November 13, 2007
Love of Chocolate May Have Begun With Cacao Beer
By HENRY FOUNTAIN
The ancient peoples of Mexico and Central America loved to drink chocolate. But their beverage was nothing like the modern one — it was a frothy, bitter brew of fermented, roasted and ground cacao seeds, often spiced with chile peppers, more like mole poblano than Swiss Miss.
New archaeological findings by John S. Henderson of Cornell and Rosemary A. Joyce of the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues push the date of the first use of cacao back to about 1100 B.C., 500 years earlier than previously known. What’s more, the researchers suggest that this early beverage was something different again — a fermented beer made from cacao pulp, not seeds.
Dr. Henderson and Dr. Joyce have been digging for years at Puerto Escondido, a village in the Ulúa Valley in what is now Honduras. They have found elegant pots, cups and other pieces of pottery and have developed a theory that the pottery was probably used on ceremonial occasions to serve cacao beverages. “Cacao was the social grease of Mesoamerica,” Dr. Henderson said.
But this theory was based only on circumstantial evidence, he added. “We were thinking we didn’t have much potential for chemical confirmation.”
Previously it was possible to detect evidence of cacao — the compounds theobromine and caffeine — only from visible residues in intact pots. But using just pottery fragments, the researchers were able to detect the compounds from residues absorbed by the clay. The findings were reported in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Dr. Henderson said other evidence suggested that the pottery was used for an alcoholic beverage. Most of the vessels from that time only had a narrow spout, which would be good for pouring but not for frothing up a seed-based beverage. For that, a wider mouth would be needed, and wide-mouthed vessels are not found at Puerto Escondido for several hundred years.
Dr. Henderson suggested that the Mesoamericans fermented cacao first to make beer, eventually discovering, likely by accident, that the fermented seeds made an even better beverage. If so, he said, the rise of cacao and the eventual birth of the modern chocolate industry — all of which began with the passion for the frothy drink — “would then be an unintended consequence of something different,” he said.