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.

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