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We know what we eat, but do we eat what we know? Our diet extends far beyond nutrients and food availability—we imbue food with cultural significance. The meaning and use of a particular food is subject to change over time, but the fact that it holds a place in society remains constant. Improving technologies and intensified globalization have dispersed foods across the world and through time. An excellent example of such a food is Theobroma cacao L., now commonly known as chocolate (for a brief history of the plant, see McNeil 2006:1-28). It has a long history in human culture. By examining how it was first used, we can gain insight to an evolution of its meaning and eventually larger ideas on food studies.

Cacao had great religious, political, and social weight in the Mesoamerican region. There is considerable evidence for the ritual use of cacao among the Preclassic Maya, and its role as noteworthy political currency appears to increase by Late Classic times, reflected in the vessels themselves and their archaeological contexts. The Preclassic era lasted from 2000 BC-AD 200 and the Classic from AD 200-700. I argue that while the ritual use and significance of cacao remained constant throughout time, the cacao-containing vessels, or “chocolate pots”, became recognized as powerful social objects unto themselves. In order to demonstrate this idea, this paper will discuss the ecology of cacao, Mesoamerican preparation, political and social elements, cacao pots, religious and ritual contexts, and cacao as a political currency.