13 November 2007

Chocolate has 3,000-year history

Agençe France-Presse
Central Americans were drinking beverages made from the cacao plant before 1000 BC, 500 years earlier than previously thought, say archaeologists.
Chocolate has 3,000-year history

In brewing up a primitive beer, or chicha, from the cacao plant, ancient Mesoamericans may have stumbled on the secret to making chocolate-flavoured drinks. Credit: iStockphoto

CHICAGO: Central Americans were drinking beverages made from the cacao plant before 1000 BC, 500 years earlier than previously thought, say archaeologists.

These early cacao beverages were probably alcoholic brews, or beers, made from the fermented pulp of the cacao fruit, rather than the frothy chocolate-flavoured drink made from the seed of the cacao tree that was such an important feature of later Mesoamerican culture.

Stumbled on a secret

But in brewing up this primitive beer, or chicha, the ancient Mesoamericans may have stumbled on the secret to making chocolate-flavoured drinks, report experts in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

“In the course of beer brewing, you discover that if you ferment the seeds of the plant you get this chocolate taste,” said John Henderson, a professor of anthropology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and lead author of the paper. “It may be that the roots of the modern chocolate industry can be traced back to this primitive fermented drink.”

The cacao bean played an important role in Mesoamerican civilisation – the native civilisation in parts of Mexico and Central America prior to the Spanish conquest of the 16th century.

The bean was a form of currency in Aztec society, and the frothed chocolate drink made from fermented beans or seeds was central to social and ritual life throughout Mesoamerica.

Ritual and economic role

Subsequently, in the 16th century, invading Europeans acquired a taste for the beverage and took it home, which led to the rise of the modern chocolate industry.

The archaeological evidence recovered by Henderson and colleagues from a site in Puerto Escondido in modern-day Honduras suggests that the beer which probably preceded the chocolate beverage was popular among wealthy natives at least as early as 1,100 BC.

Chemical analysis of residues found on fragments of pottery vessels recovered from the site tested positive for theobromine – a compound found in cacao trees that were limited to Central America.

The vessels were found in the “fancier, bigger houses” in the village of Puerto Escondido in the Ulua Valley in northern Honduras, said Henderson who argued that the elite members of society would have consumed the beverage to mark special occasions such as births and marriages.

More information:
Cacao – Wikipedia
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