Tech UPTechnologyCacao began to be cultivated 1,500 years earlier than...

Cacao began to be cultivated 1,500 years earlier than previously believed

Cacao, the tree whose fruit (photo) is used as the main ingredient in chocolate, was domesticated by the inhabitants of America much earlier than previously thought.

According to a work by an international team of researchers, published online in Nature Ecology & Evolution, this plant began to be cultivated for food purposes in the equatorial strip of South America (and not in Central America, as was thought) around 5,400 years ago, a millennium and a half earlier than archaeological evidence has hitherto fixed.

Following the trail

The authors of the finding suspected that the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao L.) could have begun to be cultivated in the Amazon basin, since that region is the richest in variants of this plant. But it was some elaborate vessels unearthed in the archaeological site of Santa Ana-La Florida (Ecuador) that put Michael Blake, an archaeologist at the University of British Columbia (Canada), on the trail of the discovery.

This site is the oldest known of the Mayo Chinchipe culture, which arose more than five millennia ago in the border regions of present-day Peru and Ecuador and survived until the beginning of our era. The ceramic vessels and vessels, Blake noted, closely resembled those used by the (much later) Maya to drink chocolate.

Did that mean that the custom of growing and consuming cocoa had started in the Mayo Chinchipe culture or others of its time and environment and had spread northward?

Yes, according to the authors of the work, who provide three pieces of evidence found in ancient ceramic containers: 1) traces of starch exclusive to the cacao tree; 2) residues of theobromine, an alkaloid also unique to this plant; and 3) DNA fragments with specific sequences of the cacao tree.

The dating of these remains suggests that the Mayo Chinchipe people domesticated the cacao tree at least 1,500 years before it was cultivated in Central America. Given that the artifacts unearthed in Santa Ana-La Florida are related to others found on the Pacific coast, scientists think that the trade in goods – including indigenous vegetables – would have brought cocoa to northern lands. The research also provides clues about the relationships of pre-Columbian American cultures.

The principle of success

Cocoa’s journey to the north was the first step in its historical globalization process. Among Mesoamerican civilizations (Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs …), this fruit became a precious food, so valued that its grains came to function as currency. Cacao-based beverages were part of numerous rituals and offerings to the gods, and it is said that Moctezuma, the last Aztec emperor, consumed it daily to stay strong.

The Spanish conquerors took it to the Iberian Peninsula, from where it spread to the rest of Europe. Ingredients were added (sugar, milk, vanilla, cinnamon …) and it became the chocolate we know today, a global consumer product that is sold in all kinds of formats and presentations. Only in our country, the annual production value is 1,749 million euros, according to data from Produlce, the Spanish Sweet Association.

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