Quirks & Quarks

Aged chocolate: Archaeologists find evidence of 5000-year-old chocolate drink

Archaeological evidence suggests chocolate originated in the Amazon over 5,000 years ago, much earlier than previously thought.

Archaeological remains of chocolate were found in drinking vessels

The origins of the chocolate used in this treat has been pushed back 1500 years. (Bin Im Garten, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)

Chocolate has a much longer history than previously thought. New research has found that people have been enjoying it in different forms—including as a fermented beverage—for well over 5,000 years.

Sonia Zarrillo, an associate with both the Department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia and the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Calgary, says they now know that people in the Amazon basin in South America had domesticated the cacao tree much earlier than people in Central America and Mexico, which had the previous oldest evidence for chocolate use. 

This human effigy stirrup spout bottle held a fermented cacao beverage over 5,000 years ago. (University of British Columbia)

The chocolate tree

Previous archaeological evidence suggested that people in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica domesticated the cacao tree about 3,900 years ago. These were people living in a region that now includes Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The cacao tree was known to be culturally important to these people, and pottery found at sites there supported that fact.

But new research at an archaeological site in Santa Ana-La-Florida in present day Ecuador has determined the cacao tree was domesticated there 1,500 years earlier. 

The cacao trees of Santa Ana La-Florida in Ecuador may have provided the world's earliest evidence of what we know today as chocolate. (University of British Columbia)

Unwrapping the chocolate mystery

Santa Ana-La-Florida is the earliest know site of the Mayo-Chinchipe culture. It was occupied from at least 5,450 years ago. The area is also known to support the greatest variety of cacao trees, which researchers used as a clue to support their eventual findings.

Ceramic vessels, including an ornate bottle, and broken pieces of pottery were found at the site and subjected to tests to find evidence of cacao. In total, three lines of evidence showed the use of cacao in the artifacts. 

The first was starch grains specific to cacao in the pottery. The second was residues of theobromine, a chemical signature found only in domesticated cacao trees. The final piece of evidence was fragments of ancient DNA with sequences unique to the cacao tree.

The research also concluded that cacao likely made its way out of that region and spread north to Central America .

This stone bowl from Santa Ana La-Florida showed evidence of cacao from over 5,000 years ago. (University of British Columbia)