The Archaeology of… Chocolate

chocolateThose who observe Valentine’s Day have many options in how to celebrate their love, but many choose to do it with chocolate. The pairing is a result of Valentine’s Day becoming celebrated as a romantic holiday starting with Chaucer in 1382 (and since becoming increasingly commercialized) and the rise of chocolate as a popular food in Europe. But it should be obvious that Valentine’s Day is not the only time in which we indulge in these candies. As of 2015, the average American eats 9.5 lbs of chocolate a year, and that amount puts the US at 9th in the world – in Switzerland the average citizen eats 19.8 lbs a year. The marriage of Valentine’s Day and chocolate may be fairly recent but chocolate consumption dates back thousands of years.

theobroma_cacao_drawingChocolate is a preparation of Theobroma cacao seeds, usually roasted and ground, and then flavored. The distribution of T. cacao covers southeastern Mexico to the Amazon drainage basin that includes some 40% of South America. While the first mention of cacao or chocolate in a Western language is from a letter Hernando Cortes wrote to the Emperor of Spain, dated October 30 1520 (Dillinger et al. 2000), inhabitants of Central and South America were connoisseurs of chocolate for centuries before the Spanish arrived. The word ‘cacao’ is likely from the Olmecs, the Mesoamerican civilization that predated the Maya and Aztecs. In the Mayan and Mexica religions, cacao had a divine origin and was only prepared as a drink given to males in the highest echelons of society (Dillinger et al. 2000). Invading Europeans took the Aztec word xocolātl  (chocolate) to describe the beverage when they encountered it and took the recipe back to Europe.

The oldest archaeological evidence for cacao use is from a Mokaya site in Mexico, where researchers have discovered chemical evidence dating chocolate consumption to 1900-1750 BC (Powis et al. 2007). An analysis of dry residue of vessel fragments from two sites – Paso de la Amada on the Pacific coast of Mexico and El Manti on the Gulf Coast – were dated to 1900-1500 BC and 1750-1500 BC respectively. Two of the 22 fragments, one from each site, tested positive for the presence of theobromine, a compound unique to cacao (Powis et al. 2007). Similar residue analysis has revealed the presence of cacao in vessels at Colha in northern Belize at 600 BC by the Preclassic Maya (Hurst et al. 2002) and at Puerto Escondido in Honduras at 1000 BC (Henderson et al. 2007).


Researchers from the University of New Mexico identified the first evidence of cacao use north of Mexico at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon at A.D. 1000-1125 (Crown & Hurst 2009). No visible residue remained but researchers were able to perform organic residue analysis on the absorbed residue from ceramic shards of cylinder jars or pitchers. Researchers believe that the presence of cacao here represents an exchange with Mesoamerican cultivators of the plant during this time period of prehistory (Crown & Hurst 2009).

Today it is viewed as a romantic candy, but historically and culturally, chocolate has been used as food, medicine, and for ritual. Evidence for chocolate used for medicinal purposes starts with the Mexica (Aztec) culture and the drink was reportedly used to treat stomach/intestinal issues, reduce fever, and cure infections (Dillinger et al. 2000). This use is unsurprising given that the theobromine and caffeine in cacao has psychoactive effects that can positive affect mood and alertness (Martínez-Pinilla et al. 2015). These effects would have no doubt added to the allure and status of chocolate as it was utilized by the Mesoamericans and when it was first introduced to European culture. And while today we offer chocolate to our sweethearts, thousands of years ago it was offered to the gods in ceremonies and used in mortuary rituals involving human sacrifice (Dillinger et al. 2000).



Crown, P. L., & Hurst, W. J. (2009). Evidence of cacao use in the Prehispanic American Southwest. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(7), 2110-2113.

Dillinger, T. L., Barriga, P., Escárcega, S., Jimenez, M., Lowe, D. S., & Grivetti, L. E. (2000). Food of the gods: cure for humanity? A cultural history of the medicinal and ritual use of chocolate. The Journal of nutrition, 130(8), 2057S-2072S.

Henderson, J. S., Joyce, R. A., Hall, G. R., Hurst, W. J., & McGovern, P. E. (2007). Chemical and archaeological evidence for the earliest cacao beverages. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(48), 18937-18940.

Hurst, W. J., Tarka, S. M., Powis, T. G., Valdez, F., & Hester, T. R. (2002). Archaeology: cacao usage by the earliest Maya civilization. Nature, 418(6895), 289-290.

Martínez-Pinilla, E., Oñatibia-Astibia, A., & Franco, R. (2015). The relevance of theobromine for the beneficial effects of cocoa consumption. Frontiers in pharmacology, 6.

Powis, T. G., Hurst, W. J., Rodríguez, M. D. C., Ponciano Ortiz, C., & Blake, M. (2007). Oldest chocolate in the New World. Antiquity, 81(314), 302-305.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s