Cacao flowers
Cacao (Theobroma cacao) (Mayan: kakaw, Nahuatl: Cacahuatl), or the cocoa plant, is a small (4–8 m or 15–26 ft tall) evergreen tree in the family Sterculiaceae (alternatively Malvaceae), native to the deep tropical region of the Americas. Its seeds are used to make cocoa and chocolate. There are two prominent competing hypotheses about the origins of the original wild Theobroma cacao tree. One is that wild examples were originally distributed from southeastern Mexico to the Amazon basin, with domestication taking place both in the Lacandon area of Mexico and in lowland South America. But recent studies of Theobroma cacao genetics seem to show that the plant originated in the Amazon and was distributed by humans throughout Central America and Mesoamerica.

The tree is today found growing wild in the low foothills of the Andes at elevations of around 200–400 m (650-1300 ft) in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins. It requires a humid climate with regular rainfall and good soil. It is an understory tree, growing best with some overhead shade. The leaves are alternate, entire, unlobed, 10–40 cm (4-16 in) long and 5–20 cm (2-8 in) broad. Poisonous and inedible, they are filled with a creamy, milky liquid and taste spicy and unpleasent.
The flowers are produced in clusters directly on the trunk and older branches; they are small, 1–2 cm (1/2-1 in) diameter, with pink calyx. While many of the world’s flowers are pollinated by bees (Hymenoptera) or butterflies/ moths (Lepidoptera), cacao flowers are pollinated by tiny flies, forcipomyia midges in the order Diptera[1]. The fruit, called a cacao pod, is ovoid, 15–30 cm (6-12 in) long and 8–10 cm (3-4 in) wide, ripening yellow to orange, and weighs about 500 g (1 lb) when ripe. The pod contains 20 to 60 seeds, usually called "beans", embedded in a white pulp. Each seed contains a significant amount of fat (40–50% as cocoa butter). Their most noted active constituent is theobromine, a compound similar to caffeine.

The scientific name Theobroma means "food of the gods". The word cacao itself derives from the Nahuatl (Aztec language) word cacahuatl, learned at the time of the conquest when it was first encountered by the Spanish. Similar words for the plant and its by-products are attested in a number of other indigenous Mesoamerican languages.

History of cultivation

Aztec statuary of a male figure
holding a cacao pod
Cultivation, cultural elaboration and use of cacao were extensive and early in Mesoamerica. Studies of the Theobroma cacao tree genetics suggests a domestication and spread from lowland Amazonia, contesting an earlier hypothesis that the tree was domesticated independently in both the Lacandon area of Mexico, and in Amazonia. The cacao tree belongs to the Theobroma genus, in the Sterculiaceae family, that contains 22 species. Today, the most common of the cultivated species is Theobroma cacaowith two subspecies and three forms. Wild cacaos falling into two groups. The South American subspecies spaerocarpum has a fairly smooth melon-like fruit. In contrast, the Mesoamerican cacao subspecies has ridged, elongated fruits. At some unknown early date, the subspecies T. cacao reached the southern lowlands of Mesoamerica and came into wide usage.

The Maya believed that the kakaw (cacaowas discovered by the gods in a mountain that also contained other delectable foods to be used by the Maya. According to Maya mythology, the Plumed Serpent gave cacao to the Maya after humans were created from maize by divine grandmother goddess Xmucane (Bogin 1997, Coe 1996, Montejo 1999, Tedlock 1985). The Maya celebrated an annual festival in April to honor their cacao god, Ek Chuah, an event that included the sacrifice of a dog with cacao colored markings; additional animal sacrifices; offerings of cacao, feathers and incense; and an exchange of gifts. In a similar creation story, the Mexica (Aztec) god Quetzalcoatl discovered cacao (cacahuatl: "’bitter water"’), in a mountain filled with other plant foods (Coe 1996, Townsend 1992). Cacao was offered regularly to a pantheon of Mexica deities and the Madrid Codex depicts priests lancing their ear lobes (autosacrifice) and covering the cacao with blood as a suitable sacrifice to the gods. The cacao beverage as ritual were used only by men, as it was believed to be toxic for women and children.

