Theobroma bicolor : Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize
Nicholas M. Hellmuth

Pataxte and cacao in Mayan ethnobotany, iconography, and art history

Pataxte, Theobroma bicolor, pataste, pataschte, chocolate
Pataxte, Theobroma bicolor

The hieroglyph for cacao is frequently found included in the PSS (Primary Standard Sequence) on polychrome vases and bowls from the Early Classic (Tzakol 3) through Late Classic (frequently in Tepeu 1 and Tepeu 2). Many capable iconographers have written informative articles on the cacao glyph.

3-dimensional effigy representations of cacao are frequently found in Classic Maya art. Dr Oswaldo Chinchilla, curator of the Museo Popol Vuh (UFM) has published an excellent guide to their museum exhibit on cacao (with most photographs taken by two photographers at FLAAR: rollouts by Nicholas Hellmuth and individual photographs by Eduardo Sacayon, a biologist at FLAAR Mesoamerica).

And cacao is still raised today from humid portions of the Maya area, both Lowland and Highland locations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. In other words, cacao has been common in Mayan culture for over a thousand years. Plus cacao was used by pre-Maya cultures another thousand years before that (by the Olmec and potentially even earlier, as suggested by Rosemary Joyce).

While a student at Harvard, in the royal Tomb of the Jade Jaguar at Tikal, one of the polychrome Tepeu 2 Maya vases there had the remains of a "soup-like" material. It was dried out (as would be expected from having been in the burial for over a thousand years). But the remains of the seeds were still quite visible. Since I was only 19 years old, and at that time had never seen a cacao seed, I naively assumed the seeds had been some kind of bean. But in hindsignt I realize they were cacao beans. Fortunately I saved the entire contents of that bowl and turned it over to the University of Pennsylvania project in Tikal, but I am not familiar that this material was ever analyzed, or if so, where the results are.

But all this cacao is Theobroma cacao. The other form of cacao in Mesoamerica, Theobroma bicolor, Pataxte, is usually ignored, or is dismissed quickly.

A typical example of ignoring pataxte is in the otherwise excellent monograph, "Trees in the Life of the Maya World." This is an attractive 206 page, full-color, coffee-table book published by the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. This book includes most of the key trees from the Popol Vuh such as ceiba (p. 16ff), palo de pito (p. 32ff), calabash tree, cacao, etc.

But, as is typical, the authors fail to show even an awareness of the difference between pataxte (Theobroma bicolor ) and cacao (Theobroma cacao). They illustrate cacao in all their photographs but one line drawing shows what I would interpret as pataxte (p 50), but they (or the book that the illustration was borrowed from, which is not cited), claim it is Theobroma cacao.

The authors themselves do not use the word pataxte once. Yet the quote they feature from the Popol Vuh even suggests that pataxte is a different fruit than cacao: "This will be our food: maize, pepper seeds, beans, pataxte, cacao:…"

In other words, even people who are writing books about sacred Maya plants are not aware that pataxte and cacao are two completely different trees.

Pataxte mistakenly considered secondary because of Spanish observations on Aztec

There are many comments from Spanish observers that pataxte was considered by contact period people as "second class." You can get all the specifics from books on cacao, such as the nice one by Sophie Coe (those authors are correct citing what the Spanish said; it is the Spanish that give pataxte the reputation as secondary).

An example of how the Spanish emphasis on Aztec predejuce has been applied wholesale to the Maya world, would be footnote 462 in Christenson's version of the Popol Vuh:

Pataxte (Theobroma bicolor) is an inferior grade of cacao (from which chocolate is made) used to sweeten foods and drinks, such as the maize-based drink chorote. Its name is derived from the Nahuatl pataxtli. (Christenson :182, footnote 463).

I would mention that the Christenson edition of the Popol Vuh itself is excellent. Again, everyone is using the Spanish (and potentially the Aztec), bias. I do not entirely blame the anthropologists for repeating the disparaging remarks.

Tedlock, whose authoritative edition of the Popol Vuh is the most popular for the last decade, defines Theobroma cacao as "a higher grade of cacao than pataxte" (his glossary).

Pataxte, Theobroma bicolor, pataste, pataschte, chocolate
Pataxte (Theobroma bicolor) is an interesting species of cacao that has ethno-botanical features very different than regular cacao.

Pataxte, as a tree, is a completely different shape than Theobroma cacao

I was blissfully ignorant of pataxte until about six or seven years ago I saw a label on a tree in the nature preserve at the ruins of Takalik Abaj. It labeled a tree as Theobroma and clearly a different species. But the tree was so totally unlike the thousands of Theobroma cacao that I had seen prior to that visit, that I naively assumed the label might have been a mistake.

