Where did the first Cacao trees come from?

by | Nov 24, 2022 | Chocolate Information

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The cacao plant, known by its scientific name Theobroma Cacao, is famous for providing the key ingredient in chocolate. But there is so much more to know about the history of the cacao tree! Read on to find out about its fascinating origin story and steady spread across the globe.

​​Origins of cacao trees

The scientific name, Theobroma Cacao, was established in 1753 by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. Theobroma is Greek for “food of the gods,” and cacao is the Spanish adaptation of the word “kakaw” which was the Mayan name for the tree.

The cacao tree is believed to have evolved around 10 million years ago in the north Amazon region, which now covers territories in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. Approximately 5,000 years ago, it started to spread to the north, with the help of early Indigenous peoples of America, across the Andes, and into Central America where it became a part of their diet and culture. Scientists believe that cacao was first domesticated by the Olmec peoples of Central America and Mexico. It was also cultivated by the Mayas over 1500 years ago and then followed by the Aztecs.
When Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico at the beginning of the 16th century, he learned about something very valuable, what we know today as cacao. It was so integrated into the culture and mythology that it was difficult to ignore. Cacao was mixed with maize (corn) and spices for a hot beverage consumed by royalty and warriors, or mixed with maize flour for a cold beverage enjoyed by many. The beans or seeds were even used as a form of currency.

Over time, the Spanish modified the original beverage recipe by replacing maize with sugar and adding cinnamon and vanilla. Europeans soon developed a taste for this new beverage, which they called “chocolate” (the first chocolate bar, which was created in 1847, hadn’t yet been invented). The word “chocolate” came from the Nahuatl word xocolātl which was adapted by the Spanish from the Aztec language. It wasn’t long before cacao trees were spread to tropical regions around the globe in an effort to increase the production of this popular beverage.

In the early days of commercial cacao cultivation, large plantations were established to grow cacao similar to how sugar cane was being farmed. Unfortunately, cacao grows best in the shade of taller trees, so these large plantations were not ideal for growing cacao since the trees were too exposed to the elements. Attempts to establish large cacao plantations failed. Even today, as much as 80% – 90% of the world’s cacao is produced on small family farms.

When was cacao first used as ingredient in chocolate making?

While the use of Theobroma Cacao as an ingredient in today’s chocolate bars is relatively new, it’s clear that humans have had a long relationship with this plant. We now know that cocoa and chocolate have benefited people for centuries. From the Mayans to modern-day chocoholics, this plant has been a powerful force in human culture, commerce, economics, and consumption. Make sure to appreciate the history and culture of chocolate every time you eat it.

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