ANCIENT & MODERN CACAO...
SACRED CACAO: SPIRITUAL SUPERFOOD PAST & PRESENT
THE ROOTS OF CACAO: AN ONGOING JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY..
The most recent, groundbreaking research in 2018 has discovered the roots of cacao going back to Ecuador, 5000 years ago - all the scientific evidence now points to South not Central America as the birthplace of cacao, though it soon spread across the continent & up into Central America, where humans cultivated the plant also for thousands of years. It seems that the Olmecs and Maya were not the first to grow and consume cacao after all! Although as things stand, we currently know more about their use of cacao than any earlier groups. (If you are interested I highly recommend reading this fascinating article about the latest discoveries about the origins of cacao!)
Nowadays theobroma cacao is grown in tropical regions around the world. Most commercial chocolate comes from cacao grown in West Africa, but the rare Criollo varieties from the Americas are still considered the best. (The other main varieties are Forastero, the most widely-used, and Trinitario, which is a hybrid of Criollo & Forastero.) The cacao I work with is the Criollo variety, grown in the Peruvian Amazon by the Ashaninka tribe: it is organically grown, fairly-traded, ethically sourced finest ceremonial grade cacao.
SACRED CACAO IN ECUADOR & MESOAMERICA
The Olmec civilization of what is now Mexico were until very recently regarded as the first to discover how to work with & process the seeds of the cacao pod; although the most recent research is now pointing to Ecuador, 1400 mile south and 1500 years before the Olmecs, as being the birthplace of cacao, currently more is known about the Mesoamerican cacao connection.
Little is actually known about the Olmecs; we know a lot more about their more famous successors, the Maya, who took cacao to the heart of their spiritual ceremonial culture; Ixcacao is the name of their cacao goddess. Most contemporary cacao-based spirituality tends to draw inspiration from this Mayan heritage (although I think it's fair to say contemporary cacao ceremonies outside of Mesoamerica probably bear little resemblance to those ancient Mayan ceremonies, although what they and we consume is essentially the same.) At this stage we know more about the role and use of cacao in the Mayan world than we do of ancient Ecuadorean cacao, where archaelogists are currently making discoveries around previously unknown cultures & civilisations in the area: cacao's story is vibrant & ever-evolving...
“The type of cacao that was first introduced to Mesoamerica, where the Maya are, was already domesticated, but domestication occurs along a continuum, and the Maya and other Mesoamericans most certainly continued to domesticate cacao varieties to suit their particular tastes. One can argue that the Maya turned the consumption of cacao into an art form.” - Dr Cameron McNeil, archaeobotanist quoted in the Guardian article
Traditionally, cacao was used to make a frothy, hotly-spiced bitter drink which they sometimes sweetened. Recognised as having great health benefits, it was the drink of high-ranking men- royalty & priests- consumed in sacred ceremonies, and the foamy, frothiness of the drink was highly valued. The Maya prized cacao so highly they used the beans as a form of currency: Mayan money literally grew on trees...
THE CONTEMPORARY REBIRTH OF CEREMONIAL CACAO
The tradition of drinking cacao (the pure, raw, least processed form of chocolate - from the ground/pressed seeds of the cacao tree) as a plant medicine with heart-stimulating power dates back several thousand years, to the Americas - the most recent research shows people in Ecuador consumed it 5000 years ago! (Read more about cacao's history here.)
Contemporary cacao ceremonies can take many forms: it's probably fair to say most western cacao ceremonies are to some extent inspired by the pioneering work of Keith Wilson, the "Chocolate Shaman", an American who has lived by the shores of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala for many years, and who seems to have been responsible for the modern revival and increasing popularity of ceremonial cacao medicine. Keith felt the call of the cacao spirit, inspired by the energies and ancient traditions of the Mayan lands. He began working with cacao himself, learning all about this plant and her properties, sourcing the finest quality cacao and eventually sharing his ceremonies with others, who have rippled out into the world. (My first cacao teacher, Rebekah Shaman, works in a different way, based on more traditional plant medicine ceremonies of the Amazon, so this is how I have learned to work with cacao too.)
Most modern western cacao ceremonies are perhaps not so much a continuation but a new creation, a fusion inspired by these ancient traditions: probably the main connection is the cacao itself, since what we share in a cacao ceremony is the same drink, a very pure, unprocessed form of cacao, which Mayans & moderns alike recognise as being both a super-nutritious form of food and also a powerful, sacred plant medicine, with the ability to release blockages from the heart and connect us to more intuitive, "higher" states of consciousness when consumed in an intentional way, in a ceremonial space.
If you're interested in the history of chocolate here's a great talk: watch More Than a Drink: Chocolate in the Pre-Colombian World" by Michael Coe here.
Dates for upcoming Cacao Ceremonies here
Learn about what happens in a ceremony and why you might benefit here
Learn more about Tania's particular approach to working with cacao here
Cacao FAQs here
Learn more facts about theobroma cacao here