AUSTIN, Texas—Examining residue from the interior surfaces of ancient spouted Maya vessels, researchers from The University of Texas at Austin have discovered the earliest documented use of cacao or liquid chocolate dating to 600-400 B.C.
Although researchers have called similar vessels “chocolate pots” for nearly 100 years, there has been little evidence to support this interpretation until now, said anthropologist Fred Valdez.
“The university discovery is significant in that it shows the Maya had a long and continuous history of preparing and consuming liquid chocolate from the Middle Preclassic (600-400 B.C. or 2,600 years ago) to historic and modern times,” he said.
Valdez and other university researchers, working with the Hershey Food Technical Center, examined samples of dry residue collected from the interior surfaces of vessels at the archeological Maya site in Colha, Belize. Their findings were published recently in Latin American Antiquity and Nature magazine.
“With no residual or other scientific analyses to either confirm or deny this use for Preclassic vessels, it is difficult to understand how the phrase ‘chocolate pot’ has become so embedded in the literature,” Valdez said. “In fact, few attempts have been made by researchers to identify what function spouted vessels served in Maya society.”
Maya spouted vessels are found in the northern and southern lowlands. Across the Yucatan Peninsula, a number of sites, including caves, have produced intact vessels and spout fragments, said Dr. Tom Hester, who has led a university archeological dig in Colha for the past several years. In fact, northern Belize sites, like Colha and Cuello, have reported the highest numbers of spouted vessels.
“Intact specimens like the teapot spouted vessels are generally found in elite burials,” said Hester. “The drinks were probably used during ceremonials but we don’t know yet how widespread.”
There were several questions researchers were trying to answer when they began the residue tests, said researcher Terry Powis.
“We wanted to find out what evidence exists to suggest the Maya were drinking frothy cacao and, if they had knowledge of chocolate production, how were they making it,” he said.
The researchers also wanted to know who was drinking the chocolate — elites and or commoners.
In the tests, 14 whole spouted vessels from the site at Colha were examined. The Belize Department of Anthropology granted permission to sample the Colha vessels, which are stored at the university’s Texas Archeological Research Laboratory.
Because no residues were visible on the interior surfaces of these vessels, each vessel was lightly scraped to remove any substance that may have permeated the vessel wall. Several of the vessels contained significant amounts of theobromine. Past research has indicated that cocoa is the only Mesoamerican plant containing significant amounts of theobromine.
Powis said that spouted vessels may have had several functions in preclassic Maya society, one of which was to prepare, contain and pour liquid chocolate. He pointed out that three of the spouted vessels testing positive for cacao at Colha came from burial sites and all were decorated.
Evidence is still lacking, said the researchers, on where the cacao was being grown and who was controlling its distribution.
Note: Dr. Tom Hester can be reached at 830-966-3626. For more information about the vessels at the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, contact Skye Wagner at 512-232-7049.
For further information contact: Nancy Neff, Office of Public Affairs, 512-471-6504.