How Sweet It...Wasn't
by Eti Bonn-Muller

Hershey’s W. Jeffrey Hurst explains the difference between Maya chocolate and the stuff in the brown can.


W. Jeffrey Hurst (Eti Bonn-Muller)

W. Jeffrey Hurst, a principal scientist with the Hershey Company, has been studying chocolate for more than 30 years. After a twist of fate led archaeologists to his doorstep, he was able to identify not only chocolate’s earliest use by the ancient Maya but, more recently, its first-known appearance in North America. The self-proclaimed “closet academic,” an analytical biochemist by training, also teaches at Hershey Medical Center and has contributed to some 250 publications ranging from Nature to the Brain Research Bulletin. He is involved with the Southern Maya Project for Archaeology and Community (a Guatemalan NGO), as well as Chemists Without Borders and Scientists Without Borders. He is also active in his picturesque Mt. Gretna, Pennsylvania, community, where he met with ARCHAEOLOGY’s Eti Bonn-Muller to talk chocolate.

How did you get involved in the study of Maya chocolate?

In the late ’80s, a call came into Hershey’s 800 number, asking if we’d be interested in analyzing samples of pottery from a Maya tomb at a site called Río Azul in Belize. The researchers had translated a hieroglyph on one vessel that said it contained cacao.

What specifically drew you to the project?

Well, I love chocolate! And my personality probably helped as well. I’m always interested in new challenges. At Hershey, one of the things I do is evaluate new analytical methods and equipment. This translates also to my home life. For example, we bought a microwave oven when they first came out. It weighed like 500 pounds—and we cooked a whole turkey in it. I thought that was the great! But we have reverted back to cooking turkeys in the oven. I guess that I’m a geek. I always like a new challenge.


Chocolate vessel from Río Azul, Belize (ca. A.D. 400) (Dr. Grant Hall)

So what did you do first?

The first thing I needed to do was to identify the marker compound in cacao. My archaeology friends tell me I have to call it “cacao.” They say that before it’s in the brown can with Hershey’s name on it, it’s cacao, which grows on trees. Cacao hasn’t been processed yet. The stuff in the brown can is “cocoa,” the finished product used to make hot cocoa or to cook with.

What exactly is a “marker compound”?

It’s a compound that has to be unique. It also has to be present at levels large enough to measure. And it has to be stable over thousands of years. Cacao, as we know, has 750-ish chemical compounds. I spent a lot of my own time chasing the marker, which turned out to be the compound theobromine—a cousin, if you will, of caffeine.

What were your next steps?

Once I was fortunate enough to have discovered the marker, I developed the technique that allowed our team to uniquely identify it, and my work just evolved from there. The Río Azul vessel is exquisite. It’s got a jaguar tail and you have to twist the top to get it off. The joke was that it’s the first childproof container. It dates to about A.D. 400. The Maya glyph on it says this vessel contains kakaw, or cacao. Our research was the first to confirm with scientific evidence that the Maya did use cacao. There was a lot of anecdotal evidence—there were cacao beans painted on vessels, and a lot of paintings of cacao vessels. But this one, along with other samples from the site, provided the first scientific evidence for the use of cacao in Mesoamerica.

Have you looked at material from other sites?

I’ve been honored to be involved with a great group of archaeologists and epigraphers throughout the U.S. I’ve worked at probably a half-dozen sites, including Copán in Honduras. I’ve also become a student of ethnobotany. There were more than 150 uses of cacao for medicinal purposes in Mesoamerica. That’s now evolved into translational medicine, where we’re seeing cacao being used for a wide variety of purposes.


Hurst uses liquid chromatography mass-spectrometry to analyze residue on ancient vessels. (Courtesy of Shimadzu Scientific Instruments)

Such as...

We know it lowers blood pressure and recent studies have indicated that long-term consumption of cacao lessens the incidence of stroke. It also has many cardiovascular advantages. What it does is it dilates blood vessels to improve blood flow. In addition, there have been reports of an increase in mental cognition. The Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition, which I am affiliated with actively, sponsors clinical studies focusing on cacao and dark chocolate.

