Posts Tagged ‘maya’

North American Ancients

by Thanh Huynh

Gold Choco Coins

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.)

Christmas Tree

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.

Utah - Alkali Ridge

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.

Utah Chocolate Bowl

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.

Ferrero RocherLindtGodiva

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).

New Mexico - Chaco Canyon

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

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.

Pueblo Bonito - Ceramic Jars

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.

The Americas

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)



Mexican Chili Pepper

Mexican Chili Peppers

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.


Cartwright, M. (2014, February 26). Aztec civilization. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Cartwright, M. (2014, June 27). Chocolate. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

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.

Handwerk, B. (2009, February 2). First chocoholics in U.S. found in New Mexico?. National Geographic News. Retrieved from

Mars. (2013). History of chocolate. American Heritage, Historic Chocolate. Retrieved 2014, August 18, from

National Confectioners Association’s Chocolate Council. (2008). The story of chocolate: Ancients in Mesoamerica. Retrieved from

Spotts, P. (2009, February 3). Chocolate at Chaco Canyon: A ceremonial beverage heads north. The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved from

The Gourmet Chocolate of the Month Club. (n.d). Chocolate history timeline. Retrieved from

U.S. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Theobromine. National Center for Biotechnology Information, MeSH. Retrieved from

Washburn, D. K., Washburn, W. N., & Shipkova, P. A. (2012). Cacao consumption during the 8th century at Alkali Ridge, southeastern Utah. Journal of Archaeological Science, 40(4), 2007-2013.

Watson, T. (2013, January 22). Earliest Evidence of Chocolate in North America. American Association for the Advancement of Science, Archaeology [AAAS]. Retrieved from

Image References

Hoppe, M. (2012, January 30). Vanilla. Drink of the Week. retrieved 2014, August 18, from

Lokal Profil. (2008, April 27). Blank map of the Americas. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved 2014, August 18, from

Schon, M. (2007). Ground cocoa beans. Retrieved 2014, August 18, from Shattuck, B. (n.d.). Aerial photo of Pueblo Bonito. National Park Service. Retrieved 2014, August 18, from

The Huffington Post. (2013, July 22). Mexican chili peppers. Retrieved 2014, August 18, from

Watson, T. (2013, January 22). Ceramic bowl containing T. Cacao dating 770 C.E. from Utah. American Association for the Advancement of Science, Archaeology. Retrieved 2014, August 18, from

Zntrip. (2006, July 4). Blank map of the United States. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved 2014, August 18, from


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in Chocolate Chocolate

Hello there. In honor of Chocolate Day, we present to you “The History of Chocolate.”  Anyways, quick trivia. What came first: chocolate candy or hot chocolate? Take a wild guess.  If you haven’t guessed yet, do so now, because the answer is coming. Now, here it comes. The answer is…drumroll please….. neither.

Mokaya ShardCeramic shard found in Paso de la Amada

containing cacao residue (Antiquity)

You see, archaeological evidence in 2007 reveal residue of cacao beverages—yes beverages with a plural s—in ceramic shards found in Paso de la Amada of Chiapas, Mexico (found in blue in figure 1), dating back to the Mokaya villagers of 1900-1700 B.C.E. Mesoamerica. The Mayans also occupied Chiapas, Mexico, which links pottery of the Mokaya to pottery of the Maya.

Mexico States

Central America

Anyways, the Mokaya are believed to have first processed cacao and consumed it as liquid chocolate. Where the cacao comes from is disputable between South and Central America. Studies aren’t too clear on how the drink was served during this period either, but later dates (as in Maya-later and not us later mind you) indicate a closer resemblance to cocoa than hot chocolate, but we’ll get to that later.

Back to the science, other archaeological evidence reveal cacao residue in a pottery dating 1650-1500 B.C.E. in the archeological site of El Manati of Veracruz, Mexico (found in green in figure 1).

