The love affair between man and chocolate has even more ancient origins than previously thought. It turns out that the world's oldest chocolate was made 5,300 years ago
An international team of researchers - including archaeologists, anthropologists, and geneticists - has discovered traces of the first food use of cocoa for food dating back 5,300 years in Ecuador, at an ancient site of the Mayo-Chinchipe civilization.
That's more than 1,400 years earlier than previous archaeological findings have shown. The study, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, also shifts the original center of cocoa production from Central America to South America.
The Discovery Of The World's Oldest Chocolate
It all started with a hunch of archaeologist Michael Blake, a researcher at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
The researcher was working with several colleagues at the Santa Ana La Florida archaeological site in Ecuador, an ancient village that resurfaced around 20 years ago, the oldest known settlement of the Mayo-Chinchipe civilization.
Among the artifacts discovered, Blake noticed some very elaborate pottery that reminded him of the vessels used by the Maya to prepare their cocoa-based drinks. He wondered if it is possible that these objects could have had the same use.
To prove this, the team followed three different routes.
How Was The Research Conducted
The experts scraped the charred remains from one of the ceramic objects used for cooking and analysis identified starch granules similar to those present in cocoa seed pods.
They then identified the "chemical signature" of theobromine, an alkaloid present only in mature cocoa beans.
Finally, they analyzed the DNA extracted from those ceramic pots and found that it matched that of the modern-day cocoa tree.
Carbon dating of the archaeological site where the discoveries were made did the rest, establishing that the inhabitants of Santa Ana-La Florida were already consuming cocoa on a permanent basis 5,300 years ago.
"The objects analyzed came from tombs and houses: this clearly shows that cocoa beans were used both as a funerary offering and for daily consumption," explains Claire Lanaud, a geneticist at CIRAD (the French agricultural research center) who specializes in cocoa and is one of the study's authors.
The Cocoa From Which The Highest Quality Chocolate Is Made
The Santa Ana-La Florida site is located in the area of origin of Cacao National, the variety that grows on the Pacific coast of Ecuador and from which the highest quality chocolate is made, and is a famous site in Ecuador.
The presence in the Santa Ana LF archaeological site of shells and other "marine" remains from the Pacific attests to direct or indirect exchanges of goods between people living on the coast and those settled in the Amazon jungle, such as the Mayo-Chinchipe, researchers say. And it could have been from there, on the coast, that the cocoa journey to Central America began.
Prior to the study made by Blake and his colleagues, the "discovery" of cacao trees and the use of their roads for food was attributed to pre-Columbian peoples of Central America, such as the Maya and the Olmec, and dated back about 3,900 years.
However, researchers suspected that the history of chocolate was even more ancient, as analysis showed that the greatest genetic diversity of cacao trees was in the Amazon rainforest. The wild cacao tree would have grown there, and people living in the area may have already discovered that a tasty drink could be made from the plant.
The study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution confirms this. It remains to be seen whether the ancient inhabitants of Ecuador "domesticated" the plant, rather than simply gathering the pods from wild trees.