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The Origins of Cacao

Cacao, a tree whose scientific name is Theobroma Cacao, was named in 1753 by botanist Carl Linnaeus.

History of Cacao

Cacao, a tree whose scientific name is Theobroma Cacao, was so named in 1753 by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. Theobroma is Greek for “food of the gods,” and cacao is the Spanish adaptation of the Mayan name for the tree: kakaw.

The cacao tree is believed to have evolved in the Upper Amazon region in an area that now includes parts of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. From there it spread northward, probably with the help of early Amerindians, across the Andes and into Central America where it became a part of their diet and culture.

When Cortez landed in Mexico in the early 1500s, he found cacao intricately woven into the culture and mythology. Mixed with maize and spices, cacao was consumed as a beverage by royalty, warriors and rich merchants, while the seeds or beans were used as currency.

The Spaniards modified this native beverage, replacing maize with sugar and adding cinnamon and vanilla. Over time, all of Europe developed a taste for this new beverage, which they called chocolate, and soon cacao was spread to tropical regions around the globe.

Early attempts were made to grow cacao like sugar cane, on large plantations. However, because cacao grows best in the shade of taller trees, it is particularly suited for small, family farms and home gardens. Today, as much as 80% - 90% of the world’s cacao is produced on farms of seven acres or less.