America’s First Chocolate Craving

By: The Scribe on Wednesday, June 19, 2013

raw cacaoThe next time you’re craving a chocolate fix, remember—it’s only human! Humans have been yearning for the bittersweet treat for hundreds (maybe thousands?) of years… and a recent discovery at a settlement in Utah may have set the “chocolate in America” date back by 200 years!

The site, which dates back to the 8th century and is known as Alkali Ridge, contains the oldest known traces of chocolate found in the USA. Dr. Dorothy Washburn, a researcher from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, studied residue from 18 pottery vessels taken from the site in the 1930s, and found that 13 of the vessels contained traces of cacao (more commonly known as “cocoa”).

The jars, bowls, and pitchers contained evidence of theobromine, which is a chemical compound found in chocolate (yep, that’s the one that’s safe for humans, toxic for dogs!). The only other North American plant that’s known to contain the substance is a toxic holly plan, occasionally used by Midwestern cultures to induce “ritual vomiting.”

Critics who cite that it might have been the holly in the jars are mistaken, according to Washburn. “The only conclusion can be that it’s cacao,” she says, because cacao was known to have been a staple of life in Mesoamerica—and the holly only grows in the Southeastern USA.

And as for how cacao made its way to the Southwest in Utah? Well, that’s another mystery. It’s possible that it arrived through trade routes… or, even more likely, through the movement of people from one place to another.

1200 year old bowl with traces of cacaoDuring this period, it’s possible that people living in Mesoamerica were making their way up to the American Southwest, using trade routes to migrate and find new places to live. Today, it’s not unusual for people to do that same thing—immigrate from Central America to the Southwestern United States. Maybe they just arrived earlier than we’d thought!

The pottery that the traces of cacao were found in is another clue as to what the plant was doing in Utah—the pottery isn’t at all like what was the typical local pottery of the time, indicating that different people were living alongside the Pueblo culture of the area and continuing to create their own traditional pottery and pot designs.

During the 8th century, Mesoamerica was in the midst of an upheaval—by the year 900 A.D., many Mayan city states had collapsed, and people were on the move… and Washburn believes some of them ended up at this little site in Utah.

(More research on this find has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.)


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