A recent find in Honduras sheds light on the cacao bean and it's use for an alcoholic drink and money.
Earliest chocolate drink found
It was alcoholic and a far cry from today's sweet confection, reports Roger Highfield
Our love affair with chocolate began at least 500 years earlier than previously thought, and was combined with a love of alcohol too, according to traces of the treat found in pottery shards uncovered in Honduras.
Archaeologists have long known that cocoa was cultivated in the land between the Americas - including what today is Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize - for thousands of years and was the favourite drink of the powerful elite.
Chocolate ultimately became the standard of economic value, or "money," for the Aztec empire, who used it for virtually all social and ritual occasions so it became one of the most fashionable and valued commodities in 16th-century central America.
Today, researchers say that residue of the chemical theobromine, which occurs in Mesoamerica only in the cacao plant used to make chocolate, is present in the shattered remains of liquid-holding pottery vessels dating from somewhere between 1400 and 1100 BC, marking the earliest known chocolate drink of the New World.
Prof John Henderson of Cornell University, Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, and Hershey Foods analysed pottery dug from the site of Puerto Escondido in the Ulua Valley for theobromine and other compounds.
Today, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team reports that chemical traces indicate that the locals were making cacao beverages much earlier than thought.
"The results were astounding," says Dr McGovern. "Every vessel gave a positive signal for theobromine, the fingerprint compound for cacao in Central America."
In this, the first home of chocolate lovers, the drink was a far cry from modern hot chocolate: this was an alcoholic fermented beverage made from the sweet pulp that surrounds the seeds of cacao, rather than a chocolate-flavoured drink made from the seeds.
"This development probably provided the impetus to domesticate the chocolate tree and only later, to prepare a beverage based on the more bitter beans," suggests Dr McGovern. "An alcoholic beverage from the pulp, carrying on this ancient tradition, continues to be made in parts of Latin America."
The style of the pottery used to pour this drink - elegant serving vessels with spouts and decorated with motifs - indicates that cacao was served at important ceremonies to mark weddings and births, according to the team.
The famous frothy chocolate beverage served on special occasions in later times in Mesoamerica, especially by elites such as Aztec lords, was made from cacao seeds, with chilli pepper often added to make it more interesting, sometimes honey, herbs and flowers too.
Invading Europeans came to appreciate sweet forms of this beverage (chocolatl in the language of the Aztecs), giving rise to the taste of modern chocolate at the heart of a huge industry.
The previous oldest evidence was recovered from brown residues found inside 2,600-year-old Mayan pottery - chocolate vessels - from Colha, in what is now northern Belize.
Chocolate was a key part of elite Mayan culture, notably in its weddings. The word for chocolate - ka-ka-w in ancient Mayan hieroglyphs - often appears on the outside of Mayan chocolate vessels.
Other ancient societies, notably in the Near East and China, were making various kinds of alcoholic hooch for rituals too, from honey, grapes and hawthorn fruit. "The beverages of China and the Near East also became the prerogative of the elite, and were incorporated into religious ceremonies and celebrations," Dr McGovern noted.
"They were often of considerable economic value, just as the cacao bean was the medium of exchange in the Aztec empire, and they were traded, given in tribute, and offered as gifts to fellow rulers and the gods."http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/main.jhtml?xml=/earth/2007/11/12/scichoc112.xml