Cacao ceremonies have exploded in popularity over the last decade and nowadays can be found anywhere in the world, but why everyone loves cacao ceremonies and where do they come from?
The Cacao was first used in Central America by the Olmecs and later popularized by the Aztecs and Mayans. Despite the popular belief that cacao drink ceremonies are an ancient tradition, the Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec Cultures valued cacao as gold and exchanged the seeds as currency.
While archaeological evidence for cacao use by the Aztecs and Mayans is rather limited, it is known that cacao was “the sacred bean” for them, the archeologists have discovered evidence that suggests cacao was highly used for different rituals and important ceremonies by the royals. It is believed that high priestesses prepared some kind of cacao elixir for the emperors and elite. A rich drink made from roasted cacao seeds, chili and corn became a sacrament of sorts in an ancient ceremonial practice by the Aztec emperor Moctezuma who believed it makes him more attractive. On the other hand, the Mayans also knew the benefits of cacao and used it as an aphrodisiac to help with fertility problems and the priests used to eat the raw seeds for longevity.
The cacao drink ceremonies have exploded in popularity over the last decade, a lot of it due to the positive response of participants experiences but more even thanks to Keith, who can be the first facilitator of cacao ceremonies we knew about, Keith arrived in Guatemala in 2003 and started his journey with the medicine, a few years later thanks to him, the ceremonial use of cacao drinks was known to the world.
Nowadays, cacao ceremonies can be found anywhere in the world and since there is no traditional way of conducting a cacao ceremony, each facilitator brings its own flavor and knowledge. There are many different ways to work with the medicine and the experiences you may get differ from one ceremony to the other.
One of the reasons that so many people experience a release of tension and even a blissful experience when consuming cacao is due to the presence of anandamide - a neurotransmitter that has been called the "bliss chemical" because of its role in helping support positive moods and feelings of happiness and bliss. Anandamide also plays a role in movement control, pain, and appetite. Low levels of anandamide can decrease happiness, increase fear and anxiety, and interfere with your ability to manage stress. Anandamide is part of the endocannabinoid system that offers protection against stress-related psychiatric diseases, including major depression, generalized anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In addition to the bliss chemical anandamide, cacao also contains PEA, phenethylamine. This chemical stimulates the nervous system and triggers the release of pleasurable compounds known as endorphins. Phenethylamine has been called the "love chemical." PEA also stimulates the production of dopamine, a neurochemical related to sexual arousal and pleasure. PEA acts as a potent antidepressant and increases during times of romantic connection. PEA is known to increase when we fall in love and also at the time of orgasm. This is most likely a big part of why chocolate has been associated with love and romance.
Cacao not only serves up bliss and love chemicals, but it also helps to increase the brain’s level of serotonin - the "feel-good chemical." Serotonin plays a major role in maintaining positive moods, emotional well-being, proper sleep, and numerous behavioral and physiological functions. Low levels of serotonin can be cause for depression, lethargy, and even suicidal tendencies. Many women intuitively turn to chocolate during PMS and menstruation, when serotonin levels are typically lower. People often consume chocolate as medicine without even realizing that they are doing so.
The Origins of Cacao
Both Mayan and Aztec legends of cacao agree that it was Quetzalcoatl/Kukulkan (the feathered serpent) who brought the cacao as well as maize and other seeds and introduced them to agriculture. South America has been considered to be the center of origin for cacao, but the question of when the transfer of the tree to Mesoamerica occurred still sparks controversy upon archaeologists and historians. However, there is no proof of South American usage of cacao prior to modern times and, it is unrealistic to assume that someone traveling from South America to Mexico could have (or would have) successfully brought the cacao seeds, while keeping them viable for the two-week trek, to be planted and cultivated in Mexico.
Unfortunately, at present, it is unknown whether or not these cacao groves occurred naturally or with human assistance. The answer may well lie in cenotes, (underground caves). These types of environments are similar to sinkholes and house a damp microenvironment virtually perfect for cacao growth. Groundwater in the cenotes is generally the food for the trees, which are by and large untouched by rainwater for half the year. Unfortunately, whether cacao trees naturally form and prosper or were originally brought into the area and planted in these sinkholes and cenotes, is still unknown.