There are certain moments in the history of mankind when quantum leaps are made, such as when nomadic stone-age men settled long enough in one place to plant crops and domesticate animals; the invention of the wheel is another such moment, as was the discovery that the addition of lime to cornmeal, when soaked in water overnight, softened the tough outer husk of the cereal to make a protein-rich dough. The word for this process is nixtamalization, which comes from the language of the Central American Olmecs, whose diet was transformed by the process. The Olmec people settled the fertile lowlands of the Mexican gulf, cultivating maize, chillies, avocados, pumpkins and beans, and it was almost certainly the Olmecs who first cultivated the cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao).
The Olmec civilization lasted from around 1500BC to 400BC, declining and eventually vanishing. The secret of nixtamalization was passed on to the Mayas, Toltecs and Aztecs. The Spanish did not seem to understand or adopt it. They brought back and cultivated maize in Europe but, in spite of heavy grinding in mills to soften the grains, diseases caused by protein deficiencies such as pellagra were widespread among populations for many years. By the time Cortés arrived with his bunch of conquistadors in ‘New Spain’ the by-then dominant Aztecs were a stratified society with huge populations living in an organized and democratic order, with an established infrastructure of merchants who distributed produce to the markets all around the country. The Mayas were banished to the Yucatan and living as slaves, growing the most important Aztec commodity – cacao. Cacao was made into a cold spicy gruel that was an integral part of all their rituals and ceremonies.