This text is somewhat related to one of my older essays, about the history of cacao and chocolate. When I was younger, I was once told that regularly practiced cannibalism didn't exist in any society in modern times. This was a racist, colonialist lie invented by prejudiced Europeans. One example would be the former cannibal dubbed "Friday" and converted to Christianity in Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe. As I grow older and wiser and investigate things for myself, I see how wrong this claim was.
Recently in New Zealand, Paul Moon in his book This Horrid Practice looked at the Maori tradition of eating each other in what was generally an extremely violent society. The title appears to be inspired by a quote by Captain James Cook: "Though stronger evidence of this horrid practice prevailing among the inhabitants of this coast will scarcely be required, we have still stronger to give." Cannibalism lasted for hundreds of years until the mid-nineteenth century, said Moon, a history professor at the Maori Development Unit at the Auckland University of Technology. It didn't disappear until the arrival of Europeans and Christian missionaries.
Infanticide was also widely practised because tribes wanted men to be warriors, and mothers often killed their daughters by smothering them or pushing a finger through the soft tissue of the skull. The widespread practice of cannibalism was part of a post-battle rage. "One of the arguments is really if you want to punish your enemy killing them is not enough. If you can chop them up and eat them and turn them into excrement that is the greatest humiliation you can impose on them," says Moon. "The amount of evidence is so overwhelming it would be unfair to pretend it didn't happen. It is too important to ignore."
The head of the Maori Studies Department at Auckland University, Professor Margaret Mutu, said cannibalism was widespread throughout New Zealand. "It was definitely there. It's recorded in all sorts of ways in our histories and traditions, a lot of place names refer to it." She said Maori cannibalism was not referred to by many historians because it was counter to English culture.
We are often told that people of European origins invent negative stereotypes about other peoples. Notice how in this case – and it is far from the only such example – Europeans actually downplayed very real and serious flaws in other cultures. And this was long before Political Correctness as we know it today was invented.
We know that cannibalism was practiced among a number of peoples in the Americas as well, most likely including the prehistoric Anasazi in what is today the southwestern United States. Here is what Jared Diamond says in his book Collapse:
"The signs of warfare-related cannibalism among the Anasazi are an interesting story in themselves. While everyone acknowledges that cannibalism may be practiced in emergencies by desperate people, such as the Donner Party trapped by snow at Donner Pass en route to California in the winter of 1846-47, or by starving Russians during the siege of Leningrad during World War II, the existence of non-emergency cannibalism is controversial. In fact, it was reported in hundreds of non-European societies at the times when they were first contacted by Europeans within recent centuries. The practice took two forms: eating either the bodies of enemies killed in war, or else eating one's own relatives who had died of natural causes. New Guineans with whom I have worked over the past 40 years have matter-of-factly described their cannibalistic practices, have expressed disgust at our own Western burial customs of burying relatives without doing them the honor of eating them, and one of my best New Guinean workers quit his job with me in 1965 in order to partake in the consumption of his recently deceased prospective son-in-law. There have also been many archaeological finds of ancient human bones in contexts suggestive of cannibalism."
I am sometimes critical of Mr. Diamond's writings, especially his overall conclusions, but that doesn't mean that I believe everything he states is wrong. He does correctly point out that violence and environmental destruction is far from limited to Western cultures, which is good. And he doesn't hesitate in pointing out that practices such as cannibalism were indeed carried out in many cultures. Here he is in his international bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel:
"…the virus causing laughing sickness (kuru) in the New Guinea highlands used to pass to a person from another person who was eaten. It was transmitted by cannibalism, when highland babies made the fatal mistake of licking their fingers after playing with raw brains that their mothers had just cut out of dead kuru victims awaiting cooking."
Jared Diamond writes explicitly in order to dispel "Eurocentrism":
"Far from glorifying peoples of western European origin, we shall see that the most basic elements of their civilization were developed by other peoples living elsewhere and were then imported to western Europe. Third, don't words such as 'civilization,' and phrases such as 'rise of civilization,' convey the false impression that civilization is good, tribal hunter-gatherers are miserable, and history for the past 13,000 years has involved progress toward greater human happiness? In fact, I do not assume that industrialized states are 'better' than hunter-gatherer tribes, or that the abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for iron-based statehood represents 'progress,' or that it has lead to an increase in human happiness. My own impression, from having divided my life between United States cities and New Guinea villages, is that the so-called blessings of civilization are mixed. For example, compared with hunter-gatherers, citizens of modern industrialized states enjoy better medical care, lower risk of death by homicide, and a longer life span, but receive much less social support from friendships and extended families."
