We have the magnificent Maya to thank for the wonder that is chocolate! The Maya were the first people to harvest the cacao bean for the large scale process of making chocolate drinks.

Dr Diane talking about the wonders of chocolate!

Maya Mythbuster:

Xocolatl is the name of the Maya chocolate drink and the Maya used wooden whisks to make the chocolate frothy.

Xocolatl is the name of the Aztec chocolate drink, a culture who lived much later in time in Central Mexico. The Aztecs copied the idea of making hot chocolate from the Maya. A wooden whisk was not used (this was a Spanish invention), rather the pot was tipped from one to the other.

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Maya Hot Chocolate: Introduction

The Word Cacao

The word cacao (or cocoa) comes from the Maya word KaKaWa. Listen to how you pronounce it:

The ancient Maya used hieroglyphs to write, here is how they wrote cacao:

Chocolate is made from the beans of the cacao fruit. The scientific name of the cacao plant, “Theobroma cacao“, means “the food of the gods”.

Cacao originates in the Maya area and was grown mainly in Guatemala. A highly valued product, the bean of the cacao tree when processed, became the chocolate used in chocolate drinks.

Have a look inside a cacao pod!

Like us, the Maya loved chocolate, but rather than eat it in bars, they drank it. They flavoured their chocolate drinks with spices such as chilli and sometimes they would use honey or cinnamon. Remember they never had sugar or milk.

They made sure that their drink was frothy and we see many depictions on vases of these frothy drinks. We also see depictions of how they made the drink frothy by pouring the liquid into another pot from a height.

Maya person today making the chocolate frothy.

Cacao beans can be roasted, then easily stored and transported – for that reason cacao became a form of currency much later in the in the 1300s. So at this time you could say that the Maya were literally drinking money!

The Process of Making Hot Chocolate

Once the pods are ripe, they are harvested. Then the beans are husked from the pods.

The beans of the cacao have a bitter taste and must be fermented to develop flavour. After fermentation, then they are left out until dried. Once all dried, the beans are roasted.

Their shell is removed and the beans are then ground.

Chocolate is made from a combination of cacao, cacao butter and sugar (milk powder is added to make milk chocolate).

Children’s Activities

Make your own Maya Chocolate Drink

Cocoa nibs can be bought from a range of stores due to their recent popularity as a superfood.  If you can get as many pestle & mortars as possible, it will help spread out the inclusion around the class.

It is traditional to tell stories as you are crushing the beans, so get the children to do this as they are grinding – talk about who we are and where we are from, but a tale about something they have done or place they have visited is ideal.

The pouring was a large part of getting the drink frothy – be careful with the children doing this due to the hot water, but you can demonstrate pouring between two vessels (you’ve GOT to do it from a high point).

Try flavouring with honey, vanilla and (if you chose to) chilli!

Make a Maya Chocolate Pot

A Maya tomb of a ruler, found in Rio Azul, Petén, Guatemala contained chocolate pots. 

Listen to how Rio Azul is pronounced:

A ruler had been placed with pottery vessels and six cylindrical vases, some of these had rings around their interiors showing that they once contained a dark liquid. 

The writing on one vase actually states that is ‘a drinking vessel for cacao’. 

Several of these vessels were sent to the Hershey Company, the largest chocolate manufacturer in the United States and were found to contain chocolate residue!

Chocolate pot found in a ruler’s tomb, Rio Azul, Guatemala

Why don’t you try to make your own chocolate pot?

What you will need:

  • Clay
  • Rolling pin
  • Piece of cloth, – canvas is ideal – for rolling out clay; using this prevents the clay from sticking to the table
  • Clay cutting knife, pencil, ruler
  • Water and small sponge
  • Paint, brushes, varnish
  • Stripwood guide, 6mm thick – optional


1. Take a ball of clay and make a small pot. Flatten the sides and make a good shape.

2. Roll out some coils of clay and add them to the pot. Smooth the edges. Leave the pot to dry for a bit. Add more coils if you need them and smooth the outside and inside as much as you can.

3. Roll out a long rectangle of clay. You can use the canvas and wood strips as guides.  Cut out the rectangle using a ruler.

4. Try the strip on the top of your pot. If it is too long or too high, then cut it to the right size.

5. Wet the edges of the pot and the rectangle with some water.  Join it to the pot and smooth the join with your fingers.

6. To make the lid – roll out more clay and cut a circle that is slightly larger than the neck of the pot. Cut another small strip.  Make a thick coil of clay for the handle, and bend this into a half circle shape.

7. Join the small strip to the underside of the lid, smoothing all edges; this is to stop the lid from sliding off the top of the pot! Join the thick coil to the top of the lid and trim it to fit.

8. You can now decorate the sides of the pot by drawing into the clay using the pencil or wooden sticks.  Leave to dry for a bit, then neaten edges. Add the glyph for ‘cacao’ on the pot.


9. If using clay, the pot can be fired and then painted, or if using air drying clay, it can be painted when dry. Don’t forget the jaguar pelt markings on the handle!

Now it is time to add some chocolate!
Examples of chocolate pots and cups

Resources to Download

Food Technology Lesson

Donated by Ellie Payne, Lomeshaye Junior School, Lancashire


  • To understand the importance and types of food in the Maya culture
  • To compare the use of foods across cultures in space and time
  • To conduct research on existing hot drinks for children
Created by Ellie Payne, Lomeshaye Junior School, Lancashire.
Workbook created by Ellie Payne, Lomeshaye Junior School, Lancashire

Yr 6 at Lomeshaye Junior School making Maya hot chocolate

See also lesson plan and teacher notes on food in general below.

Please note – you will need to use your personal, rather than your school’s email address to download these files, as most schools disable the ability to receive items from outside their domain. 

You can access the complete scheme of work for a small fee, in the form of a donation to the charity Chok Education, which supports the education of Maya children.

Other Resources

There is a wonderful vase at the Denver Art Museum that depicts a palace scene with both cacao beans and a chocolate pot. The rollout of the vase can be seen below and several lesson plans and ideas are given.

Watch “Making Natural Chocolate from Scratch“:

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