Chacoans traded for chocolate

Monday, Aug. 5, 2013 11:21 PM
Ancestral Puebloans enjoyed chocolate drinks 1,000 years ago, according to new research this summer by the University of New Mexico. Professor Patricia Crown discussed the study as part of the Four Corners Lecture Series.

One thousand years ago, the ancient people of Chaco Canyon may have had a version of the frothy chocolate mocha we enjoy today, but in a very limited supply and without the cream, according to new research from the University of New Mexico.

Cacao, the main ingredient of chocolate, arrived in the Southwest in limited quantities from far away Mesoamerican cultures, said UNM anthropology professor Patricia L. Crown, during a presentation at Mesa Verde National Park.

“The nearest cacao tree was in Nayarit, Mexico, 1,200 miles away,” Crown said. “The Chacoan’s either walked to get it, Mesoamericans walked here to sell it, or it was exchanged up the trade route.”

Evidence of cacao residues show up in pottery at Chaco Canyon, and a petroglyph at the New Mexico ruin site resembles a cacao tree, she said. It appears cacao seeds were ground up, probably roasted, and consumed in a beverage.

Mayan frescoes show chocolate drinks being poured into vessels from high up, creating the bubbly froth, and that technique may have been shared here.

“We believe the Chacoans used the pour method,” Crown said.

She explained that this summer, her team collected and analyzed what is likely cacao residue inside containers grouped together in a room discovered and recorded by earlier archeologists.

“The way the vessels were arranged, in groups of four, suggests they were used to pour back and forth,” Crown said. “Historically, creating froth on top of chocolate drinks is really important.”

Crown and her team’s research on cacao use at Chaco and other sites is being funded by the National Science Foundation.

At Chaco’s famous Pueblo Bonito, 200 vessels were analyzed and are thought to have evidence of cacao. Of those jars, 111 were found as they were originally left by the Chacoan people in a sealed off chamber called Room 128.

The ancient mocha mug of choice was Show Low redware vessels, traded from Arizona.

“The cache suggests that the cacao drink was ritually charged and had community use,” Crown said.

Also, a bowl unearthed at Galaz Ruin, in southwest New Mexico, has an image similar to a cacao tree.

Imagining how Mayan traders worked their way so far north with chocolate is intriguing. Explorer Christopher Columbus reported local residents of the so-called “New World” traveling in canoes.

“So it is possible the Mayans covered part of the distance of northern trading routes by canoe,” Crown surmised.

Research is also being conducted on pottery at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center near Cortez to determine if cacao was consumed, but so far the evidence is inconclusive. The holly plant, with its caffeine content, could create false positives for cacao.

“We working it out this summer. There have been positive hints,” Crown said.

Chocolate is considered a super food today because of its flavonoids, which lower blood pressure, improve cardiovascular health, suppress coughs and increase blood flow to the brain.

Ancient cultures understood the benefits as well, although their preferred concoctions were different. The Maya preferred it hot, the Aztec cold. It is not known what the recipe was for Chacoan “mochas,” but the Aztecs mixed the drink with corn, honey, chiles and flower additives.

“In the Southwest, it was probably in limited supply and therefore more of a luxury food,” Crown said.

The study proves the universal appeal of chocolate, which has been consumed since 1900 BC. Perhaps the recent connection to the ancient Southwest could spur a new drink: the Chacoan Cacao Mocha.