Experts have long thought cacao beans and pods were mainly used in pre-Hispanic cultures as a beverage, made either by crushing the beans and mixing them with liquids or fermenting the pulp that surrounds the beans in the pod. Such a drink was believed to have been reserved for the elite.
But the discovery announced this week by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History expands the envelope of how chocolate may have been used in ancient Mexico.
It would also suggest that there may be ancient roots for traditional dishes eaten in today's Mexico, such as mole, the chocolate-based sauce often served with meats.
The traces of chemical substances considered "markers" for chocolate were found on fragments of plates uncovered at the Paso del Macho archaeological site in Yucatan in 2001.
The fragments were later subjected to tests with the help of experts at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, as part of a joint project. The tests revealed a "ratio of theobromine and caffeine compounds that provide a strong indicator of cacao usage," according to a statement by the university.
"These are certainly interesting results," John S. Henderson, a Cornell University professor of Anthropology and one of the foremost experts on ancient chocolate, said in an email Thursday.
Henderson, who was not involved in the Paso del Macho project, wrote that "the presence of cacao residues on plates is even more interesting ... the important thing is that it was on flat serving vessels and so presented or served in some other way than as a beverage."
"I think their inference that cacao was being used in a sauce is likely correct, though I can imagine other possibilities," he added, citing possibilities like "addition to a beverage (cacao-based or other) as a condiment or garnish."
The plate fragments date to about 500 B.C., and are not the oldest chocolate traces found in Mexico. Beverage vessels found in excavations of Gulf coast sites of the Olmec culture, to the west of the Yucatan, and other sites in Chiapas, to the south, have yielded traces around 1,000 years older.
But it does extend the roots of Mexican cuisine, and the importance of chocolate, further back into the past.
"This indicates that the pre-Hispanic Maya may have eaten foods with cacao sauce, similar to mole," the anthropology institute said in a statement.
2. BONN.-Artdaily.org Archaeologists from the Department of Anthropology of the Americas at the University of Bonn have been excavating for the past four years together with the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History in the Maya city of Uxul in Campeche, Mexico. The aim of the excavation project under the direction of Prof. Dr. Nikolai Grube and Dr. Kai Delvendahl is to investigate the process of centralization and collapse of hegemonic state structures in the Maya Lowlands using the example of a mid-sized classic Maya city (Uxul) and its ties to a supra-regional center (Calakmul). Research at Uxul, located close to the border with Guatemala, is being funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG).
Since 2011, excavations have concentrated on the royal palace complex, which is located directly south of the main plazas in the center of Uxul. The palace extends 120 x 130 meters and consists of at least eleven individual buildings which surround five courtyards. “The palace complex was built around 650 AD, a time when the neighboring ruling dynasty from Calakmul was extending its influence over large areas of the Maya Lowlands,” explains Professor Grube. In 2011, six sculpted panels were discovered during excavations of the southern stairway of the largest building of the group, Structure K2. Four of these panels depict kings from Calakmul, playing ball. The similarities in the layout of the centers of Calakmul and Uxul and especially of the main palace complexes in the two cities let the researchers to suggest that Uxul, originally a smaller independent kingdom, may have been temporarily ruled and inhabited by members of the Kaan Dynasty of Calakmul. Through recent excavations in several of Uxul´s central buildings, the changes in the physiognomy of the city´s center can be linked directly to the time of military and political expansion of the Kaan Dynasty during the reign of Yukno´m Ch´een II, in the first half of the 7th century. However, the influence subsided after 705 AD, and there is a strong likelihood that a local ruling family came back to power for a few generations. At the start of the 9th century, Uxul was almost completely abandoned.
Richly furnished tomb
“During this year´s excavation below one of the southern rooms of Structure K2, we have discovered a richly furnished tomb, which can be dated to the time right after the influence of Calakmul in Uxul had ended” explains Dr. Delvendahl. The walls of the crypt are made of rough stone and the chamber was covered with a corbel vault, typical for the Maya culture. In the interior of this tomb chamber which dates back about 1,300 years, the remains of a young man were discovered who was buried on his back with his arms folded. Deposited around him were four ceramic plates and five ceramic vases in an exceptionally preserved state, some of which were decorated with spectacular paintings and moldings. A unique plate, painted in the famed Codex-Style, was covering the skull of the deceased.
Vessel with dedication may point to the identity of the deceased
“On one of the vases, there was a simple dedication, written in elegantly molded hieroglyphics, which read: ‘[This is] the drinking vessel of the young man/prince’. Also a second molded vessel appears to mention a young man or prince” says Professor Grube. Although these references are not definite clues as to the identity of the departed, the location of the tomb and the absence of certain status markers, such as jade jewelry, would indicate that the deceased was a young male member of the ruling family who was not in direct line for the throne. A possible date on one of the vessels corresponds to the year 711 AD; therefore the death of the young prince and the construction of his tomb can be dated back to the second or third decade of the 8th century. The exceptionally preserved ceramics in particular make this tomb one of the most significant discoveries of its kind in the entire Maya Lowlands.
According to specialists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH – Conaculta) who registered the discovery, this distinct construction model had not been identified within the region. This is also relevant since one of the mortuary chambers is decorated with mural paintings alluding to the ball game ritual, something that was rather unseen in a funerary zapotecan context.
According to archaeologists, Atzompa had been a small satellite city of Monte Albán, founded during the Late Classic period (650 – 900 d.C.) as a consequence of the expansion of the large city.
However, “this discovery changes the previous perception, Atzompa was not so similar to Monte Albán as it had been thought, instead it developed its own constructive methods, as was the case of the tombs and the palaces”, said Nelly Robles García, national coordinator of archaeology at INAH, also announcing that Aztompa would be soon open to the public.
Dr. Robles García believes these sepulchers could have belonged to important characters, since this building is adjacent to the House of Altars, this must have been the resting place of the elite.
It was only at the end of last April, during the Archaeological Proyect of Aztompa’s Collection of Historic Buildings, when archaeologists Eduardo García and Jaime Vera discovered the three tombs inside the 6th building of the oaxacan archaeological site, whose investigation –developed in 2007– was focused on deepening the knowledge about cultural and urban development in Monte Albán and Atzompa.
Dr. Nelly Robles, director of the project, emphasized the “highly relevant importance of the find, because in all we know about Monte Albán and Oaxaca there had never been a similar case that concerned a building created to contain mortuary chambers, due to the characteristics of the murals and structural aspects that allow the support of these chambers.” artdaily.org