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The History of Chocolate: Timeline & Facts

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

How much do you know about chocolate? You're probably aware that it tastes delicious and people love it, but did you know that ancient people began eating chocolate nearly 4,000 years ago? This lesson explores the history and timeline of chocolate.

For the Love of Chocolate

What's your favorite type of chocolate? Do you enjoy milk chocolate, dark chocolate, or white chocolate? Maybe you enjoy a deliciously nutty, ooey-gooey chocolate bar like a Snickers. Or, you may prefer to drink your chocolate in the form of hot cocoa.

Regardless of how you eat or drink it, one thing is undeniable...chocolate is delicious and it makes you feel good from the inside out. The ancient Olmecs realized this singular truth almost 4,000 years ago. The chocolate that they ate, however, was much different than what you're familiar with today.

Chocolate: The Early Years

Roughly 4,000 years ago, around the year 1900 B.C., the Olmec people lived in the southern part of Mexico. In that region grows a very special plant, the cacao plant. The cacao plant produces cacao beans which are used to make chocolate. The Olmecs didn't use the cacao beans to make chocolate bars. Instead, they roasted the beans, ground them up, mixed the paste with some spices and maybe a little bit of honey, and then drank it as a warm beverage.

This cacao beverage may sound a bit like hot chocolate, but it tasted much different. Without sugar, cacao beans can be very bitter. So why exactly would the Olmecs want to drink something that tasted bitter? For the Olmec people, cacao was considered a food of the gods. It was used to enhance a person's mood, and only a handful of people, such as rulers, priests and warriors, were actually allowed to consume it.

Over time, the Mayan people also discovered cacao. Around the year 600 A.D., the Mayans began growing cacao beans on large plantations in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Through trade, chocolate became popular with the Aztecs, too. Their word for chocolate was xocalatl which kind of sounds a bit like the word we use today. In fact, cacao beans were so valuable that the Aztecs used it as a form of currency. You could actually buy things with chocolate beans!

Chocolate Arrives in Europe

During the 1500s, Spanish explorers made landfall in the New World. Expecting to find all sorts of gold and riches, they discovered something arguably much better. In 1519, conquistador Hernan Cortes wrote about Aztec consumption of chocolate. At the time, the Aztec ruler was Montezuma. According to various accounts, Montezuma was known to drink as many as three gallons of chocolate beverages a day. That's a ton of chocolate!

By 1528, chocolate had made its way back to Europe. The Spanish sweetened the roasted cacao paste with sugar, so it was much less bitter than the Aztec version. In 1615, chocolate made its way to France after the Spanish king's daughter married the French king. By 1662, chocolate was a popular food in England, as well. Just like among the Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs, chocolate was a food for the wealthy in Europe. Only people with a lot of money could afford to buy it, so chocolate was not only a luxury item, it was also a status symbol.

Chocolate Keeps Getting Better

By the early 1700s, international love of chocolate was on the rise. People wanted to find new ways to process the cacao beans to make more and better chocolate. In 1732, Monsieur Dubuisson, a Frenchman, designed a special table mill that could grind the beans more efficiently. About 30 years later in 1765, the first cacao beans arrived in the English colonies.

Chocolate production made leaps and bounds during the 1800s. In 1828, a man named Johannes van Houten invented Dutch processed cocoa. As a part of the process, van Houten removed the fatty solids from the cacao beans and ground the remainder into a fine powder. This process is still used today to make cocoa powder. Just 19 years later, Joseph Fry used van Houten's Dutch processed cocoa to make the first chocolate bar. He did this by mixing the powder with melted cocoa butter or the fatty solids removed during the Dutch process.

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