Cacao Was The Energy Drink Of Ancient Civilizations

Long before the artificial, canned, sugary energy drinks of our modern day, there was a much more natural kind consumed in societies of old. The main ingredient was cacao (not cocoa). The cacao tree is a tropical evergreen, per Encyclopedia Britannica, whose seeds have many uses, like making baking chocolate.

As noted by Eater, the cacao tree is thought to have come from what is now Mexico, but some theories posit it originated in northern regions of the Amazon and moved north via trade. Whatever the truth is, we can confidently say cacao is American in nature. Now, however, it's grown across the world, all the way from tropical Asia to western Africa, usually on small but labor-intensive farms.

How did cacao go from being American flora to a global crop? Eater states that the culprit is European colonization. Fermented cacao beans were taken to Spain (possibly by conquistadors or Mayans) after Spain invaded Mexico during the early 1500s. The Spanish royalty loved cacao, at least once they added sugar to it, and thus the first approximation of modern chocolate was created.

Over time, it spread across the Earth, but how was cacao used at home before chocolate became a worldwide phenomenon?

A Mesoamerican beverage

Cacao has a divine reputation. Its scientific name (Theobroma cacao) even translates to "food of the gods" in Greek, per Encyclopedia Britannica. It's not terribly difficult to see why, even setting aside the popularity of chocolate treats.

As noted by Ritual Cacao, the crop has uses in folk medicine, and it is believed to bolster physical performance and recovery, too. It is notably nutritious, and it may improve blood flow and prevent body aches. Plus, unlike a lot of modern-day energy drinks, beverages made with cacao usually lack additives and sugar, so the caffeine delivered to your body by cacao won't be followed up by an energy crash.

Mesoamerican cultures saw such potential in cacao. According to Barand Cocoa, the Mayo-Chinchipe people in Ecuador first cultivated cacao thousands of years ago, but they were far from the only ones to do so. Early civilizations fermented, roasted, and ground cacao beans into a powdery paste, then mixed up a frothy drink. The Olmecs left such beverages on tombs, assumedly energizing souls to reach their afterlives, according to Eater.

Mayans and Aztecs believed cacao was gifted to them from the gods, given how heavenly its energizing properties were. Aztec soldiers and Emperors alike consumed cacao drinks to give them the energy they needed. Cacao may be naturally earthy and bitter, but its bodily benefits make it plain to see why Mesoamericans loved it nevertheless.