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Chocolate Expert Sweetens History at Millsaps

Department of Sociology/Anthropology News

 

The next installment in the Moreton Lecture Series at Millsaps College, scheduled for Thursday, April 16 at 7 p.m., will feature Dr. W. Jeffrey Hurst of Hershey Co. in Hershey, PA. Hurst specializes in analytical chemistry, food science and spectroscopy, all amounting to a set of skills that are helping him reconstruct the history of chocolate.

In a recent archaeological excavation at a site dated to 1,000 years ago a number of ceramic jars were found among remains at Pueblo Bonito in the Chaco Canyon region of New Mexico. This is evidence that chocolate appeared north of Mexico earlier than originally thought, and infers trade between Chaco Canyon residents and cacao growers in Central America.

The discovery came as Hurst tested residue found in shards of ceramic jars found in Chaco Canyon. The experiment found that the chemical theobromine was present, indicating the presence of chocolate. It is likely that people living in Chaco Canyon used the jars to drink a symbolic chocolate beverage.

Hurst's work with food sciences, chocolate and the Hershey Corporation is proof that archaeology extends into many unexpected areas of the world. Beyond digging for artifacts, much of archaeology utilizes the laboratory sciences to uncover the past.

Chocolate was used in Central America as early as 1,500 B.C.E., often an essential part of rituals and weddings. In some cases it was even used as currency among the Aztec. Though chocolate was common below the current Mexican-American border, trade between Central American growers and Chaco Canyon dwellers would have spanned over 1,000 miles. Thus, it is imaginable that cacao was a rarely-experienced delight.

Today, we consider chocolate a treat. With many varieties, varying in sweetness, it is not so much used as a part of modern-day ritual as it is a reward. However, several thousand years ago the substance would have been bitter, with no sweetener added. Sometimes ancient chocolate artisans would mix in hot peppers.

The lecture will be held on Thursday, April 16 at 7:00 p.m. in the Gertrude C. Ford Academic Complex, room 215. It is part of the Moreton Lecture Series in the Sciences. Instituted in 1986, the Moreton Lecture Series brings nationally reputed experts to Millsaps College. The lecture is free and is open to the public.