Achiote as red dye and flavoring for cacao beverage for Maya and Aztec.

Cacao, iconographic plant of the Popol Vuh
and of Maya civilization
Cacao was considered  a sacred plant.
Cacao seeds were used as money by the Aztecs and possibly by earlier pre-Columbian societies.
It is well known that the pre-Columbian Maya colored their cacao beverage bright red with dye from the achiote seed pod. I would call it more a food colorant rather than a flavoring.

Achiote (Bixa orellana) is a common bush or shrub around houses throughout Verapaz and Peten areas of Guatemala, especially in Alta Verapaz. There are two kinds of achiote: a less common kind grown between Raxruja and La Union, en route to the Maya ruins of Cancuen, and the more common kind around Chisec, Alta Verapaz (on the highway from Coban to Sayaxche, Peten). Ethnohistorical records document that achiote was grown in these same regions when the Spanish first entered these areas.
Achiote (Bixa orellana), was used to color cacao drink by the prehispanic Maya. So in this photograph (taken in FLAAR Mesoamerica studio by Alen Bubanja, volunteer from the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia), we show the red achiote powder.
Achiote is a natural extension, since achiote and cacao are often grown in the same fields. The Spanish conquerors commented that the Maya flavored and colored their cacao drink with achiote: red cacao drink!
A cacao drinking vase found by Joe Ball accompanying the remains of an adolescent male buried around 725 A.D. in Belize. Around the top rim are hieroglyphs in Mayan script. The middle hieroglyph symbolizes the word KAKAW, the Mayan word for cacao.

Red colorant in pre-Columbian times was also derived from cochinal and logwood.
The prehispanic Maya had three sources of red colorants from natural sources.
  • Achiote, annatto, Bixa orellana
  • Logwood, Palo de Campeche
  • Cochinal, from an insect that lives on cactus plants
Plus of course many other colorants. I list above only the three most common and the three from plant sources. There are also many other plants that give dye of diverse colors and more than three plants that give red.

Achiote (Bixa orellana) tree, Alta Verapaz.
Indigenous woman of Guatemala toasting Achiote.
The red achiote powder (annatto) on top of cacao beans.

Be careful with claims that the red color of the Maya temples and palaces came from plants. Merle Green Robertson’s evidence at Palenque (Chiapas, Mexico) suggests that the red color of most Maya building exteriors came from clays or minerals. Howver the color "Maya blue" seems to be a mixture of plant dye (indigo) and mineral or clay pigment.

Here is Nicholas Hellmuth photographing an achiote tree in the Semuc Champey area of Alta Verapaz. Achiote is indigenous to Guatemala, but the banana plant in the background is not pre-Columbian in origin. Bananas were introduced in the 16th century, as were onions, citrus fruit, and sugar cane.
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