Chocolate residue found on the inside of an ancient Mayan teapot indicates that as far back as 2,600 years ago, the culture consumed the same thing we still turn to whenever we’re happy, sad, hungry, cold, or simply want a sweet treat.
Mayans made a paste out of the cacao fruit and added chili peppers, water, cornmeal, and additional spices into a drink that was believed to have been consumed following meals, with the wealthy sipping it on a regular basis and the commoners enjoying it on special occasions.
Many museums display bits of Mayan pottery decorated with images depicting both the drinking of the chocolate and how the mixture was prepared.
And they didn’t just drink the chocolate.
Mayans called chocolate “God Food.” They incorporated it into their religious ceremonies and sometimes used chocolate rather than blood during some rituals. During marital ceremonies, the bride and groom sipped the drink. Chocolate was also used during baptismal ceremonies.
Archeologists have found cacao beans and brewing pots for chocolate entombed with ancient Mayan rulers.
Mayans used cacao as currency. It became such a valuable commodity to the culture that Mayan farmers learned how to cultivate the trees. They became quite adept at the practice. Even in the Yucatan, where cacao trees didn’t grow naturally, local farmers discovered how to breed and grow cacao trees. Their efforts were rewarded by an elevation in wealth and status.
As cacao became increasingly popular, trade networks developed, ensuring Mayans who lived in areas where the cacao trees couldn’t be cultivated had access to the valuable fruit.
Chocolate is an important part of our lifestyles. In the United States, it’s estimated that the average person consumes ten pounds of chocolate during a single year. And humans aren’t alone in our love of all things chocolaty. Fruit bats can’t get enough cacao.
Looming Chocolate Disaster
It’s estimated that the average American consumes about ten pounds of chocolate during a single year. What some of us don’t realize is that two of our biggest suppliers are concerned about the future. Based on current conditions in the areas where cocoa is produced, they’re worried that soon they won’t be able to meet current demands.
Approximately 70% of the chocolate we consume is crafted from cocoa beans that are produced in either the Ivory Coast or Ghana. West African chocolate producers have done an excellent job of keeping up with the rising demand for affordable chocolate, but now companies such as Mars, Inc. are concerned.
The issue West African producers face is that during the past few years, the cocoa farmers have been slammed with two problems.
The first issue is a drought that made it difficult to keep the water-loving trees happy and healthy, which in turn led to a significant drop in production. The second problem they’re battling is frosty pod, a fungal disease that’s triggered a 30-40% decrease in production. Unable to cope with such a significant loss in income and knowing how long it will take to restore their orchards to full strength, many producers have opted to cut down their trees and replace them with high yield cash crops such as corn.
It’s predicted that the world may experience a chocolate shortage as soon as 2020.
What does this mean to the world’s chocolate lovers?
If the year 2020 rolls around and Ivory Coast producers are no longer able to meet the public’s demands, it’s likely that producers in South America will have to fill the void. And, while it’s good to know that there’s a backup system in place, the producers in South America face some problems of their own.
The Beloved Cacao Tree
Wild cacao trees grow in the rainforests, where they are one of the understory trees and are frequently found alongside rivers. In order to thrive, the trees need shade and a great deal of moisture. The trees grow a taproot that sinks about 2 meters (6.56 ft.) deep, while the tree itself grows approximately 15 meters tall. It takes four to six years for the tree to reach the fruit-bearing stage. Healthy wild cacao trees can live for one hundred years.
Most of the chocolate used in the candy bars and baked goods we love has been grown on a commercial plantation. To provide the trees with the shade they need, farmers generally plant the cacao trees amongst banana trees, which provide a nice canopy.
. The producers start the young trees from cuttings. These commercially cultivated cacao trees don’t grow as tall as the wild versions and don’t develop a deep taproot. Farmers replace the trees every sixty years when the production of the commercially cultivated trees starts decreasing.
While most trees bear flowers during one season and fruit during a different one, the cacao tree is unique in that it bears fruit and flowers simultaneously, a trait that likely developed because the fruit takes five to eight months to mature. A healthy tree produces approximately seventy cacao fruits each year. Each fruit contains twenty to sixty 2.5 cm (1 in.) cocoa beans.
One of the challenges commercial cacao producers face is low levels of pollination. One of my sources indicated that out of one thousand flowers, only three develop into the fruit that produces the cocoa beans we love. That’s remarkable inefficiency.
Studies indicate that the reason the cacao producers face such an uphill struggle with pollination has to do with the types of trees they use. Traditionally, small midge flies (appropriately called chocolate midges) are responsible for pollinating the flowers, but due to the large size of the plantations and the fact that the midges aren’t really designed to travel long distances, there simply aren’t enough midges on each plantation to handle the pollination needs. As a result, smaller plantations that grow cacao trees in a manner that bears a stronger resemblance to how wild cacao trees grow experience higher pollination rates. The problem is that these smaller plantations can’t meet the global demand for chocolate.
Bats, particularly the Underwood’s long-tongued bat (Hyloncyteris underwoodi), may prove to be the chocolate industry’s salvation.
The Underwood’s long-tongued bat is a little bat that ranges from the western section of Panama to Vera Cruz, Mexico. The species favors heavily forested areas that with an elevation that is between 50 and 2640 meters. They tend to stick to heavily forested areas that have a full canopy. While they will occasionally roost in a hollowed-out tree, they prefer the protection provided by caves and tunnels.
One of the few things we know about this particular species is that they are remarkably efficient pollinators and that they specialize in difficult-to-pollinate blooms. According to the Bat Eco-Interactions, in 1977, A.L. Gardner observed the species sipping nectar from wild cacao blossoms. Considering how effective bats are as pollinators and how far they’re willing to travel, it’s reasonable to believe that if the plantation owners can attract colonies to their plantation, they stand to experience a huge increase in their overall yield.
Bats Lay the Groundwork for Future Generations to Enjoy Chocolate
Potentially improving farm-cultivated cacao yields is just one of the ways bats can keep the chocolate industry booming.
Fruit-eating species also play a key role in ensuring that the world always has enough chocolate.
One such species is the Jamaican fruit bat.
Although the bat will occasionally feed on nectar, their primary food source is fruit, including cacao fruit. When the Jamaican fruit bat eats a piece of fruit, it drains the fruit of what it wants and spits out a pellet of chewed up fibrous material, which includes the cocao seeds, which eventually germinate and grow into a tree.
Not only does this help replant the rainforest, but it also spreads out the genetic material, making each generation of wild grown cacao trees healthier than the generation before.
Producers can then choose to collect some of these wild grown trees and use them to cross pollinate the cultivated cacao trees, a practice that not only introduces some new genetic material to the plantation, but can also result in the development of a brand-new variety of cacao that produces a cacao bean that tastes even chocolatier than current varieties.
This blog post is an excerpt from 60 Beautiful Bat Facts. Available now via Amazon! (it will be available from other ebook retailers later in this week)