heliconia, as well as a large number of native plants grown as living displays of the Maya world's flora. The Cacao Eco-Museum is the brainchild of three Belgians: Eddy Van Belle, Dominque Personne and Mathieu Brees. Belgian chocolate has become world-famous and it seems appropriate that these chocolatiers should complete the circle by bringing their craft back to its place of origin. The museum was inaugurated on July 5, 2011.
Torch Ginger, the plant does, in fact, resemble a flaming torch. This museum has an unusual design, in that it is not contained in one building. Instead, the displays are housed in a series of small Maya-style thatched huts, reached by an asphalt path that wanders through groves of trees, small fields of cacao plants, and gardens displaying the wide variety of plants used by ancient and modern Maya for food, clothing, medicine, and other purposes.
Cordyline stood out against the mostly green and brown background. The gardens are beautifully designed and ecologically balanced. The displays in the thatched huts dispersed along the path tell the cultural, religious, and economic story of cacao, and demonstrate the role it played in day-to-day Maya life. In the last hut, museum staff showed us the ancient, multi-step process through which dried cacao beans are transformed into a delicious cup of hot chocolate. All the displays are accompanied by signs in both Spanish and English.
*My thanks to Ron Parsons for these plant identifications. Ron is an expert on the plants of Mexico, and has a website called Wildflowers and Plants of Central Mexico.
How it all started
originated in Brazil and that the beans gradually migrated up into Mesoamerica through ancient trade networks. The Olmecs (1500 BC - 400 BC) operated a great trading empire and had large settlements in Chiapas, Yucatan, and Guatemala, all areas where cacao could be grown. In fact, the Maya word "kakaw" is of Olmec origin and the first recorded use of the term was in 400 BC, at the end of the Olmec period. Maya writing was the best developed of any in Mesoamerica. It used a combination of symbols to express both concepts and phonetic syllables, allowing the expression of abstract ideas. The modern word "chocolate" comes from the Maya words "chokoh", meaning hot, and "ha", meaning water. Prior to the Spanish arrival, the Maya consumed chocolate exclusively in the hot liquid form. After many attempts spanning several centuries, the Maya hieroglyphic code was finally broken in the 1970s by a team of archaeologists, linguists, and artists. What the deciphered script revealed was an ancient world far richer and more complex, as well as far more violent, than what scientists had previously believed. It also revealed that cacao, and the drink made from it, played a central role in Maya life.
Ek Chuah, who carried a fan and wore black paint on his skin. Cacao beans and cups of chocolate were sometimes left as offerings in ancient graves. To the Maya, the cacao pod and the dark, liquid chokoh ha resembled the human heart and its dark blood. As a result, cacao and chocolate appear to have been part of the rituals surrounding human sacrifice. In the illustration above, the cacao tree bears a distinct resemblance to the Maya "Tree of Life", with its roots in the underworld, its trunk in day-to day-reality, and its canopy forming the heavens.
trade networks existed both within the Maya world and between it and the rest of Mesoamerica. Travel was dangerous and the merchants went armed. At night, they burned copal incense as an offering to Ek Chuah in hopes of securing his protection. Since Mesoamerica had no pack animals, everything had to be carried on the merchant's back, or that of his servants or slaves. Weight and bulk were important factors and traveling merchants therefore favored low-weight, high-value goods. Cacao beans fit the bill, and even came to be used as currency in an economy that lacked metal money. The Aztecs took this a step further and set specific prices based on the beans: a tomato was worth one bean, an avocado cost three, and "a good turkey hen" could be bought for 100 "full" or 120 "shrunken" beans.
Growing and harvesting cacao
Making chocolate the old-fashioned way
. First, however, chocoholics will be delighted to hear a few facts about health and chocolate. I found this information on the displays at the Eco-Museum, but I was skeptical until I could find some independent researchers, including the Mayo Clinic, who confirmed the claims. I should note that the beneficial aspects are confined to dark chocolate, with a cocoa content of 65% or higher, and limited to less than 85 gr (3 oz) a day. Eaten in this way, chocolate is not fattening, actually reduces cholesterol, helps prevent cavities, does not cause fatty liver disease, does not cause or worsen acne, reduces risk factors for heart disease, and may indeed be an aphrodisiac. Now, have I brightened your day?
Foaming pots have been found in Maya graves of the Pre-Classic period (900 BC to 250 AD). The 16th Century Spanish found the old foaming process cumbersome, so they introduced a device called a molinillo, which still sold in stores throughout Mexico. In the photo above, the man is creating a thick foam by twirling a molinillo between his palms.The ancient people considered this foam to be the "spirit" of the cacao. When we each received a small cup with a delicious sample, it certainly put us in good spirits!
This completes Part 21 of my NW Yucatan series. There was a great deal more to the Eco-Museum than I had space to show here, so I will include some of those photos in a later posting on Maya households. Next week, we will visit the ancient ruined city of Sayil, site of a magnificent palace. I always welcome comments and corrections and if you would like to make any, please either use the Comments section below or email me directly.
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Hasta luego, Jim