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Cacao History

Cacao trees with several cacao pods in Ecuador
Cocoa shipment on the Guayaquil boardwalk, 1920. Cocoa bags from the Banking and Exporting House of L. Guzmán e Hijos.

Cocoa shipment on the Guayaquil boardwalk, 1920. Cocoa bags from the Banking and Exporting House of L. Guzmán e Hijos.
Source: Unidentified photographer / Historical Archive of Guayas.

Cacao Arriba

Ecuador has long been recognized as the largest producer of “fine flavor” cacao in the world. We grow a special variety of cacao called “Nacional”, also known as “Arriba Nacional” (up river). The word “Arriba” was added to the name when European traders began asking locals where to find this amazing cacao shortly after it was introduced to the Spanish Conquistador, Hernan Cortes, in the 16th century. When the Spanish would arrive at the port of Guayaquil with this question, locals responded by saying, “Arriba” or “up river”.

By the 1800s, Ecuador´s cacao production skyrocketed to make it the number one producer of cacao in the world. Then, in 1916 and again in 1919, tragedy struck the cacao farmers of Ecuador. Two plagues in three years time wiped out over 70% of Ecuador´s cacao production. It was only through a determined effort, that Arriba Nacional survived.

Today, Arriba Nacional is experiencing a renaissance as chocolate connoisseurs the world over crave its unique flavor profile. Though Ecuador now only supplies about 4% of the world´s total cacao, it is the #1 supplier of “fine flavor” cacao in the world! Together with diligent farmers and savvy consumers, we are making sustainability in chocolate a delicious reality.

Origins of the Cacao Plant

Botanical evidence shows the plant from which chocolate is made was first grown for food more than 5,000 years ago in the Amazon rainforest.

Chemical residues found on ancient pottery suggest cocoa was used as a food, drink or medicine by indigenous people living in what is now Ecuador.

Until now it was thought that chocolate originated much later and in Central rather than South America.

“The plant was first used at least 1,500 years earlier than we had previous evidence for,” said Prof Michael Blake of the department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, a co-researcher on the study.

“And that previous evidence was found in Mexico and Central America.”

Source: BBC NEWS

Two ancient indigenous vases said to contain traces of cacao

A bottle that tested positive for the plant. Photo: Francisco Valdez

Ancient stone mortar in the shape of cocoa

Stone mortar in the shape of cocoa. Mayo Chinchipe culture, circa 5300 B.C.
Photo: Francisco Valdez

The Research

Researchers analysed pottery vessels from the Santa Ana (La Florida) archaeological site in the highlands of Ecuador, which was occupied between 5,300 and 2,100 years ago.

A number of crops have been documented there, including corn, sweet potatoes and the cacao tree Theobroma cacao.

Traces of chemicals and DNA from the plant were found on pottery, suggesting the ground seeds of the cocoa pod were being mixed into a concoction and drunk.

Co-researcher, Dr Sonia Zarrillo of the University of Calgary said grains of starch on the pot appeared to be “unique” to the cacao tree.

The study corroborates DNA data pointing to the tree’s origin in the upper Amazon region of northwest South America, which is where the domestic crop also originated.

“It’s another gift of the people of Amazonia to the world,” said Prof Blake. “It highlights the importance of protecting this habitat.”

Source: BBC NEWS

Cacao Routes

It is thought that seedlings or seeds of the cocoa tree were carried north into Mexico and Central America, perhaps along sea routes.

Cocoa beans became precious commodities, used as food and drink by the wealthy, or traded for other foods.

Spanish explorers in the 1520s took the cocoa beans home and spread the delicacy throughout Europe.

Source: Nature Ecology & Evolution (Journal)

Map detailing possible sea routes for cocoa through Central and South America
Ancient wall painting showing two figures making and drinking chocolate

The History of Chocolate

The edible properties of Theobroma cacao were discovered over 2,000 years ago by the indigenous people of Central America living deep in the tropical rainforests.

The Olmecs living in Mexico and Guatemala established their first cacao plantations around 400 BC, and by 250 AD the Mayans depicted cocoa in their elaborate hieroglyphic writings and on carvings and paintings.

Historical accounts about also point to widespread use of chocolate in Maya and Aztec engagement and marriage ceremonies and religious rituals. In this respect chocolate occupied the same niche that expensive French wines and champagne do in European culture today.

The Aztecs and Maya peoples had many ways of making food and drink from cocoa seeds (commonly referred to as ‘cocoa beans’). They also used the beans as money, for example exchanging one turkey for 200 beans, or one slave for 100 beans.

Cocoa beans were so precious that only the royals, warriors and the wealthy could afford to eat and drink chocolate. The hieroglyphs tell us that the Aztecs and Maya peoples drank cocoa powder suspended in water, and used flavourings such as chillies (Capsicum annuum), vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), achiote (Bixa orellana), aromatic herbs and honey.