Cacao in Olmec Society

We continue our series of posts from the Anthropology of Food class (ML 641) in which students reflect on current issues, discuss assignments they have worked on, or address topics of particular interest to them. Today’s post is from Gastronomy student Morrisa Engles.


Mayan dish showing a metate to grind cocoa. Choco-Story museum Brugge (Belgium) Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.


Cacao has carried deep cultural meaning since it was first domesticated. For the Olmec, an early Mexican Gulf Coast culture (1500 to 400 BC), this plant had geological, nutritional, spiritual, and economic significance. As the first society known to have domesticated the cacao tree, the Olmec found the crop to be spiritually and culturally significant in addition to being a healthful and delicious foodstuff. Theobromine (a chemical compound present in cacao) found in excavated Olmec pottery and at ancient burial sites revealed that cacao beverages were a staple in a variety of spiritual ceremonies (Powis 2011).

The question becomes, why cacao? According to the Popol Vuh, the Mayan creation text, the gods created humans from a combination of sweet things, maize, and cacao (Driess and Greenhill 2008, 18-22). In addition, many ancient artifacts depicted cacao offerings between gods such as the Mayan moon goddess IxChel and the rain god Chac who are seen trading cacao in an ancient Mayan depiction. This iconography rooted the tree’s capacity as a conduit of communication with the gods. Known as the “World Tree” or the “First Tree,” this crop became the tree of life and a cosmic metaphor linking the natural world to the spirit world. Thus, the offering of cacao functioned to symbolically connect diviners with the gods through ritual. The bounty of the cacao tree in Mesoamerica also created a metaphorical link to abundance, which was a request to the gods in agrarian and funerary rites. As Driess and Greenhill state, “Obsession with time and calendrical events fueled rituals during which cacao offerings helped to ensure the continuation of cosmic and agricultural cycles” (2008, 52). Cacao drinks were left in tombs and beans were used to adorn the bodies of the dead as it was believed that cacao had the power to energize the soul and aid in the transition to the supernatural world. The deep spiritual meaning of cacao catalyzed its importance in Olmec society.

Generally sought out for religious purposes by the Olmec, cacao didn’t become a food of conspicuous consumption until the Aztec and Mayan eras when cacao was served at feasts, weddings, birth ceremonies and other social occasions (Henderson 2015, 84).  As the crop gained exposure, demand was created and soon cacao was present at nearly every commensal dining event, becoming a staple in the Mesoamerican diet.  Popularly consumed as a beverage, the Olmec fermented the cacao with pulp intact.  In the early days, cacao beverages were produced solely from the pulp of the fruit.  The discovery of the more familiar chocolate drink might have been a happy accident as a by-product of the pulp brewing process (Edgar 2010).

An Aztec woman generates foam by pouring chocolate from one vessel to another. From the Codex Tudela, photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

After fermentation, cacao beans were mixed with water, vanilla, cinnamon, and sometimes a red chili.  The beverage is generally made by women who dutifully raised the foam on the drink before consumption.  The foam was thought to contain the essence of the wind god P’ee and still today, the amount of foam raised is a measure of a woman’s worth.  After the drink was prepared and the foam was raised, the cacao beverage was ready for use in ceremony or prescribed as a remedy for ailments.  Cacao was used to cure skin conditions, fever, seizures and in the most severe matters used to coax illness out of the body by appealing to the spirits with an offering of beans or a blended concoction containing the fruit (Dreiss and Greenhill 2008, 136).

Over time, chocolate has become a beverage enjoyed by cultures all over the world, but cacao was an incredibly significant crop to the Olmec during the Formative Period in Mesoamerica. The abundance, healing, and nutritional properties of the crop made it seem a true gift from the Gods, and created a foundation for its integration into the cultural identity and landscape of Mesoamerica.

Works Cited

Dreiss, Meredith L., and Sharon Greenhill. 2008.  Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Edgar, Blake. 2010. “The Power of Chocolate.” Archaeology 63(6): 20-25. Date of access, June 20, 2017.

Henderson, John S. 2015. “Cacao/Chocolate.” In Archaeology of Food: An Encyclopedia, Karen Bescherer Metheny and Mary C. Beaudry, eds., 84-87Blue Ridge Summit: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Accessed June 20, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Pool, Christopher A. 2007. Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica. Cambridge World Archaeology. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Powis, Terry G., et al. 2011. “Cacao Use and the San Lorenzo Olmec.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 108(21): 8595-600. Date of access, June 20, 2017.