Diamond claims that "modern 'Stone Age' peoples are on the average probably more intelligent, not less intelligent, than industrialized peoples." He suggests that New Guineans are more intelligent than the average European or American. He rejects the use of IQ tests because these supposedly measure cultural learning only. With all due respect to Mr. Diamond, I disagree. It is true that human intelligence is a complex thing consisting of several types of intelligence, not all of which are measured by IQ, but we do have indications that at least some important aspects of intelligence can indeed be indicated by IQ tests.
The one ethnic group in the world with the highest average IQ are Ashkenazi Jews, who have produced by far the highest number of Nobel Prize winners per capita of any ethnic group on earth. The one country with the highest average IQ is Japan, a fact which corresponds well with Japan's very high technological and economic level. Northeast Asians, Koreans, Japanese and Chinese people, all have high IQs. It is interesting to notice that the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions took place among the Europeans, not among the East Asians, despite the fact that the latter have at least as high IQs. This could indicate that IQ does not measure everything, but that it does measure something. In the Western university system, where people from all over the world compete, it is generally the Jews, the East Asians and the Europeans who perform the best, and they are all high-IQ groups.
Of all the arguments I have encountered against the use of IQ tests, the claim that it is "Eurocentric" is the least relevant. IQ tests were invented by Europeans, yes, but notice that supporters of IQ tests, also those of European origins, still use IQ tests even after it became apparent that East Asians have slightly higher average IQs than most Europeans, which proves that this is not about "white supremacism." Moreover, the fact that Europeans came up with the first method for measuring human intelligence should not surprise us since Europeans generally came up with the first methods for measuring most things, from electric charge to temperature.
I am not aware of any other culture on earth that has independently developed and widely adopted the use of thermometers or barometers. I am also not aware of any non-European culture that has developed a scientific-mathematical way of denoting different temperature levels. The temperature scales we use today, whether Celsius, Fahrenheit or Kelvin, were all developed by Europeans. If Mr. Diamond wants to be consistent, he should reject the use of them as well since they represent a "Eurocentric bias." I wish him good luck in creating a non-Eurocentric weather forecast without using European temperature scales. He cannot use terms such as "low pressure area" or "high pressure area," either, since the very concept of atmospheric pressure as well as ways to measure it was only developed by Europeans.
Jared Diamond, being an evolutionary biologist and a believer that the process of evolution extends to human beings as well as to other creatures, does not reject the possibility that there could be unequal levels of intelligence among various ethnic groups developed over thousands of years, but insists that if there are, then surely Europeans have to be more stupid than others:
"[N]atural selection promoting genes for intelligence has probably been far more ruthless in New Guinea than in more densely populated, politically complex societies, where natural selection for body chemistry was instead more potent….there is also a second reason why New Guineans may have come to be smarter than Westerners. Modern European and American children spend much of their time being passively entertained by television, radio, and movies. In the average American household, the TV set is on for seven hours per day. In contrast, traditional New Guinea children have virtually no such opportunities for passive entertainment and instead spend almost all of their waking hours actively doing something, such as talking or playing with other children or adults. Almost all studies of child development emphasize the role of childhood stimulation and activity in promoting mental development, and stress the irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimulation. This effect surely contributes a non-genetic component to the superior average mental function displayed by New Guineans. That is, in mental ability New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners, and they surely are superior in escaping the devastating developmental disadvantages under which most children in industrialized societies now grow up."
The interesting thing about this quote is that Mr. Diamond has just stated that many New Guineans have widely practised cannibalism. He says this matter-of-factly, but does not clearly indicate that he disapproves of this. In fact, from his writings, he appears to be more critical of television than he is of cannibalism. He is not alone in entertaining such apologist views.
