A fresh look at ornate 1000-year-old vases from New Mexico's canyons has unearthed a surprise: They were used as mugs to drink chocolate. The findings are the first record of the food in North America, long before its introduction in colonial times. They also reveal that chocolate was an expensive delicacy enjoyed by few during elaborate rituals.
Between the 9th and 12th centuries C.E., the Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico was buzzing with human activity. The now-deserted Pueblo Bonito was one of its most important settlements and home to about 1000 Anasazis, a Native American people. Archaeologist Patricia Crown of the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, has been studying Chaco's thin cylinder vases for the past 8 years. The ceramic vases are decorated with blue-gray geometric patterns, yet archaeologists could not decipher their original function. Recently, Crown learned that the Maya people of Central America used similar-looking vases to drink chocolate during rituals and rites of passage. The drink was made from ground cacao seeds mixed with cold water, corn, and chili peppers. "I thought it was worth testing Chaco pottery for cacao," she says.
Her hunch was correct. When Crown and colleague Jeffrey Hurst analyzed three cylindrical vase fragments, dated to between 1000 and 1125 C.E., all tested positive for theobromine--the telltale chemical of cacao. That places chocolate in North America before the arrival of European colonists. The findings, reported online 2 February in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also confirm the existence of a 2000-kilometer-long trading route from New Mexico to Central America. The Anasazi imported other exotic items from Mexico, such as live scarlet macaws and copper bells, but we did not know that they were getting cacao too, says Crown.
What was chocolate doing so far north? In Pueblo Bonito, the cylindrical vases appear at only a few sites and there are not many of them. They also don't show up in burial sites, which means that they probably belonged to the community, says Crown. Drinking chocolate was likely a part of elaborate ceremonies similar to those seen in Mayan culture, she says.
Archaeologist Cameron McNeil, who edited a book on the cultural history of chocolate in Central America, is surprised to find cacao apparently heavily traded in the area of Pueblo Bonito. "This would have been phenomenally expensive" given the sheer length of the trading route, she says. That means that just "as fine wines and brandies advertise the lofty position of individuals in our own culture," drinking chocolate was probably a sign of status for these early Native American communities.