The genus Theobroma (or “food of the gods” in Greek) originated millions of years ago in South America, to the east of the Andes. Theobroma has been divided into twenty-two species of which T. cacao is the most widely known. Recent archaeological evidence found in Southern Ecuador indicate that cocoa beans were already used more than 5,300 years ago by native population and that, 1,500 years before the domestication of the tree. Since then, the seeds of T. cacao had been used by several pre-Colombian civilizations including the Maya (covering among the current Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras), the Incas (covering the current Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia) and the Aztecs (covering the current Southern Mexico). Cocoa beans were used by pre-Colombian civilizations as food ingredient (for beverage, mixed with corn flour and spices), but also as a currency for trade or for ritual behaviour.
The first outsider to drink chocolate was Christopher Columbus, who reached Nicaragua in 1502 searching for a sea route to the spices of the East. But it was Hernan Cortés, leader of an expedition in 1519 to the Aztec empire, who returned to Spain in 1528 bearing the Aztec recipe for xocoatl (chocolate drink) with him. The drink was initially received unenthusiastically and it was not until sugar was added that it became a popular drink in the Spanish courts and gradually in other European courts. In order to meet European growing demand, cocoa cultivation was slowly extended during the colonization period to the three main current cocoa producing areas detailed below: Asia, Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean.