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FOUNDED BY MARSHALL FIELD
FIELD MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
The flowering and Fruiting Stem of the Cacao Tree.
Field Museum of Natural History
DEPARTMENT OF BOTANY
Leaflet Numbeb 4
Long before the discovery of the American con-
tinent, cacao was used and cultivated from Mexico to
Ecuador. It is thus a distinctly American contribu-
tion to the world's food resources.
It is the product of some small trees indigenous to
the shady forests of northern South America. It
probably also grew native along the Gulf Coast as far
north as southern Mexico. The original extent of dis-
tribution of a plant so useful as the Cacao tree is diffi-
cult to determine with exactness. Its use has no
doubt spread from one native tribe to another over a
large area suitable for its cultivation. Besides, in the
region in question, there has apparently been a shift-
ing of peoples or a change of territories occupied by
them in prehistoric days. It is even possible that the
cultivation of the cacao was carried northward into
Mexico from the south. There, at any rate, it was
used by the Aztecs, and before them by the Toltecs.
The early Conquistadores made its acquaintance at
the court of Montezuma and the revenues of this re-
nowned monarch consisted in part of cacao beans.
"Chocolatl" was served to the king in a golden goblet,
and he took it with the aid of a tortoise-shell spoon.
His fondness for it must have been prodigious for fifty
pitchers are said to have been prepared daily for his
personal consumption, and two thousand more for his
'Prescott, Bk. IV, Ch. I.
2 Field Museum of Natural History
The readiest source of information about the Aztec
use of cacao is of course, Prescott's "Conquest of
Mexico." In a note there- we read in this connec-
tion: "Torquemada has extracted particulars of the
yearly expenditure of the palace from the royal ac-
count book, which came into the historian's possession.
The following are some of the items: 4,900,300 fan-
egas of maize (the fanega is equal to about 100
pounds) ; 2,744,000 fanegas of cacao; 8,000 turkeys,
1,300 baskets of salt; besides an incredible quantity
of game of every kind, vegetables, condiments, etc."
A cacao consumption, according to this, almost equal
to the world's entire production today !
Fig. 1. Aztec glyph or pictojrraph for 80 bales of cacao. Each pennant stands
for 20. The oval figure on the bale is the sign for cacao beans. The pictographer
must have wanted to make the meaning unmistakable, or he desired to exercise his
artistic skill, for to the usual glyph he has added a flower growing out of one side of the
bale, as from the trunk of a cacao tree. (The Book of Tributes).
In the Book of Tributes^, an old Mexican codex,
setting forth the "Tributes which some towns of Mex-
ico paid to the Emperor Montezuma," there are speci-
*Prescott, Bk. I, Ch. VI, note 29.
'Libro de Tributes, in collection Lorenzo Boturino.
Antonio Peiiafiel: Monumentos del Arte Mexicano Antiguo.
Fig. 2. Aztec ?Iyph for 20 baskets heaped with cacao beans to the extent of four
xiquipilli each. (The Book of Tributes).
fied in Aztec glyphs the kind and number of articles
annually required by him from his provinces. The
lists include arms, apparel, skins, feathers, shells,
balsams, resins, perfumes, maize, peppers, etc. Cacao
beans are mentioned several times, e. g., from Cihuat-
lan 80 bales of red cacao, from Tlaltelolco 20 baskets
containing four xiquipilli (4x8000) of cacao beans.
The district of Soconusco must have been famous even
then for its cacao, for two hundred bales were re-
quired from there, together with 400 cups for drink-
ing chocolate. On the basis of the information in
this ancient document, the revenues of Montezuma
Fig. 3. Aztec glyph for 400 chocolate cups. (The Book of Tributes).
4 Field Museum of Natural History
have been estimated. His yearly quantum of cacao
seems to have been about a thousand porters' loads,
equivalent to perhaps 100,000 pounds, with chocolate
cups to the number of 1600.
