Theobroma cacao - Cacao TreeFAMILY: Sterculiaceae

GENUS: Theobroma


COMMON NAMES: Cacao Tree, Chocolate, Ah Kakaw (Lacandon), Aka-‘i (Ka’apor), Bana Torampi (Shipibo), Biziaa (Zapotec), Cacaocuihuitl (Aztec), Caco (Mixe), Cajecua (Tarascan), Haa (Maya), Ma-micha-moya (Chinantec), Mocha (Chinantec), Tlapalcacauatl (Aztec, ‘colored cacao’)

Theobroma cacao is an evergreen tree that can grow up to fifteen meters in height and live to around sixty years.  The flowers are tiny and white, pink or violet in color, growing directly from the trunk or primary branches at the same time as the fruit pods which hang from short stems. One tree can develop around a hundred thousand flowers a year. The pods start out green and then turn yellow, red, or purple with time (Ratsch 1998, 500).

Theobroma cacao is only found growing wild in southern Mexico. Cultivated cacao may be found in all tropical rain forests of the Americas, and this has been the case since prehistoric times.  At present it is also grown as a crop in Africa and Southeast Asia.  Cacao trees are shade loving plants that only grow in tropical areas.  They are often grown along side banana crops in order to provide the necessary shade (Ratsch 1998, 500).

TRADITIONAL USES: Over four thousand years ago the cacao tree was first cultivated in Central America where it was held in high esteem as a food of divinity.  Consumed during rituals, the fruits of the cacao tree were offered as sacraments to the gods. The botanical name, Theobroma cacao, refers directly to the cacao tree’s relationship to the divine. Theobroma means “gods’ food”, and cacao is a word borrowed from the Mayan language referring to the tree itself, the fruit, and the drink that is made from the fruit. This beverage was known by the Aztecs as xocolatl, which is where the word “chocolate” comes from. The Aztec held cacao beans in high esteem as food, stimulants, medicine, and currency (particularly in amorous exchanges) (Ott 1985).

Religious ritual use of cacao generally used the beans as offerings or incense. The beans were also taken orally by practitioners as an inebriant. Numerous archeological artifacts have shown that this spiritual, ritual use of cacao dates back to ancient Mesoamerica. The prehistoric Toltecs placed cacao branches in the hands of each person who made a public smoke offering to the gods as sign of sacred respect (Ratsch 1998, 501).

The cacao tree was looked upon by the Aztecs as a gift from the peaceful god Quetzalcoatl (“feathered serpent”). The Aztecs would ingested cacao together with Psilocybe mushrooms in religious rituals, a practice still conducted today by numerous tribes throughout the region. The Yucatec Maya venerate a black god named Ek Chuah as their cacao deity and local cacao farmers hold a festival in his honor during the month of Muan in the old Mayan calendar (Taube 1992). During times of travel, incense consisting of cacao beans and copal was given to the gods as offerings in exchange the travelers secure passage and safe return. It has been reported that the Maya and Lacandon used freshly whipped cacao as an additive to balche, the drink of divinity (Ratsch 1998, 502).

The Maya of the Classic Period (300-900 C.E.) left behind a wealth of ritual drinking vessels. These polychrome ceramics are artistically decorated with hieroglyphic texts and various depictions of visionary experiences and ritual activities.  The hieroglyph for cacao is a stylized monkey head. Today, many of the hieroglyphic texts found on these drinking vessels have been deciphered. The owner of the vessel is often named, depicted in pictographs. The text goes on to describe that, for example, the vessel “was used for cacao freshly picked from a tree,” indicating that these drinking vessels were directly associated with the ritual ingestion of cacao (MacLeod & Reents-Budet 1994).

TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: The traditional Aztec food known as cacahuatl was prepared by roasting and grinding cacao beans and adding corn meal, vanilla beans, achiote seeds, capiscum, spices such as nutmeg, and a small amount of water. These were stored as cakes which could then be mixed with water and whisked to make a frothy beverage. When Europeans arrived they adapted this recipe to their tastes by adding cinnamon and sugar. These beverages were sometimes also used as delivery methods for psilocybe mushrooms and other entheogens (Ratsch 1998, 500).

An early explorer of the so called ‘new world’, Thomas Gage, described the preparation and consumption of the traditional chocolate beverage in great detail. He includes the following recipe: “to every hundred cacaos, two cods of chile, called long red pepper, one handful of aniseed and orejuelas, and two of the flowers called mecaxochitl [Piper amalgo], or vanilla…beat to powder, two drams of cinnamon, of almonds and hazel nuts of each one dozen, of white sugar half a pound, of achiote [annatto] enough to give it the color.” These ingredients are ground to a paste and dried into round tablets, which are then sold. To prepare the chocolate beverage from the tablet, it is placed in hot water and stirred and beaten until well blended (Gage 1958, 154-157).