Chocolate Vessel - Science Museum of MinnesotaMayan chocolate vessel found in

Veracruz, Mexico (Science Museum of Minnesota)

Interestingly enough, the ceramic the residue came from was a ritual-type ceramic (wink wink). Another 2007 study also found over 10 ceremonial (wink wink) drinking vessels, dating between 1300-900 B.C.E., contained cacao residue—from archaeological site Puerto Escondido of the Ulúa River Valley of Honduras (found in purple in figure 2). That sits near the Olmec civilization which is considered Mesoamerica’s first great civilization, originating in Guatemala circa 1200-400 B.C.E.

Now, normally, when you think of rituals and ceremonies, and all of those important events that gather lots and lots of important people, what do you think of first in terms of drinks. (Hint: we call them drinks.) If you haven’t guessed yet, here’s the answer: booze.

Eureka Beer GuideChocolate Beer (Eureka Beer Guide)

You see, back in ancient times, beer was the preferred drink. It could be made with crops in abundance (like say the Mesoamerican maize for example *cough cough*) and could be easily stored. Moreover, plain water might be contaminated and cause illness or death when drunk (no pun intended). Alcohol, with its antibacterial properties, thus became the safer alternative to drinking water.

ChichaChicha de Jora – Fermented Corn beer

(jasmine navarro oviedo)

Products high in sugar—like chocolate—were preferred in alcohol production. See where I’m going here? Cacao, whether the seeds or the fruit depending on whom you ask, was thereby very likely fermented by the ancients to produce chicha—a type of corn beer made from maize.

As exciting as the ancient chocolate beer recipe is (it really doesn’t taste like cocoa or hot chocolate), even more exciting is the fact that the Olmecs came up with the “fermenting, drying, roasting and grinding process” that stems modern chocolate processing.

Of course, while it seems that chocolate history would stop there and jump straight to the modern chocolate we eat today, that’s not quite how people work.

Rio Azul VesselsChocolate Vessels found in the burial

grounds of Rio Azul (Authentic Maya)

A 2002 study found traces of chocolate in ceramic vessels in burial sites found in the Mayan archaeological site Colha of the country Belize (found in orange in figure 2). The vessels date between 1000 B.C.E. to 250 C.E. An earlier study in 1990 found more evidence of chocolate in vessels dating 460-480 C.E. at Maya burial grounds (did things turn superstitious or what?) in Rio Azul, Guatemala. They believed that it would help sustain their dead in the afterlife.

HeiroglyphMaya Hieroglyph of Cacao (Authentic Maya)

Vessels like the one shown above would have hieroglyphs depicting cacao (written in what translates roughly to “ka’kau”).

Rio Azul - Chocolate PotChocolate Pot from Rio Azul

(Authentic Maya)

The Mayans, though, didn’t make their chocolate quite the same way as the Olmecs. The Mayans added chili (and to think we thought hot sauce chocolate was new), vanilla planifolia, and/or honey to their cacao beverages. They also poured it back and forth into different containers (like shaking a cocktail) to make it nice and frothy. Served hot, it resembled modern-day cocoa.

Chocolate atoleChocolate Atole (Magnus Manske)

In addition to the predecessor of cocoa, the Mayans also had chocolate atole, a drink thickened with atol (a corn based beverage/gruel).

The Mayans also used cacao as medicine and as battle provisions for warriors. Cacao would be mixed with flowers or packed into small slabs with corn meal. Energy bar anyone?

Late Classic Maya VaseMayan Vase Depicting A Lord And His Chocolate (Authentic Maya)

Wrapping it all together, the Maya were very close to their chocolate. They drank chocolate. They ate chocolate. They treated ailments with chocolate (How? I don’t know.). They fought battles with chocolate. They scribed about chocolate (on their pottery). They celebrated holidays, weddings, feasts, and ceremonies with chocolate. (They have chocolate myths associated with the ceremonies as well.) Heck, they even died with chocolate. Granted, some of them didn’t really want to die with chocolate, seeing as the cacao beans were just added in to human sacrifice rituals because the royals wanted them to, but hey. Whatever floats their boats.

