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Chocolate's Early History

January 2008 - Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has identified the earliest known cacao consumption from analysis of pottery shards found at the site of Puerto Escondido in northern Honduras. These came from vessels that had been used for a fermented drink made from cacao seeds at least 3000 years ago, some 500 years earlier than previously thought.

Cornell professor of anthropology John Henderson and colleagues found traces of caffeine and theobromine, an alkaloid specific to cacao, in 11 pottery shards dated to 1100 B.C. found in excavations co-directed with University of California-Berkeley anthropology professor Rosemary Joyce.

Researchers explain that previously, chemical detection of cacao in ancient pottery required both an intact vessel and a substantial amount of residue. The current research used innovative extraction techniques together with liquid chromatography, gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to significantly increase the sensitivity of the tests.

John Henderson commented:

"It's not very often that you find a whole vessel. Now that you can process things from people's trash piles, you can see in much better context how these things were being used."

Researchers believe that the earliest wine-like drink was made by fermenting the pulp around the cacao seeds and would not have tasted like chocolate. Contemporary brewers have shown interest in reproducing this commercially. The seeds themselves were later used to produce a beverage with the more familiar taste, initially a feature of elite ceremonies. Chemical analysis alone cannot distinguish which type of cacao drink a vessel contained. However, the form of the vessels themselves was different. Earlier bottles had long, thin spouts. Chocolate-drinking was associated with short, wide jugs with broad openings to allow for creation of froth. The drink came to be traded and shared in ceremonies, contributing to creation of social networks.

John Henderson explained:

"The upwardly mobile families were using cacao, serving it as part of a strategy for distinguishing themselves. It was a way of creating social obligation and political power locally and with people in distant villages. It's that context that gives us a way of understanding how it is that potters in villages hundreds of miles apart have the same understanding of what vessels should look like."

Over time, the chocolaty drink made from fermented seeds achieved universal popularity, eclipsing the original brew.

John Henderson concluded:

"If we're right about the shift from wine made from pulp to chocolate made from seeds, then all the pomp and luxury that surrounded chocolate in later years - the control of cacao plantations by kings and chiefs, all the fancy serving of chocolate in the Aztec courts that so impressed the Spaniards, and the modern chocolate industry that developed from that - all that was an unintended consequence of some early brewing."

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