torsdag den 1. januar 2015

Cacao: How a Single Word Holds the Key to Understanding the Mesoamerican Past

In this blog post I am going to summarize what is probably the most interesting example of how historical linguistics, in extreme this case the etymology of a single word, participates as evidence in the process of understanding ancient cultures.

A cup of hot Cacao with freshly made chocolate patties
on banana leaves in the back. Tlaquilpa, Veracruz 2014.
The word is question is cacao (or in English cocoa, a mangled version of the former with its own funny history), which describes the fruit of the tree Theobroma cacao, which in the form of chocolate  has provided a lot of deliciousness to people throughout the world.

The significance of this word is such that by determining its etymology, we have an important clue as to what language was spoken by the people who formed the first major civilization in Mesoamerica, the Olmecs.

Who created Mesoamerica?

Because the word has two different proposed etymologies, one that goes back to the deep past of the Mixe-Zoquean language family, and one that traces the word to the earliest Nahuan language, the word was become the lightning rod for the debates pitting the Nahuas and the Olmecs against each other as being the "founders of Mesoamerican civilization". 

Little chocolate figures in the shape of
 Olmec "colossal heads"
Specifically, one group of scholars argue that the Olmecs were a Mixe-Zoquean speaking people who cultivated maize, beans, squash and cacao and exported their knowledge and vocabulary to most of the other language groups in Mesoamerica. In this history the Nahuas originated in the U.S. Southwest and only entered Mesoamerica after the civilization had been established by speakers of Mixe-Zoquean, Otomanguean and Mayan languages. Another group of scholars argue that Uto-Aztecan speakers were among the original founders of the culture area, and that they were among the most politically and culturally important groups already in the formative era (starting about 2000 BCE, and becoming the Classic period around 200 CE), and that they might have been the main group behind the rise of the mega-empire of Teotihuacan (Teotihuacan collapsed around 600 CE). 

Cacao beans still in the pod.
The way civilizations have started in the world is generally through the development of new ways of making food that are easier and more efficient than older ones and which allow for population increase.  In Mesoamerica these innovations were the cultivation of maize from from wild species of grass, and the cultivation of squash and beans. This happened sometime between 3000 and 2000 BCE and led to people becoming sedentary, building villages and later towns with central governments. From around 2000 BCE the first major monuments and monumental architecture begins to be found in the gulf coast region of Mexico, and this culture with its distinct style of stone monuments is what archeologists call the Olmec culture. Its innovations and styles spread across Mesoamerica over the next period, being absorbed into local styles. This has led some archeologist to consider the Olmecs to be the "mother culture" of the Mesoamerican civilization, although others like to consider it only a "big sister" whose good ideas were accepted and used by the other siblings who had developed the main ingredients of civilization independently. 

So what does all this have to do with Cacao?

Cacao in Mesoamerica:

A maya ruler receiving his hot kakaw
 from a servant on a classic period vase.
Across Mesoamerica Cacao has
been associated with wealth and power,
even to the point of cacao beans being
used as a form of currency.
Just like maize, beans and squash, cacao is indigenous to Mesoamerica, and has been cultivated from wild species. But unlike these other species cacao is not a staple crop that provides nutrients necessary for basic survival, rather it is a luxury crop, that provides delicious theobromine for the nervous system at the expense of a laborious process of cultivation and processing. This means that the presence of cacao demonstrates that a culture has moved beyond the stage of bare necessities in generated a surplus. The generation of surplus in turn marks the beginning of class division and hierarchy, and a complex division of labor - the social signs archaeologists associate with the phenomenon we call "civilization". Therefore, signs of the consumption of cacao is a kind of litmus test for when and where Mesoamerican civilization can be said to have begun. 

Vessels tested positive for theobromine from San Lorenzo,
Powis, Cyphers et al. 2011.
As it is, we find the first signs of cacao cultivation and consumption among the Olmecs in the sites of El Manatí, and at San Lorenzo between  1800 and 1000 BCE. The signs are sure that it was cultivated for consumption because archeologists have found ceramic vessels with residue traces of theobromine, the active ingredient of cacao.
So the Olmecs were definitely into the chocolate rush. But what did they call this delicious addiction?

The word Cacao in Mesoamerica:

The Maya word kakaw spelled in
hieroglyphs as KA -KA-WA
The reason not only the fruit cacao is interesting but also the word is that almost all Mesoamerican languages have a very similar sounding word for it. This suggests that all these come from a single source. And if all Mesoamerican languages have their word for Cacao from a single source then it is logical to assume that they received the both word and the fruit it described from the same source as well. So basically it appears that the Olmecs exported both their ideas and their words to the rest of Mesoamerica. The trick then is to find out what language the Olmecs spoke - which is easier said than done since it is hard to determine which of the many languages that have similar words is the original one.

