The History of Chocolate

With Easter in recent memory and its tradition in many cultures and religions to give and receive chocolate, we have taken a deeper dive to discover and reveal more about the origins, history and traditions of this universally popular food product.


Chocolate’s four thousand year history began in Ancient Mesoamerica, present-day Mexico. It all started with the cacao bean. ‘Cacao’ is the Spanish word for Chcahuatl - which is what Aztecs called the beans chocolate is made from.


Theobroma Cocoa / Chocolate / Feve  Photo © Viard M.Horizon Features / Bridgeman Images


The word chocolate stems from the Classical Nahuatl word chocolatl, of uncertain etymology. Centuries before we tasted a chocolate bar, dating back to 450 BC, chocolate was first used to create fermented beverages. The Mexica believed that cacao seeds were the gift of Quetzalcoatl, the God of wisdom. They held so much value that they were also used as a form of currency in the region.

Mexican Indian Preparing Chocolate, from the Codex Tuleda, 1553 (vellum), Mexican School, (16th century)  Museo de America, Madrid, Spain / Bridgeman Images


In this article, we will discover the history of chocolate alongside a selection of unique Bridgeman images


Eggs (Eggcellent, Eggcellent), 2018 (watercolour on card) Private Collection  © Lucy Innes Williams. All Rights Reserved 2022  / Bridgeman Images

The Desire for Chocolate 

The consumption, cultivation and cultural use of cacao were extensive in Mesoamerica where the cacao tree is native. The beans themselves are bitter due to the alkaloids in them, the sweet pulp is believed to have been the first element consumed by humans.


Chocolate or cocoa tree, Theobroma cacao. Hand coloured lithograph by Hanhart after a botanical illustration by David Blair from Robert Bentley and Henry Trimens Medicinal Plants, London, 1880.  © Florilegius / Bridgeman Images 

Cacao, from a manuscript on plants and civilization in the Antilles, c.1686 (wc on paper), Plumier, Charles (1646-1704)  Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France  © Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images

Cacao pods grow in a wide variety of colours from dark pale to crimson, all the way to pale yellow to green. Historical evidence suggests that cacao pods may have been fermented as an alcoholic drink as early as 1400 BC. The chocolate in later years was also served as a bitter liquid, mixed with spices or corn puree.

Figure from a vessel top in the form of a cocoa (chocolate) deity, 600-900 AD (slipped & painted earthenware), Mayan  © Indianapolis Museum of Art  Gift of Bonnie and David Ross / Bridgeman Images

Today in the South of Mexico and the northern triangle of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) such drinks are known as ‘Chilates’.  Pre-Hispanic vases display depictions of the consumption of the chocolate drink. 


Anthropomorphic vase, from Peten, Guatemala (earthenware), Mayan  Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Etnologia, Guatemala City /  Bridgeman Images

In the sixteenth century, it arrived in Europe, sugar was added to it and it soon became popular throughout society, first among the elite and then among the common people.  


Tripod Vase with Two Blowgunners and Quetzal Birds in Cacao Trees, Late Xolalpan, 550-650 (earthenware with painted stucco)  © Museum of Fine Arts, Houston / Gift of Mrs Harry C. Hanszen / Bridgeman Images


 Mayans in Guatemala produced writings about cacao that confirm the identification of the drink with the Gods. The Dresden Codex (a Maya book) specifies that cacao is the food of the rain deity Chaac.

Man carrying a cacao pod, 1440-1521 (volcanic stone with traces of red pigment), Aztec  © Brooklyn Museum of Art  Museum Collection Fund / Bridgeman Images


The Madrid codex states that gods shed their blood on the cacao pods as part of its production. Each year, the Mayans would gather and give thanks to the god Ek Chuah who they saw as the Cacao god. There were many uses for Cacao in Maya. It was used in religious offerings, at feasts and festivals, as funerary offerings and in official ceremonies. 



How the Natives of New Spain Prepared Cacao for Chocolate (engraving), French School, (16th century)  Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France  / Bridgeman Images


The cacao tree was wholly unknown to the Europeans until the 16th century! Christopher Columbus discovered the cacao bean on his fourth mission to the Americas on August 15, 1502. He instructed his crew to seize a large native canoe that proved to contain cacao beans - excellent for trade. Columbus took cacao beans with him back to Spain but it made no impact until Spanish friars introduced chocolate to the Spanish court. 


The Chocolate Girl, c.1744 (pastel on vellum) (see also 74156), Liotard, Jean-Etienne (1702-89)  Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany  © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden  © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden  Bridgeman Images


Legend has it that explorer Hernan Cortes brought chocolate to his homeland - Spain - in 1528. He had first discovered it in the court of Montezuma in 1519. Bernal Diaz who accompanied Cortes in the quest of Mexico, wrote of the encounter which he witnessed: ‘From time to time they served him in cups of pure gold a certain drink from cacao. It was said that it gave one power over women, but this I never saw.’ After the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, chocolate was imported to Europe. 

Honey and sugar was mixed with Spanish chocolate to sweeten the bitter taste. Catholic monks loved chocolate and drank it to aid religious practices. 


The Penthievre Family or The Cup of Chocolate, 1768 (oil on canvas), Jean Baptiste (or Joseph) Charpentier,  (1728-1806)  Château de Versailles, France / Bridgeman Images

‘The Modern Chocolate’


Today, roughly two-thirds of the world's cocoa is produced in Western Africa, with Ivory Coast being the largest source. Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana are other West African countries among the top 5 cocoa-producing countries in the world.


1928 Advertisement for Chocolate  Lebrecht History / Bridgeman Images


The creation of the first modern chocolate bar in 1847 is credited to Joseph Fry who discovered that he could make a moldable chocolate paste by adding melted cacao  butter back into Dutch cocoa. Fry formed the company J.S. Fry and Sons who were also responsible for the creation of the first chocolate easter egg. By 1868, Cadbury began marketing boxes of chocolate candies in England.


The making of chocolate creams at Frys cocoa and chocolate factory  Universal History Archive UIG /  Bridgeman Images


Pansies with Easter eggs, 2014 (watercolor),   Private Collection  © John Keeling. All Rights Reserved 2022 / Bridgeman Images

Tim Burton’s film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a magnificent example of ‘chocolate’ explored through modern fantasy film! The imaginative chocolatier Willy Wonka invites 4 children to his wonderful chocolate factory, led by the world's most unusual candy!


Chocaholic (oil on canvas) Private Collection  © Lincoln Seligman. All Rights Reserved 2022 / Bridgeman Images


Discover the image gallery on chocolate

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