In the bestseller 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, author Charles C. Mann repeatedly compares Aztec philosophical sophistication to that of ancient Greece, of Socrates and Aristotle. He does admit that the human sacrifice by the Aztecs/Mexica, or the Triple Alliance as the Aztec Empire was known, is a "charged subject," but claims it was not fundamentally different from public executions of criminals in Europe:
"Arithmetic suggests that if England had been the size of the Triple Alliance, it would have executed, on average, about 7,500 people per year, roughly twice the number Cortés estimated for the empire. France and Spain were still more bloodthirsty than England, according to Braudel. In their penchant for ceremonial public slaughter, the Alliance and Europe were more alike than either side grasped. In both places the public death was accompanied by the reading of ritual scripts. And in both the goal was to create a cathartic paroxysm of loyally to the government – in the Mexica case, by recalling the spiritual justification for the empire; in the European case, to reassert the sovereign's divine power after it had been injured by a criminal act. Most important, neither society should be judged – or in the event judged each other – entirely by its brutality. Who today would want to live in the Greece of Plato and Socrates, with its slavery, constant warfare, institutionalized pederasty, and relentless culling of surplus population? Yet Athens had a coruscating tradition of rhetoric, lyric drama, and philosophy. So did Tenochtitlan and the other cities in the Triple Alliance."
He concludes that: "Cut short by Cortés, Mexica philosophy did not have the chance to reach as far as Greek or Chinese philosophy. But surviving testimony intimates that it was well on its way."
So, the Aztecs were a sophisticated bunch of natural philosophers who were great lovers of food and had good health care. They were presumably at the brink of developing microwave popcorn, interplanetary travel and laser eye surgery when the Europeans showed up and invented racism and global warming.
It is undoubtedly true that there were brutal aspects of early modern European culture. It was a brutal age. However, whatever Europeans did at this time, they didn't eat other people's internal organs on a regular basis. I know of indications that human sacrifice was once practiced in Europe, China, Egypt and elsewhere, but that was in very ancient times. By the sixteenth century AD, human sacrifice was not an established feature among any of the major Old World civilizations, but it was quite common among New World peoples.
You can find traces of the concept of cannibalism in European culture, for instance in the story about Hansel and Gretel, one of the many traditional fairy tales such as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella that were collected and popularized by the Germans Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early nineteenth century. However, in this fairy tale adapted by the Brothers Grimm, the idea of eating people was attributed to the villain of the story, the evil witch, and the practice was seen as self-evidently immoral and unacceptable.
Making apologies for undeniably barbarian aspects of non-European cultures while denigrating European culture has become quite widespread, even among people who are themselves of European origins. When I was reading about the history of chocolate, I found that the author of one of the most commonly cited books, Michael D. Coe, thought that the Aztecs were in some ways better than the Europeans. Yes, those Aztecs, who ripped out people's hearts, ate their organs with tomatoes and drank their blood mixed with chocolate. They had better health care, while European medicine was "pathetic."
American archaeologist Michael D. Coe (b. 1929), professor emeritus of Anthropology at Yale University, is recognized as one of the world's leading experts on Mesoamerican cultures. In his book Breaking the Maya Code, Coe describes how the quest for understanding the Mayan writing system finally succeeded in the second half of the twentieth century. The story begins with a researcher in St. Petersburg (or Leningrad, as it was called in Communist times) in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Dr. Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov (1922—1999), a Russian linguist and ethnographer at Leningrad's Institute of Ethnology, in 1952 published his first paper on the subject of Mayan glyphs. His line of reasoning proved fruitful and gradually gained a number of supporters among Western academics, one of whom was Michael D. Coe. Progress in deciphering Mayan glyphs was rapid from the 1970s and 1980s onwards, and what is often considered the only complete writing system among all pre-Columbian cultures is now more or less understood.
Michael D. Coe has written a number of other books, among them several editions of Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. He credits the Mexican and Mesoamerican cultures with having achieved a great level of complexity, given the fact that they lived in relative isolation from other centers of civilization and couldn't "borrow" technology from others, as the Eurasian civilizations often did. This isolation makes Mexico's achievements all the more impressive, Dr. Coe asserts.
The book The True History of Chocolate, was written by Michael D. Coe together with his wife Sophie D. Coe. The book does mention human sacrifice in Mesoamerica. The Aztec religion was complex, involving dozens of gods and goddesses, but one of the most important deities was Huitzilopochtli:
"Finally, we should mention the state cult of Huitzilopochtli, the ancient tribal deity of the Aztecs; he had taken on the attributes of the Sun God worshipped by the earlier inhabitants of the Valley. As the supreme war god, and as the sun itself, his worship demanded the daily sacrifice of brave captives taken in war, so that the solar orb could blaze forth at dawn each day. If this failed to happen, the Fifth Sun would end in universal disaster. This was the raison d'être of the Aztec human sacrifice – not blood lust, nor a predilection for cruelty, nor an obsession with death, but a fear lest the world and the life on it should perish."