Is there any evidence to suggest the Maya knew of its medicinal properties?

There are between 150 and 200 known ancient references to its botanical uses. I give a presentation on the subject. It’s called: “Ethnobotanical Uses of Cocao In Mesoamerica or Take Two Kisses and Call Me in the Morning.”

Recently, you were able to identify the earliest presence of cacao in North America. Can you tell me about this exciting discovery?

At Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, a team of archaeologists from the University of New Mexico found fragments of vessels along with macaw feathers and other precious materials. The excavator thought that since these luxury goods had been transported over long distances, it was possible that the pottery might have contained cacao, another valuable commodity. At the time, cacao was so valuable that there was even active counterfeiting—people took cacao shells, filled them with mud, and tried to sell them!


“Teapot-shaped” chocolate vessel from Cohla, Belize (ca. 600 B.C.) (Dr. Terry Powis)

At Chaco Canyon, the archaeologists took samples of pieces of black-and-white cylinder jars. They told me these jars would have been used for special occasions, like when the in-laws come and you bring out the good china. We analyzed the residue from a few samples and found theobromine in some of them. It was just lucky that they picked these particular samples; in some other vessels, we may not have seen anything. As it turned out, this was the first instance that confirmed the early use of cacao in North America, about A.D. 1100.

Do you think there might be even earlier evidence out there?

Our oldest evidence for the use of cacao in Mesoamerica is at Paso de la Amada, a site in southern Chiapas, Mexico. It dates to about 1800 B.C. So the fact is we’ve now got cacao at about 4,000 years old. I’d be really intrigued to see how far back it goes in North America.

You mentioned the residue was found in cylinder jars, which makes me curious. How was the cacao consumed and how did it taste? Was it like the hot chocolate that we drink today?

The closest I can say is this: take baking chocolate, melt it down, throw it in a blender with hot water, add the spices of your choice—all spice, cinnamon, chilies, maybe agavae syrup to sweeten it, cactus—and whip it up. There’s a lot of information, anecdotally, about what was put in it. Then drink the foam! The Maya drank the foam because when it rose, it was closest to heaven. I say, “take baking chocolate” because it has a fair amount of fat in it. Cacao beans have about 50 percent fat. The Maya would have made a mixture. They harvested and potentially fermented the beans, roasted them, took the shells off, ground them with a metate to get them nice and smooth...again, baking chocolate is the closest thing that I can recommend.


Deer-shaped chocolate vessel from Copán, Honduras (Early Classic period, A.D. 100–600) (Courtesy of Dr. Cameron McNeil)

Was it always consumed as a frothy drink?

Sometimes the Maya mixed the cacao with cornmeal to create a tightly packed material, almost like a hockey puck, that was more transportable. That’s how they stored it. There are texts that say it ended up being stolen by enemies since it was very highly valued. It was also taken by the warriors when they went to their next job, if you will. When they were on the go, they’d just take these things out of their pockets and eat some. They were like early energy bars!

So this concoction didn’t taste very sweet at all, did it?

No, and in fact, when it arrived in Spain, probably in the 16th century, there’s a quote from Italian historian Girolamo Benzoni in History of the New World (1595) that says it wasn’t even “fit for pigs.” So the Spanish started putting sugar, honey, and other sweeteners and milk in it. What we have today is a European concoction.

What kind of Maya rituals was it used in?

It was reserved for government officials, the elite, warriors—it wasn’t widely available. It wasn’t like Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto—I know that! And, in fact, there’s an indication that the Maya may also have colored it with annatto, which is red, to signify blood.

So will we see a Hershey Maya chocolate bar anytime soon?

Several years ago we did make a hot cocoa based on a Maya influence. But unless they unearth an ancient Maya holding a chocolate bar, I don’t think that is going to happen.

Eti Bonn-Muller is the AIA online senior editor.

  • For more on the origins of chocolate, check out the next November/December issue of ARCHAEOLOGY magazine, on newsstands this October.