Archaeology
Cacao

Evidence of Cacao used as a Foodstuff from 2500 Years Ago



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"Evidence of Cacao used as a Foodstuff from 2500 Years Ago"
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It has long been known that cacao, the basis of chocolate, existed in Ancient Mexico some 3,500 years ago, but recent evidence which found traces of cacao on a 2,500 year old Mayan plate has caused great excitement because it is the earliest proof of cacao as a foodstuff rather than a drink. The residue is believed to have been a sauce, or a condiment to accompany food. Researchers had previously believed that the only uses for cacao beans were beverage-related – they were crushed and dissolved in water to make a hot chocolate-like drink, or the pulp around the beans was fermented to make an alcoholic drink. Such beverages would have been available to the Mayan elite rather than for everyday people. 

The traces of cacao were found on a plate fragment which was found at the Paso del Macho archaeological site in the Yucatan peninsula back in 2001. It is believed to be from around 500BC. The researchers from Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History explained that the presence of cacao was discovered because of chemical substances left behind as markers. Further tests were carried out, in conjunction with Millsaps College in Jackson Massachusetts, which revealed a “ratio of theobromine and caffeine compounds that provide a strong indicator of cacao usage.”

Researchers are excited because the evidence proves that chocolate in a solid form was important in Mexican cuisine much earlier than thought. Quite what form the cacao took is still unclear, but it could well have been a sauce along the lines of mole, the well-known chocolate based sauce that is used in Mexican cuisine today. An MSNBC article quotes a Cornell University professor of anthropology who, although not involved in the research, appreciates the importance of the findings. As he said in an email: “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.” 

According to the LA Times, the Paso del Macho site where the plate fragments were found dates from about 600BC to 500BC. It was not a particularly large site, but small mounds and a ball court suggest that it was nevertheless reasonably important. The fact that traces of cacao have been found suggests that there were strong links with the Mayan culture in general.

Mexonline.com explains that the best known form of mole in Mexico today is mole poblano, which is a rich, chocolaty sauce. However, there are considered to be another five types of mole, the ingredients of which are varied and can contain around 30 different items, including different types of chili, peanuts, almonds, bittersweet chocolate and different spices. It takes a long time to prepare and so is usually made in bulk. The fact that it may be based on something eaten 2,500 years ago is fascinating; hopefully more evidence about the eating habits of the Mayans will come to light in the years to come.

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  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://www.latimes.com/news/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-maya-chocolate-20120803%2C0%2C5012936.story?track=rss
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/48491543/ns/technology_and_science-science/#.UB6c3k2PWmg
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://www.latimes.com/news/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-maya-chocolate-20120803%2C0%2C5012936.story?track=rss
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://www.mexonline.com/molepoblano.htm