Here is how Coe and Coe describe the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan:
"The Great Temple at the center of the capital was actually divided into two halves: at the summit of one half was the temple of Tlaloc, god of rain and agriculture, while the other half was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, patron of warfare and of the sun, its steps splattered with the blood of sacrificial victims. The Aztecs were fond of contrasts of this sort. The warriors were the backbone of the Aztec state, and were graduates of the telpochcalli, the military academy. Armed with shield, darts to be hurled from spearthrowers, lance, and the macuauhuitl (the terrible, flat wooden war club set along the sides with razor-sharp obsidian blades), they were well-nigh invincible against their Mesoamerican enemies. When it was bent on conquest, which was the case through much of Aztec history, the state could field very large armies and keep them supplied for long periods of time. Armies travel on their stomachs, and the Aztec army was no exception; the staple ration on campaigns was toasted tortillas, produced in great quantities by their women at home. Prowess and valor on the field of battle, demonstrated by the taking of captives for sacrifice in the capital, was rewarded with both social and economic advancement."
Coe and Coe admit that chocolate (which was virtually always taken in liquid form among American peoples; the chocolate bar is a modern European invention) was intimately linked to this culture of human sacrifice. Cacao was expensive as it was quite literally used as money. There are some indications that it was consumed by Maya commoners on very special occasions and in important rituals such as marriage ceremonies, but in general, the consumption of cacao was clearly reserved for the political, economic and military elites:
"In our more-or-less democratic society, chocolate is something that is taken in liquid or solid form by members of every social level (although the most expensive, finest-quality chocolates are necessarily consumed only by those with well-lined pockets). Not so among the Aztecs and other Mesoamericans: our sources unanimously declare that the drinking of chocolate was confined to the Aztec elite – to the royal house, to the lords and nobility, to the long-distance merchants, and to the warriors. The only commoners who had a chance to try this luxury seem to have been soldiers on the march."
Coe and Coe include some negative remarks about the level of European knowledge and medical science:
"…the medical knowledge brought by the Spaniards to the New World was largely ineffectual. In contrast, while the Aztec ticitl or doctor used a good deal of magic in his or her cures, and while Aztec disease etiology also had an overall theoretical scheme made up of contrary principles (such as 'hot' vs. 'cold'), native medical practices were light years ahead of the Spaniards'. This was due in large part to their incredible knowledge of the plant world included within the empire's frontiers."
In contrast, "Aztec disease etiology bore little resemblance to the Galenic nonsense of the Europeans: for instance, fevers were not necessarily 'hot,' and were often cured not by administering 'cold' medicines but by giving the patient 'hot' medicines to induce sweating – excellent medical practice, as we now know."
As Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe put it:
"We can afford (at times) to chuckle over the naiveté of this theory and practice, but consider the medical horrors that were faced by our Baroque Age Europeans. No one had any real idea of disease etiology – what caused infections, epidemics, and plagues, why women often died of childbed fever, and so forth. Knowledge of anatomy and physiology was just beginning, but had little effect so far on medical practice. Surgery was carried out without anesthesia or antiseptics, necessarily at great speed, and if patients failed to succumb to loss of blood or from shock, at least half of them later fell victim to septecemia and gangrene. As we have said, European knowledge of plants which might have been efficacious in some diseases was pathetic compared to that of the New World natives whom they had fairly well destroyed by this time. In these circumstances, it was only natural that sick persons and those treating them would grasp at straws, in this case the much-flawed system of Hippocrates and Galen – and pray to the saints. The introduction and spread of chocolate in Europe can only be understood in this context."
The True History of Chocolate thus laments the fact the Europeans used chocolate differently from how it was originally used in the Americas. Ironically, at the same time, another American scholar, Marcy Norton, claims that Europeans largely continued using chocolate and other substances in ways similar to how the pre-Columbian cultures did, and that European inventiveness is overrated. I haven't read Norton's book Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures, which was not yet published at the time of writing, but I have read her essay Tasting Empire.
Norton claims that chocolate as a hot non-alcoholic drink was introduced to Europe slightly before coffee and tea in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and that "chocolate helped pave the way for coffee by creating a craving among consumers for dark, bitter, sweetened, hot stimulant drinks. Chocolate, like the caffeinated drinks that followed it, may have also increased demand for sugar, since it was an important vessel for sugar."