Note how similar the word for cacao is in different Mesoamerican languages (Source Kaufman & Justeson 2007):
  • proto-Zoquean - *kakawa;  
  • proto-Mixean - *kakaw;
  • Nahua - /kakawa-tl/; 
  • Mazahua - /kakawa/; 
  • proto-Mayan, Totonac, Salvador Lenka - /kakaw/;
  • Paya/pech - [kaku]; 
  • Purhépecha: - /khe´kua/. 
  • Boruka, Tol,-  and Honduras Lenka -  [kaw]

So where did the word originate?

The Mixe-Zoque hypothesis:
Cigar-smoking Maya
holding a cacao pod.
In a hugely important 1976 paper Lyle Campbell and Terrence Kaufman proposed that the Olmecs had spoken proto-Mixe-Zoque, the language that became the ancestor of the Zoquean and Mixean languages of southern Mexico. The argument was based on the observation that a number of important culture words could be demonstrated to have diffused  throughout Mesoamerica, and the evidence suggested that the diffusion was from Mixe-Zoquean languages into all the other ones. This was the paper that made the Mixe-Zoque languages, which had earlier been considered inconsequential and hardly even considered, a serious contender for the "Olmec question". Importantly, this argument doesn't hinge on the word for Cacao alone, because also words for other important cultivars such as gourds, squash, tomato and bean were traced to Mixe-Zoque along with several other important cultural concepts such as words related to maize preparation, to religion and to material culture. Previously many had considered it most likely that the Olmec spoke a Mayan language and that there was a direct continuity between Olmec and Maya cultures.

The Nahua hypothesis:
Tlapalcacauatl "red cacao"
from a colonial Nahuatl herbary
In 2000 Karen Dakin and Søren Wichmann proposed specifically that the word Cacao did not originate with Mixe-Zoquean as proposed by Campbell and Kaufmann 24 years earlier, but that it had originated with a Uto-Aztecan language, probably Nahuan. They argued that if proto-Mixe-Zoquean had indeed had the word *kakawa, then most of the dauhgter languages would have irregularly derived forms of the original word. Rather they suggested the word had probably been borrowed by Mixe-Zoque speakers from some other language, leading to the irregularities they observed. They then looked at Uto-Aztecan language and found that many of them have a word for 'egg' that can be reconstructed as *kawa or *kapa. Nahuatl in fact is one of the only languages that do not have a word for 'egg' based on this stem (usually having either totoltetl "bird-stone", or tekwsistli originally meaning conch). They then argue that Nahuan kakawatl could be derived from an earlier Nahuatl word kawatl 'egg' (a word which is not actually attested) and that the reduplication of the -ka- could have originated from the process that makes nouns that are described as similar to what ever is being reduplicated. I.e. kakawatl could have originally meant "that which is similar to an egg". Cacao beans, although physically very different from eggs in color, size and shape, do have a thin shell that has to be removed after toasting, which can perhaps be considered similar to an eggshell. They took this argument to show that Nahuas had been present in Mesoamerica and played a major role already during the classic period, probably being associated with the empire of Teotihuacan, which they considered the source from which the Nahua word had spread to other languages including Mixe-Zoque and Maya. 

In 2001 Jane Hill proposed that contrary to received wisdom which considered the Uto-Aztecan languages to have originated in the U.S. Southwest with proto-Nahuatl speakers migrating southwards into Mesoamerica eventually taking up agriculture and many cultural traditions of the Mesoamericans, instead the opposite had happened. Hill argued that proto-Uto-Aztecan had been spoken in Mesoamerica and that its speakers had participated in develoiping Mesoamerican civilization whereafter a large group of Uto-Aztecans migrated northwards eventually giving up agriculture for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Her argument was that in her reconstruction of the language family's history, some maize related words could be recostructed all the way back to the Uto-Aztecan proto-language. 