As to the ancient manner of preparation of the
favorite beverage, Prescott* states, "They had a way
of preparing the froth of it, so as to make it almost
solid enough to be eaten." And again in a foot-
note where he quotes "Anonymous Conqueror" : ' "The
froth delicately flavored with spices and some other
ingredients was taken cold by itself. It had the con-
sistency almost of a solid," and the writer is very care-
ful to inculcate the importance of "opening the mouth
■wide, in order to facilitate deglutition, that the foam
may dissolve gradually, and descend imperceptibly, as
it were, into the stomach." '
The Franciscan monk Ximenes, who published an
abstract of Hernandez' manuscript on Mexican natural
products before the appearance of that work, is au-
thority for the following account': "She who sells
prepared cacao grinds it first in this way, breaks or
pounds the kernels; the second time grinds it more;
the third or last time grinds it still finer, mixing it
with grains of corn, cooked and washed, and this being
done adds a little water in a jar. If a small quantity
is added it makes a rich cacao, if too much no foam
results and in order to produce the very best it is made
and preserved as follows: namely it is strained, and
after straining it is lifted in order to drain, foam is
formed and is set aside and the remainder sometimes
becomes very thick, and water is added after grinding.
The one who knows how to make it well, sells it good
and fine, that only the Senores drink it ; it is soft, foamy
brown red and pure, without much paste. Sometimes
'Book I, Ch. V, note 45.
'Cecilio A. Robelo: Diccionario de Aztequismos, etc. Cuemavaca,
they add aromatic spices and even honey from bees,
and some rose water, but the cacao that is not good
has much sediment and water and does not make any
foam but only froth."
A similar account of the preparation of the cacao
in ancient Mexico is given by Joyce^ as follows:
"The beans were first roasted in pans of pottery and
then ground on stones with a little water. The result-
ant paste was put into calabash cups, more water
added, and occasionally a little spice."
Or, in another^ manner: "The nut was pounded
and boiled in water with a little maize flour, the oil
was skimmed off and the mixture strained and poured
into another vessel, so as to produce a froth. Some-
times honey and vanilla were added, and it was gen-
erally taken after food." Such a dish of cacao and
maize flour constitutes many a Mexican breakfast
today. The Chorotegas colored the drink red with
Anatto seed. Among the Nicaraguans such a drink,
prepared with cold water, sugar and spice, is known
as "tiste." It is beaten to a froth with a swizzle stick
held vertically between the palms of the hands and
rapidly rotated with a backward and forward motion.
The swizzle stick functions as a primitive and some-
what inefficient egg-beater. It is often cut from a
natural branch, forked or with a whorl of small twigs
as spokes. It is even now a famous household utensil
in the Caribbean region, and is employed in the mixing
of cooling drinks. Since its adoption by the white
population, however, a devotion to the swizzle stick no
longer necessarily implies an addiction to foaming
chocolate. The Mexican term, "chocolatl," from
which our word "chocolate" is derived, actually means
a foaming drink, "choco" = "foam," "atl" = "water"
^Thomas A. Joyce, Mexican Archeology, p. 155.
7Joyce, Central American and West Indian Archeology, p. 39.
6 Field Museum of Natural History
or "drink." The Cacao tree was called Cacaoquahuitl
The beans were used as small currency in old
Mexico. The unit was a score, 20 beans ; 20 x 20 or
400 made a Tzontle; twenty (20) Tzontles or 8000
cacaos one Xiquipilli, and 3 Xiquipillis a load. Weights
formerly did not exist there and large quantities were
measured in baskets or bags assumed to hold a speci-
fied number, just as farmers today by preference esti-
mate their produce by counting and measuring in
bushels and pecks, rather than by weighing. On the
Mosquito Coast the habit of using cacao beans as
money is said to be prevalent among the Indians even
at the present time, as is the use of coca leaves for the
same purpose in Peru, and tobacco in many places.
It was of this use of the beans that Peter Martyr*
exclaimed, "O felicem monetam", etc., "blessed money,
which exempts its possessor from avarice, since it
cannot be long hoarded nor hidden under ground."
However, there was a complaint in Mexico that the
Indians would remove the kernels and fill the empty
shells with clay.
Cacao was introduced into Europe early in the 16th
century, at first into Spain, There it was for a time
the monopoly of the Conquistadores, but interest in the
new beverage must have been considerable, for "it was
also prepared secretly, and was taken with wine and
hot beer."" Outside of Spain it remained completely
unknown, so long that a ship-load of cacao beans,
seized by the English in 1579, was burned as worth-
less. A Florentine, long resident in the West Indies,
made known its manner of preparation in Italy and
its use gradually spread on the continent, though not
^Peter Martyr, De Orbe Novo, dec. 5, cap. 4.
