Ancient Chocolate Found in Maya "Teapot"

By Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
July 17, 2002
Analysis of residue from a ceramic "teapot" suggests that the Maya, and their ancestors, may have been gobbling chocolate as far back as 2,600 years ago, pushing back the earliest evidence of cacao use more than 1,000 years.

"This reopens the whole debate about who first invented chocolate," said Jonathan Haas, curator of the mouthwatering "Chocolate" exhibition at the Field Museum in Chicago.

The first chemical evidence of cacao use came about 15 years ago after the analysis of residue from a vessel found at the Mayan site of Rio Azul in northeastern Guatemala and belonging to the Early Classic period of Maya culture—approximately A.D. 460. But Michael Coe, co-author of The True History of Chocolate, believes based on a slew of evidence, some linguistic, that the roots of chocolate go much further back to the great Olmec civilization, which preceded the Maya.

"The Maya derived a lot of their high culture from the Olmec," said Coe, also professor emeritus of anthropology at Yale. "Even the word 'cacao' is not a native Maya word—it's Olmec." The Olmec lived in the southern Gulf of Mexico between 1500 and 500 B.C., and their influence extended to Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, Costa Rica, and El Salvador.

"The new find is hard chemical evidence that the Mayans were drinking chocolate in 500 B.C.," said Coe, suggesting that people were cultivating the cacao tree long before the Maya civilization, which flourished in southern Mexico, the Yucatán, and the highlands of Belize between 500 B.C. and A.D. 1500.

Chocolate is made from the seeds of the cacao tree, which are swaddled in gooey white flesh inside green-yellow pods. The seeds and the pulp are scooped out of the pod and allowed to ferment until the seeds are a rich dark brown. The seeds are then dried, and then roasted before being ground to produce a thick chocolate paste.

Chocolate for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner

The Maya had a lifestyle many kids would envy—chocolate at every meal. "It was the beverage of everyday people and also the food of the rulers and gods," said Haas. In fact, the scientific name for the cacao tree is Theobroma cacao—"food of the gods." Hieroglyphs that depict chocolate being poured for rulers and gods are present on Maya murals and ceramics.

Now the newly-analyzed spouted ceramic pot reveals the deeper darker history of this almost drug-like substance.

Mayan teapots have always fascinated Terry Powis, an archaeologist at the University of Texas at Austin, which is how his investigation began. "Spouted vessels are very distinct from other Mayan ceramics and quite rare, typically associated with elite burials," he explained.

Fortunately for Powis, fourteen such vessels were excavated in 1981 from a site at Colha, which lies close to the Caribbean coast in northern Belize, and have since been housed at the University of Texas, Austin. The Maya occupied Colha, which is known for its production of stone tools and its Preclassic spouted vessels, continuously from about 900 B.C. to A.D. 1300.

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.

National Geographic Today, at 7 pm. ET/PT in the United States, is a daily news journal available only on the National Geographic Channel. Click here to learn more about it. Go>>

Join the National Geographic Society

Join the world's largest nonprofit scientific and educational organization, and help further our mission to increase and diffuse knowledge of the world and all that is in it. Membership dues are used to fund exploration and educational projects and members also receive 12 annual issues of the Society's official journal, National Geographic. Click here for details of our latest subscription offer: Go>>

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.