Researchers Now Know Where the Ancient Maya Planted Their Sacred Cacao Groves

Sinkholes across the Yucatan Peninsula provided perfect growing conditions for the plant, used as currency in the Mesoamerican civilization

two men walking through fauna outdoors in jungle
Reserachers descend into a Yucatan sinkhole to examine sacred Maya cacao groves.  Brigham Young University

Researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU) have discovered the locations of cacao groves sacred to the ancient Maya , writes Todd Hollingshead for BYU News. Working closely with archaeologists from the U.S. and Mexico, the team found evidence of cacao groves in sinkholes in the Yucatan Peninsula, and published their findings in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Archaeologists have long known the Maya viewed cacao—the plant that chocolate comes from—as a gift from the gods and cultivated cacao trees in sacred groves, according to Archaeology. But given that the dry climate of the Yucatan Peninsula makes for poor cacao-growing conditions, scientists have been puzzled as to where these groves might have been, according to Sci News.

The BYU research team posited the karst sinkholes located throughout the peninsula may have created perfect microclimates for growing cacao trees by providing ideal levels of humidity, stillness and shade, reports Sahir Pandey for Ancient Origins.

To test their hypothesis, researchers took soil samples from 11 sinkholes in the peninsula and analyzed them through a new method call hot water extraction. The scientists first dried the soil samples and sent them through a sieve. Then, the samples were covered with hot water, centrifuged and passed through extraction disks, per Ancient Origins. The team examined the extracts and compared the results against seven control samples that had no exposure to cacao. The team found nine of the 11 sinkhole samples contained evidence of theobromine and caffeine—biomarkers that, when combined, are unique to cacao.

man in baseball cap standing on top of moss-covered giant tree root in jungle
Experts also found the remains of an ancient staircase ramp. Brigham Young University

“We looked for theobromine for several years and found cacao in some places we didn’t expect,” Richard Terry, a researcher and professor emeritus with the university, tells BYU News. “We were also amazed to see the ceremonial artifacts. My students rappelled into one of these sinkholes and said, ‘Wow! There is a structure in here!’ It was a staircase that filled one-third of the sinkhole with stone.”

In a sinkhole near Cobá, Mexico, roughly 45 minutes from Tulum, the research team found several ceramic modeled cacao pods, the arm and bracelet of a figurine attached to an incense jar and remnant cacao trees, according to BYU News. It’s possible this sinkhole, named “Dzadz Ion,” was home to a sacred cacao grove somewhere between 1000 C.E. and 1400 C.E. In other sinkholes, the archaeologists found stone carvings, altars, remains of staircase ramps and ceremonial offerings like jade and ceramics. These findings suggest that cacao played a role in the changing of Maya religious worship of a maize god to a sun god.

The Maya also used cacao as a form of currency, as a part of religious ritual, and as a form of tribute. The BYU study found that hundreds of the peninsula’s sinkholes align with a 70-mile Maya “highway” that was the main artery for trade, per BYU News. Based on this finding, it’s likely that cacao groves played an important part in ancient Maya trade, and that the individuals who developed the highway also controlled cacao production.

“Now we have these links between religious structures and the religious crops grown in these sinkholes,” Terry tells BYU News. “Knowing that the cacao beans were used as currency, it means the sinkholes were a place where the money could be grown and controlled. This new understanding creates a rich historical narrative of a highly charged Maya landscape with economic, political and spiritual value.”