fourth mission to the Americas in 1502. However, the first European to have had the frothy drink was probably Hernán Cortés, the Spanish Conquistador.

It was Spanish friars who introduced chocolate, still in drink format, to the Court. It quickly became very popular there. The Spanish sweetened it with sugar or honey. From Spain, chocolate spread to Austria and other European nations.

christopher-columbus
Christopher Columbus

Chocolate in Europe

Solid chocolate, in the form of chocolate bars, was invented in Europe. As chocolate became more popular, the desire to farm and produce it grew, leading to flourishing slave markets and cacao plantations under the European colonizers.

The first mechanical chocolate grinder was made in England, and a man named Joseph Fry eventually bought the patent for refining chocolate. He started the J. S. Fry and Sons company that produced the first chocolate bar, called Fry’s Chocolate Cream, in 1847.

Expansion

With the Industrial Revolution, the process of chocolate-making also changed. A Dutch chemist, Coenraad van Houten, discovered a process of extracting some of the fat, the cacao butter or cocoa butter, from the liquor in 1828. Because of this, chocolate became cheaper and more consistent. This was called Dutch cocoa and is a name that even now denotes quality cacao powder.

This was when milk chocolate came into its own, with huge companies like Swiss chocolatier Lindt, Nestle, and the British Cadbury making boxed chocolates. The machines made it possible to turn a drink into solid form, and chocolate candy bars became an affordable commodity even for the masses.

Nestle made the first milk chocolate in 1876 by adding dried milk powder with chocolate powder to create milk chocolate, less bitter chocolate than the usual bars.

In the United States

Hershey’s was one of the first American companies to produce chocolate. Milton S. Hershey bought the appropriate machinery in 1893 and soon launched his chocolate-making career.

The first kind of chocolate they produced was chocolate-coated caramels. Hershey’s was not the first American chocolatier but paved the way in capitalizing on chocolate as a profitable industry. Their chocolate bar was wrapped in a foil and priced quite low so that the lower classes could also enjoy it.

hersheys-milk-chocolate-wrapper
Hershey’s Milk Chocolate wrapper (1906-1911)

Facts About Chocolate

Did you know that in the old Mayan and Aztec civilizations, the cacao bean could be used as a unit of currency? The beans could be used to barter for anything, from food items to slaves.

They were used as important betrothal gifts during wedding ceremonies among the upper classes of the Mayans. In archaeological sites in Guatemala and Mexico, cacao beans made of clay have been found. That people went to the trouble to make counterfeits proves how valuable the beans were to them.

In the American War of Independence, sometimes soldiers would be paid in chocolate powder instead of money. They could mix the powder with water in their canteens, and it would give them a burst of energy after long days of fighting and marching.

Different Variations

Today, there are many kinds of chocolate, whether it is dark chocolate, milk chocolate, or even white chocolate. Other chocolate products, like cocoa powder, are also quite popular. Chocolatiers all over the world compete with each other every day to add more unique flavoring and additives to their chocolates to make them taste even better.

Can We Call White Chocolate Chocolate?

White chocolate technically should not be considered chocolate at all. While it does have cocoa butter and the flavor of chocolate, it does not contain any cocoa solids and is made instead with milk solids.

However, white chocolate is still called chocolate and considered one of the three main subgroups of chocolate simply because it is easier to classify it that way than anything else. For those who aren’t fond of the bitterness of dark chocolate, white chocolate is a preferable alternative.

Chocolate Today

Chocolate candies are so popular today, and farming, harvesting, and processing of cacao is a major industry in the modern world. It might be a surprise to many to learn that 70 percent of the world’s supply of cocoa comes from Africa. It is farmed and harvested mostly in the western parts of the continent.

cacao-from-ghana
A woman from Ghana holding cacao fruit

Production

How is chocolate made? It is a long and complicated process. The cacao pods have to be cut down from the trees with machetes stuck on the end of long sticks. They have to be split open carefully, so the beans inside are not damaged. The seeds are fermented to get rid of some of the bitterness. The beans are dried, cleaned, and roasted.

The shells of the beans are removed to produce cacao nibs. These nibs are processed so the cocoa butter and chocolate liquor can be separated. And the liquid is mixed with sugar and milk, set into molds, and cooled to form chocolate bars.

The cacao beans can also be ground up to form cacao powder after they have been dried and roasted. This is a quality chocolate powder often used for baking.

Consumption

Most people love a chocolate bar. But chocolate today is consumed in various forms, from chocolate truffles and cookies to chocolate puddings and hot chocolate. The largest chocolate-making companies in the world all have their own specialties and signature products that fly off the shelves.

The biggest chocolatiers are now household names. The price drop in the production of chocolate over the years means that even the poorest of people have probably eaten a Nestle or Cadbury candy bar. Indeed, in 1947, a rise in the price of chocolate led to youth protests throughout Canada.

Chocolate in Pop Culture

Chocolate even plays a role in pop culture. Books like ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ by Roald Dahl and ‘Chocolat’ by Joanne Harris, as well as the films adapted from them, feature chocolate not only as a food item but as a theme throughout the story. Indeed, the candy bars and sweet treats are almost like characters in themselves, proving how significant this product is in the lives of human beings. 

The ancient American civilizations have given us many food items without which we cannot imagine our lives today. Chocolate is certainly not the least of them.

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