LivingThe origin of chocolate

The origin of chocolate

The key ingredient in chocolate, cocoa, had been used for centuries in South America for centuries before it was exploited by civilizations in Central America, according to a study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

The cacao tree, and in particular the beverages made from its dried seeds, have long been linked to the Mayans and other ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica, a heritage championed by chocolate companies that produce cacao seed products. However, now experts say that the seeds of the cacao tree were first used in present-day Ecuador by members of the Mayo Chinchipe culture, delaying the date of the first use of cacao by about 1,500 years and changing the location of the cacao. culinary event more than 2,400 kilometers, to the upper part of the Amazon.


Cocoa is from the Amazon and was consumed 5,300 years ago

“People in this area have been consuming it for more than 5,000 years, long before what we have found in Mesoamerica and Central America,” said Michael Blake, co-author of the study.


That’s right, the tests show that the Mayo-Chinchipe culture already cultivated cacao 5,300 years ago and the authors describe how they made the discovery in a place in the highlands of Ecuador called Santa Ana-La Florida. The team analyzed items such as stone mortars, ceramic bowls, bottles and jars for traces of cocoa.


Physical and chemical evidence

The results revealed that six of the analyzed artifacts contained starch grains from a group of plants to which the cacao tree belongs – grains found in particular parts of plants, including seeds. Furthermore, theobromine, a bitter-tasting substance found in high concentrations in cocoa beans, appeared on 25 ceramic and 21 stone objects.

The experts also looked at ancient genetic material in the pottery at the site, and found that several fragments contained mitochondrial DNA ( genetic material from within cells) that could only be from cocoa.

“We were able to find cocoa-specific nuclear gene sequences in some of the samples,” Blake said, adding that the observed DNA damage showed it was not modern contamination. The remains are inside the containers, some more than 5,000 years old.

The discovery of traces of cocoa in luxurious containers, some representing funeral offerings found in tombs, means that it could have been an important part of the banquet and ritual behavior.

“It means that even in these ancient times this delicious drink was put to special use, and perhaps it was even a ceremonial drink, which attracted people’s attention and perhaps sparked its movement to the rest of the Americas.” the experts clarify.

The discovery supports earlier indications that cocoa may have been used long ago in Ecuador:

“It confirms what botanists have long suspected: that the Amazon region is where we might expect to find some of the earliest uses for cocoa,” said Blake.

Cocoa is Amazonian and by some mechanism it was brought to this area of Central America where it acquired a very important cultural importance,” added Francisco Valdez, who leads the project in Zamora Chinchipe, under the auspices of the Institutes of Cultural Heritage (INPC) of Ecuador and Research for Development (IRD) of France.

Referencia: The use and domestication of Theobroma cacao during the mid-Holocene in the upper Amazon. 2018. Nature Ecology & Evolution volume 2, pages1879–1888 (2018)


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