From Our 2007 Archives

Chocolate Craving Has Ancient Roots

By Steven Reinberg
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Nov. 16 (HealthDay News) -- Archaeologists say they've found one of the oldest traces ever of human chocolate consumption in pottery vessels more than 3,000 years old.

The jugs -- thought to have contained a fermented chocolate concoction -- date from 1150 B.C. and were used by Mesoamerican people in what is now Puerto Escondido, Honduras.

"It appears to have been used in a beverage, which was made from the pulp of the chocolate fruit. Later, they started to focus on the bean itself," said researcher Patrick McGovern, a senior research scientist and associate professor of anthropology at the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology, University of Pennsylvania Museum.

The cacao drink appears to have been fermented and was mildly alcoholic, containing about 5 percent alcohol, McGovern said. These ancient peoples apparently domesticated the cacao (chocolate) tree to produce these drinks, commonly consumed in ceremonies that marked weddings and births.

The findings were published in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

While McGovern's team claimed the find represented the "earliest cacao beverages" found, not everyone agreed.

"Chocolate is incredibly old in that part of the world [Mesoamerica]," said Michael D. Coe, the emeritus professor of anthropology at Yale University and co-author of The True History of Chocolate.

Newer studies have found even older chocolate on the Pacific coast of Mexico, Coe said. "The earliest sample is 1,200 years older than what this team reports. It looks like chocolate is almost 4,000 years old in that part of the world," Coe added.

Study lead author John S. Henderson, a professor of anthropology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., said that while he wasn't aware of the new data Coe cites, "it is very possible" that an older use of cacao had been found.

McGovern's team based their conclusion on finding traces of the chemical theobromine, a chemical found only in cacao plants, in pottery vessels used to hold liquids.

It is not clear what the drink looked like or how it tasted, McGovern said. But it would have had a sweet chocolate taste, he said. "Later, when the drink was being made from the bean, other things such as chilies, honey, and flowers and spices were added," he said.

Chocolate drinks made from the cacao bean were later used by the Mayans and Aztecs, McGovern noted.

Henderson said the findings pointed to the haphazard way customs developed and changed over time.

He argued that it was significant that the first use of chocolate was sourced and fermented from the plant's pulp. If this is true, then the way the Aztecs and others used chocolate, as well as the modern chocolate industry, "becomes an accident. An unintended consequence of early beer brewing," he noted.

"It makes a nice example that important developments are not self-consciously done by intended result," Henderson added.

McGovern said his team had also found the oldest known alcoholic beverage in the world. It came from China and dates from 7000 B.C., he said. The drink was made from rice, honey and hawthorn, or wild grape.

It appears that "humans are interested in finding anything that will ferment," McGovern said.

SOURCES: Patrick McGovern, Ph.D., senior research scientist, associate professor, anthropology, Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology, University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia; John S. Henderson, Ph.D., professor, anthropology, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.; Michael D. Coe, Ph.D., Charles J. MacCurdy, professor, anthropology, emeritus, Yale University, New Haven, Conn., co-author, The True History of Chocolate; Nov. 12-16, 2007, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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