(ABC4) – As good as chocolate is, and as popular as it has become in our culture – especially around Valentine’s Day, it’s likely we didn’t celebrate it as much as the Mayas did thousands of years.

Well, to be clear it wasn’t candy bars as much as it was the cacao bean, the plant when mixed with sugar creates what we now call chocolate. When the Maya people were inhabiting the northern Yucatan, Mexico area more than 3,000 years ago, they considered cacao to be a gift from their gods and even used the beans as currency at their ancient marketplaces.

What they liked most about cacao, was the buzz they got from a certain chemical in the beans, called theobromine.

A cacao pod picked from a tree growing in the sinkhole “Dzadz Ion” at Coba, Yucatan, Mexico. Courtesy of BYU.

“It’s the reason you love chocolate,” BYU researcher and professor emeritus Richard Terry explains to ABC4.com. “It’s a precursor to caffeine. Theobromine is a mediocre stimulant, it’s not as good as caffeine, but it was the only thing that they had in Central America.”

The thing about cacao plants is, they only grow in certain areas where the conditions are just right. What makes it unusual for cacao to grow in northern Yucatan is the extremely arid climate is less than ideal for “sacred groves” of cacao plants to grow.

It would require some kind of phenomenon in the terrain to create an atmosphere suitable for cacao, the lifeblood of Maya culture, to take root.

Like say, a sinkhole.

That’s exactly what Terry and his fellow researchers from several different institutions found recently while exploring the area. Giant, 50 to 60 feet deep sinkholes where the depression in the earth can hold the soil with enough moisture and humidity to grow the precious cacao.

And by the look of the Maya remnants in the sink, the magnitude of the sinkhole wasn’t lost on the ancient people, who built intricate staircases down to the bottom of the pit and used them in religious ceremonies to celebrate the harvest.

The discovery of the exact location of a sacred grove, with a staircase in a sinkhole was reflective of a tradition that may have been forgotten by descendants of the Maya who still live in the area.

Terry says that fading memory was apparent in interviews that a member of his team, Chris Balzotti, conducted with folks living near the sinkhole in Coba.

“He would go to the town squares and look for the oldest people he could find and he would interview them about cacao and they’d say ‘Oh yeah, my grandparents used to grow cacao in a sinkhole and they’re just outside of town here,’” Terry illustrates. “But the thing is that If you talk to someone who’s 40 or 50 years old, they don’t know anything about cacao, they’ve never heard of it.”

It’s interesting, Terry says. It seems an entire generation of folks with Maya roots is completely forgetting about an important part of their history. Back around 1200 B.C. cacao, along with maize, were vital to the Maya way of life. It was one of their most important crops, but for years the answers to many questions about cacao were hard to find.

One of the most perplexing questions was if cacao was the currency, what was to stop people from growing their ‘money trees’ near their homes, essentially printing their own pocket change.

Terry and his team finally found the answer by locating not only the sinkholes but also the staircases and religious figurines and bracelets found in one of the pits near Coba. It was clear, he who controlled the sinkhole also controlled much more for their entire local population.

Parts of a ceramic arm with bracelet from a figurine found in a sinkhole in the Yucatan. Courtesy of BYU.

“The control of those sinkhole resources and the cacao that’s grown in them is a way of controlling the currency and controlling the rituals, religious knowledge, and so forth,” Terry says. “It all comes together for the Maya way of thinking of things.”

Laughing that he’s “absolutely addicted” to sweets, especially peanut M&Ms, Terry says he’s tried traditional chocolate from Yucatan and finds it horrible.

“It makes me sick,” he says.

Still, back in the day of the Maya people, the chocolate they made, without all the sugar and additives modern candy makers have added, was a major part of life, especially for the elites. Terry explains this while pointing to a replica of an ancient chocolate mug that a Maya king would have used during his reign.

Now, however, the sinkholes and their sacred groves are nearly long gone from the minds of folks in the area. Terry says his team took some local farmers to the sinkholes where they were amazed, they had no idea that cacao was there, still growing and still a marketable crop to harvest.

It won’t be long, he says, until the folks in the town square are no longer around to keep stories of the cacao bean and its importance alive.

“The interest in cacao is has been lost,” Terry laments. “And so that’s the reason for interviewing people that were rather elderly, and many of those people are, you know, dying out. The whole tradition will be lost eventually.”