Poison and Food Taboos

Our summer series, Perspectives from Anthropology of Food, continues with this post from Gastronomy student Madoka Sasa.

Blowfish-pot as part of a family new year dinner.
The center of the dish is skin of blowfish. (photo credit: Madoka Sasa)

In the article “Anthropology of Food,” R. Kenji Tierney and Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney (2012, 118) describe blowfish consumption in Japan:

Not all objectively “edible” items are regarded as food for a people, even in times of severe food shortages. For example, frogs are abhorred by the Ainu, while the French consider them a great delicacy. Some Japanese men relish blowfish, whose poison can kill instantly, not necessarily for its taste but in order to demonstrate masculinity.

I was impressed. This is the first time I had read that Japanese men eat blowfish to show their masculinity.

According to a brochure issued by the Japan Fisheries Resources Conservation Association (2002), Japanese people have been eating blowfish since the Jomon period (14000 B.C. – 4 B.C.). Nowadays, due to advances in processing technology, if you eat blowfish that is properly prepared, you will rarely get poisoned. However, blowfish poisoning has caused a lot of deaths throughout history, because there are different poisonous parts depending on types, and there are some types of blowfish that are difficult to distinguish from each other.

In researching food rules, preferences, taboos, and avoidance, many scholars have pointed out that accepting an invitation to a feast may not only be an act of solidarity but the invitation itself may also be a test of loyalty for the community (Bloch 1999; Carlson 1990; Nell 2015). Considering the question of why Japanese people continue to eat such dangerous fish, it seems reasonable to suggest that it is a show of masculinity rather than consumption for taste. As we know that there is a possibility of poisoning, this is a pretty serious test showing masculinity and loyalty. But this story leads me to ask another question. For whom did they eat blowfish? In other words, for whom did they take such a risk?

Indeed, it seems that the blowfish eating habit in Japan has sparked many such discussions over its long history. For example, in the brochure of the Japan Fisheries Resources Conservation Association (2002), it is said that Toyotomi Hideyoshi issued a ban on eating blowfish, as many samurai who gathered in Shimonoseki (a famous city for blowfish) were poisoned. In the Edo period (1573–1603), many feudal domains decided to ban eating blowfish. According to the Association for Japanese History and Travel (2014), it is said that when the head of a family died of blowfish poisoning, the family had its lineage abolished by the daimyō feudal lord, because “the head had lost his life due to his gluttonousness, though he was supposed to serve the daimyō at the risk of his life.”

On the other hand, Matsuo Bashō, a famous haiku poet in the Edo era, wrote a poem about blowfish (Japan Fisheries Resources Conservation Association 2002, 15):

Awanu koi Omoi kiru yoru  Fukuto-jiru.  (逢わぬ恋 思い切る夜 ふくと汁)

This is a poem about a broken heart. The speaker says, “I decided to give up because I cannot meet you. As I am so desperate, I will eat blowfish soup tonight.” It can be said that it is a poem that expresses a very disappointed feeling. But at the same time, it is somewhat humorous, implying that a broken heart is an excuse for eating blowfish soup, which is delicious but forbidden.

In addition to this, Bashō says, “You also have a relish of red snapper, but you go out of your way to eat blowfish. I will only just say that you are unwise” (Japan Fisheries Resources Conservation Association 2002, 15). It seems that we have no choice but to be amazed by the insatiable desire for eating blowfish among Japanese males, despite the serious danger of dying and becoming unable to fulfill our obligations.

From these descriptions, the following conclusion can be drawn. While there is a ruling class that prohibits people from eating blowfish to prevent them from dying, people in general cannot control their desire to eat. According to the Japan Fisheries Resources Conservation Association (2002), eating blowfish was pretty popular among ordinary people in the Edo era. In other word, regarding the question “for whom are they eating blowfish?” it seems that the answer is “for myself.”

To “eat to be happy” is too obvious. But I imagine that eating blowfish and showing masculinity is also a way to feel happiness, or even to pursue a better life. I can sympathize with the feeling that “I cannot resist eating my favorite food, even if it is not good for my health,” whether 400 years ago or today. In the same way, the act of showing masculinity by eating puffer fish is an act that I can understand as reasonable if I know when, who, and under what circumstances it occurred. And this resonates with one of the themes of anthropology, understanding other cultural perspectives. For example, the people of Malagasy, observed by Maurice Bloch (1999), ingest an “antidote” when they have to eat with people from different villages or distant relatives. This helps eliminate discomfort and stress caused by unintentional shortening of the distance with a person who is not close. Although their culture is quite different from mine, the situations where people feel stressed are similar. In other words, even though the act of other cultures seems to be unusual, I think the feeling underlying the act is often understandable for us: making good relationships with others, satisfying self-respect, or relieving stress. So it is very interesting for me to find the similarity of mind beyond time and culture, and to see each culture’s interpretation of the world that is used to make life more comfortable.

Madoka Sasa

It is well known that various cultures around the world have “food” that is “good to eat” which is unacceptable for people in other cultures, for example, clay, dogs, insects, dolphins and so on. However, the reason for eating them could be something which many people can feel sympathy toward. It makes me more interested in thinking about food rules, preferences, taboos, and avoidance.




Association for Japanese History and Travel. 2014. “Shimonoseki ni Fuku wo Maneita Fugu.” Accessed June 29, 2017.

Bloch, Maurice. 1999. “Commensality and Poisoning.” Social Research 66 (1):133–49.

Carlson, Robert G. 1990. “Banana Beer, Reciprocity, and Ancestor Propitiation Among the Haya of Bukoba, Tanzania.” Ethnology 29(4): 297–311.

Krögel, Alison. 2009. “Dangerous Repasts: Food and the Supernatural in the Quechua Oral Tradition.” Food and Foodways 17 (2):104–32.

Nell, Cornelia A. 2015. “Commensality and Sharing in an Andean Community in Bolivia.” In Commensality: From Everyday Food to Feast, edited by Susanne Kerner, Cynthia Chou, and Morten Warmind, 165–76. New York: Bloomsbury.

Nihon Suisan Shigen Hogo Kyokai. 2002. Waga Kuni no Suisangyo Shirizu: Fugu. Accessed June 29, 2017.

Tierney, R. Kenji, and Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney. 2012. “Anthropology of Food.” In Oxford Handbook of Food History, edited by Jeffrey M. Pilcher, 117–34. New York: Oxford University Press.

Food Mapping: Growing Community at Brookline Grown

Gastronomy student Madison Trapkin shares her food mapping work from Anthropology of Food.

In the metropolitan sprawl that is the Greater Boston area, consumers have a wide variety of grocery stores to choose from. There are major chains like Stop & Shop and Trader Joe’s, or somewhere like Whole Foods if you have a bit more disposable income. For those who live in the vicinity of the Brookline neighborhood, there is also the option of shopping at Brookline Grown, a relatively small grocery store that is bringing fresh, local foods to their clientele. Brookline Grown is one example of the purveyors of local foods and food related products that have been cropping up across the United States that encourage customers (quite literally) to bring the farm to their tables.

In this mapping exercise, I consider Brookline Grown as an example of the larger food movement towards local and sustainable agriculture. I discuss the layout of the store and focus on four specific products, as well as what each indicates about foodways, identity, relationship, and current food trends. There are certain aspects of locally sourced foods and food products that cannot be attained from processed, generic, and otherwise large-scale farmed foods. I also examine the various ways in which buying local can strengthen community bonds and encourage positive relationships with growers and producers of local foods.

trapkin food map

In order to create this  map of Brookline Grown I visited their store. They are located near Coolidge Corner on Pleasant Street. The unassuming exterior of Brookline Grown gives way to the plethora of locally sourced delicacies within its walls. The various products that fill their shelves and baskets are all sourced within a 7-mile radius, which impressed me given their proximity to the city’s elements. Rather than provide an exact to-scale representation of the shop’s interior, I decided to focus on the sourcing of four specific products. I selected items from different food groups in order to provide diverse coverage of the store’s offerings: sweet potatoes, milk, greens, and sriracha (a type of hot sauce). I chose to illustrate one wall from the store and from that honed in on the products I had chosen, including a small map of Massachusetts with every chosen item. Each map of Massachusetts includes a red dot that indicates where the selected item was grown or produced. My goal was to indicate the proximity of production to Boston. Brookline Grown is a proponent of the farm to table movement, which has secured an important spot in this nation’s food history as a direct response to the explosion of commoditized processed foods that began in the 70s. Therefore, it was important for me to emphasize the locality of each item.

The Anthropology of Food: Something Strange, Something Familial

Dr. Ellen Rovner will teach MET ML 641, The Anthropology of Food, during the fall 2017 semester and has prepared this Course Spotlight.