There are several mixtures of cacao described in ancient texts, for ceremonial, medicinal uses as well as culinary purposes. Some mixtures included maize, chili, vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), peanut butter and honey. Archaeological evidence for use of cacaowhile relatively sparse, has come from the recovery of whole cacao beans at Uaxactun, Guatemala (Kidder 1947) and from the preservation of wood fragments of the cacao tree at Belize sites including Cuello and Pulltrouser Swamp (Hammond and Miksicek 1981; Turner and Miksicek 1984). In addition, analysis of residues from ceramic vessels has found traces of theobromine and caffeine in early formative vessels from Puerto Escondido, Honduras (1100 - 900 B.C.) and in middle formative vessels from Colha, Belize (600-400 B.C.) using similar techniques to those used to extract chocolate residues from four classic period (ca. 400 A.D.) vessels from a tomb at the archaeological site of Rio Azul. As cacao is the only known commodity from Mesoamerica containing both of these alkaloid compounds, it seems likely that these vessels were used as containers for cacao drinks. In addition, cacao is named in a hieroglyphic text on one of the Rio Azul vessels. Cacao was also believed to be ground by the Aztecs and mixed with tobacco for smoking purposes.

The first Europeans to encounter cacao were Christopher Columbus and his crew in 1502, when they captured a canoe at Guanaja that contained a quantity of mysterious-looking “almonds.” The first real European knowledge about chocolate came in the form of a beverage which was first introduced to the Spanish at their meeting with Moctezuma in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519. Cortez and others noted the vast quantities of this beverage that the Aztec emperor consumed, and how it was carefully whipped by his attendants beforehand. Examples of cacao beans along with other agricultural products were brought back to Spain at that time, but it seems that the beverage made from cacao was introduced to the Spanish court in 1544 by Kekchi Maya nobles brought from the New World to Spain by Dominican friars to meet Prince Philip (Coe and Coe 1996). Within a century, the culinary and medical uses of chocolate had spread to France, England and elsewhere in Western Europe. Demand for this beverage led the French to establish cacao plantations in the Caribbean, while Spain subsequently developed their cacao plantations in their Philippine colony (Bloom 1998, Coe 1996). The Nahuatl-derived Spanish word cacao entered scientific nomenclature in 1753 after the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus published his taxonomic binomial system and coined the genus and species Theobroma ("food of the gods") cacao.

Traditional pre-Hispanic beverages made with cacao are still consumed in Mesoamerica. These include the Oaxacan beverage known as tejate.

Currency system

Cacao seed in the fruit or Pocha
Cacao beans constituted both a ritual beverage and a major currency system in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations. At one point the Aztec empire received a yearly tribute of 980 loads (xiquipil in nahuatl) of cacao, in addition to other goods. Each load represented exactly 8000 beans.[2] The buying power of quality beans was such that 80-100 beans could buy a new cloth mantle. The use of cacao beans as currency is also known to have spawned counterfeiters during the Aztec empire. [3]

In some areas, such as Yucatán, cacao beans were still used in place of small coins as late as the 1840s.


Cacao is cultivated on over 70,000 km² (27,000 mi²) worldwide. Statistics from FAO [1] for 2005 are as follows:
    Young Cacao plantation
  • Production in Int $1000 have been calculated based on 1999-2001 international prices Cacao production has increased from 1.5 million tons in 1983-1984 to 3.5 million tons in 2003-2004, an increase that has almost entirely been due to the expansion of the production area rather than to yield increases. Some cacao is grown in large agro-industrial plantations. Some is grown by small producers using sustainable agricultural models.
A tree begins to bear when it is four or five years old. A mature tree may have 6,000 flowers in a year, yet only about 20 pods. About 300-600 seeds (10 pods) are required to produce 1 kg (2.2 lb) of cocoa paste.

There are three main cultivar groups of cacao beans used to make cocoa and chocolate.[4] The most prized, rare, and expensive is the Criollo Group, the cocoa bean used by the Maya. Only 10% of chocolate is made from Criollo, which is less bitter and more aromatic than any other bean. The cacao bean in 80% of chocolate is made using beans of the Forastero Group. Forastero trees are significantly hardier than Criollo trees, resulting in cheaper cacao beans. Trinitario, a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero, is used in about 10% of chocolate.

