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Among the ancient Maya, cocoa was not an exclusive food for the elite – ScienceDaily


It was money that grew on trees.

They say that cocoa is a gift from the gods, for the ancient Maya it was considered sacred, it was used not only as a currency, but also in special ceremonies and religious rituals. It is the progenitor plant of chocolate, and the idea of ​​luxury is embedded in its knowledge.

Prevailing opinion: Cocoa was more accessible to the highest echelons of society, the royal family, even under their control. Previous efforts to identify cacao in pottery have focused on highly decorative vessels associated with elite ceremonial contexts – such as decorated drinking vases – leading to speculation about how cacao was distributed and who might have had access to it.

What about the farmers who grew the cocoa and the communities of people who lived among these plantations? What about the general population?

A new study by UC Santa Barbara researchers Annabelle Ford and Mattanja de Vries asks these questions — and answers them — by examining cacao residues from ancient pottery. Their results, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesdemonstrate that cocoa was in fact available to the general population and was used in celebrations at all levels of society.

“Cocao was long thought to be an elite exclusive for the Maya,” said Ford, an anthropologist and director of the Mesoamerican Research Center at UC Santa Barbara, who has spent 40 years researching the ancient Maya city of El Pilar. . “Now we know that’s not the case. Cocoa consumption was a luxury available to everyone. What is important is that it was a requirement of the rituals associated with it.’

In order to verify the exclusivity of the use of cocoa, the work examines 54 archaeological ceramic sherds. Originating from El Pilar, located between Belize and Guatemala, the sherds can be traced back to Late Classic period civil and residential contexts that represent a cross-section of the ancient Maya inhabitants. The research includes chemical analysis of these sherds – specifically, cocoa biomarkers: caffeine, theobromine and theophylline.

“The discovery of cacao’s chemical signature made the investigation possible, but the main active ingredient, theobromine, was not discrete enough to be sure it belonged to cacao,” Ford said. “Matanja (de Vries) and his students during their chemical research discovered theophylline, a specific component of cocoa that cannot be confused with anything else. His work was not archaeological, but he saw the potential for an interdisciplinary project.”

Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of California, Santa Barbara, de Vries has long studied how DNA bases—the building blocks of life—and similar molecules respond to ultraviolet light, and, he says, whether ultraviolet light may have played a role in of the early Earth in how nature selected these building blocks from a primordial soup of many such compounds.

“At some point I realized that some of the compounds we were studying in this project on the chemistry of the origin of life were found in cacao and could therefore serve as biomarkers for cacao,” said de Vries. “Since we had already studied the spectroscopy of these compounds in great detail, it made it possible to apply this experience to the detection of these biomarkers for archaeology.

“We can find a needle in a haystack if we know what a needle looks like; in this case, the target molecule was a specific biomarker for cocoa,” he added. “That ability made this analysis possible.”

When choosing pottery to test, Ford and de Vries preferred vases from which cocoa was probably drunk. Bowls, jars and plates were also tested. All vessel types had evidence of cacao.

“It was a surprise at first,” Ford said, “but when you think about having them and understanding their use, bowls are good for mixing, jars for heating a drink (traditional cocoa preparation), and plates for serving food with sauces that may contain cocoa.” (eg mole poblano).

“Now that we know cacao is present in all types of vessels, we need to understand the wider distribution and use of these important household forms,” ​​Ford added. “What’s really important about our work is that the data I collected in the El Pilar River area – Belize emphasizes ordinary households, not just elite centers. Thus, our research begins the identification and distribution.’

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