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Millsaps Scientists Detect Earliest Known Cacao in Northern Maya Pottery


Scientists at Millsaps College's W.M. Keck Center for Instrumental and Biochemical Comparative Archaeology have detected evidence of the presence of cacao in ancient ceramic pottery recovered from a Maya archaeological site in Yucatán, Mexico, making it the earliest documented evidence of the use of cacao in the Northern Maya Lowlands.

Dr. Timothy J. Ward, professor of chemistry at Millsaps; Dr. Jiyan Gu, research fellow; and students Syed Ali and Erin Redman used liquid chromatography in tandem with a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer to extract and identify two specific chemical compounds. Their research revealed a specific ratio of theobromine and caffeine compounds that provided a strong indicator of cacao usage.

Professor of Chemistry at Millsaps College Dr. Timothy Ward in the College's Keck Lab where cacao usage in ancient ceramics was detected.

The ceramics were found in 2001 from the site of Paso del Macho, a Middle Formative site dating to 600-500 B.C. in the Southern Puuc region of Mexico. This site was discovered and explored by INAH archaeologist Tomás Gallareta Negron, who works as senior director of the Bolonchen Regional Archaeological Project (BRAP) along with Dr. George Bey of Millsaps College and Dr. William Ringle of Davidson College.

Paso del Macho is one of the many sites that the project has discovered in its regional exploration of this relatively unknown area of the Maya world. "Although a small site, Paso del Macho was apparently important as it had several small mounds and a ball court," says Bey. "The fact that the inhabitants were able to acquire and use cacao indicates they were part of the larger Maya world even at this early date."

"One of the pottery sherds that has been identified as having had cacao residue was not a bowl or jar, as is typical, but a plate. This raises the possibility that cacao was not only being used to prepare a beverage at this early time but was already being used in sauces for dishes, perhaps similar to the popular dish known as Molé," Ward said.

Cacao pods in northern Yucatán


Currently the Keck Lab at Millsaps College is collaborating with the University of New Mexico and Hershey Company Technical Center in identifying cacao use and other ancient foods and beverages.

Evidence for the use of cacao is known from other parts of Mesoamerica as early as 1500 B.C.; however, the use of cacao by the Maya was thought to first have occurred in the Southern Maya lowlands during the Middle Formative (around 600-500 B.C.). The evidence for cacao use at the same time period in the Northern Maya Lowlands indicates that the Yucatán Maya region was also involved in the consumption of chocolate at this early date.

"This evidence combined with other archaeological, architectural and settlement data is providing us with a new view of this little known area of the Maya world during the earliest times. The Northern Maya world was just as complex and sophisticated as the far better known Southern Maya area, and we can now add the consumption of cacao to this list of traits," Gallareta Negron said.

Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History released a Spanish-language version of this article in Mexico August 1, 2012 in cooperation with Millsaps College. Read the Spanish version at Yucatan Hoy.

Learn more about Millsaps' exciting new archaeology minor.

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