North American Ancients
by Thanh Huynh
Hello everyone. Last time we found that the Mokaya made drinks (non-alcoholic mind you), the Olmecs made alcohol, and the Mayans did almost everything with their cacao. To anyone confused, cacao makes chocolate. If your chocolate doesn’t have cacao, it’s faux choco. (Note: this is just a matter of opinion)
Back to the topic, although it was stated last time that this next part of the saga would be about the Aztecs and the Incas, we’re going to stray a bit (yes, we stray a lot) and talk about something a little closer to the times (and when I write times, I mean the Mayan’s times. Not ours).
Before that, anyone notice the chocolate coins up there? Why do you think they were chosen as the cover image for this post? (And no, it is not related to Christmas.)
If you don’t know, continue on and it’ll be answered at the end of the post. (And if you can’t wait, just scroll down. You know you want to.)
Now, back to the topic. It’s time to meet the next generation of chocolate lovers, and no, Hershey’swill not be here. If you want ‘em, they’re in the fourth installment of the as of now unfinished chocolate saga.
Picking up from where we left off, we surprisingly (because we hadn’t known this when writing the first chocolate post) meet not the Aztecs, but the inhabitants of North America’s present day Site 13 in the Alkali Ridge of southeastern Utah (Figure 1). Basically, contrary to what was written in part I, this is not a Mesoamerican chocolate saga but rather a Chocolate of the Americas saga. So yea, guess we North American’s aren’t so new to the chocolate game after all.
Blank map of the United States courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
In the 1930s, bowls dating circa 770 C.E. were excavated in Site 13. In 2012, the Washburns—archaeologist Dorothy K. Washburn and spouse chemist William N. Washburn, mind you, and not the Washburns of the F.B. Washburn Candy Company who make ribbon candy, among other things (makes you wonder doesn’t it)—and scientist Petia A. Shipkova published an article analyzing the bowls found. There were some interesting findings. Of course, if you don’t feel like reading about them, you can skip to the next paragraph.
Ceramic bowls found in archaeological Site 13, Utah (AAAS)
(Not this one, the next.) Firstly, analyses found theobromine (a principle alkaloid in theobroma cacao) and caffeine (another alkaloid in cacao) were found in many of the bowls excavated and that those bowls had designs not like the ones known to be originally from the Alkali Ridge (Site 13) inhabitants. Furthermore, the age of the bowls coincide with the migration of ancient corn/maize farmers of Mexico, who moved from Central America to North America’s southwest. Cool huh?
In layman terms, North Americans have been importing [chocolate] a millennium before the founding of the U.S.
Today’s Imported Chocolates
The North American ancients served chocolate as a drink during rituals. The ancients also may have packed it into slabs of chocolate to take on the go, as their Central American counterparts had. These travelers would add hot water, and voilà, instant hot chocolate (and we thought that was a modern invention *wink*).
Other archaeological evidence suggests the presence of chocolate in North America’s present day archaeological site of Pueblo Bonito (which translates to “beautiful town”) in the Chaco Canyon of New Mexico between 1000 to 1125 CE (PNAS).
A 2009 study analyzed jars found in the once prestigious 800 room hub of northwestern New Mexico (an ancient version of “the big city”).
Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (National Park Service)
There were traces of cacao—specifically theobromine—found in these special ceramic jars reserved for rituals and ceremonies. No one is certain what type of rituals they were for, but if the early inhabitants of Pueblo Bonito were anything like the Mayans, the jars would be used for every ritual.
Ceramic Jar found in Pueblo Bonito (NYTimes)
Let’s consider the the distance between New Mexico and the general area where cacao is cultivated a.k.a. Mayan territory—around 1,200 miles. (Check out figure 3. Just note that the yellow markings are made by an amatuer so it’s slightly *cough* really *cough* off.) It’s far. Really far. The ancients of Pueblo Bonito wouldn’t have been able to regularly get cacao from the Mexico/Guatemala/Honduras borders. We can reasonably return to the conclusion that cacao was imported from Mayan territory.
Blank map of the Americas courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
When people trade goods, what else happens? I know you know. Come on. It happens all the time. If you guessed war, you are…drumroll please…off…by a few hundred years. Anyways, the answer is cultural exchange. The inhabitants of Pueblo Bonito probably got the goods (the chocolate kind) and learned the recipes all from Mesoamerica.
Both Crown (anthropologist Patricia Crown, mind you, and Not the royal crown) and Dorie Reents-Budet of the Boston-based Museum of Fine Arts and associate of the Smithsonian Institution (she sounds like a team, with all her assignments doesn’t she?) speculate that the jars were used to shake the cacao drink into a frothy mixture and also as a form of ancient champagne glass.
The recipe would be the same as the Mayans’, in which the cacao would be “fermented, roasted and ground up, then mixed with water and flavorings [most likely vanilla, chili, and/or honey] before being whipped into froth” (New York Times).
Ground cocoa beans (How Stuff Works)
Considering how the cacao drink was A) imported; B) used for rituals; C) served in fancy containers; and D) alcoholic (the fourth point isn’t actually relevant, but still), there is a high chance that only the few elites could drink the cocoa like beverage, which brings us to the answer of why the chocolate coins are used as this post’s cover image.
The answer is because chocolate was a symbol of power, just as money, gold, and jewelry are a symbol of today’s power.
Speaking of which, chocolate would display a whole new level of power in the Aztec empire which would rise in another four hundred or so years. To find out how, stay tuned.
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