Earliest Chocolate Discovered in Ancient Settlement in Utah: Report

Monday, 17 Jun 2013 02:38 PM

By Michael Mullins

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Traces of the oldest known chocolate in the United States have been recovered from an ancient settlement in southeastern Utah, according to an anthropologist whose report was recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science and reported by the website Western Digs.

Dating back to the 8th century, the settlement, known as Alkali Ridge, belonged to the Ancestral Puebloans.

The traces of chocolate were found inside jars, pitchers, and bowls at the site, according to Dr. Dorothy Washburn, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

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Washburn says she and her team, which included her husband, a chemist, found 13 artifacts that contained traces of cacao at the site.

Specifically, Washburn found a chemical called theobromine, which much like caffeine is a compound that is found in abundance in cacao.

"The only conclusion can be that it’s cacao," Washburn told Western Digs.

Considering the cacao tree is a tropical plant that is found thousands of miles from Utah and in areas dominated by Mesoamerican Indian tribes, and not Puebloans, it is not clear how it arrived in the region, notes the Western Digs website.

Though it is unclear how the cacao traveled so far North, the conventional theory is that cacao was a sought-after commodity that made its way North along trade routes.

Cacao was valued among ancient Native American tribes as a natural stimulant, while chocolate was an important food and ceremonial drink.

"We’re arguing that people were moving from Mesoamerican areas up north into the Southwest. It was not just traders and isolated instances of trade," Washburn said.

She feels that the pottery in particular suggests that deeply influential migration of Indian tribes from the region we now know as Mexico and Central America.

"It was so different from the local ceramic, and it was so unique, and so prevalent at this particular, one site — not found at very many other sites around it — somebody who knew how to do this must’ve come up and made this," Washburn said.

According to Western Digs, critics of Washburn's conclusions question how so many traces of what she argues was chocolate could appear at one site in the region while there is no oral, epigraphic or any other references to its use. Skeptics also wonder why there is no additional physical evidence, such as seed pods from cacao plants themselves found near the site.

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