In 2005 Martha Macri argued that three words in a very early Mayan glyphic text (from 480 AD) could be considered Nahuatl loans into Mayan, and that these words were all related to Cacao. The words in question were WITIK(I) which she related to Nahuatl /witeki/ "to beat something", MULUL which she related to Nahuatl /mo:lli/ "ground spice sauce" (sometimes containing Cacao), and KOXOM(A) which she related to Nahuatl /koxo:ni/ "for a hollow vessel to make a sloshing sound" or /koxo:nia/ "to stir a pot".  I must admit that personally, I find Macri's proposal completely unconvincing because none of the words have more than a speculative relation to cacao, they are not documented in any contemporary Mayan languages as loans, and because there is  not a good fit between the form of the proposed Nahuatl source and the given maya syllables, it seems unlikely that the words would be loaned in this form since they require loaning the verbs as stems and not as fully inflected verbs,  and finally because at least two of them actually have completely plausible Maya meanings and etymologies. I think Macri's proposal can be safely ignored, which most subsequent scholarship has also done. 

Nonetheless throughout the early 2000s there was a general sense that the tide was turning against the Mixe-Zoquean hypothesis and that probably Nahuas had been present in Mesoamerica earlier than was generally thought.  

Mixe-Zoquean strikes back:
But Terrence Kaufman would have none of it. He maintained vigorously that the Mixe-Zoquean hypothesis was solid. First in 1993 he and John Justeson had published an elaborate deciphering of the undeciphered Epi-Olmec (meaning late Olmec) or Isthmian hieroglyphic script arguing that it was written in the proto-Zoquean language. This would seem to be a serious piece of support for a Mixe-Zoquean-Olmec connection.  The decipherment was nonetheless contested by some Maya archeologists who were unable to read a third text using the proposed decipherment (Houston & Coe 2004). 

Doña Cristina, of Tlaquilpa, Veracruz,
 grinding Cacao with the toasted beans
in front and a calabash full of cinnamon.
The chocolate paste comes out of the grinde
and is mixed with sugar. 
In 2007 Justeson and Kaufman published a forceful rebuttal of Dakin and Wichmann's argument. They argued that the proposal of the Mixe-Zoquean as the donor language was solid both because in their reconstruction it fit well with the forms in the Mixe-Zoquean daughter languages and because it was supported by the fact words for many other cultigens could be demonstrated to have been most likely diffused from Mixe-Zoquean. (Wichmann actually agrees with Kaufman that the Olmecs spoke Zoquean and has provided evidence for that himself, so the disagreement for Wichmann seems to be mostly about the presence of Nahuas at Teotihuacan and the specific etymology of the word cacao). They also argued that the proposal deriving kakawatl from egg was untenable. They show that proto-Nahuatl had many borrowings from Mixe-Zoquean, and that even setting the word kakawatl aside all other loans from Nahuatl into Mesoamerican languages postdate the classic period. This seems to establish that there is a general pattern of Mixe-Zoquean influence on Nahuan dating to the classical period, but no general pattern of Nahuan influence on other languages in the classical period. They argue that if the Uto-Aztecan word 'egg' which they reconstruct as *kava had been derived regularly into Nahuan it would not have given /kakawatl/ but /*kaka:tl/ - the derivation proposed by Dakin and Wichmann, they consider to be impossible. Furthermore they show that when other Mesoamerican languages do borrow words from Nahuatl they do so with the absolutive suffix attached, i.e. the Nahua and Mixe-Zoquean forms should have been *kakawat and not /kakaw/. 

In 2009 Justeson and Kaufman published another intense counter argument, refuting in toto, Jane Hill's proposal of Uto-Aztecan originating in Mesoamerica (which had already attracted general dissaproval from Uto-Aztecanists), by showing that her Maize related reconstructions could only be dated to proto-Southern Utp-Aztecan, but not to the common ancestor of all Uto-Aztecan languages. Although Kaufman and Justeson did accept a slightly earlier date for the entry of Nahuas into Mesoamerica than they usually had (originally they considered Nahuas to have arrived around the time of the fall of Teotihuacan, but in 2009 ).  This, coupled with a wide set of other rebuttalls to Hill's theory, again shifted the balance to see Nahuas as latecomers in Mesoamerica, and Mixe-Zoquean speakers as the drivers of the Olmec "mother culture".

Further arguments were presented by Dakin in 2010 arguing for Nahua influence in the Mayan lowlands during the classic period. And in 2010 and 2012 Hill published again an argument to the effect that proto-Uto-Aztecan was a Mesoamerican language. Her maize related etymologies have meanwhile been rejected by scholars such as William Merrill (2012, Merrill et al. 2009), and Lyle Campbell (Campbell & Poser 2008). 

So what is the status? Confirmation Bias and its effects:

Too most ordinary people, including here most archeologists, historians and linguists, these debates simply look like a big pile of "my kung fu is stronger than your kung fu" - hard to make head or tails of.  This is because it requires intimate familiarity with both a vast number of languages, as well as the methods of historical linguistics, to judge which claims are better founded than others. 

