Thursday, February 14, 2013

History: Chocolate Bones

Western civilization has chocolate in its bones. From the late 17th century until this very day it has been alternately revered and reviled; thought of as a tonic for the health or a destroyer of same. Regardless of the cultural opinion at any given time, chocolate has been a much sought after commodity, sometimes even more so than gems and gold. Pirates and privateers plying their trade in New World waters were always happy to find chocolate aboard a prize, even if it was only a little stash meant exclusively for some greedy merchant captain. There was and is no getting around the lure and lore of chocolate.

That's why this little article over at ScienceNOW is so very tantalizing. While the focus of the research is, for the most part, on trade between Mesoamericans from Central America up to the northern southwest, the article of trade that is begging the question is cacao, the base ingredient in chocolate.

Evidently archaeologist Dorothy Washburn from the University of Pennsylvania has found an overwhelming number of clay vessels - mostly bowls - that contain minute traces of chocolate or, to be clear, two of the key ingredients in chocolate. These components, Theobromine and caffeine, have convinced Washburn that a small colony of Mesoamerican peoples, at a village in modern Utah called Site 13, were enjoying chocolate as an apparent staple food in the 8th century C.E.

Since, or perhaps more correctly because, the dating done by Washburn places the availability so far north at such an early date, other archaeologist are "hesitant" to agree with her. As an example, Ben Nelson of Arizona State University in Tempe, had this to say:

If cacao were so common, there would be stories or visual references or historical references to it.

Nelson appears, at least from what is written in the article, to be skeptical because "so much chocolate" was found.

These arguments are, at least from my limited experience in the field, typical of archaeologists as a community. A new find by someone unknown to them, or with whom they are only distantly acquainted, is usually challenged rather than embraced. From the outside looking in, their is a lot of the green eyed monster in what should rightly be a united field. It is curious that the article and indeed the skeptics mention nothing of Patricia Crown's 2009 research in New Mexico, the findings of which were very similar to Washburn's.

Beyond all this, there is no debating the rich history of chocolate. It's in your bones, dear Brethren; enjoy some today - St. Valentine's - and offer just a little of your treat to your ancestors. No matter who they may have been, you have them to thank for that satisfying morsel of cacao.

Header: La Chocolatiere by Jean Etienne Liotard c 1744 via Old Paint


Timmy! said...

I agree, Pauline. It seems to me like the results of these studies are fairly conclusive. I don't find it at all unreasonable to believe that people were trading in cacao in ancient times. Happy V day to you, my sweet!

Pauline said...

It's all a matter of who got there first, which is a sad comment on how we make history, isn't it? Especially considering that archaeologists tend to be some of the least biased of historians.

Happy Valentine's to you, too.