Cacao 101 Course - Day 3

Yesterday, we explored cacao’s mythology, and today, we will take a look at some of cacao's historical context.

Cacao is native to tropical Central and South America. The Theobroma genus has been dated to over 10 million years old, and during the peak of the last ice age 21000 years ago, cacao found refuge in the upper Amazon headwaters, in an area roughly overlapping modern day Columbia / Ecuador / Peru / Brazil. Hence this is the reservoir of genetic diversity that eventual human domestication of cacao occurred from.

Archaeological evidence suggests cultivation of cacao and ritual use of cacao drink 3,900 years ago in Central America, and 5,300 years ago in Ecuador, the earliest known usage to date. Cacao entered its most culturally developed from with the Olmec, the Mayans, and the Aztecs.

The later two used cacao beans as currency. Compared to the cheap chocolate available today, a single cacao bean held extraordinary value; it could be exchanged for a tamale. With a tamale today costing about $2, and about 30 cacao beans needed to make a cup of ceremonial cacao, that would make a single cup of cacao worth $60!!!

Indeed, cacao beans were so valuable that intricately crafted counterfeit cacao beans were made out of clay, and put inside the delicate cacao shell after the original cacao bean was removed. As a currency, we find that cacao beans are a fascinating medium of exchange, for they are only good for several years, so they encourage continuous circulation rather than hoarding, and they never accumulate interest or depreciate, all in notable contrast to our modern monetary system.

In the 16th century, cacao was introduced to Europe by Spanish explorers. This period was the beginning of centuries of exploitation of tropical ecosystems and the peoples living there, and a disconnection from the sacredness and value that cacao held for these ancient cultures.

It was a dark age. Over 99% of the indigenous population of the Americas was eradicated by disease and violence in a massive cultural genocide. So much wisdom, culture, and spiritual practice were lost. Rainforest ecosystems went from being managed as a living system, to being managed as a resource, and cacao became one of the victims of this exploitation. All consideration of cacao as a sacred plant was lost on the colonizers.

To this day cacao is still mostly grown in the context of an extractive capitalist system in countries where political and economic realities are determined by the descendants of the original colonizers. Much of the ancestry and land-based knowledge of cacao are largely disregarded, and rainforests are being destroyed at an alarming rate.

This is a big part of why ceremonial cacao has such an important role to play today.

Educating ourselves, acknowledging, and grieving the recent history of cacao is the first step for shifting how our society relates with cacao. It is how we step out of complicity with the systems of domination that perpetuate this exploitation of cacao communities and indigenous culture.

From here, we get to build a new system. We get to choose to only support organizations that are for the land, the people, and the wellbeing of cacao. It why at Ora we purchase using a Direct Trade model, in which we know our farmers and in which we pay cacao prices that are the highest in each location we buy from.

Restoring respectful relationship with cacao goes far beyond cacao prices to the systems we are creating and supporting. We purchase only from small cacao farmers to de-aggregate wealth, and we support thriving of local communities by purchasing wet cacao that is processed in high-quality central fermentation facilities that provide local jobs and boost the value of the harvest. Organic and regenerative practices to give back to the land are an essential part of our sourcing, too.

These steps are just touching the surface of what it means to decolonize cacao and restore sacred relationship with it. This will be a continuous journey of a lifetime. So we give deep gratitude that you are here with us, and that your heart wishes to honor cacao as sacred, and the traditions and lands that it comes from.

If you’d like to dive deeper on the decolonization of cacao, we invite you to read more under the Learn --> Social Impact section of our website.

Reflection for day 3

Today we invite you to reflect on the ways you have related to cacao up until now.

Have you only known cacao in the form of chocolate candy & treat? Or have you already welcomed cacao in as a medicine? When did you first encounter cacao in a ritual way? What has shifted in you since deepening your relationship with cacao? What do you fell when you contemplate the complex history of cacao?

Think of all this as your cacao history, your relationship with cacao. As you bring more intention and mindfulness to connecting with cacao your relationship will only blossom further!