Pataxte grows tall, very high. Indeed I have not yet seen its flowers since they are so high off the ground. I need a telephoto lens to photograph a patexte pod. If you want to see pataxte easily, spend the night in the hotel of the former coffee plantation a few kilometers past Takalik Abaj. They have lots of cacao and many pataxte trees as well.

I would also list this hotel as one of the more romantic ones if you wish to take your wife or girlfriend for a romantic weekend. Just be sure they do not want a Hilton-type resort or to have a TV set in their room: this is a get-away in a coffee and cacao plantation, not a touristy resort.

However recently in Chisec, Alta Verapaz, I did see a very tall and straight cacao tree, so clearly it depends on how they are pruned. Indeed along the Arroyo Petex Batun (a tributary of the Rio de la Pason, near Sayaxche), at the rancho where you get your horses for a tour to Dos Pilas, the cacao there are like very thick bushes. In most cacao orchids the cacao is pruned in a more organized manner.

In distinction normal cacao is more like a woody bush, with branches at eye level and most of the fruit where you can reach it with your hands (without needing a ladder). And the flowers of Theobroma cacao start from the level of the ground and adorn the entire truck and branches: so you can use a macro close-up lens. You do not need a telephoto lens for common cacao.

Differences between cacao pods and pataxte pods

If someone showed most people a basket of cacao seeds and pataxte seeds all together, only a really experienced botanist or a person who had raised and worked with cacao for years could tell the difference quickly.

If someone showed most visitors to Guatemala a pile of cacao pods with a few pataxte pods mixed in, some people might notice that the pataxte pods were a bit different. But in most cases there are more different sizes, shapes and colors among varieties of cacao than between cacao and pataxte.

In other words, cacao and pataxte fruit, to the lay person, look pretty much the same. This is a polite way of saying that not many iconographers nor really many botanists can tell us today which pods in Classic Maya art are pataxte or cacao.

So if they are so similar, why make an issue of the two names?

Because the pataxte tree and the cacao tree are as different as night and day. The flowers are different colors; the leaves are different size and shape, and the size and form of the tree of pataxte is nothing related to the size, shape, and growing manner of a cacao tree. When I saw my first pataxte, at the Takalik Abaj park in Guatemala, I thought it was a mistake: the tree was absolutely nothing like what I expected for a Theobroma species.

Not many epigraphers work in cacao orchards and not many iconographers spend much time out in remote areas. Not many archaeologists have experienced Guatemalan (or Mexican, Honduran, or Belize) botanists, full time, on their team either). Plus, I actually raise both pataxte and regular cacao. If I spent all my time back in a university I would unlikely have this personal experience with pataxte.

Unfortunately the pataxte seedlings in my garden did not like the deep shade, and at least 90% did not survive more than three years. But many of the cacao seeds that I planted thrived and flowered after about four years. Once they even produced pods (normally the heavy rains or winds blow off the flowers before they turn into fruits).

Other species of cacao which are also overlooked: Theobroma angustifolium

Botanist David Johnson, Dept of Botany-Microbiology, Ohio Wesleyan University, says that Theobroma angustifolium is also in Guatemalan recipes. But at present pataxte is keeping us plenty busy.

Common names for pataxte

Also spelled (or misspelled) pataste, especially for the town of El Pataste, Honduras. Twenty-nine common names are listed by Sanders (yes,29),560)

The word patashte is a way to spell pataxte phonetically in Americanized form. I prefer the spelling pataxte, as long as the x is pronounced sch.

The most interesting common names are balam-te (jaguar tree), cacao silvestre and cacao blanco. Balam te' is the name in K'ekchi' Mayan (Q'eqchi'). Ironic that 99% of the Theobroma trees in Alta Verapaz today are Theobroma cacao and not Theobroma bicolor. There are thousands of cacao trees around Lanquin, Cahabon, and on the back roads down to the Polochic area.

Pataste (sic) is also the local name for a squash, Sechium edule (

Sanders says that two other plant species are also known as pataxte:

  • Luehea candida
  • Luehea speciosa

Habitat of pataxte and cacao in the Mesoamerican area

Izabal (there is even an archaeological site in this area named Pataxte, 18 km south of El Estor).

There is a community named Pataxte between the Polochic River Delta Wildlife Refuge and the Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve (

Associated with one of the areas named Pataxte (in the Izabal region) is a reserva natural provada.

There is a Rio Pataxte in the Depto of San Marcos, near the Mexican-Guatemalan border near Tapachula (which would have been Soconusco area to the Aztecs).

There is a town named Balamte near Cahabon in the mountains of Alta Verapaz.