The make the chocolate confection that most Westerners associate with this plant, cacao beans are separated from the fruit, and fermented for six to eight days. Drainage allows for the removal of most of the pulp. This fermentation allows the characteristic flavor to develop. The beans are then sun dried until they can be broken in two easily without bending. To make chocolate, the beans are roast at between 100 and 120 Celsius for 45-70 minutes, and the skins are removed. This is ground into ‘cocoa liquor’ which contains over fifty percent cocoa butter. This is removed by way of hydraulic press in order to create cocoa powder which can be used to make chocolate drinks.  Chocolate is made from some proportion of cocoa mass, cocoa butter, and sugar, as well as many other additives including, commonly, milk ( 2010).

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Germans prepared beverages from powdered cacao beans, sugar, and wine, often enhanced with cardamom and saffron. At the beginning of the twentieth century, beverages of khat (Catha edulis) and cacao were prepared and sold as Catha-Cocoa Milk. Preparations of cacao and Cola nuts or coffee are also quite popular (Ratsch 1998, 501).

MEDICINAL USES: The shamans of the Cuna Indians of Panama use cacao beans as a ritual incense. They burn cacao beans as incense at nearly every ritual occasion and tribal ceremony. Furthermore, healers use it as a means to diagnose a patient’s illness. To prepare for these diagnostic ceremonies, the shaman first fills a two-sided, two-handled incense vessel with glowing, hot coals. From there, the shaman sprinkles cacao beans onto the burning charcoal and concentrates with intense focus, peering through the rising smoke. The shaman may then determine the patients illness by interpreting the action and formation of the smoke as it rises. Cacao smoke is employed medicinally by mixing the cacao beans with chili pods and then burning them in the same way as in diagnostic rituals, over glowing coals contained in an incense vessel. Inhaling the resulting potent and pungent smoke is proclaimed to promote healing for all types of fever diseases, including malaria (Ratsch 1998, 502).

In the ancient Americas, cacao was esteemed as a general health tonic and aphrodisiac. In Indian folk medicine, cacao is drunk to treat diarrhea and scorpion stings. Cuna women imbibe a concoction of the fruit pulp as a pregnancy tonic. Children exhibiting fatigue and listlessness are given a tea made from the dried leaves. Fresh, new cacao leaves may be mashed into a paste and applied topically as an antiseptic agent to flesh wounds, as well as utilized as salve for skin conditions such as eczema and other rashes. Peruvians drink a decoction of cacao primarily as a diuretic and to treat kidney and bladder infections. Homeopathically, a mother tincture is obtained by macerating roasted cacao beans. This tincture is used to treat a variety of ailments, from stomach and intestinal problems to skin lesions (Baumann and Seitz 1994 cited in Ratsch 1998, 502).

Chocolate derived from cacao is said to have numerous health benefits. It has extraordinary nutritional properties, including significant levels of protein, tryptamine and serotonin. It also has preventative properties in terms of balancing cholesterol levels when used frequently in the proper amounts, and is often recommended as a regular component of a healthy diet (Montignac 1996 cited in Ratsch 1998, 502).

TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: The psychoactive materials of cacao manifest in the cacao beans, the cacao shells, the cocoa butter, and the fresh fruit pulp. The inebriating effects of cacao described by Aztec sources may be due to other additives, or to a synergism with added substances such as psilocybe mushrooms. Folk lore has described the traditionally prepared Indian drink as very stimulating and euphoric. These effects, however, cannot be expected from modern day commercially produced cocoa (Ratsch 1998, 503).

When a ceremonial drink made from cacao is imbibed in moderation, especially from those ears which are green and tender, one feels happy, refreshed, comforted, and stronger than before.  If too much is drunk, then the effect is quite the opposite: feelings of illness, nausea and confusion result (Ott 1985).



Gage, T. Thomas Gage’s Travels in the New World. Edited by J.E.S. Thompson. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958.

MacLeod, B., and D. Reents-Budet. “The Art of Calligraphy: Image and Meaning.” In Painting the Maya Universe: Royal Ceramics of the Classic Period, edited by D. Reents-Budet. Durham, N.C. and London: Duke University Press, 1994.

Ott, J. Chocolate Addict. Vashon Island, Washington: Natural Products Company, 1985.

Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.

Taube, K. The Major Gods of Ancient Yucatan. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1992.

“The History of Chocolate – Part 1.” Vegan Chocolate, 2010.