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The Secret of Ancient Maya Chocolate

Updated: Mar 14, 2022

Archaeologists have long known the Maya viewed cacao - the plant that chocolate comes from - as a gift from the gods and cultivated cacao trees in sacred groves. But given that the dry climate of the Yucatan Peninsula makes for poor cacao-growing conditions, scientists have been puzzled as to where these groves might have been. Not any more...

Chocolate beans next to a cacao pod

Researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU) have discovered the locations of cacao groves. Working closely with archaeologists from the U.S. and Mexico, the team found evidence of cacao groves in sinkholes in the Yucatan Peninsula, and published their findings in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The research team posited the karst sinkholes located throughout the peninsula may have created perfect microclimates for growing cacao trees by providing ideal levels of humidity, stillness and shade, reports Smithsonian Magazine.

To test their hypothesis, researchers took soil samples from 11 sinkholes in the peninsula and analyzed them through a new method call hot water extraction. The team found nine of the 11 sinkhole samples contained evidence of theobromine and caffeine - biomarkers that, when combined, are unique to cacao.

In a sinkhole near Cobá, Mexico, the team found several ceramic cacao pods, the arm and bracelet of a figurine attached to an incense jar and remnant cacao trees. It’s possible this sinkhole, named “Dzadz Ion,” was home to a sacred cacao grove somewhere between 1000 C.E. and 1400 C.E. In other sinkholes, the archaeologists found stone carvings, altars, remains of staircase ramps and ceremonial offerings like jade and ceramics. These findings suggest that cacao played a role in the changing of Maya religious worship of a maize god to a sun god.

The Maya also used cacao as a form of currency, as a part of religious ritual, and as a form of tribute. The BYU study found that hundreds of the peninsula’s sinkholes align with a 70-mile Maya “highway” that was the main artery for trade, per BYU News. Based on this finding, it’s likely that cacao groves played an important part in ancient Maya trade, and that the individuals who developed the highway also controlled cacao production.


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