What do macaws and chocolate have in common? This was the topic of the lecture by Dr. Patricia Crown, professor of anthropology, University of New Mexico, delivered at the Idyllwild Arts Academy during Native American Arts Week. The Mayans and Aztecs discovered the nutritious and culinary value of the nut from the cacao tree in the rainforests of Central America. Eventually this jungle nugget gave the world one of its most enjoyable pleasures.
The inside of the tree’s pods are similar to a coconut and contain a gooey white sweet substance. But it was the beans inside the pod that proved to be the real find — chocolate. Ancient people roasted and ground the beans, making a powder that mixed with some starch made a flat cake and lasted several months. The same powder mixed with water and some sweetener, probably honey, made a seductive and addictive chocolate drink. The Emperor Montezuma reportedly drank 50 cups a day. Mugs were specially made just for chocolate drinks. The Mayan glyphs show how froth was added to the drink resembling a latte or espresso today.
Dr. Crown uncovered some of these vessels in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. Chaco contains the oldest pueblo ruins and was a major cultural center of the pueblo people from 900 to 1150 A.D.
To help prove her findings, she sent the artifacts to Dr. Jeffrey Hurst, research chemist at the Hershey Company in Pennsylvania. He confirmed the residue absorbed inside the pottery was indeed chocolate.
As the popularity of the beans grew, they became a form of currency and entered the world trade market. Who says, “Money doesn’t grow on trees?” Crown remarked.
Another tropical commodity was the brightly colored macaw, a part of the parrot family. The Mayans and Aztecs used the macaw feathers in their headdresses and in sacrificial ceremonies. Unfortunately, most of these birds were killed before age 2 even though they have a lifespan of 50 or more years.
Eventually, both the beans and the birds were incorporated in the European trade routes. Europe’s royalty loved the bewitching chocolate drink and it became the status symbol of the rich and famous.
The exotic macaws became royal pets, learned to talk and lived to a ripe old age. Many 17th-century paintings show fashionable ladies sipping hot chocolate with a macaw perched on their chair or shoulder. Dr. Crown ended her talk by reflecting on how the new world influenced the old.
“This ends the tale of two species that brought prestige to Meso America, the American Southwest and Europe,” Crown said.