Although cacao and pataxte grow naturally in the Costa Sur area of Bilbao and elsewhere, both species also grow at much higher elevations, especially in Depto of San Marcos.

Theobroma cacao grows, flowers, and has fruit inside the Copan Ruinas village museum in Honduras, and this is not at a low elevation. The FLAAR ethnobotanical garden has been growing cacao for six years in Guatemala City, which is well over a thousand meters above sea level. This year (2009) we are starting with pataxte seedlings from several kilometers from the Takalik Abaj area.

It would be worth checking to see if pataxte normally grows at higher altitudes than cacao. No botanical treatise that I have yet seen suggests that pataxte or cacao can grow at the altitude of Guatemala City, but I have about 12 cacao trees, two pataxte trees, and about nine pataxte seeds that have sprouted in the last few months.

The pataxte trees are from the hotel near Takalik Abaj; the pataxte seeds are from the Departamento de San Marcos.

Pataxte occurs in Belize; the most likely areas are the southern half.

Pataxte and cacao figurines and representations: iconography

Pataxte is harvested primarily by monkeys and squirrels. This is because all pataxte trees are too high for a person to climb them. And most pataxte fruits do not fall off the tree until they are fully ripe.

Pataxte and cacao mentioned in the Popol Vuh

There was great joy in their hearts when they got word of the rubber ball. When the rat had named it they gave the rat his food, and this is his food: corn kernels, squash seeds, chili, beans, pataxte, cacao.

(Part IV): And so they were happy over the provisions of the good mountain, filled with sweet things, thick with yellow corn, white corn, and thick with pataxte and cacao, countless zapotes, anonas, jocotes, nances, matasanos, sweets- the rich foods filling up the citadel named Broken Place, Bitter Water Place. All the edible fruits were there:

small staples, great staples, small plants, great plants. The way was shown by the animals.

Pataxte and cacao mentioned in ethnohistoric research on Maya peoples

Pataxte is mentioned as a tribute in the Memorial de Solola (

Pataxte is also mentioned as tribute elsewhere in Guatemala:

En la Historia Quiché de Don Juan de Torres se menciona que cuando Quicab emprendió la conquista de los pueblos de la costa llegó al poblado de Xetulul, bajo los zapotes, que fue traducido al náhuatl por los indígenas tlaxcaltecas durante la conquista a Zapotitlán. Luego de lograr la conquista de Xetulul, durante el siglo XV, los K'iche' recibieron tributo que incluía: pescado, camarón, cacao y pataxte.

1996 La población rural de Santa Elisa Pacacó, Retalhuleu. En IX Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 1995 (editado por J.P. Laporte y H. Escobedo), pp.540-553. Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala (versión digital).

A few examples of Mayan words for pataxte

Kaufman and Justeson list Pek or pec as Highland Mayan words used for pataxte. It is ironic that I named my pet dog pek' since this is the common word for dog in Yucatec Maya. Now I find out that a similar word, without ' at the end, is also the word for pataxte in Highland Mayan languages.

"jaguar tree" balamte' is the word in Yucateco Maya and K'ekchi' Mayan.

balamte, pataxte, ppizte, Yucateco Maya (Bolles 2001)


Pataxte may not be a popular or common food crop today but a thousand years ago it was considered one of the foods of Maya paradise. It should also be pointed out that pataxte was probably not grown in large orchids in the Quiche Highlands, though probably survived as a crop in house gardens. But the Quiche had plenty of contact with lowland areas of Guatemala. And, many Quiche myths are clearly over a thousand years old and were aleady known in the Izapa area (neare Tapachula) which is right smack in Soconosco, a major center of cacao cultivation for the Aztecs.

Rarely is pataxte mentioned alone in the book of the Popol Vuh, the phrase is usually "cacao and pataxte." This also reinforces the concept that cacao and pataxte are distinct

Pataxte was used as tribute and is used in some rituals in some areas (Belize being one).

We are presently preparing a PDF version of this web page. The PDF version will have an abundance of photographs, for which there is not convenient space on a single web page.

Camila Morales, a student volunteer working at FLAAR, has done 3D scans of several pataxte pods. These will be presented on our new 3D scanner web site hopefully during January 2010. There is already one 3D scan on that site: just Google 3d scan pataxte.

Here is Camila Morales with Eduardo Sacayon at Museum of Cotzumalhuapa Sculpture scanning archaeology pieces. Camila is a student volunteer working at FLAAR Mesoamerica, she has used the ZScanner 800 courtesy of ZCorp.


In the past it has not been a tradition to put a bibliography onto a web page (unless it was a formal article). The result is extreme plagarism on most web pages that discuss Mayan topics. FLAAR is gradually working at adding bibliographic references to its material, though we do this primarily on our PDF format, as FLAAR Reports.

