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Monday Museum: Ancient aphrodisiacs

February 10, 2013

Valentine’s Day annually spurs a billion dollar market for chocolate. But did you know the connection between chocolate and romance owes homage to Mesoamerica? The Aztec ruler Montezuma believed cacao was an aphrodisiac, and as it turns out he wasn’t far off. Modern-day science has linked the chemical phenylethylamine in chocolate to feelings of excitement, attraction, and even pleasure. The idea of gifting chocolate also has its origins in Mesoamerica where cacao was frequently a gift to the gods and to persons of high status.

021113 MM 

Tall vessels like the one above were often used by elite Mayans to ritually consume a frothy, bitter drink made from ground cacao beans mixed with spices, water, and ground chili peppers. The consumption of chocolate began in South and Central America around 1200B.C. It was integral to social and ritual occasions among the peoples of ancient Mesoamerica. By the 16th century cacao had become the most valuable commodity in Mesoamerica, on par with maize (corn), and was used as a form of currency. Cacao was initially reserved for the noble elite and played an important role in Mayan and Aztec royal and religious events. The Mayan’s sacred book, PopulVuh, which contains their story of the creation, incorporates a cacao tree instead of an apple tree.

Chemical analysis of residue extracted from pottery vessels provides evidence of cacao consumption as far north as Chaco Canyon [link to]  in New Mexico by around 1000 A.D.  When we think of fine chocolate today, we often think of European chocolate, but the cultivation, domestication, and processing of chocolate were Mesoamerican innovations. Europeans sweetened and lightened chocolate by adding refined sugar and milk.

We’ll know for sure whether the Logan’s drinking vessels actually contained chocolate once we do analytical testing. To find out more, visit the Logan Museum’s visible storage cube and scan the QR code displayed next to this vessel using your smartphone. You can also access this content online here: The QR code and content are brought to you by Ashleigh Herrera’12 as part of her honor’s term project. She will develop QR resources for additional objects from the Logan and Wright in coming months, so keep your eyes peeled.