Man's 2,600-year-old love affair with chocolate

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The Independent Online

Our love affair with chocolate began 1,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to a chemical analysis of a cooking pot used by the ancient Mayans in about 600BC.

Our love affair with chocolate began 1,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to a chemical analysis of a cooking pot used by the ancient Mayans in about 600BC.

The pot, unearthed at an archaeological site in northern Belize in Central America, contains a residue left over from when the vessel was used to make a frothy chocolate drink.

Scientists found that a rock-hard residue sticking to the bottom of the pot contained a chemical signature unique to the beans of the cacao plant, which can be roasted and ground into cocoa powder and made into chocolate.

Jeffrey Hurst, a chemical analyst at the Hershey chocolate company in Pennsylvannia who led the research team, said that the findings amounted to the earliest evidence of chocolate being drunk.

"Based on this evidence it seems that the Maya [people] harvested the cacao, they may have even fermented it, they certainly roasted and shelled the beans to make a ground powder which they might have mixed with water, corn or spices," Dr Hurst said.

"It doesn't sound terribly tasty to me but I'm not a Mayan. I guess the closest we can get to it today is putting cocoa powder in a blender and mixing it with water and some spices – not horribly appetising," he said.

Archival documents from the time of the Spanish conquest suggest that the Maya and Aztecs preferred to consume chocolate as a frothy drink made by pouring the liquid from one vessel into another. The chocolate was consumed with most meals and may have been mixed with chilli or honey in different proportions to make a variety of refreshing drinks.

The chemical analysis for the cooking pot's residue, published in the journal Nature, was able to distinguish the tell-tale signs of cacao among the approximately 500 different compounds that are unique to the plant.

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