In the ancient Mayan civilization, cocoa was not just for the elites.
Traces of the sacred plant appear in pottery of all kinds of neighborhoods and dwellings in and around an ancient Mayan city, researchers report September 26 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The finding suggests that, contrary to previous thought, cacao was consumed at all social levels in Mayan society.
“We now know that the rituals that the elite enacted with cacao were probably performed by everyone, like Thanksgiving, like any other ritual,” says Anabel Ford, an archaeologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Cacao, from which chocolate is made, was sacred to the ancient Mayans, consumed in rituals and used as currency. The cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) itself was linked to Hun Hunahpu, the maize god. Previous research found cocoa in ceremonial vessels and elite burials, suggesting its use was restricted to those above.
To explore the extent to which cocoa was used in wider Mayan societyFord and colleagues examined 54 pottery shards dating from AD 600 to 900 (Serial number: 09/27/18). The fragments come from jars, mixing bowls, serving dishes, and vases that are believed to be drinking vessels. All the pieces were found in residential and ceremonial civic areas of various sizes and status in the city centers, hills, highlands, and valley around the ancient Mayan city of El Pilar, on the current border of Guatemala and Belize. .
To identify cacao, the researchers looked for theophylline, a compound found in trace amounts in the plant. The team found the compound in more than half of the samples, in all types of ceramics and distributed in social contexts.
Future research will go beyond who consumed cocoa and explore the role of farmers in managing the critical resource. “A better question is to understand who grew it,” Ford says, because those people likely had greater access to the prized product.