Professor finds earliest evidence of chocolate consumption

That nice mug of hot cocoa you’re sipping from this winter is something humans have enjoyed for…

Georgia (Jan 2, 2008) — Professor finds earliest evidence of chocolate consumption

Jeremy Craig

Abstract

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The earliest chocolate drink concocted‚ circa 1900 B.C.
Kennesaw State professor links cacao use to ancient cultures in Central America


KENNESAW‚ Ga. (Dec. 21‚ 2007) −− That nice mug of hot cocoa you’re sipping from this winter is something humans have enjoyed for centuries.

And thanks to the work of an international group of researchers‚ led by a Kennesaw State University archaeologist‚ there’s evidence that the first time people consumed chocolate was earlier − by several hundred years − than previously thought.

“There is conclusive evidence that shows that by 1900 B.C.‚ chocolate was being made‚” said Terry G. Powis‚ assistant professor of anthropology at Kennesaw State.

The research by Powis’ team appears in the December edition of “Antiquity‚” a peer−reviewed quarterly review of world archaeology based in Oxford‚ England.

Evidence in Mexico from ancient ceramic vessels reveals that cacao seeds − from which chocolate is made − was used by a people known as the Mokaya as early as 1900 B.C.‚ and by pre−Olmec peoples as early as 1750 B.C. Previously‚ the earliest evidence of chocolate use was found at the site of Puerto Escondito in northern Honduras‚ which dates from about 1400 to 1100 B.C.

In affixing a time period to chocolate’s earliest use by humans‚ vessels found in archaeological sites in the Mexican states of Chiapas and Veracruz yielded residues containing key chocolate chemicals −− theobromine and caffeine.

To confirm the presence of these substances‚ Powis’ team turned to today’s chocolate experts −− in Hershey‚ Pa. At the Hershey Foods Technical Center‚ scientists positively identified the particles through scientific analysis.

Clearly‚ the chocolate consumed by ancient civilizations of that region prior to contact by Spanish explorers in the 16th century A.D. was nothing like the cocoa or candy bars eaten today in the developed world‚ which is mostly sweetened and combined with milk in liquid or solid form.

The Maya −− who came centuries after the Mokaya and Olmec −− probably served chocolate as a watery beverage‚ whipping it to create a prized foam‚ Powis said. As for the preferred form of chocolate believed to be savored by the Mokaya and other pre−Olmec peoples centuries earlier‚ it’s still a mystery.

Asked Powis: “It raises all sorts questions: How was the chocolate prepared? Were other additives used‚ perhaps chilies‚ fruits or other flavors? Who‚ in those societies‚ drank chocolate‚ and for what purposes?”

Inevitably‚ Powis’ research leads to more questions than immediate answers. For one thing‚ the cacao tree −− where chocolate comes from − is not native to Central America‚ but most likely originated in South America‚ perhaps Venezuela.

Powis said he hopes his research inspires other archaeologists to pursue further inquiry into mysteries around the origins of one of the world’s favorite flavors.

“As an archaeologist‚ attempting to reconstruct past cultures really fascinates me‚” Powis said. “If an even earlier use of chocolate is found by another archaeologist‚ that would be wonderful.”

The professor also hopes to take a few Kennesaw State students to Chiapas in the next year for more research into ancient Central American cultures.

Those involved in the research outlined in the December “Antiquity” included Powis; W. Jeffrey Hurst‚ of the Hershey Foods Technical Center in Hershey‚ Pa.; María del Carmen Rodríguez‚ of the National Institute of Anthropology and History‚ Veracruz‚ Mexico; C. Ponciano Ortíz‚ of the Institute of Anthropology of the University of Veracruz‚ in Mexico; and Michael Blake‚ of the University of British Columbia‚ Vancouver.

To schedule an interview with Powis‚ please contact Jeremy Craig at 770−499−3448 or jcraig19@kennesaw.edu. The article in Antiquity is available online at http://antiquity.ac.uk/ProjGall/powis/index.html. (This link will open in a new window.)

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A member of the 35−unit University System of Georgia‚ Kennesaw State University is a comprehensive‚ residential institution with a growing student population of more than 20‚000 from 132 countries. The third−largest university in Georgia‚ Kennesaw State offers more than 60 graduate and undergraduate degrees‚ including a new doctorate in education.

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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers more than 150 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 35,000 students. With 13 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia and the third-largest university in the state. The university's vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the region and from 92 countries across the globe. A Carnegie-designated doctoral institution, it is one of the 50 largest public institutions in the country. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.

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