The story of chocolate has become richer with the discovery that ancient tribes were devouring the dark delight much earlier than previously thought.
Archaeologists have unearthed evidence the first growers and consumers of cacao may date back 5300 years – 1200 years earlier than original estimates.
The prized bean was being grown domestically for food in Ecuador in South America more than one millennia before it was formerly believed to have originated in Central America and Mexico.
The timeline and location discoveries add new flavour to the story of one of the world’s most popular foods.
Chocolate began as a bitter gruel or frothy drink barely resembling the addictive block confectionery of modern times.
The study was published this week in Nature Ecology and Evolution.
It was undertaken by a team of international researchers exploring the hypothesis that cacao may have been used in the region of Ecuador, home to the greatest diversity of cacao plant species.
Cacao is also important to Ecuador’s modern indigenous groups, who consume the seeds, pulp and pods, extract medicines from the leaves and bark, and use the trunks for construction.
Researchers used these links to hunt for archaeological evidence the ancient people of South America were using cacao before those of Central America.
It was in Central America that Europeans first encountered the commodity that would be consumed, traded and used in rituals.
From cacao to Cadbury
University of British Colombia’s department of anthropology professor and study co-author Michael Blake said discovering the origins of foods like chocolate helped us understand the complex histories of who we are today.
“Today we rely, to one extent or another, on foods that were created by the indigenous peoples of the Americas,” Professor Blake said.
“And one of the world’s favourites is chocolate.”
The research team used three lines of evidence to show the Mayo-Chinchipe culture of South America was using cacao between 5300 and 2100 years ago.
They checked ceramic vases and broken pottery for evidence of starch grains specific to the cacao tree; they tested for residues of theobromine, a bitter alkaloid found in the cacao tree (which incidentally is the substance in chocolate that is toxic to dogs); and they also studied fragments of ancient DNA.
“This new study shows us that people in the upper reaches of the Amazon Basin, extending up into the foothills of the Andes in south-eastern Ecuador, were harvesting and consuming cacao that appears to be a close relative of the type of cacao later used in Mexico – and they were doing this 1500 years earlier,” Professor Blake said.
“They were also doing so using elaborate pottery that predates the pottery found in Central America and Mexico.
“This suggests that the use of cacao, probably as a drink, was something that caught on and very likely spread northwards by farmers growing cacao in what is now Colombia and eventually Panama and other parts of Central America and Mexico.”
The future looks sweet
Australian Chocolate Emporium founder Liz Bouden said the discovery was an exciting new chapter in the ever-evolving story of chocolate.
“Chocolate used to be quite nasty tasting before they [the Spanish] added sugar and were able to grind it into a much finer powder,” Ms Bouden said.
“Chocolate back then was more of a drink and very bitter and it has a evolved a lot since then to the point some commercial chocolates are now too sickly sweet and over processed.”
She said Australia was home to many unique chocolatiers who were experimenting with recipes and traditions to cater to all tastes.
“We have many Australian brands now and they all have their own stories and are excellent quality,” she said.