Chocolate really does grow on trees, although not as little chocolates. Chocolate comes from the seeds of the tree Theobroma cacao (T. cacao), a tropical rainforest tree. The Mesoamericans (including the Mayans and Aztecs) were consuming chocolate as a drink dating to at least 3500 years ago. They considered chocolate, literally, to be the food of the gods. The chocolate tree was given the latin name Theobroma Cacao, which means "Food of the Gods", by the 18th century botanist C. Linnaeus in 1753, who was a known chocolate lover. It is not known whether Linnaeus knew about the pre-Columbian peoples beliefs concerning chocolate.
The chocolate tree is indigenous to the Americas, originating in South America in the upper Orinoco River basin, in the Venezuelan Amazon and in Central America. The Theobroma genus is several million years old and belongs in the family Sterculiaceae, which also includes the genus Cola nitida - the kola tree native to Africa. Within the Theobroma genus there are many plants related to T. cacao that produce fruit and up to 70 wild species, many of which are used as medicine. However the main Theobroma species that produces the seeds which are made into chocolate is Theobroma cacao.
The origination of T. cacao is shrouded in mystery. This species is thought to be about 10 to 15 thousand years old and seems to have differentiated from the other theobroma species through association with humans. Several conflicting theories abound as to where or how T. cacao originated and include: T. cacao came from the Orinoco area in the Amazon and humans spread the seeds and/or plants through trade; or T. cacao was found wild throughout Central America and in Northern South America and later domesticated in Central America.
There are three main subspecies of Theobroma cacao, all of which are connected to humans through domestication and agriculture. They are: T. cacao subsp. criollo, T. cacao subsp. forastero and T. cacao subsp. trinitario. Interestingly, Theobroma cacao criollo’s genome is smaller then T. cacao forastero. The forastero genome has a larger diversity with attributes and a genetic make up similar to the wild varieties of other Theobromas. A larger genome would allow for better survival of the species and this fact suggests that there was a human-mediated influence on criollo to create better tasting seeds which eventually resulted in a decrease of the genetic makeup. Since the forastero’s home originated in the same area as the whole Theobroma genus, this genetic difference leads me to believe that T. cacao supsp. criollo may have originated in the same area but differentiated from the main T. cacao group and was slowly selected for better seed flavor and traded or brought northward by humans. Long distance trades routes linking Mesoamerican and northern South America have been established and dates to about 1600 B.C. Many of the related Theobroma species including T. bicolor, T. angustifolium, T. pentagonum, T. speciosum were and are raised for their largish fruits which contain the fruit pulp and seeds but only the pulp is eaten and the seeds are mainly discarded. Though there is no evidence for South American peoples using cacao seeds for making chocolate there is another reason for cacao to have been traded: “The impetus for the spread of cacao cultivation in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and northern South America might have been fascination with the seeds as a source of addictive, even hallucinogenic substances, of use in popular mystical and ritualistic ceremonies.”1 More on that subject later. Another reason may have been that T. cacao may have been bred for bigger pods for the fruit pulp. Only time and recent ongoing genetic research will unravel this mystery. Whatever the case, only in what is now know as Southern Mexico and Central America did T. cacao become domesticated and selected for it’s better tasting seeds.
Wild criollo types were (and are) found in Venezuela and in three places in Southern Mexico in Chiapas and in Guatemala and it is widely agreed that this was the first variety that was domesticated by the Mesoamericans. Wild and semi-domesticiated varieties of forastero were (and are) found only in the Orinoco River basin of the Amazon. Trinitario is a hybrid between the original two types developed sometime in the early 1760’s by ‘accident’ on the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela. Within these subspecies there are many forms, cultivars and varieties. For instance it seems that the original criollo species grown and used by the Pre-Columbian peoples was T. cacao subsp. cacao form lacandonense, T. cacao subsp. cacao form lagarto (pentagona) and several others.
- Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.
- Coe, Sophie D. America's First Cuisines. Austin, TX, University of Texas Press, 1994
- Foster, Nelson & Linda S. Cordell, Eds, Chiles to Chocolate: Food The Americas Gave The World. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1992.
- Lopez, Ruth, Chocolate: The Nature Of Indulgence. NY, NY: Harry N. Abrams, INC, In Association with the Field Museum, Chicago, 2002.
- Motamayor, J.C., et al. The Genetic Diversity Of Criollo Cacao And Its Consequence In Quality Breeding. Conferencistas, Memorias del Primer Congreso Venezolano del Cacao y su Industria AGETROP/CIRAD, BP5035 Montpellier, France, Estacion Experimental de Caucagua, FONAIAP, Venezuela, 2000 ISBN 980-620-56-1 http://cacao.sian.info.ve/memorias/tabla_contenido.html
- Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste Of Chocolate: A Cultural And Natural History Of Cacao With Recipes, Berkeley, CA, Ten Speed Press, 2001.
- Young, Allen M., The Chocolate Tree: A Natural History of Cacao. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994