Earth Notes - Chaco Chocolate

Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: Chaco Chocolate

Chocolate lovers have been around a long time. A very long time. That's the news from New Mexico's Chaco Canyon ruins, where residue of the tropical bean from which chocolate is made was recently found in pottery said to be a thousand or more years old.

Anthropologist Patricia Crown of the University of New Mexico, working with a biochemist from the Hershey Foods technical center, found traces of theobromine (theo-BRO-mine), a principal compound of cocoa. Their discovery marks the first solid evidence that chocolate was consumed north of Mexico long before Columbus.

Cocoa was widely used by the ancient Maya in Central America, where it grows wild, but the nearest plants probably grew some 1,200 miles southeast of Chaco Canyon. Did the Ancestral Puebloans, who built Chaco, walk that far to get it? Did the Maya bring it north? Or were pods passed along a sophisticated trade network?

No one knows, although other items from the far south have shown up at archaeological sites on the Colorado Plateau, including parrot feathers, copper bells, and carved jade. New Mexico's chile peppers, tomatoes, and corn also originated in the tropics.

Adding to the mystery is the association of Chaco's chocolate with distinctive cylindrical jars. Similar vessels were used by the Maya to drink chocolate in sacred rituals.

Many anthropologists believe Chaco's main function may have been as a ceremonial hub. The presence of cacao could imply a much deeper connection than previously suspected between two cultures that both flourished long ago.

-Richard Mahler