The first known domestic use of Cacao, takes us back 5500 years to the lands of the Mayo Chinchipe-Marañón culture, now southern Ecuador. Although all the trees that exist today are not so old, there are some trees that trace their genetic lineage to such a historical moment, sharing their DNA 100%.

Cacao seeds are recalcitrant, therefore they can not be conserved in long-term cold storage for dried and frozen seeds, such as the Global Seed Bank in Svalbard and are usually conserved in field gene banks but just for short periods, presenting special problems for ex situ conservation.

The history of Cacao, and therefore of chocolate, jumps without clarity from the Upper Amazon, to Mesoamerica in times of the Mayas and then the Aztecs. Both used it as an energizing drink, medicine, and in specific rituals and ceremonies, endowing Cacao with divine origin. Something preserved later in the scientific name of the tree ‘Theobroma cacao’ being theos/god and broma/ aliment. (Sweden 1753, Carl Linnaeus)

On the other hand, the words ‘Cacao’ and ‘Chocolate’ as we know them, arises from the encounter of the Spanish empire with the Aztecs one. Even if the first encounter of Spanish conquerors with Cacao occurs during the fourth voyage of Colón on the island of Guanaja (now Honduras), it was later on Cortés times when Cacao and the tools to make Chocolate was introduced into Spain.

The exclusive cocoa beans cultivated by both Mayas and Aztecs in land of nobles, high-ranked warriors and merchants, were also used as currency, being one of the best examples among the most primitive means of payment. A modality that prevail during the colonial period until the early 20th century in the southeast of Mexico.

Everything was bought with cocoa beans: clothes, food, slaves, and also the sacred gold, which locals dominated in perfection, including it in furniture and jewellery. Despite of its shape or use, gold was looted by conquerors, or exchanged for bagatelles to be reduced to ingots. By 1530, ten cocoa beans were enough for buying a rabbit, and four thousand for a slave. In those years, Spaniards founded the first Mint house in America, with 90% of its production destined for exportation.

Cocoa beans kept circulating and 200 were equivalent to 1 Real, a currency that was depreciating its value to 15 cocoa beans per unit in 1720. In 1542 indigenous slavery is declared forbidden in the ‘New Spain‘ by defining all locals as vassals of the (Royal) Crown of Castile. Same year, two copper coins were introduced for minor transactions, but soon removed from circulation, as locals unanimously rejected them, despite threats of fines, flogging and forced labor. In 1590 the annual payment of taxes there was 1600 cocoa beans «an Indian slave cost from 300 to 500 cocoa beans according to their sex, age, health and abilities» and 8 to 10 cocoa beans were enough for an encounter with a prostitute.

Counterfeiting of gold in powder and cocoa beans as a payment methods also existed back then, so both were slowly replaced by metal coins. Prior to the arrival of the conquistadors, gold was used as currency by the Chibcha peoples—in the meeting of South America and Central America— with a system even more precise in dimensions than the Spanish one. Further South, the encounter between the Spanish and the Inca empires was quite different, since the latter based its power on the strongly disciplined collective development, with paths for administrative and military purposes and not for commercial aims. An improved communism, without poverty nor slavery, persuasively expanded without the need for conquest or currency. Agrarian affirmation buried with the mining industry imposed by the Spanish empire in its desire to expatriate the greatest amount of precious metals from America as possible. In those trips, Cacao also crossed the ocean and once in Spain, the so believed “aphrodisiac” bitter drink was sweetened and flavored, and it quickly began its exclusive journey among the power elite. In 1569 Pope Pius V declared that this Cacao drink did not break the fast.

Later it entered France (1615), England (1650), and so on. Its fast growing success along Europe demanded a greater production. African slaves were taken to America for Cacao crops, as well as for other products that would end up in Europe, mostly from illegal trade and private interest. Although by then the slavery of the Indian had ceased, each founder villager could make use of 2 to 4 aborigines, but had to pay each one approx. 100 cocoa beans per labor day. In 1668, Sveriges Riksbank was founded in Sweden, being the third bank in the world and the first central bank. Some years after chocolate appeared on the scene in the north (1690), being quite late for a great power, compared to the rest of Europe. In 1692 Luis XV attempted to regulate wholesale and retail sales of chocolate, and by 1711 a regulation in Sweden ordered: “whoever uses thé, caffe and chocolate at home, must pay two silver Dalers.” During late 18th century chocolate arrived to North America and the first machine-made chocolate was developed in southern Europe (1756, France) and started being manufactured in Barcelona (1780)

The British Crown abolished slavery in its colonies from the year 1807, freeing all slaves and compensating their owners, process that took more years in the rest of America. By 1822 Portugal gave a twist, and introduced Cacao for cultivation on Príncipe Island in Africa, bringing Cacao to the land of slaves, instead of slaves to the lands of Cacao.

