Mayas may have used chocolate as spice

2012-08-03 14:42

Mexico City - Archaeologists say they have found traces of 2 500-year-old chocolate on a plate in the Yucatan peninsula, the first time they have found ancient chocolate residue on a plate rather than a cup, suggesting it may have been used as a condiment or sauce with solid food.

Experts have long thought cacao beans and pods were mainly used in pre-Hispanic cultures as a beverage, made either by crushing the beans and mixing them with liquids or fermenting the pulp that surrounds the beans in the pod. Such a drink was believed to have been reserved for the elite.

But the discovery announced this week by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History expands the envelope of how chocolate may have been used in ancient Mexico.

It would also suggest that there may be ancient roots for traditional dishes eaten in today's Mexico, such as mole, the chocolate-based sauce often served with meats.

"This is the first time it has been found on a plate used for serving food," archaeologist Tomas Gallareta said. "It is unlikely that it was ground there [on the plate], because for that they probably used metates [grinding stones]."


The traces of chemical substances considered "markers" for chocolate were found on fragments of plates uncovered at the Paso del Macho archaeological site in Yucatan in 2001.

The fragments were later subjected to tests with the help of experts at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, as part of a joint project. The tests revealed a "ratio of theobromine and caffeine compounds that provide a strong indicator of cacao usage", according to a statement by the university.

"These are certainly interesting results," John S Henderson, a Cornell University professor of Anthropology and one of the foremost experts on ancient chocolate, said in an e-mail.

Henderson, who was not involved in the Paso del Macho project, wrote that "the presence of cacao residues on plates is even more interesting... the important thing is that it was on flat serving vessels and so presented or served in some other way than as a beverage".

"I think their inference that cacao was being used in a sauce is likely correct, though I can imagine other possibilities," he added, citing possibilities like "addition to a beverage (cacao-based or other) as a condiment or garnish".

The plate fragments date to about 500 BCE (Before Common Era), and are not the oldest chocolate traces found in Mexico. Beverage vessels found in excavations of Gulf coast sites of the Olmec culture, to the west of the Yucatan, and other sites in Chiapas, to the south, have yielded traces around 1 000 years older.

But it does extend the roots of Mexican cuisine, and the importance of chocolate, further back into the past.

"This indicates that the pre-Hispanic Maya may have eaten foods with cacao sauce, similar to mole," the anthropology institute said in a statement.

  • delish7564 - 2012-08-03 17:14

    Why should this be a surprise? Nobody eaten chocolate chicken? Yum!!!!

  • keith.roberts.98434 - 2012-08-03 17:14

    Then their civilization collapsed when Cadbury, Nestle and Beacon raised their prices to unaffordable levels.

  • veritas.odium.paret - 2012-08-03 17:25

    I wonder how that find must taste.

  • RaveWolf1 - 2012-08-03 19:39

    If there are still traces of chocolate there after thousands of years, that means there are no ants... Time to get my VISA, I'm packing my bags now!!! LOL Q: It has not evaporated yet after all this time...WOW.

      johannes.p.nel - 2012-10-12 12:51

      ja umm dude..microscopic

  • Cavefacio - 2012-08-03 20:45

    So I see this scenario: This Maya mama is having her children over and she has this huge bag of chocolate. So she says: "Wait let me divide this and you all take some home. Make a nice cuppa each and do NOT confuse it with the Gravo as I did yesterday and your dad was very upset as he absolutely HATES chocolate on his food and it did really taste bad and I will NEVER do such a thing again." So she takes some plates as the bowls are dirty on the sink and she divides the chocolate equally. And just after they have brought back the dirty plates as children do, some catastrophe overtakes the place and she has no time to clean the plates. Thus they are preserved for posterity.

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