Prescott, Hist. Mexico, Bk. I, Ch. V, note 27; Bk. IV, Ch. II,
Warburg Planzenwelt, VII, p. 425.
without opposition. Its introduction into Prussia was
prohibited by Frederic the Great. The Parisian physi-
cian Bachot, however, in a thesis to the faculty of
medicine, praised the cacao as one of the most noble of
discoveries, far more worthy to be the food of the
gods than are nectar and ambrosia.
When Linnaeus sat down to straighten out the
confusion of terminology existing in the herbals, and
to confer unmistakable and distinctive names on all
the animals and plants of which he could learn and
could muster a definite description, he coined a name
for the chocolate tree, from two Greek words, (^£6s)
theos, god and (fSpwixa) broma, food — Theobroma,
"food for the gods". This remains the scientific name
for Cacao trees in general.
The particular kind or species of Cacao trees which
furnishes the beans of commerce was designated as
Theobroma Cacao. Other species of Theobroma also
furnish nourishing food or drink to a lesser extent
but are less valuable or less amenable to cultivation.
There are about a dozen of these. The best known of
them is the Tiger Cacao, or "Pataste", Theobroma
bicolor, of Colombia and Rio Negro, a much larger and
taller tree than the Cacao tree proper. The famous
cacao of Soconusco is said to be the product of Theo-
broma angustifolia, and the cacao of Esmeralda of
still another species. The beans of an inferior kind
were used in Mexico as alms for the poor. The rest,
all natives of tropical America, are of some local
importance and the fruit of several is gathered in
Brazil where they grow wild. Some of them may be
adaptable for stock or for grafting, as recent experi-
ments would indicate.
The cultivated Cacao is a small shade-loving tree,
which is usually kept down in plantations to about the
size of a peach tree, but grows much more rapidly
and bears large simple leaves which remain a long
8 Field Museum of Natural History
time on the tree. It produces its flowers and fruits in
a curious manner peculiar to certain members of the
tropical forest flora. The smaller branches and ter-
minal twigs support the foliage only, while the incon-
spicuous yellow and purple flowers spring in clusters
from points on the bark of the trunk and of the larger
branches. It has been suggested in explanation, that
this arrangement facilitates the finding of the flowers
by low-flying insects that visit and pollinate them.
They do not have to search for the small blossoms
among a crowded mass of foliage on top, but can find
them readily on the bare trunk near the forest floor.
However that may be, the fruiting tree presents a
striking appearance. While very young, the fruits look
like miniature green cucumbers sharply pointed at both
ends; as they enlarge and mature, they become great
"pods", five to seven, or even ten inches long, with
longitudinal grooves alternating with ribs on the sur-
face. They acquire a texture recalling that of a thin-
skinned squash, and a color varying from a lemon or
ochre yellow to a deep red. Hanging singly or in small
bunches around the slim trunk of the tree, they
scarcely look as if they had grown, but rather as if
they had been accidentally or purposely hung there.
The pods are picked when ripe and gathered into piles.
The workers on the plantation then sit down to break
the outer casing which is of no further value, in order
to secure the contained seeds, the cacao beans, which
furnish the chocolate. In a well-filled pod there may
be fifty of these, usually there are not so many, all
attached to a central core and covered with a white,
slippery and soft, mucilaginous pulp, of a pleasant acid
taste. This layer is removed or is completely destroyed
in the process of sweating or fermentation to which
the beans are subjected for some days before they are
dried for the market. For this purpose they are piled
into heaps which are turned occasionally. The fer-
mentation is thought to be initiated by a yeast fungus,
and an enzyme is said to bring out the characteristic
chocolate flavor of the beans. Their kernels, origin-
ally white to purple in color, assume a brownish hue,
while the papery thin shell often becomes discolored
and spotted. The subsequent process of drying is
necessary to prevent moulding and spoilage. To clean
or polish the beans they are sometimes treaded with
the naked feet, or "danced". In some localities they
are colored with a red earth to improve their appear-
ance. The dried "beans" will keep for a long time.
A bearing tree in good condition, will yield a pound to
two pounds of dried beans, usually in two principal
harvests occurring about the beginning and middle of
the year, though pods keep ripening to a certain
extent continuously. The cacao bean "eats like a rich
nut", but has a rather bitter taste.