The interest for taking more out of the precious cocoa beans arrived to the creation of a machine that divides Cacao butter from soluble Cacao powder (Amsterdam 1828, van Houten), then diluted in warm water—or mil, as done in Jamaica from the late 15th century, an invention still attributed to the British Hans Sloane after his trip to that island in the late 17th century.

. In Switzerland chocolate is mixed with hazelnuts for the first time (1830, Kohler), while in England the first chocolate bar is marketed (1847, Fry & Son) and in France the soluble powder of Cacao is massively commercialized for consumption by children and families (1848, Poulain). Milk flour is created (1868, Nestlé) and Swiss milk chocolate start its history (1875, Daniel Peter), and soon the first chocolate that melts on the tongue is produced (1879 Lindt). Between 1870 to 1879 global consumption of Cocoa had grown by 800%. In 1879 Cacao was introduced on the British Gold Coast, nowadays Ghana, and rapidly twisted from a product of elites to a product of mass consumption in Europe. Although the international community had banned slavery in the 1870s, it continues during the Scramble for Africatimes when the French colonies join the mass production of Cacao—and through the 20th century to the present day. During the civil war in USA, and between the two world wars, the price of Cacao was at its lowest, as well as in this 21st century.

By 1920s candy companies in eastern USA start selling small chocolate discs wrapped in golden paper for the Jewish tradition of giving coins to children during the festival of Lights. Chocolate coins were also used in Belgium and Netherlands for a similar tradition but related to St Nicholas, and so, chocolate coins became a symbol of both Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations, where both can discuss the uncertain origin of the chocolate coin, currently on sale throughout the whole year in diverse designs. Just so you know, one cacao seed is enough for making a chocolate coin of 3 grams and 28 mm diameter. During WWII, Nestlé subsidiary Maggi, employed thousands of war prisoners and Jewish slaves in Germany near the Swiss border, and as if that was not enough, German saboteurs designed a chocolate covered, sleek, steel bomb intended to explode seven seconds after breaking a piece of it. In the mid 20th century plant breeding is recognized for the improvement of the production of Cacao. Also from that time until present day, Cacao price trend is falling, stock and consumption is growing and global warming is unprecedented, due to anthropogenic forcing and not to natural causes. Thus, pro-genetic intervention media articles as “chocolate is on the road to extinction in 40 years” are appearing periodically. Although it seems that the small farmers of Cacao are the ones on the way to extinction. By 2022, a farmer in Ghana expressed that his farm can produce 30 bags a year for a total payment of around 2800 € –including premium fees added by big chocolate firms (ca. 1€ per bag). A third of that payment goes to his workers. Another claimed his farm produces just 6 to 8 bags a season [ca 400 €/year] so “he has to use his children to help with the harvest”. Easy to see how lower the bar is from the poverty line defined by the World Bank on September 2022 (2,15 $/€ ). In a general calculation with prices of 2017, on a 100 grams bar of milk chocolate with a value of 1 €, just 0.04 € goes to a cacao producer of the Ivory Coast and 0.066 € is the cost of cacao. Today more than 90% of world cacao production is harvested on small farms, and the 65% of the world’s grinding capacity is in the hands of only three companies25 with sources still not fully certified. Same for the biggest producers of chocolate.

In 2001, the director of the Save the children Found in Mali told the BBC that slave children, marketed at 30 US dollars according to the article, carry bags of cacao of precisely 6kg. of weight.
In the same year the association of chocolate manufacturers including the biggest ones, signed a protocol stating that child labor, and trafficking of children are prohibited in the cacao industry after 2008. But two years after, a child from Burkina Faso placed in a farm of Côte d’Ivoire for indefinite use, cost 230 € including transportation. Although the efforts of various individuals and organizations advance (as well as promises from big companies promoted by the mass media industry, assistance programs from charitable foundations and the “green” marketing) slave trafficking, forced and child labor, as well as extreme poverty, illiteracy of producers, violence and gender inequality continue taking part of the bitter history of Cacao.

antipodes café


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World Bank


What is the $2.15 poverty line, and based on this new measure, how many people are living in extreme poverty in the world?

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(Last update: 2022.06.22)