Chocolate in America

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Just in time for Valentine's Day, an anthropologist has unwrapped the first known evidence of chocolate consumption north of the Mexican border. Prehispanic cultures in the Chaco Canyon region of what is now northwestern New Mexico apparently brewed a cacao-based beverage as early as 1,000 years ago, pouring it into tall, slender ceramic cylinders like these.

The evidence was apparently right under our noses—many of these cylinder jars have been in the Smithsonian's care ever since they were excavated in the 1890s and 1920s from the Chacoan settlement of Pueblo Bonito.

They look very similar to chocolate vessels used by Mayan cultures several hundred miles to the south. But no one knew the Chacoan jars' story for sure until University of New Mexico anthropology professor Patricia Crown followed a hunch and sent some sherds* off to a research center in Hershey, Pennsylvania (funded by a certain chocolate company you may have heard of) for analysis. Sure enough, the sherds contained traces of theobromine, a component of cacao.

From the abstract in last week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

  • The association of cylinder jars and cacao beverages suggests that the Chacoan ritual involving the drinking of cacao was tied to Mesoamerican rituals incorporating cylindrical vases and cacao.

What sort of rituals, you ask? Well, since I just happen to have a review copy of a new book titled "Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods" sitting idly on my desk, and only about a dozen other things to do (did I mention my knack for procrastination? No? Maybe later, then...), I'll find out for you and post more tomorrow.

* Just to be clear, she got the sherds from digging around the rubble at the Pueblo Bonito excavation site, not from the intact jars pictured here. The Smithsonian generally frowns on letting folks smash up its collection, even for the very worthy cause of chocolate research.

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