Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Chaco Choco

I had long assumed that chocolate, while indigenous to the Western Hemisphere, was unknown north of the Rio Grande until European colonists introduced it in the 17th century. Recently, however, University of New Mexico archaeologist Patricia Crown determined that the Anasazi culture of pre-Columbian New Mexico had access to cacao beans, which they obtained in trade - along with silver ornaments and scarlet macaws - from Mesoamerica. Examining a store of cylindrical pottery jars that Neil Judd and others found at the Anasazi city of Pueblo Bonito, in Chaco Canyon, Professor Crown realized they were similar to jars the Mayans had used to store cacao, and sent potsherds from these jars to W. Jeffrey Hurst at the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition. Hurst found that the shards contained traces of theobromine, a caffeine-like alkaloid found in only one Mesoamerican cultivar: cacao. Similar tests had found evidence of cacao throughout Central America, including the site of Pueblo Escondido (western Honduras), where University of Pennsylvania archaeologists found theobromine on a pottery bottle spout dated to 1150 BCE. The Chaco Canyon cacao evidence, dated to sometime after 1000 CE, extends the range for chocolate consumption and trading 1,200 miles north of the bean's cultivation limit. Crown believes cacao was an elite commodity in Pueblo Bonito, given that the jars which held it were concentrated in a few caches, and speculates that access to Mesoamerican "prestige goods" like chocolate and silver might have accounted for Pueblo Bonito's growth into a major social and political center. (Blake Edgar, "The Power of Chocolate," Archaeology, November/December 2010, pp. 20-25.) Life is usually more interesting when one's old assumptions are proven wrong.

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