Ancient Chocolate Found in Maya "Teapot"

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The Essence of Chocolate

Powis's goal was to determine whether the vessels were indeed used to pour some type of chocolate libation.

He scraped residue from the vessels and sent the samples to W. Jeffrey Hurst, who has a delicious job as an analytical biochemist at the Hershey Foods Technical Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Using "high performance liquid chromatography coupled to atmospheric-pressure chemical ionization mass spectrometry," Hurst analyzed all the samples. The first instrument separates all the components of the mixture and the other measures the molecular weight of each. Cacao is a blend of more than 500 chemical compounds. Of this tasty compendium the signature chemical is a compound called theobromine—the chemical marker of cacao.

Of the 14 samples analyzed, 3 were positive for theobromine, "chocolate, that is," said Powis. The study is published in the July 18 issue of the journal Nature.

These spouted vessels were first dubbed chocolate pots about 100 years ago. Archaeologists knew from Spanish accounts that the Maya drank liquid chocolate and just assumed that the teapots were used to pour the beverage. "Now we have proof," said Powis.

Chilli, Honey and Maize With Your Chocolate?

By the time the Spanish reached the Maya, around the 1500s, everyone was drinking chocolate—rich and poor alike. Traces of chocolate have been found in ordinary Maya houses.

The Maya drink was very different from America's thin, watery hot chocolate, said Powis. According to Spanish accounts—many of which come from Bishop Diego de Landa, whose descriptions of Maya culture and language are the primary tools used today to translate Maya glyphs—the Maya enjoyed their hot chocolate thick and foamy.

While standing, Maya poured the chocolate drink from one vessel to another on the ground. The drop, together with the fatty cacao butter, produced a thick head of rich, dark, chocolate foam—the most coveted part of the drink.

Chemical analysis of these vessels is now becoming a standard tool in archaeology. As long as they're not washed, they can be analyzed for ancient residues. Powis hopes to use the same type of studies to reveal the other ingredients used in the chocolate drinks. From Spanish records, Mayanists already know that the chocolate was mixed with maize, water, honey, or chilli. But what other secret ingredients are discovered will be a sweet surprise.

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