To recap, the Mokaya made drinks with their cacao. The Olmecs made alcohol with their cacao. The Mayans did almost everything with their cacao. In this Mesoamerican chocolate saga, there’s still the later Aztecs and Incas to go.

Do they follow the footsteps of their predecessors and find even more ways to bind with their chocolate? Or do they wait it out and leave it up to us North Americans (*cough* Hershey’s *cough*)? Stay tuned to find out.

(If you can’t wait to find out though, the National Confectioners Association has a detailed history of chocolate in the ancient world at and Mars—the company, not the planet, silly—has a really good timeline on chocolate history at



Authentic Maya. (2011, January 28). The Maya and the ka’kau’  (cacao). The Authentic Maya Culture, and Guatemala. Retrieved from

Cartwright, M. (2013, August 30). Olmec civilization. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Hall, G. D., Tarka Jr., S. M., Hurst, W. J., Stuart, D., & Adams, R. E. W. (1990). Cacao residues in ancient Maya vessels from Rio Azul, Guatemala. American Antiquity, 55(1), 138-143. Retrieved from

Henderson, J. S. (1997). The world of the ancient Maya [Google E-book]. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Retrieved from

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. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0708815104

Hirst, K. K. (n.d.). Chocolate domestication: The history of the domestication of chocolate., Archaeology. Retrieved from

Mark, J. J. (2012, July 6). Maya civilization. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

McGovern, P. E. (n.d.). Chicha. Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory. Retrieved from

Powis, T. G., Hurst, J. W., del Carmen Rodríguez, M., Ortíz C., P. Blake, M., Cheetham, D., Coe, M. D., & Hodgson, J. G. (2007). Oldest chocolate in the New World. Antiquity, 81(314). Retrieved from

Powis, T. G., Valdez Jr., F., Hester, T. R., Hurst, W. J., & Tarka Jr., S. M. (2002). Spouted vessels and cacao use among the preclassic Maya. Latin American Antiquity, 13(1), 85-106. Retrieved from

Science Museum of Minnesota. (2014). Have a cup of cocoa, Maya style. Science Buzz. Retrieved from

Standage, T. (2005). A history of the world in 6 glasses. New York, NY: Walker Publishing Company Inc.

Image References

Authentic Maya. (2011, January 28). Chocolate pot. The Authentic Maya Culture, and Guatemala. Retrieved 2014, July 6 from

Authentic Maya. (2011, January 28). Chocolate Vessels found in the burial. The Authentic Maya Culture, and Guatemala. Retrieved 2014, July 6 from

Authentic Maya. (2011, January 28). Maya hieroglyph of cacao. The Authentic Maya Culture, and Guatemala. Retrieved 2014, July 6 from

Authentic Maya. (2011, January 28). Mayan vase depicting a lord and his chocolate. The Authentic Maya Culture, and Guatemala. Retrieved 2014, July 6 from

Виктор В. (2010, November 14). Outline map of Central America. Wikipedia. Retrieved 2014, July 6 from

Eureka Beer Guide. (2014). Beer and chocolate. Retrieved 2014, July 6 from

jasmine navarro oviedo. (2013). Chicha de jora. Retrieved 2014, July 6 from

Magnus Manske. (2007, May 26). Chocolate atole. Wikipedia. Retrieved 2014, July 6 from

Powis, T. G., Hurst, J. W., del Carmen Rodríguez, M., Ortíz C., P. Blake, M., Cheetham, D., Coe, M. D., & Hodgson, J. G. (2007). Ceramic shard found in Paso de la Amada. Antiquity, 81(314). Retrieved 2014, July 6 from

Science Museum of Minnesota. (2014). Mayan chocolate vessel found in Veracruz, Mexico. Science Buzz. Retrieved 2014, July 6 from

Sémhur. (2008, September 24). Map of Mexico, with state borders. Wikipedia. Retrieved 2014, July 6 from

Watson, T. (2013, January 22). Earliest evidence of chocolate in North America. AAAS, Archaeology. Retrieved 2014, July 6 from

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