For details of processing, see cocoa. Major cocoa bean processors include: Hershey’s, Nestlé and Mars, all of which purchase cocoa beans via various sources.


Various plant pests and diseases can cause serious problems for cacao production; see: Illustrated guide to pests and their management.
  • Insects
  • Cocoa mirids or capsids (Worldwide, but especially in West Africa)
  • Conopomorpha cramerella ("Cocoa pod borer" - in S.E. Asia)
  • Fungi
  • Moniliophthora roreri ("Frosty Pod Rot")
  • Moniliophthora perniciosa ("Witches’ Broom")
  • Ceratocystis cacaofunesta ("Mal de machete") or ("Ceratocystis wilt")
  • Verticillium dahliae
  • Oncobasidium theobromae ("Vascular streak dieback")
  • Oomycetes
  • Phytophthora spp. ("Black Pod") especially Phytophthora megakarya in West Africa
  • Viruses
  • CSSV
  • See also: List of cacao diseases Rats and other vertebrate pests (squirrels, woodpeckers, etc.)
  1. Hernández B, J. (1965), Insect pollination of cacao (Theobroma cacao L.) in Costa Rica, University of Wisconsin,
  2. J. Bergmann (1969).
  3. S. Coe (1994).
  4. All about Chocolate -- Varieties
  • Coe, Sophie D. (1994). America’s First Cuisines. Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-71155-7.
  • Coe, Sophie D.; and Michael D. Coe (1996). The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-01693-3.
  • Dienhart, John M. (1997), "The Mayan Languages- A Comparative Vocabulary" (electronic version (PDF)), Odense University,, retrieved on 2007-02-14.
  • McNeil, Cameron (editor) (2006). Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. Gainesville: University of Florida Press. ISBN 0-8130-2953-8.
  • Bergmann, John (1969), "The Distribution of Cacao Cultivation in Pre-Columbian America", Annals of the Association of American Geographers 59: 85–96, doi:10.1111/j.1467-8306.1969.tb00659.x.
  • Motamayor, J. C. et al. (2002), "Cacao domestication I: the origin of the cacao cultivated by the Mayas", Heredity 89: 380–386, doi:10.1038/sj.hdy.6800156.
  • A. Frison, M. Diekman and D. Nowell (2000). Cacao. FAO / IPGRI Technical Guidelines for the Safe Movement of Germplasm No. 20. ACRI - FAO - IPGRI.
  • A.B. Eskes and Y. Efron, editors (2006). Global Approaches to Cocoa Germplasm Utilization and Conservation. CFC - ICCO - IPGRI.
External links
  • Theobroma cacao at the Encyclopedia of Life
  • World Cocoa Foundation - Supporting Sustainable Cocoa Farming
  • The food of the Gods – the nature, growth, cultivation, manufacture and history of Cocoa, by Brandon Head, from Project Gutenberg
  • Malaysian Cacao Board
  • International Cocoa Organization (ICCO)-cacao daily market prices and charts are available
  • TransFair USA Fair Trade Cocoa Program
  • Illustrated guide to pests and their management
  • Plant Diseases Imperil Chocolate Production - Science Friday on NPR, 2006-06-09
  • Photographs of cacao plants (detail)
  • Theobroma Gallery (Stewart R. Hinsley)
  • Gourmet chocolates to boost incomes and preserve biodiversity
  • Cacao
  • Concerted effort to conserve Cacao diversity
  • FemiStyle’s Chocolade dossier (Dutch)
Retrieved from: Wikipedia

Categories: Malvaceae, Chocolate, Agriculture in Mesoamerica, Native crops of Brazil, Native crops of Colombia, Native crops of Mexico, Native crops of Peru, Trees of Belize, Trees of Guatemala, Trees of Mexico, Trees of French Guiana, Trees of Guyana, Trees of Suriname, Trees of Brazil, Trees of Colombia, Trees of Peru.

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