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Chocolate Origins Traced to Beer Makers 3,000 Years Ago

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
November 12, 2007
 
People have been enjoying chocolate for more than 3,000 years—about 500 years earlier than previously believed, according to a new study.

Researchers also think that chocolate was discovered by accident—when Central American Indians making beer from the pulp of cacao seedpods found a new use for a byproduct of that process.

The new findings about chocolate's origins were gleaned from traces of cacao found on pottery fragments dating from about 1100 B.C. to 800 B.C.

The fragments were uncovered between 1995 and 2000 at archaeological excavations near Puerto Escondido in Honduras.

From Beer to Chocolate

Today's chocolate is made from the fermented seeds of the cacao tree, which only grows near the Equator.

Around 1100 B.C., ancient beer makers used the cacao's seedpods to make their drinks. The pods—which were a little smaller than a modern American football—were fermented, and then the pod pulp was used to make the beer. The seeds were discarded.

"It was beer with a high kick," said study author Rosemary Joyce, an anthropologist at University of California, Berkeley.

"But it would not have tasted anything like the chocolate we have today."

About 300 years later, however, people began using the discarded fermented seeds to make a non-alcoholic beverage that was highly prized despite its bitter taste, said study author John Henderson, an anthropologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

The drink was poured from special pitchers that created froth in the drinking cups and served to celebrate special occasions such as marriages and births, Joyce said. (Related news: "Chocolate and Holidays—A Long History" [March 29, 2002].)

The researchers chemically analyzed the Honduran pottery fragments, once the special pitchers, and found cacao residue.

The findings were published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Chocolate Spreads

Spanish explorers took the non-alcoholic chocolate beverage to Europe in the 16th century. Today's familiar milk-chocolate bars first appeared in the United States in 1894. (See a picture of a chocolate sculpture.)

California author Ann Krueger Spivack, who wrote The Essence of Chocolate with John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg, was not involved in the study.

The discovery that fermented cacao seeds could be used to make a chocolate beverage was a "happy accident"—one that eventually gave the world one of its most popular pleasures, she said.

The new research into chocolate's history could "fuel creativity and spark the imagination of chocolatiers and chefs," Alice Medrich, author of Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a Life in Chocolate, said by email.

"As a result, we get new ideas about using chocolate in savory as well as sweet dishes and about pairing the flavors of chocolate with other flavors, too," Medrich said.

"New dishes and new trends are born. And new ideas spread from the most innovative and elite kitchens quickly, ultimately becoming products on supermarket shelves."

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