It was the money that grew on the trees.
Said to be a gift from the gods, cocoa was considered sacred to the ancient Maya, not only as a means of payment, but also in special ceremonies and religious rituals. It is the ancestor of chocolate, and notions of luxury are embedded in the lore.
The prevailing belief: Cocoa was more available to, even controlled by, the highest echelons of society, the royal family. Previous efforts to identify cocoa in ceramics have focused on highly decorative vessels associated with elite ceremonial contexts — think ornate drinking vases — leading to assumptions about how cocoa was distributed and who had access to it.
What about the farmers who grew cocoa and the communities of people who lived among these orchards? What about the general population?
A new study by UC Santa Barbara researchers Anabel Ford and Mattanjah de Vries asks – and answers – these questions by examining cocoa residues from ancient ceramics. Their results, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesshowing that cocoa was in fact accessible to the general population and used in celebrations at all levels of society.
“It was long believed that before the Maya, cocoa was exclusive to the elite,” said Ford, an anthropologist and director of UC Santa Barbara’s MesoAmerican Research Center, who has researched the ancient Mayan city of El Pilar for 40 years. . “We now know that this is not the case. Consuming cocoa was a luxury accessible to everyone. The importance is that it was a requirement for the rituals associated with it.”
To test the exclusivity of cocoa use, the work examines 54 archaeological ceramic shards. Hailing from El Pilar – located between Belize and Guatemala – the shards can be traced to the Late Classic period of civil and residential contexts, representing a cross-section of ancient Mayan inhabitants. The study includes a chemical analysis of these shards, in particular of the cocoa biomarkers: caffeine, theobromine and theophylline.
“The discovery of cocoa chemical characteristics enabled the research, but the main active ingredient, theobromine, does not appear to be discrete enough to be sure of cocoa attribution,” Ford said. “Mattanjah (de Vries) and his students, in their chemical research, came across the possibility of detecting 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 projects.”
De Vries, a distinguished professor and department chair of chemistry and biochemistry at UC Santa Barbara, has long studied how DNA bases — the building blocks of life — and similar molecules react to UV light and, he said, whether UV light “would may have played a role on an early Earth, such as nature selecting building blocks from a primordial soup of many such compounds.
“At some point I realized that some of the compounds we had studied in this origin of life chemistry project are found in cocoa, and so could serve as biomarkers for cocoa,” de Vries said. “As we had already explored the spectroscopy of these compounds in great detail, this presented an opportunity to apply that expertise to the detection of these biomarkers for archaeology.
“We can find a needle in a haystack, provided we know what the needle looks like; in this case, the target molecule was a particular biomarker for cocoa,” he added. “That ability made this analysis possible.”
In their selection of ceramics to test, Ford and de Vries prioritized the vases from which cocoa was likely to be drunk. They also tested bowls, jars and plates. All types of barrels had traces of cocoa.
“At first this was a surprise,” said Ford, “but if we consider the presence and understanding of their use, bowls would be good for mixing, jars would be suitable to hold the drink (a traditional cocoa preparation) and plates suitable for serving food with sauces that may contain cocoa (such as mole poblano).
“Now that we know the presence of cocoa is in all types of barrels, we need to understand the wider distribution and use of these important household forms,” Ford added. “What’s critical in our work is that the data I’ve collected in the El Pilar-Belize River area emphasizes the mainstream households and not just the elite center. So our research is groundbreaking in the field of identification and distribution.”
Researchers discover sites of ancient Maya sacred groves of cocoa trees
Anabel Ford et al, New light on the use of Theobroma cacao by Late Classic Maya, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2022). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2121821119
Quote: Not just for the gods: New insight into the use of cocoa among the ancient Maya (2022, September 26) retrieved September 26, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-09-gods-insight-cacao- ancient -maya.html
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