There is currently some debate as to how many species of cacao (Theobroma spp) exist in the world, or ever did. Recognized varieties identified (and debated) include Theobroma cacao ssp. cacao (called Criollo and found throughout central America); T. cacao spp. sphaerocarpum (called Forastero and found in the northern Amazon basin); and a hybrid of the two called Trinitario. Recent genetic studies suggest that all forms of cacao are simply versions of Forastero. If true, cacao originated in the upper Amazon of Colombia and Ecuador and was brought to central America by human intervention. Ethnographic studies in the northern Amazon revealed that cacao use there was confined to the production of cacao chicha (beer) from the fruit, not from processing the beans.
Earliest Use of Chocolate
The earliest known evidence for cacao bean use was located outside of the Amazon basin and dates between about 1900-1500 BC. Researchers investigated residues on the interior of several bowls dated to the earliest societies in Mesoamerica using mass spectrometry and discovered evidence of Theobromine within a tecomate at Paso de la Amada, a Mokaya site in southern Chiapas, Mexico. They also found a bowl testing positive for Theobromine from the El Manati Olmec site in Veracruz, dated roughly 1650-1500 BC.
It seems clear that the innovation to plant and tend cacao trees is a Mesoamerican invention. Until recently, scholars believed that, because since the Maya word kakaw originates from the Olmec language, the Olmec must have been the progenitors of this delicious liquid. However, recent archaeological studies at Puerto Escondido in Honduras suggest that the original steps towards domestication of cacao happened before the rise of the Olmec civilization, when Honduras was in an active trade with the Soconusco region.
Archaeological sites with evidence for early chocolate domestication include Paso de la Amada (Mexico), El Manati (Mexico), Puerto Escondido (Honduras), Bat'sub Cave (Belize), Xunantunich (Guatemala), Rio Azul (Guatemala), Colha (Belize)
For more information on the importance of chocolate to Mesoamerican societies, see the article on Mesoamerican Cacao. A great source on the history of chocolate is at the Field Museum's website, All About Chocolate
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McAnany, Patricia A. and Satoru Murata 2007 America's first connoisseurs of chocolate. Food and Foodways 15:7-30.
Motamayor, J. C., A. M. Risterucci, M. Heath, and C. Lanaud 2003 Cacao domestication II: Progenitor germplasm of the Trinitario cacao cultivar. Heredity 91:322-330.
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Norton, Marcy 2006 Tasting empire: Chocolate and the European internalization of Mesoamerican aesthetics. American Historical Review 111(2):660-691.
Powis, Terry G., et al. 2008 The origins of cacao use in Mesoamerica. Mexicon 30:35-38.
Prufer, Keith M. and W. J. Hurst 2007 Chocolate in the Underworld Space of Death: Cacao Seeds from an Early Classic Mortuary Cave. Ethnohistory 54(2):273-301.
This glossary entry is part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.