Any reflective student of history is often amazed at the products and processes invented and discovered in the ancient world that we take for granted today. Paint, gunpowder, weaponry, cement, the arch, beer, silk, papyrus, champagne, and so many others remain at the center of modern society and commerce in one form or another. Two of the most interesting ancient inventions are among the most popular consumer products of modern times, chewing gum and chocolate.
Chocolate was first harvested and converted into a consumable drink by the Aztec's in Mexico. Before the Aztec's, the cacao bean was considered a nuisance plant that neither animals or humans would eat. Tough, bitter, hard, and inedible, cacao was the plant seemingly least likely to have an upside commercial destiny.
The Aztec's took the cacao bean and blended the meat of the plant with peppers, cane and various liquids to form a drink that was consumed vigorously as a luxury tonic. The cultivation of cacao became a significant industry in Mexico and the beans actually represented a type of currency that facilitated trade.
When Hernando Cortes conquered Mexico, he and his Spanish conquistador's were repulsed by the taste of the cacao spirit drink that the Aztec's consumed in such large quantities. They spit it out and written accounts refer to their disgust at the drinks harsh, bitter taste. However, through experimentation, they found that by removing the pablano peppers and other Mexican herbs and substituting pure sugar the combination produced a sweet, savory foodstuff that was consumable as a drink or a candy.
The undesirable cacao bean had found it's initial commercial niche. Plant specimens were transported back to Spain and soon the popularity of chocolate spread across Europe. Planting of cacao trees spread across parts of Africa and Asia as demand increased and plantations were required to produce cacao in huge quantities.
The Aztec's likewise are central to the discovery and commercialization of chewing gum. In remote parts of southern Mexico, trees release a type of sap called chicle. The Aztec's harvested this chicle resin and developed a chewable paste that could be imbued with herbs, sweets and flavors. For hundreds of years the use of chicle as a forerunner of modern chewing gum was common throughout Mexico and parts of Central America.
Hernando Cortes however did not just conquer the Aztec's. He obliterated their society and culture. The southern source of chicle was unknown to the Spanish and thus lost for centuries. In 1870, Thomas Adams, exploring in Mexico's southern-most jungle rediscovered the ancient chicle resin. Soon after, William Wrigley found the source and the first chewing gum war soon commenced.
Adam's most famous brand of chewing gum was Chiclettes. Wrigley launched the Juicy Fruit and Spearmint brands. Both were very successful, though Wrigley came to be a towering beacon of Chicago commercial and social life. The Company he founded, in addition to the eponymous Wrigley Building and Wrigley Field, has seared the name Wrigley as one of America's great brands.
Inadvertently, the search for new sources of chicle in Southern Mexico has lead to the discovery of many ancient Aztec and Mayan cities that the jungle had devoured. To this day archaeologists are diligently working, and discovering lost tombs, pyramids and ruins that might have never been brought from beneath the jungle's grasp without the commercial desirability of chicle acting as the apex prod for exploration.
The Conquistador's were not interested in foodstuffs. They were lustily seeking gold, silver, jewels and mineral wealth. However, after plundering Mexico and Central and South America of all the booty they could pilfer and transferring this haul to Spain they never recognized the real treasures they had discovered.
Many types of grains, vegetables and fruits were introduced to Europe and the world as a result of the rapaciousness of the Spanish Conquistador's. These unintended side effects of the Spanish invasion of the New World were, at that time, considered tertiary benefits of the conquests. Certainly, the exportation of chocolate and chewing gum has provided the modern world with several of life's most appreciated and satisfying products.
Cadbury, Nestle, Mars and Hershey are international behemoth brands that provide sinful delicacy and enjoyment to humankind at amazingly affordable pricing. Hundreds of enterprises, large and small, all over the world produce amazing confections based on the Aztec discoveries of chicle and chocolate. Today, we are the beneficiaries of the Aztec genius for taking unwanted forest by-products and converting them to wondrous concoctions that make our mouths salivate and tongue's quiver with delight.
The Aztec legacy would be great even without the treasured gifts of chewing gum and chocolate. But when I watch a child eat chocolate ice cream, or a Snickers bar, or blow bubble gum bubbles, I know the world is a happier place as a result of this ancient genius.
Geoff Ficke has been a serial entrepreneur for almost 50 years. As a small boy, earning his spending money doing odd jobs in the neighborhood, he learned the value of selling himself, offering service and value for money.
After putting himself through the University of Kentucky (B. A. Broadcast Journalism, 1969) and serving in the United States Marine Corp, Mr. Ficke commenced a career in the cosmetic industry. After rising to National Sales Manager for Vidal Sassoon Hair Care at age 28, he then launched a number of ventures, including Rubigo Cosmetics, Parfums Pierre Wulff Paris, Le Bain Couture and Fashion Fragrance.
Geoff Ficke and his consulting firm, Duquesa Marketing, Inc. (http://www.duquesamarketing.com ) has assisted businesses large and small, domestic and international, entrepreneurs, inventors and students in new product development, capital formation, licensing, marketing, sales and business plans and successful implementation of his customized strategies. He is a Senior Fellow at the Page Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, Business School, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.