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What is the history of the cocoa bean?

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Quick Answer

The cocoa bean is believed to have first been discovered around 1000 B.C. by either the Olmec or the Maya in South America. Cocoa beans grow on cacao trees, which thrive in the humid, tropical climate of the South American rain forests. The Latin name "cocoa" was given to the beans by the Mayan civilization and means "food of the gods."

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Full Answer

While the Olmec Indians were likely the first to grow cocoa beans as a crop, the Mayan civilization worshipped the cocoa tree. The Mayans created a beverage out of ground cocoa, vanilla beans and other spices that was consumed at betrothal and marriage ceremonies. When the Mayans migrated to Yucatan, they established cocoa plantations. Both the Aztecs and Mayans enjoyed the decadent beverage and also used cocoa beans as a form of currency. Beans could be used for trade or paying taxes.

In 1502, Christopher Columbus was the first Spaniard to be introduced to the cocoa bean. Hernan Cortez, however, was the first explorer who recognized the value of the cocoa bean when he arrived in the Aztec capital in 1519. When the Spanish first discovered the value of the cocoa bean, they kept the production process a secret from the rest of Europe and developed a monopoly on the chocolate market.

By the 17th century, Spain no longer had a monopoly on cocoa cultivation, and the crop became popular across Europe. The first hot chocolate shop was opened in London in 1657 by a Frenchman. By the 18th century, the invention of the table mill for grinding cocoa beans made cocoa production quicker and easier. This led to reduced prices and even more chocolate products.

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