Ancient Mesoamerica

Research Article


Terrence Kaufmana1 c1 and John Justesona2

a1 Departments of Anthropology and Linguistics, 3302 WWPH, University of Pittsburgh, 230 South Bouquet Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, USA

a2 Department of Anthropology, University at Albany, 1400 Washington Avenue, Albany, New York 12222, USA


The word *kakaw(a) (‘cacao’, Theobroma cacao) was widely diffused among Mesoamerican languages, and from there to much of lower Central America. This study provides evidence establishing beyond reasonable doubt that this word originated in the Mije-Sokean family; that it spread from the Mije-Sokean languages in or around the Olmec heartland into southeastern Mesoamerican languages; that its diffusion into Mayan languages took place between about 200 B.C. and A.D. 400; and that it spread from a Mije-Sokean language in or near the Basin of Mexico into languages in the region. It shows that each of the arguments presented by Dakin and Wichmann (2000) against a Mije-Sokean origin is either unworkable, is based upon false premises, or is not relevant; and that their proposed alternative — that it originated in and spread from Nawa into other Mesoamerican languages — conflicts with the mass of evidence relevant to the issue.

This study also discusses the linguistic details of vocabulary for drinks made from cacao; shows that no proposed etymology for the word chocolate is correct, but agrees with Dakin and Wichmann that its proximate source is a Nawa form chikola:tl; and discusses the history of words for Theobroma bicolor (‘Nicaragua chocolate tree; pataxte’) and their use.

The linguistic data are pertinent to issues of intergroup interaction in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, but do not shed light on the nature or the cultural context of the diffusion of cacao in Mesoamerica, nor on its uses.


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