By Pietro Lorenzetti – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,

Anthropologists like to say that the study of anthropology makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange.   Whether the “strange” is a Japanese Sumo wrestler’s eating habits, a medieval German nun’s fasts, or the person next door’s  “exotic” cooking, anthropologists believe and practice that only through knowing the “other,” do we know ourselves.  What does this mean for those of us who will be together for The Anthropology of Food this fall semester?  First and foremost, we will be looking at the study of food cross-culturally as central to the understanding of humankind and society. The famous anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss said that food is not just good to eat; food is also good to think with.  In other words, what do people’s everyday food practices, rituals, traditions, beliefs, and preferences cross-culturally and at home say to us about whom we are and the worlds we inhabit?

Using our food-focused lens to examine critical social issues related to class, race, human migrations, globalization, ethnicity, alternative food systems, and gender, this semester students will immerse themselves in anthropology’s signature methodology, participant observation, and conduct ethnographic research. Choosing a food-related topic that personally resonates for the student, each member of the class will participate in a semester long qualitative study in the Boston area to familiarize themselves with field methods and to hone critical thinking. In past semesters, students’ projects have covered a fascinating range of topics such as how global food systems contribute to re-creating “home” for non-American residents, class meanings of “farm to table” in restaurants, and eating at the movies.

Anthropology of Food is structured as a seminar; students are encouraged to lead as well as participate in discussions. Along the way, our learning is enhanced with live on-line sessions, movies, guest speakers, field trips to local food sites related to our readings, and most importantly, with snack breaks that highlight our own food rituals, traditions, and preferences.  Familiarizing the strange and making the strange the familiar, Anthropology of Food presents food as both good to eat and good to think with!  Please join us!

MET ML 641 C1, Anthropology of Food will meet on Wednesday evenings from 6 to 8:45 PM, beginning on September 6. Registration information can be found here.


Oyster on the Rise

1551535_1467427143505109_3284607062007736119_nGastronomy student Allison Keir shares her thoughts on the “oyster revival” in the next of our summer blog series, Perspective from Anthropology of Food.

Over the last ten years, oysters have been making a come back into the mainstream food scene. Oyster bars and buck-a-shuck happy hours are popping up all around the metropolitan areas. Why, might you ask, is this re-emergence happening? About a hundred years ago there was an abundance of oyster beds along our coastlines that were slowly depleted from pollution, overfishing, and destruction. Many people don’t know that New York Harbor was once known to be the mecca for harvesting oysters until consumers started getting sick from eating the raw shellfish. Thus, oysters as a sellable food product were shut down and slowly drifted from the food scene. Author Mark Kurlansky recounts the history of oysters once dominating the food scene of New York Harbor in The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. “Before the 20th century, when people thought of New York, they thought of oysters,” Kurlansky writes (2006:95).

At the time, what policy makers and the locals didn’t understand was that it wasn’t the oysters that were bad for consumers; it was the sewage that was being dumped right into the same water from which the oysters were harvested. Later on, the Clean Water Act was created, and oysters and other shellfish were no longer permitted for harvest in water that wasn’t within “Class A” water quality. Not only did this protect our seafood, it helped to clean our waterways. Since then, oysters have been slowly making their way back into the food scene.

Oysters are in a revival and are thriving in a new socialite food scene filled with consumers who are becoming more aware of the environmental benefits of oysters. It only takes one of these bouldering bivalves to filter up to 50 gallons of water per day.  Oysters are also one of the most sustainable forms of protein out there; in comparison to beef, their digestive systems reduce and live off waste and other toxins in our waterways, turning the waste into food for themselves and cleaner water for us!  They are naturally reducing the nitrogen levels in our waterways that have been a major component in ocean acidification and the depletion of our marine life.

oysterConsidering the cost of each oyster at any given raw bar, you could favor oysters as the elite class of mollusks. The pure deliciousness of eating fresh raw oysters while sipping on some wine or micro brew beer has gotten many consumers in the mainstream food scene hooked. Ironically you don’t even need a hook to catch an oyster! Still, oysters are an acquired taste and many people see them as blubbery textured creatures with a marshy flavor, while others think of them as a delicate salty and sweet jewel of the ocean that is comparable to kissing the sea.

So what is driving the surge in popularity for this tasty bivalve? While some consumers may be aware of the ecological benefits of protecting our oyster beds, it is possible that the taste for oysters is not just an ecological, but also a social phenomenon. Oysters have emerged back into the mainstream food scene and are being wined and dined with all walks of life. You don’t have to go down to the docks to see oysters being served on the half shell. You can just go to your local watering hole down the street or make a reservation at a nearby seafood restaurant so you can sit at the raw bar and enjoy the experience of watching the oysters get shucked!