Cacao is an ancient Indigenous American word that refers to the tree Theobroma cacao, and both unprepared and prepared (into food or drink) tree seeds.
Languages across the world adopted the new word with few or no changes as colonial interests grew in cultivation of the tree and use of its seeds in cuisine, medicine, and beauty. The same double meaning of “cacao” as tree and seed, continues today.
Scholars debate the exact origin language for the word, which was probably associated with the domestication of the tree. Theobroma cacao was likely first domesticated at least 4000 years ago.
Genetic and archaeological evidence point to two possibilities: (1) domestication first in the Amazon basin and spread up through Central America; or (2) undomesticated strains spread north into Mesoamerica from Amazonia and were then bred in both regions to become the cacao we know today.
The oldest archaeological evidence of cacao, possibly as old as 3500 BCE, comes from Ecuador, at the site of Santa Ana-La Florida and the Mayo-Chinchipe archaeological culture. In Mexico and Central America, vessels with cacao residues date to as early as 1900 BCE.
The word “cacao” may have spread from the Mije-Sokean languages of the Gulf Coast of Veracruz-Tabasco (the ancient Olmec heartland) into other southeastern Mesoamerican languages sometime between about 200 B.C. and A.D. 400.
An example of “cacao” as an unprepared seed includes many ancient and colonial records of prices in cacao seed money. An example of cacao as a prepared food or drink include Mayan texts painted on ceramics that refer to “frothy cacao.”
The word “cacao” can also be combined with others (for example, cacao flower, fruit, pod, mass, liquor, powder) to refer to other parts of the plant and processed products, though this is a less common usage today than combining these words with the Anglicized term “cocoa.”
In the Anglophone context, “cocoa” is used commonly in reference to the tree and the seed, and especially as a referent for the commodity once it has been sold or processed. An important caveat is that the use of the word “cacao” (instead of “cocoa”) is symbolically important in the niche, fine/specialty/craft cacao-chocolate community, where many see it as a return to the historical roots of the crop and a point of distinction from bulk commodity cocoa.
Próximamente versión en español
Entry added: November 1, 2022
Verified on: September 14, 2023
Dr. Kathryn Sampeck, Illinois State University
“The History of the Word for Cacao in Ancient Mesoamerica,” Terrence Kaufman and John Justeson, Ancient Mesoamerica, 18 (2007), 193–237
“The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe,” Carla Martin and Kathryn Sampeck, Socio.hu, 2015
Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 2006
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