First Chocoholics in U.S. Found in New Mexico?

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
February 2, 2009

Chocolate lovers are a dedicated bunch.

Hershey's sales and profits rose even in the brutal final quarter of 2008, and a thousand years ago ancient Americans may have walked hundreds of miles to procure the bittersweet stuff, a new study suggests.

Chemical residues found on pottery jar shards reveal that the practice of drinking chocolate had spread at least as far north as Chaco Canyon (map) in northern New Mexico by A.D. 1000 to 1125—400 years earlier than chocolate was thought to have reached what is now the United States.

The discovery suggests a vast trade network helped deliver chocolate from Central America, where the seeds of the cacao tree were first transformed into beverages some 3,000 years ago.

(Related: "Chocolate Origins Traced to Beer Makers 3,000 Years Ago" [November 12, 2007].)

"That's a long way to go for something that you don't need for survival, [something] that's more of a delicacy," said Patricia Crown, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico and co-author of the new study, which appears in tomorrow's issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

Have Chocolate, Will Travel

The closest cacao source may have been 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) away, Crown said.

"It suggests that the only way for this material to get [to New Mexico] is [that] either people from Chaco walked down to get it, or it was traded hand to hand from Mesoamerica to Chaco, or people from Mesoamerica came up and traded it," she said.

"There are a lot of questions about how that exchange worked. But once you had that connection and had tasted chocolate, you probably wanted to keep that exchange going, whatever the mechanism."

Crown and co-author Jeffrey Hurst, a biochemist at the Hershey Foods Technical Center, found traces of theobromine—a compound that is the principal base of cacao beans and chocolate—on pottery shards.

The pottery had originally been excavated from trash mounds at Pueblo Bonito, an ancient residential complex in Chaco Canyon, during National Geographic Society-sponsored work in the 1920s and then dug up again in 2007. (National Geographic News is owned by the National Geographic Society.)

Many pottery samples in museums around the United States could someday yield evidence of additional cacao use and perhaps an even wider trade network for chocolate, Crown said.

Louis Grivetti, professor of nutrition at the University of California, Davis, and co-author of Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage, said the study confirms previous evidence of trade between Central America and Mexico and "changes all the chronologies regarding cacao use in the Americas."

"It's one of the most exciting reports on the history of chocolate of the past 10 to 15 years," he said.

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