WASHINGTON, D.C. – Natives of Central America began making a beverage from cacao at least 3,100 years ago, five centuries earlier than the time researchers previously established as its origin, according to a new study.
Archaeologists analyzed ceramic containers from Valle de Ulua in northern Honduras, which date back to 1100 B.C., and found residues of theobromine, a substance found only in the cacao plant.
Theobromine is an alkaloid that in its pure state is a white powder found in the cacao plant, particularly in the seeds, in a concentration of between 1-4%. Chocolate is obtained by fermenting and drying the seeds and then processing the extract.
Archaeologists conclude in the online edition of the magazine Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the first evidence for human use of a chocolate beverage dates back 500 years earlier than previously thought. The kind of ceramics found in the Valle de Ulua indicates that the chocolate beverage was used in important ceremonies to celebrate weddings and births, according to the authors of the study.
Cornell University anthropologist John Henderson, who was part of the team, said that beverages derived from cacao were prepared long before the oldest documents indicate, and that they were similar to beer.
They were used at a very early stage to win social standing, which indicates the beginnings of a process of establishing different social classes, the expert said.
From the original cacao beverage, consumed by between 200 and 300 people in the Valle de Ulua, was later derived the product that became popular in Mesoamerica, although it did not have the same consistency.
Spaniards of the 16th century carried chocolate to Europe, where many new versions of the drink were produced.