She notes that the first Europeans who tasted the drink didn't like it, and that "chocolate was not a regular trade item until the 1590s. The first work about chocolate to be published with a Spanish readership in mind was printed in 1624. By the 1620s, thousands of pounds of cacao and chocolate were imported into Spain annually. Venezuela exported more than 31,000 pounds between 1620 and 1650, and more than 7 million pounds between 1650 and 1700."
Norton makes some more controversial claims:
"The work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is both illustrative and influential. In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, Bourdieu actively disputed Platonic and Kantian traditions (whose heirs are biological determinists) that accept a natural and universal capacity to discern the inherently beautiful or excellent. Instead, he sought to show the contingent and contextual basis of aesthetic determinations. His thesis is that 'taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed.' Bourdieu argued that seemingly subjective pleasures accord with social hierarchies. The particular form that the human capacity to discriminate between sights, sounds, touch, and flavor (alias taste) takes at a given historical moment, he affirmed, serves the interests of those in power. Echoing the findings of sociologists from Thorstein Veblen to Bourdieu, cultural historians, by and large, have eschewed biological or economic determinism and instead theorize taste as socially constructed."
So, taste is "socially constructed," just as virtually everything is supposed to be "socially constructed" these days. The problem with this view is that Europeans spread many American plants to Europe, Asia, Africa and eventually to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific region, but not all of them were equally successful or adopted everywhere.
For instance, chocolate never became widespread in the Middle East (just as Middle Easterners had not widely adopted tea from China, whereas the Europeans quickly did), but smoking tobacco was embraced with the same popular enthusiasm with which coffee had been adopted during the preceding two or three centuries. It took hold in the Ottoman Empire in the early seventeenth century. In 1633 the Sultan Murad IV ordered tobacco users (as well as those drinking alcoholic beverages and even coffee) executed as infidels. He kept his word and randomly executed a large number of people until his death in 1640, caused by his own addiction to alcohol. The tobacco ban was lifted in 1647, and tobacco, smoked in water pipes or in other ways, became a permanent feature of Ottoman life, alongside coffee and opium.
Marcy Norton claims that there was no conscious effort by Europeans to radically reinvent chocolate:
"The most famous modification was the addition of sugar. Contrary to the popular view that the Spanish invented the idea of sweetening cacao, native Mexicans and Mayans already sweetened many of their cacao beverages with honey. Since the Spanish recognized both sugar and honey as sweeteners, switching one for the other represented a slight modification but not a major divergence from the concoction as they had first tasted it."
According to her, "Spaniards experimented with substitutes for Old World spices. But when they did so, their aim was to approximate original flavors, not to introduce new palate sensations. The view that Spanish 'improved' on the chocolate of pre-Hispanic America is found in self-justifying Spanish texts by the eighteenth century. That chocolate had conformed to European taste was a myth that supported the Spanish ideology of conquest: it presupposed that the colonists brought their civilization to barbarians rather than the opposite. In fact, Europeans inadvertently internalized Mesoamerican aesthetics and did not modify chocolate to meet their existing tastes. Rather, they acquired new ones, a reality at odds with colonial ideology."
I could point out that although Europeans did not initially change the drink radically they did so later, in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries during the Industrial Revolution, when chocolate in solid form as we now know it was first created. This chocolate was available to the general masses for enjoyment outside of a ritual context, which is indeed radically different from how the Mesoamericans used it.
Along with other Mesoamerican societies, the Maya lacked metal tools. The dark volcanic glass known as obsidian was the preferred raw material for making into stone tools and was traded over vast areas, as obsidian once had been thousands of years earlier in the ancient Middle East, before the Old World civilizations developed practical metal tools. The Maya also lacked boats with sails, wheels, and domestic animals large enough to carry loads or pull a plow, but they did have very high population densities before the so-called Classic Maya collapse. Here is what Jared Diamond has to say about them:
"All preserved ancient Maya writing, constituting a total of about 15,000 inscriptions, is on stone and pottery and deals only with kings, nobles, and their conquests. There is not a single mention of commoners. When Spaniards arrived, the Maya were still using bark paper coated with plaster to write books, of which the sole four that escaped Bishop Landa's fires turned out to be treatises on astronomy and the calendar. The ancient Maya also had had such bark-paper books, often depicted on their pottery, but only decayed remains of them have survived in tombs."
