Chocolate at Chaco Canyon: a ceremonial beverage heads north

Even today, chocolate has its ritual value -- in this case, in a fondue at a wedding reception.
(Photo courtesy of American Antiquity)
Cylinder jars from Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico: Pueblo people at the site used these jars in rituals. New evidence suggests that some of them contained a cacao-based drink.

Just in time for Valentine's Day comes word of the discovery of the first known use of cacao (a.k.a chocolate) north of what is now the Mexican border. And no, it didn't appear in Hershey, Pa.

Look father south and west, to Pueblo Bonito in northwestern New Mexico's Chaco Canyon. The so-called Chaco Culture of pueblo dwellers thrived in the region between 860 and 1128 A.D. And new evidence suggests that some of them took a shine to cacao, at least for ceremonial purposes.

Anthropologist Patricia Crown, from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and a colleague from, yes, the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition in Hershey, Pa., analyzed pot shards from the pueblo and found traces of theobromine, a compound that signals the presence of cacao. The results appear in this week's "early edition" of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Tracing the history of foods in the New World has become something of a cottage industry among archaeologists and anthropologists working the Mesoamerican "beat." Maize and chiles are two high-profile examples that come to mind. And researchers do so for good reason. Foods open a window on the history of cultivation, social structure, and religious practices, among other aspects of ancient living.

Cacao is no exception. In November 2007, for instance, a team led by Cornell University's John Henderson reported finding evidence at Puerto Escondido in Honduras for cacao beverages prior to 1,000 B.C. - some 500 years earlier than previous estimates. So far, that's the oldest known haven for chocoholics anywhere.

Take me to your dump

For many researchers, middens -- or what we today might call the village dump -- have become what temples and other grand buildings were to earlier generations of archaeologists. More-humble excavation targets lift a curtain on how the rest of society -- the not-do-rich and not-so-famous -- lived.

And that's exactly where Dr. Crown and colleague Jeff Hurst looked. The duo, undoubtedly with help from degree-hunting grad students, re-excavated middens that had first been unearthed in 1920s. According to the team, they found hundreds of thousands of shards. They pulled fragments that appeared to come from common pitchers as well as from cylindrical jars.

Complete specimens of the jars are rare. Only 200 have appeared so far from digs in the Southwest, and 166 have come from Pueblo Bonito. But they have special significance, the team explains. Researchers generally agree that they were used during rituals.

But just how they were used has remained an mystery. Maybe they held turquoise. Or maybe some were topped off with animal skins and thumped as drums. But with Crown and Hurts' work in hand, it's clear that some held chocolate in beverage form.

Beverage? That's because the evidence didn't show up as visible residue on the shard. It only appeared (theobromine) after the team pulverized the sample -- about 1/100th of an ounce -- and mixed it with roughly 1/6th of a teaspoon of distilled water. They ran the sample through chemical analyzers and found the theobromine. It cropped up in three of the five samples the team analyzed -- from "probable" cylinder jars.

What it all could mean

In some ways, it's not surprising that cacao made its way north. Other finds at Pueblo Bonito include copper bells, feathers from scarlet macaws, and other exotic goods from down south that would catch the eyes of the well-off at Pueblo Bontio.

Still, for the team, the discovery has several implications:

  • Since the cacao is associated with likely cylinder jars, it means people had picked up from their neighbors to the south how to prepare, serve, and quaf cacao-based beverages.
  • It finally helps answer the question: What were these jars used for?
  • In Mesoamerica, the source of cacao beans, cacao-based beverages were well known as stimulants, which would enhance their value as part of rituals. Those rituals might have been assimilated by people who rose to leadership positions at Pueblo Bonito.
  • It drives home Pueblo Bonito's role as the ceremonial hub of the Chaco Culture's world.

And if the serious side of chocolate is a bit too heavy, try this video on how not to make chocolate mousse.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.