Lifestyle & Belief

Mayans may have used chocolate as a condiment, experts say


Traces of cacao found on a plate in Mexico by archeologists suggest Mayans may have been eating chocolate as far back as 2,500 years ago.


Evaristo Sa

The Mayans were definitely onto something.

Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History announced the discovery 2,500-year-old chocolate residue on a plate in the Yucatan peninsula this week, suggesting that the sweet stuff could have been used as a condiment or sauce with solid food, the Associated Press reported Thursday

Though experts have long believed that cacao beans and pods were used to create beverages for the elite classes in pre-Hispanic cultures, this is the first time that archeologists have found hints that ancient Mexicans were eating chocolate as well.

"This is the first time it has been found on a plate used for serving food," archeologist Tomas Gallareta told the Telegraph. "It is unlikely that it was ground there (on the plate), because for that they probably used metates (grinding stones)."

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The traces, which were discovered back in 2001 at the Paso del Macho archeological site in Yucatan, have undergone rigorous tests to confirm that they are in fact chocolate, according to the AP.

Experts at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi who helped analyze the samples say they showed "a ratio of theobromine and caffeine compounds that provide a strong indicator of cacao usage," according to a statement by the university.

The ancient chocolate smears date back to around 500 BC, but are hardly the oldest traces of the food found in South America, which many consider to be the birthplace of chocolate —or at least, the linguistic references to it, according to the Smithsonian Magazine.

Several beverage vessels found with traces of chocolate on them date back 3,500 years, the AP reported. Anthropologists from the University of Pennsylvania found cacao residue on pottery excavated in Honduras last November that they estimate dates back to around 1400 B.C.E., the Smithsonian reported. 

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The findings lend a historic grounding to modern Mexican dishes like mole, a traditional sauce served with meat that is often prepared with chocolate.

"These are certainly interesting results," John S. Henderson, a Cornell University professor of Anthropology and one of the foremost experts on ancient chocolate, told the AP. 

"I think their inference that cacao was being used in a sauce is likely correct, though I can imagine other possibilities [like] an addition to a beverage (cacao-based or other) as a condiment or garnish," he added.