In most cases (ideally, in theory), each web page will have a PDF backing it up. Obviously the expense and staff required result in reality not being the same as what we would wish. Nonetheless, we have dozens of PDFs and the majority of these have bibliographies. For the present web page on pataxte, Theobroma bicolor, there is a PDF in preparation. But since we are working on over 32 plants and dozens of animals in our Mayan ethnobotany and ethnohistory research, it is not realistic to finish each chapter quickly.

Bibliography research is endless, so we show primarily monographs or useful articles. We are building up a separate bibliography on cacao and pataxte on our bibliography web site,

Bibliography: Monographs that include mention of pataxte and cacao of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica

2006 Kawaw: El chocolate en la cultura de Guatemala. Museo Popol Vuh, Guatemala.
A nice museum exhibit and attractive catalog. Most photographs are by FLAAR: rollouts by Nicholas Hellmuth and still shots by Edgar Eduardo Sacayon.

COE, Sophie and Michael D. COE
1996 The True History of Chocolate. London, Thames and Hudson.

2008 Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World. Cornell University Press

STALLER, John Eduard
2008 Pre-Columbian Landscapes of Creation and Origin. Springer New York.

Pertinent articles on pataxte and cacao of Mesoamerica

KUFER, J., and C. L. McNEIL
2006 The jaguar tree ( Theobroma bicolor Bonpl.). In Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. C. L. McNeil, 90-104. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.

This is the most recent, the most thorough, and the most informative article that I have yet found on Pataxte in Mesoamerica.

1996 La población rural de Santa Elisa Pacacó, Retalhuleu. En IX Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 1995 (editado por J.P. Laporte y H. Escobedo), pp.540-553. Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala (versión digital).

Pertinent articles that discuss or picture pataxte or cacao

KAUFMAN, Terrence and John JUSTESON
2007 The History of the Word for Cacao in Ancient Mesoamerica. Ancient Mesoamerica (2007), 18 :193-237 Cambridge University Press;jsessionid=56190CC14F2879F562EB

Pertinent web sites on pataxte and cacao of Mesoamerica

You could spend endless nights and weekends finding web sites on pataxte, but since we are interested in all utilitarian plants of the Classic Maya we show only a few of the sites which mention pataxte.

Shows photos of Herrania, a relative of cacao with impressive flowers.

2008, brief, but informative. Two small photos.

Mentions that in one location in Belize, San Pedro Columbia, that pataxte is used for "ritual purposes."

Video of Dr Oswaldo Chinchilla speaking on cacao, 2007. Worth looking at.

Listado de las principales especias forestales de Guatemala.

Esta página es puramente aspectos botanicos y taxonomia.

Pertinent Ethnohistory and Ethnography

Caso Barrera, Laura, Aliphat, Mario
2006 Cacao, Vanilla and Annatto: Three Production and Exchange Systems in the Southern Maya Lowlands, XVI-XVII Centuries. ?Journal of Latin American Geography, Volume 5, Number 2, pp. 29-52

2003 Popol Vuh, Sacred Book of the Quiche Maya People. Electronic version, Mesoweb.

1985 Popol Vuh (Mayan) Council Book.Several electronic versions are avaukavke.

Dictionaries of Mesoamerican Languages with references to pataxte and cacao

2001 Combined Dictionary–Concordance of the Yucatecan Mayan Language

1985 The Pipil Language of El Salvador. Mouton de Gruyter. 957 pages.

DAKIN, Karen and Søren Wichmann
2000 Cacao and Chocolate (A Uto-Aztecan perspective). Ancient Mesoamerica 11 : 1 :55-75, Cambridge University Press.

KAUFMAN, Terrence and John JUSTESON
2008 The History of the Word for Cacao in Ancient Mesoamerica. Ancient Mesoamerica, 18 : 193-237 Cambridge University Press.

Essentially the same article is also in the recent monograph on Chocolate in Mesoamerica, edited by Cameron McNeil. However keep in mind that Rosemary Joyce suggests cacao useage in Mesoamerica is much much earlier than with the Olmec.

Theses or dissertations on pataxte and cacao of Mesoamerica or related iconography or archaeology

1955 When Money Grew on Trees. A Study of Cacao in Ancient Mesoamerica. PhD dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Columbia University.


Most recently updated July 2014 since we spend weekends in the Alta Verapaz areas of Guatemala so I can try to improve my knowledge of the K'ekchi' language. We have found pataxte more often in the Costa Sur and in the piedmont near the Mexican border. But there are many areas still to search for pataxte.

First posted January 13, 2010.

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