What is the origin of the cocoa tree?

Cocoa beans, from which cocoa products are derived, come from the cocoa tree, which is the species Theobroma cacao.

The genus Theobroma, from which the cocoa tree species comes, originated millions of years ago in South America, to the east of the Andes. However, despite our knowing the origin of the genus Theobroma, the birthplace of Theobroma cacao is not so certain and there is no consensus on where cocoa originated. There are scientific claims for the origin of the cocoa tree in several areas in Central and South America. These areas are:

The upper Amazon region

This region's rich tropical rainforests are a primary centre of diversity and it is possible the cocoa tree grew here 10,000 to 15,000 years ago.

The upper Orinoco region of north east Colombia and north west Venezuela

Evidence of a large cacao gene pool in the upper Orinoco suggests that this could be where wild cacao originated. The transfer of cacao to Mexico would also be short and easy from here.

The Andean foothills of north west Colombia

It is postulated that cacao originated in the Andean foothills because of the large number of species found there and the comparative ease of dispersal to Mexico.

Central America, from southern Mexico to Guatemala

Other studies give the Lacandon forest of Chiapas in Mexico and the Usumacinta river area on the borders of Mexico and Guatemala as the source of cacao.

Whether by natural dispersal or carriage, cacao spread through northern South America and central America, eventually splitting into two sub-species, criollo cacao in Central America and forastero cacao in South America.


Young, A.M., The chocolate tree. A natural history of cacao. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

ICCO Cocoa Newsletter (9): 13-14, July 1995

ICCO Cocoa Newsletter (10): 6-7, February 1996






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