I think that in the end, what will make most people side with one of the proposals is probably less about the soundness of the historical linguistics behind the proposals, and more about which story of the Mesoamerican past they prefer for their own personal reasons, whether aesthetics, preferences or experiences with one or more of the ethnic groups or scholars involved etc. 

Humans are funny that way. We are very quickly convinced by any evidence that points us in the direction we already want to go. 

Personally, I count myself on the Mixe-Zoque team for the time being. This may actually be because I know less about Mixe-Zoque than about Nahuatl and Uto-Aztecan, which means that I am more critical of the proposals involving Nahuatl, than of the ones involving languages I know less about. I have found the proposals of Dakin and Wichmann, Hill and Macri to be unconvincing in the ways they stretch meanings and forms to create what to me comes across as speculative etymologies. For example to get from *kava "egg" to *kakawatl "cacao" there are at least two leaps of faith, first the idea that they could be conceived as similar, and secondly the fact that the *kawa "egg" etymon is not attested in Nahuan at all - one such leap I might be willing to accept, but not two. Maybe Kaufman does the same kind of etymological twisting with Mixe-Zoquean, but I am unable to see it, and I am more convinced by his Nahuatl work.

My main point with this blog post is to demonstrate how historical linguistics is far from an exact science, but an interpretative science, where different scholars interpret the same facts differently based on their background knowledge.

And also to show how a single word for a fruit and a delicious beverage can become the key to such a highly political question as identifying the speakers of one language or another as the founders of the Mesoamerican civilization.


  • Campbell, L., & Kaufman, T. (1976). A linguistic look at the Olmecs. American Antiquity, 80-89.
  • Campbell, L., & Poser, W. J. (2008). Language classification. History and method. Cambridge.
  • Coe, S. D., Coe, M. D., & Huxtable, R. J. (1996). The true history of chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson.
  • Dakin, K., & Wichmann, S. (2000). Cacao and chocolate. Ancient Mesoamerica11(01), 55-75.
  • Dakin, K. (2010). Linguistic Evidence for Historical Contacts between Nahuas and Northern Lowland Mayan Speakers. Astronomers, Scribes, and Priests: Intellectual Interchange Between the Northern Maya Lowlands and Highland Mexico in the Late Postclassic Period, 217.
  • Hill, J. H. (2012). Proto-Uto-Aztecan as a Mesoamerican language. Ancient Mesoamerica23(01), 57-68.
  • Hill, J. H. (2001). Proto‐Uto‐Aztecan: A Community of Cultivators in Central Mexico?. American Anthropologist103(4), 913-934.
  • Houston, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2003). Has Isthmian writing been deciphered.Mexicon25(6), 151-161.
  • Joyce, R. A., & Henderson, J. S. (2010). Forming Mesoamerican Taste: Cacao Consumption in Formative Period Contexts. In Pre-Columbian Foodways (pp. 157-173). Springer New York.
  • Justeson, J. S., & Kaufman, T. (1993). A decipherment of Epi-Olmec hieroglyphic writing. Science259(5102), 1703-1711.
  • Kaufman, T., & Justeson, J. (2007). The history of the word for cacao in ancient Mesoamerica. Ancient Mesoamerica18(02), 193-237.
  • Kaufman, T., & Justeson, J. (2001, March). Epi-Olmec hieroglyphic writing and texts. In The Proceedings of the Maya Hieroglyphic Workshop: The Coming of Kings; Epi–Olmec Writing, March 10–11, 2001, University of Texas at Austin(pp. 93-224).
  • Kaufman, T., & Justeson, J. (2009). Historical linguistics and pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Ancient Mesoamerica20(02), 221-231.
  • Macri, M. J. (2005). Nahua Loan Words from the Early Classic Period: Words for cacao preparation on a Río Azul ceramic vessel. Ancient Mesoamerica,16(02), 321-326.
  • Merrill, W. L. (2012). The historical linguistics of Uto-Aztecan agriculture.Anthropological Linguistics54(3), 203-260.
  • Merrill, W. L., Hard, R. J., Mabry, J. B., Fritz, G. J., Adams, K. R., Roney, J. R., & MacWilliams, A. C. (2009). The diffusion of maize to the southwestern United States and its impact. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences106(50), 21019-21026.
  • Powis, T. G., Cyphers, A., Gaikwad, N. W., Grivetti, L., & Cheong, K. (2011). Cacao use and the San Lorenzo Olmec. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences108(21), 8595-8600.
  • Wichmann, S. (1995). The relationship among the Mixe-Zoquean languages of Mexico. University of Utah Press.

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