Because of the breakthroughs in our understanding of Mayan glyphs in the late twentieth century, our understanding of Mayan culture is much greater in the early twenty-first century than it was a generation or two ago. Diamond again:
"Archaeologists for a long time believed the ancient Maya to be gentle and peaceful people. We now know that Maya warfare was intense, chronic, and unresolvable, because limitations of food supply and transportation made it impossible for any Maya principality to unite the whole region in an empire, in the way the Aztecs and Incas united Central Mexico and the Andes, respectively….Captives were tortured in unpleasant ways depicted clearly on the monuments and murals (such as yanking fingers out of sockets, pulling out teeth, cutting off the lower jaw, trimming off the lips and fingertips, pulling out the fingernails, and driving a pin through the lips), culminating (sometimes several years later) in the sacrifice of the captive in other equally unpleasant ways (such as tying the captive up into a ball by binding the arms and legs together, then rolling the balled-up captive down the steep stone staircase of a temple)."
It is interesting to notice that, once again, Western observers actually show non-Western cultures too much good faith, rather than being "Eurocentric."
The book Chocolate in Mesoamerica, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, incorporates some of the latest findings about Mesoamerican history. As scholar Dorie Reents-Budet says:
"The ancient Maya developed a complex society renowned for its monumental architecture, colossal sculptures, and portable carvings that adorned their towns and the bodies of the elite; for scientific and intellectual achievements in mathematics, astronomy, philosophy; and for the only true writing system (that is, the graphic representation of spoken language) in the ancient Americas. During the Classical period apogee (A.D. 250-900) of the Maya culture, artisans created copious objects in a variety of media that were essential components of the sociopolitical and economic systems of the ruling elite (M. D. Coe and J. Kerr 1998). Among these artefacts were decorated pottery vessels for serving food, especially vessels for kakaw (chocolate) beverages (Reents-Budet 1994a). Unlike their ceramic predecessors of earlier centuries (1200 B.C.-A.D. 150), which were characterized by elegantly simple forms and monochrome or occasionally bichrome slip-painted surfaces, Classical period elite service wares were elaborately embellished with painted, incised, or modeled imagery or various combinations of these. Skilled painters adorned the service wares with renderings of elite life and portraits of powerful rulers. They also portrayed the supernatural beings and religious myths that explained the universe and the place of the Mayas therein."
Cacao beans long played a central part of life in Mesoamerica. Reents-Budet again:
"During Late Postclassical times and continuing into the Colonial period, kakaw beans functioned as an abstract representation of value; that is, as money. For example, in the markets of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire, the beans could be exchanged for any number of commodities. They also served as payment for work service and to buy one's way out of forced labor (slavery) (S. D. Coe and M. D. Coe 1996: 98-99). Kakaw beans were the preferred payment for tax or service obligations because they were a readily convertible capital medium in most of the prevailing economic systems of the myriad cultures of Mesoamerica and also of those to the south in Central America."
According to David Stuart, "The importance of cacao in Classic Maya society was not widely appreciated until the decipherment of glyphic texts on ceramics in the 1980s, when it became clear that seemingly countless ceramic vessels were inscribed with a dedicatory formula identifying them as drinking vessels for chocolate (D. Stuart 1986, 1988, 1989). Now scholars readily see chocolate as a key element of courtly life, having a profound role in political economics and display, feasting events, and ritual. Chocolate even permeates many examples of Maya religious iconography."
The practice of human sacrifice was common not just in Mesoamerica but in South America and elsewhere. The motivation was to repay the debt to the gods. Among the Aztecs, after it had been cut out by an obsidian blade, the still beating heart would be held out in front of the victim and towards the sky. Eating pieces of the victim's body afterwards was not uncommon.
In addition to human sacrifice, there was also the practice of autosacrifice, or drawing blood from oneself, especially among the elites. According to Cameron L. McNeil, "Cacao was also associated with blood and sacrifice in the pre-Columbian period. For Mesoamerican peoples, blood was an important offering to the gods. Not only were animals sacrificed, but people – particularly elites and rulers – offered their own blood and that of human captives."
