Student Project: The Cacao Tree and the Nasher Museum

A guest blog post from Professor Elvira Vilches in Romance Studies

Cacao is the purest form of chocolate you can consume. Cacao comes from Maya, but the cacao fruit tree, Theobroma cacao, did not receive its scientific name until the 18th century. By that time, Europe was enticed by chocolate and the cultivation of cacao spread from Mesoamerica to the Amazon basin, Africa, and Asia.

Students in my course “Nature, Body, and Mind: Chocolate and Tobacco in the Hispanic World” (Spanish 410) explore the cultural history of these substances and the multiple meanings concerning rituals, well-being, and biodiversity they generated as Spaniards emulated and adapted Amerindian habits.

The extensive collection of Maya and Mesoamerican art held at the Nasher provides a unique opportunity to appreciate and examine why the cacao tree has been at the center of Mesoamerican mythology for thousands of years. How chocolate was endowed with cosmic powers? What kind of representations enabled the dialogue between humans and gods? How the species associated with the biodiversity of the cacao tree can illustrate the bond between humans and the divine?

At the Nasher, the gallery of the Americas is dotted with Maya drinking vessels and offering dishes, some of them carry the cacao glyph, other portray elaborate court scenes where kings and dignitaries exchanged gifts and drunk chocolate, while other pieces feature the species associated with the cacao tree like birds, bats, and jaguars. But the bulk of the collection fills the stacks downstairs in the museum storage.

figurine of monkey
“Whistle Figure: Standing Monkey Deity” 2000 BCE – 300 CE Nasher Collection (1980.83.9)

Marianne Wardle, the curator and director of academic programs, guided students in their visits to the larger collection held at the museum storage. She encouraged them to critically consider Mesoamerican artifacts as the objects of their research and explore what they can reveal about how the Maya understood cacao as the pathway to the divine, source of power, and the fountain of health.

For their digital project, students were asked to pick out items from the Mesoamerican collection to describe the three different realms of Mayan culture. The students, Barbara Dickinson, Caroline Frank, and Tyler Goldberg collaborated on a single WordPress site, where they created a focus gallery featuring some of their findings, reflections, and a cache of artifacts.  You can visit their gallery at

For help designing digital student projects, please email to schedule a consultation.

Visit the Nasher Museum’s faculty resource pages for ideas and guidance for using museum pieces in teaching.