It is perhaps well to point out here, that in spite
of the similarity of names, cacao, or cocoa, has
nothing to do either with the cocoa-nut, more properly
spelled coco-nut, from the Coco-palm; nor with coca,
the source of cocaine, obtained from the leaves of the
Coca shrub of the Andean region.
As is the case among almost all cultivated plants
there are many varieties of the Cacao tree proper,
differing in minor particulars and in size and shape
of the pods and in the color of the kernels. The best
known of them are : the Criollo, which furnishes the
finest chocolate; the Forastero, much resembling the
former, but somewhat more hardy and yielding beans
of not quite so fine a grade; the Calabacillo, with
smooth pods, still easier to grow but yielding an
inferior product. Of all of these, there are both red
and yellow varieties.
The cacao beans are put in sacks and shipped to
the manufacturers of chocolate products. In the fac-
tories they are first of all freed from the outer shell
10 Field Museum of Natural History
by a slight crushing and winnowing. The kernels
are known in the trade as "cacao nibs". They are
roasted like coffee in iron cylinders to develop the
aroma, to modify the bitter taste and to improve the
color. They are then either ground directly, without
any addition, into a dark-browii paste which we know
in its moulded form as "bitter chocolate", or they
are subjected to other treatment. Sugar or milk
products and flavoring matter, principally vanilla or
its substitutes, are added to increase the palatability,
or starch to increase the bulk of the mass before it is
pressed into moulds and made into convenient shapes
and packages for the trade and for the consumer. The
cacao shells contain some theobromine (1%) and are
sometimes ground up and are knowTi to the trade as
"miserable", or "shells", sold as a poor substitute for
cacao, "cacao coffee" or "cacao tea". They are seldom
added to the chocolate mass, never to the better grades.
Lately they have been employed as cattle fodder. If
cacao powder is desired, the ground mass is usually
heated slightly and subjected to pressure to express
about one-half of the easily liquified fat, which is
present in large quantity. This is then used separately
as "cacao butter". It is a fixed oil, a soft solid at
ordinary temperatures, with a pleasant odor and flavor
of chocolate. At first yellowish in color, it becomes
white with age. It has excellent keeping qualities
and does not readily turn rancid. It is therefore
valuable, being largely used in the manufacture of
the filling for chocolate creams, and in the drug trade
for the preparation of salves and pomades.
Cacao is never entirely soluble, but the drink
when prepared is a suspension of cacao in the fine and
thin paste of the natural starch of the bean. To make
a smoother beverage the starch content may be
increased somewhat in the manufacture of "break-
fast cocoa". The sweetened cacao may have also all
of the natural fat, plus sugar. To make the so-called
"soluble cocoa" or Dutch cocoa, a small quantity of
an alkali is added, in which the tannin and theobro-
mine are soluble.
The popularity of cacao is due to its combination
of pleasant taste, and stimulating and nourishing
properties. The latter depend partly on its fat con-
tent, but there is also naturally present in cacao beans
starch and vegetable proteins. A drink of chocolate
or cocoa, without any addition, is consequently much
more nourishing than either coffee or tea, with which
it is comparable in respect to stimulating properties.
The stimulating substance, an alkaloid, is practically
the same in the case of all of these, producing the
same physiological effect. It is caffein in coffee, thein
in tea, theobromine and caffein in cacao. In cacao the
caffein^" is present in less quantity than in either of
the other beverages. There is also a volatile oil, as
in coffee, to which must be attributed some of the
exhilarating properties and flavor.
Hundreds of millions of pounds of cacao beans are
now produced and consumed annually. In 1921, the
United States imported three hundred million pounds,
"'Theobromine and caffein may be extracted and isolated as
alkaloids and as such are white, fleecy, crystalline substances of
a bitter taste. Medicinally they are used as stimulating drugs
acting upon the nervous system by increasing the arterial ten-
sion and blood-pressure. They also stimulate the cerebral cen-
ters and respiration. The "nervousness" produced by their ex-
cessive use is due to continual stimulation of the nervous sys-
tem and particularly of the spinal cord.
Theobromine and caffein are closely related. Chemically the
former may be prepared from the latter.
Other stimulating drinks in which caffein is the active principle
are: Kola, from the Kola "nut", the product of another tree of
the Chocolate family, and Guarana, from a Brazilian bush
(Paulinia Cupana) of which the seeds are gfround up, and sold
and used by the natives like cacao.
Of non-caffein containing substitutes for cacao, locally used in
poor districts, may be mentioned the roasted and ground
kernels of the pea-nut or ground-nut. In Mexico the name of
the pea-nut is curiously enough "cacao of the ground"
12 Field Museum of Natural History
valued at twenty-three million dollars. Most of the
supply is still derived from northern South America,
particularly from Ecuador and Brazil, from the West
Indian San Domingo, and from the island of Trinidad
off the delta of the Orinoco. Each of these countries
furnishes over twenty thousand tons each year. Vene-
zuela exports a little more than half as much ; the
Caribbean island Grenada about a quarter, or about
five thousand tons a year. Cuba, Porto Rico, Haiti,
Jamaica, and other West Indian islands produce
smaller quantities, while Mexico evidently supplies
only a negligible amount for export. In all, the Amer-
ican production amounts to over a hundred and fifty
thousand tons. The rest of the world's output com-
bined, adds only a third more to the available supply.
The cultivation of the Cacao has been undertaken on
the West Coast of Africa; on the Gold Coast, in
Cameroons and in the Congo Free State, but by far
the greater part of the African supply is furnished
by Sao Thome. This small Portuguese island in the
Gulf of Guinea, alone yields more cacao beans than
any single American country. In Asia, cacao growing
has been tried, and Ceylon and the Dutch East Indies
together sometimes yield as much as the island of
Grenada; but on account of serious inroads of fungus
diseases of the trees. Cacao has not been a success in
this region, which otherwise is perfectly suitable, as
to temperature, rainfall and freedom from drought,
for the cultivation of the tree.
The African supply goes directly to Europe. ' It is
not considered to be of a high grade. The American
product is superior. That from a district in Guate-
mala, Soconusco, has the reputation of being the best
of all, but like genuine Mocha coffee and the very finest
of tea, it scarcely ever comes into the market. Of the
export grades, the heavy beans from Ecuador and
from western Venezuela, those from Colombia and
Esmeralda are the most highly esteemed. Trinidad
cacao takes a high rank. Brazil and Cayenne ship the
less desirable, unfermented grade of beans gathered
partly from trees growing wild in the forest. The
price has recently been low and the gro\ving not very
profitable to the planters. The trees require consider-
able care. As in the case of many tropical products
a low price is dependent on very cheap labor, and the
recent general increase of labor costs, without a corre-
sponding rise in the price of the product of the plan-
tations, has made production in places almost an
impossibility. Unprofitable plantations are permitted
to go to ruin. They continue to yield some cacao for a
few years without care. When a dwindling of the
supply eventually reacts on the price, active produc-
tion will presumably be started again, till a commer-
cial satiety is produced. New trees come into bearing
in their fifth or sixth year. Cacao growing is evidently
a somewhat risky business. Particularly is this true
since the grower has to contend with a host of pests
and diseases, chiefly caused by parasitic fungi which
are extremely destructive to the trees where they
obtain a hold.
In some cases these fungi have been traced to the
taller trees which are planted among the Cacao trees
for shade. Many kinds of shade trees have been tried,
such as palms, the large-leaved Anchory Pear, and
others, but the favorite one is the leguminous Madre
de Cacao, "Mother of the Cocoa", the Bois immortelle
of Trinidad. This is a rapidly growing deciduous tree
which easily towers over the low chocolate trees, lend-
ing an interesting note of bright color and variety to
the plantations, particularly in our winter season.
These tall conspicuous trees then shed their leaves
and are covered only with bright red flowers. At this
time the rays of the sun are less intense, even in most
of the tropical places where the Cacao grows in the
14 Field Museum of Natural History
northern hemisphere, and the full amount of light
not only does no harm, but may even be desirable.
During the rest of the year, when shade is required,
these shade trees are in foliage.
The rapidly increasing use of cacao, particularly
in the form of sweets, bids fair to keep pace with
production for some time to come.
B. E. Dahlgren
In the Hall of Plant Life, Hall 29, on the second floor east,
may be seen a reproduction of a Cacao tree bearing flowers
and fruit, also an enlarged flower, a fruit in section, cacao
"beans" and a pod of the Tiger Cacao.
The economic exhibit of Cacao is to be found among the
vegetable food products on the south side of the adjoining
An Opened Cacao Pod.