Cacao and maize constituted an important ritual pair in Mesoamerican cosmology. Both were combined in ritual beverages with sacred water to feed the gods and ancestors so that they would work to provide agricultural fertility. Cacao may have been associated with darkness, death and the underworld because is grows in shaded areas. Cacao beverages were sometimes colored red with achiote (also called annatto), and several European colonial chroniclers noted the similarity between red-dyed cacao drink and blood. This was not always coincidental. As Cameron L. McNeil says:
"The people of Cholula, Mexico, made a cacao beverage from water in which knives used in human sacrifice had been washed (Acosta 2002 :325). In the Florentine Codex, Sahagún (1950-82, Book 6, 1969:256) records that 'heart' and 'blood' were metaphors for 'cacao…because it was precious.' J. Eric S. Thompson (1956:100) proposed that hearts and cacao pods share associations, because both are 'the repositories of precious liquids – blood and cacao.' Rosemary Joyce has suggested that the frequent exchange of cacao in marriage ceremonies may signify the mixing of bloodlines (Meskell and Joyce 2003:139-140). A range of images supports the association of cacao with sacrifice and blood. A stela from the archaeological site of Santa Lucia Cotzumalhuapa on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala depicts a human figure sacrificing a cacao pod as though it were a human heart: the cacao pod spouts a liquid substance. In Mixtec codices, bleeding cacao pods are depicted both on the tops and insides of temples, which were places of sacrifice (Mary E. Smith 1973:236). In the sixteenth century, Diego García de Palacio wrote that in pre-Columbian times the Pipil people in Nicaragua marked war captives for sacrifice with strands of cacao seeds, feathers and green stones."
This connection between cacao and human blood was clearly evident among the Aztecs. McNeil again:
"The Spaniards encountering Motecuhzoma's court for the first time were impressed by the lavish feasts and the strange beverage, cacao, which was consumed in large amounts. Curiously, they overlooked that cacao was sometimes mixed with blood and offered in rituals, while amaranth grain, which was also offered in a mixture with human blood, was outlawed (Balick and Cox 1996). It is likely that cacao escaped amaranth's fate because of its economic value, both as a currency within the region and as a prized comestible. As M. J. MacLeod (1973:70) noted, the Mexica had a developed cacao tribute system in place when the Spanish arrived, and the conquerors were able initially to take over this profitable system, at least until disease killed many of the growers. The Mesoamerican people were forced to convert to Christianity by the Spanish conquerors, but they frequently retained many practices of their native religion."
We thus have ample evidence that cacao in Mesoamerica was intimately related to cultural practices associated with widespread human sacrifice. Yet in The True History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael D. Coe write the following about cacao/chocolate:
"We have learned that the Spaniards had stripped it of the spiritual meaning which it had for the Mesoamericans, and imbued it with qualities altogether absent among the Aztecs and Maya: for the invaders, it was a drug, a medicine, in the humoral system to which they all adhered. It is hardly surprising to find that it was under this guise that chocolate traveled in Europe, from one court to another, from noble house to noble house, from monastery to monastery. But it soon became a medicine that was appreciated for its taste, its filling nature, and its stimulation. Are we shocked to learn that a medicine or drug with supposedly curative powers was converted to recreational use? We should not be, since the same transformation has taken place a number of times in modern Europe and America. The most famous case is that of Coca-Cola, which began life as a patent medicine in the American southland – a sweet, carbonated drink with a hearty dose of caffeine from the cacao-related kola nut, and a measure of cocaine (gone from today's drink, but the seed pod of the coca shrub is memorialized in the traditional shape of the bottle)."
The fact that certain substances which are used for medicinal purposes can also be used socially is not at all uncommon, nor is it in any way limited to Western culture. In China, tea had been used as a medicine long before it became a social drink, and the two uses could co-exist. Even among Native Americans in North America (and elsewhere), tobacco was used as a recreational drug as well as for ritual purposes by shamans and yes, as a medicine, for instance as a painkiller. It was still used as both a medicine and a recreational drug when it first arrived in the Old World. I fail to see why this should be considered a bad thing.
The most revealing quote here is that "the Spaniards had stripped it of the spiritual meaning which it had for the Mesoamericans, and imbued it with qualities altogether absent among the Aztecs and Maya." As we have proven above, the "spiritual meaning" associated with cacao in Mesoamerican cultures was closely linked to the practice of human sacrifice. In other words, according to Mr. Coe, human sacrifice is "spiritual." The desire to not be "Eurocentric" and the impulse to bash European culture has now become so strong that Europeans are blamed for separating chocolate from its association with human blood and turning it into a source of enjoyment for people around the world. One would believe that this was a good thing, but to some, that is apparently not the case.