Ori­gin of choco­late shifts 1,400 miles and 1,500 years

New re­search re­vealed on the roots of the ca­cao tree ( to shift to move / 1 mile = 1.6 km)

Vocable (All English) - - Édito Sommaire - NICOLA DAVIS


A new dis­cov­ery of the ori­gin of choco­late.

We thought the his­tory of choco­late and its ori­gins were well known, un­til re­cently when a team of Cana­dian re­searchers com­pletely over­turned the idea that small co­coa beans were used for the first time 3,100 years ago in Latin Amer­ica. They have traced co­coa to a much ear­lier pe­riod from ce­ramic ob­jects on an arche­o­log­i­cal site in Ecuador.

The key in­gre­di­ent of choco­late was be­ing used in South Amer­ica cen­turies be­fore it was ex­ploited by civil­i­sa­tions in Mex­ico and Cen­tral Amer­ica, ac­cord­ing to new re­search. The ca­cao tree, and in par­tic­u­lar the drinks made from its dried seeds, has long been linked to the Maya and other an­cient civil­i­sa­tions in Me­soamer­ica – a her­itage em­braced by choco­late com­pa­nies that pro­duce goods with monikers like Maya Gold.

2. But now ex­perts say seeds from the ca­cao tree were first used in present-day Ecuador by mem­bers of the Mayo Chinchipe cul­ture, in re­search that pushes back the date of the first ca­cao use by about 1,500 years and shifts the lo­ca­tion of the culi­nary event 1,400 miles to the up­per Ama­zon. “It is used by peo­ple in this area more than 5,000 years ago – way ear­lier than we have ever found in Me­soamer­ica and Cen­tral Amer­ica,” said Prof Michael Blake, a co-au­thor of the re­search from the Univer­sity of British Columbia in Canada. “It [tells] us that it was do­mes­ti­cated or at least un­der the process of do­mes­ti­ca­tion in this area.”


3. Writ­ing in the jour­nal Na­ture Ecol­ogy and Evo­lu­tion, Blake and col­leagues de­scribe how they made the dis­cov­ery at a site in the high­lands of Ecuador called Santa Ana-La Florida. Thought to have been lived in be­tween about 5,500 and 3,300 years ago, the site caused a stir when dis­cov­ered in 2002 be­cause it re­vealed a pre­vi­ously un­known an­cient so­ci­ety now called the Mayo Chinchipe cul­ture. The team an­a­lysed items in­clud­ing stone mor­tars, ce­ramic bowls, bot­tles and jars for traces of ca­cao.

4. The re­sults re­veal six of the arte­facts tested con­tained starch grains from a group of plants to which the ca­cao tree be­longs – grains found in par­tic­u­lar parts of plants, in­clud­ing the seeds. What’s more, theo­bromine – a bit­ter-tast­ing sub­stance found in high con­cen­tra­tions in ca­cao seeds – cropped up in 25 ce­ramic and 21 stone arte­facts. Mem­bers of the team also looked at an­cient ge­netic ma­te­rial in pot­tery from the site, find­ing that sev­eral frag­ments bore mi­to­chon­drial DNA – ge­netic ma­te­rial from within the cells – that could only be from ca­cao.

5. “They were [also] able to find spe­cific nu­clear gene se­quences from ca­cao in some of the sam­ples,” said Blake, adding that the dam­age seen in the DNA showed it was not mod­ern con­tam­i­na­tion – a point backed up by ra­dio­car­bon dat­ing of charred ma­te­rial found in­side the ves­sels, some of which was dated to more than 5,000 years ago. Var­i­ous bot­tles and bowls turned up trumps on all three tests. To­gether, says Blake, the find­ings point to a rev­e­la­tion. “The [ca­cao] seeds them­selves were be­ing ground and used in the ves­sels,” said Blake, adding that the flavour­ful hot ca­cao drink as­so­ci­ated with Me­soamer­ica is made this way.

6. Blake said the dis­cov­ery of traces of ca­cao in fancy con­tain­ers, some of which were funeral of­fer­ings found in tombs, means it might have been an im­por­tant part of feast­ing and rit­ual be­hav­iour. “It means even in these dis­tant times it was a spe­cial use of this de­li­cious bev­er­age, and maybe even cer­e­mo­nial bev­er­age, that drew peo­ple’s at­ten­tion to it and per­haps sparked its move­ment through­out the rest of the Amer­i­cas,” he said.

7. The dis­cov­ery backs up pre­vi­ous hints that ca­cao might have been used long ago in Ecuador: an­cient ceram­ics from the area dec­o­rated with pic­tures of ca­cao pods have been found, while pre­vi­ous re­search that has shown that the up­per Ama­zon is home to the great­est ge­netic di­ver­sity of Theo­broma ca­cao – the ca­cao tree. “It con­firms what botanists have long sus­pected – that the Ama­zo­nian re­gion is where we might ex­pect to find some of the first use,” said Blake.

The dis­cov­ery backs up pre­vi­ous hints that ca­cao might have been used long ago in Ecuador.

(Am­ber Fouts/ The New York Times)

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