Chocolate History
15,000 Years of Chocolate

Chocolate History - 3,000 Years Ago?

Every chocolate history I've read seems to start roughly 3,000 years ago, with the first archaeological evidence of cultivation and use.   A little analytical thinking, however, will convince us the beginning must have been much earlier.

Chocolate is produced from the beans (seeds) of the Theobroma cacao tree.  The tree originated somewhere in Central America or northern South America.  Experts disagree as to exactly where.

Carl Sagan once opined that to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the Universe.

And so it is with chocolate.

So, if you like, here is a brief history of chocolate origin - how the first cacao tree was made from scratch.

No one knows when Theobroma cacao originated, although ongoing research into its genetic structure may eventually give us an answer.  Meanwhile, I speculate that the chocolate tree has been happily living in the rain forest, unappreciated by humans, for tens of thousands to perhaps a few million years.

There isn't a simple answer to the question of who discovered chocolate, who invented chocolate, or when chocolate history really began. 

Chocolate Pre-History - 15,000 Years Ago

The Discovery

A human first saw a cacao tree about 15,000 years ago.  Because before that, no humans lived in the region.  The name of this intrepid explorer and the exact date were not recorded.  Because writing had not been invented.

From that first human encounter with a cacao tree to present-day gourmet chocolate bars was a slow (initially very slow) process of experimentation, accidents, and gradual improvements.

This is partly because of the structure of cacao pods.  Theobroma cacao produces a fruit, with seeds inside it.  For a grocery-store example of this sort of thing, consider the papaya.  Or perhaps a cantaloupe melon, albeit with much larger seeds and much less fruity part.  In cacao's case, the fruit is called a pod, and the seeds are called beans

The soft pulp of the fruit is eaten by many small animals.  It's mucilaginous (that's a lot like slimy), but it's sweet and nutritious.  It's no stretch to think that the humans newly arrived in Central and South America were eating this fruit nearly 15,000 years ago.

So, one might say that chocolate was discovered in 13,000 BC.

And then . . .

Even so, it could have been a really long time until somebody got hungry enough to try eating the seeds.

And the idea probably took yet longer to catch on, because the raw, unprocessed seeds are bitter.

Still, there is archaeological evidence that cacao trees were being cultivated by the Olmecs by 1500 BC in what is now Mexico. 

At this point in chocolate history we're still a long way from the chocolate bars we know today.  The Olmecs, and later the Aztecs, used cacao beans with various other spices only to brew a beverage.  And cacao beans were so expensive that they were used as money in the Olmec/Aztec period.

A State Secret

Spanish conquistadors brought chocolate back to Spain in the 1500's.  Spain did its best to keep chocolate production methods a very profitable state secret, and largely succeeded for a hundred years or so. 

Eventually, though, chocolate spread and gained popularity throughout Europe.  It remained so expensive only the elite could afford it, but gained a reputation as possessing many medical and healing properties.  As well as being an aphrodisiac.  Wait - it still has that reputation, doesn't it?  Hmmm.

Still exclusively made in liquid form, though.

Eventually, chocolate history began to make more rapid progress toward the yummy chocolate bars we are familiar with.

The Kids in Bristol - 1847

In 1847, J.S. Fry & Sons produced the first commercial chocolate bar, in Bristol, England.  I presume it was dark chocolate, because:

Milk chocolate was not invented until 1875, in a collaboration between Daniel Peter and Henri Nestl√©. 

At this point, we have solid chocolate bars, both dark and milk.  They're still not great though, because they're, well - gritty.

Seashells and Smoother Chocolate

In 1879 a Swiss, Rodolphe Lindt, invents a machine for milling chocolate to reduce the particle size and thereby produce a much smoother final product.  One of the parts of his machine looks like a conch seashell, and so the machine becomes known as a conching machine.

Finally - The Nickel Chocolate Bar

Prices of cocoa and sugar had been gradually falling.  This process accelerated around 1900.  By 1910 a Canadian, Arthur Ganong, was able to introduce the world's first nickel ($0.05) chocolate bar.  And by World War II chocolate was a standard part of U.S. Army rations, as an energy and morale booster. 

Wondering why you can no longer buy that chocolate bar for a nickel? The real price of the candy has not changed much. But the dollar has lost about 96% of its value since 1910. So it takes about 1.25 2015-dollars to buy what cost .05 1910-dollars.

Now you know the history of chocolate.  Any questions?  You know where my Contact Page is!

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