|A cup of hot Cacao with freshly made chocolate patties |
on banana leaves in the back. Tlaquilpa, Veracruz 2014.
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"
|Cacao beans still in the pod.|
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.
|Vessels tested positive for theobromine from San Lorenzo, |
Powis, Cyphers et al. 2011.
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
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:
holding a cacao pod.
The Nahua hypothesis:
|Tlapalcacauatl "red cacao" |
from a colonial Nahuatl herbary.
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 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).
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 Mesoamerica, 11(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 Mesoamerica, 23(01), 57-68.
- Hill, J. H. (2001). Proto‐Uto‐Aztecan: A Community of Cultivators in Central Mexico?. American Anthropologist, 103(4), 913-934.
- Houston, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2003). Has Isthmian writing been deciphered.Mexicon, 25(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. Science, 259(5102), 1703-1711.
- Kaufman, T., & Justeson, J. (2007). The history of the word for cacao in ancient Mesoamerica. Ancient Mesoamerica, 18(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 Mesoamerica, 20(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 Linguistics, 54(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 Sciences, 106(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 Sciences, 108(21), 8595-8600.
- Wichmann, S. (1995). The relationship among the Mixe-Zoquean languages of Mexico. University of Utah Press.