Some strange pottery found at an ancient settlement in southeastern Utah contains the oldest known traces of chocolate in the United States, an anthropologist says.
The site dates back to the 8th century — 200 years earlier than the only other known evidence of the food, found at Chaco Canyon, the famous ceremonial and trade center of the Ancestral Puebloans.
The residents of the Utah settlement, known as Alkali Ridge, were also Pueblo ancestors, but the chocolate found in so many of their jars, pitchers, and bowls — as well as the pottery itself — suggests that they might not have been alone.
Dr. Dorothy Washburn, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, studied the residues in 18 vessels first unearthed at one of the settlement’s sites in the 1930s. She and her team – including her husband, a chemist for Bristol-Meyers Squibb — found that 13 of the artifacts contained traces of cacao, also known as cocoa.
The tell was a chemical called theobromine, a compound like caffeine that cacao has in abundance. The only other plant in North America that produces theobromine is Ilex vomitoria, a toxic holly that some Midwestern cultures used to induce ritual vomiting.
(Read more about it: “Ancient Americans Pounded Vomit-Causing ‘Black Drink’ 6 Times Stronger Than Coffee”)
But the holly, Washburn said, is only found in the Southeastern United States, whereas cacao was a known staple of life and trade in Mesoamerica.
“The only conclusion can be that it’s cacao,” she said.
Since the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, is a tropical plant not found within thousands of miles of Utah or Chaco, how it arrived in the American Southwest is something of a mystery — and a controversy.
The conventional view is that cacao, prized as a natural stimulant, came via trade routes that the ancestral Pueblo shared with Mesoamerican cultures, which valued chocolate as an important food and ceremonial drink.
That may explain cacao’s presence at a trade hub like Chaco, but Washburn says for it to be found so prevalently in a remote, early settlement like that at Alkali Ridge, there’s only one explanation:
“We’re arguing that people were moving from Mesoamerican areas up north into the Southwest. It was not just traders and isolated instances of trade,” she said.
The chocolate is only the latest evidence of a gradual but deeply influential migration from what’s now Mexico and Central America into the Southwestern United States, she said.
What’s even more persuasive than the far-flung cacao is the pottery it was found in, she added.
While local ceramics around Alkali Ridge were thick-walled and heavy, with black designs painted on white, the vessels found at one abandoned pit house, called Site 13, included many delicate orange wares of unusual shapes, painted with red patterns.
“There were these unusual dishes — they were sort of low, shallow open bowls with a non-local design system, and they were beautifully made — very thin vessel walls,” she said. “Clearly someone knew how to make those vessels and how to paint them and so forth.”
Since earlier tests of the clay had revealed them to have been made from local materials, these outliers weren’t imported, Washburn said. Instead, they must’ve been made by someone from another culture, with different potting and painting traditions.
“It was so different from the local ceramic, and it was so unique, and so prevalent at this particular, one site — not found at very many other sites around it — somebody who knew how to do this must’ve come up and made this.”
The migration theory fits with the historical environment of the time, she added, because Mesoamerica — much like Alkali Ridge — was undergoing a great upheaval in the 8th century.
Teotihuacan, the giant metropolis in central Mexico, had collapsed less than a century before Site 13 was settled, sending waves of emigrants in all directions.
“And by 900, many of the Mayan city states had also collapsed,” she added. “The results for North America was that people were moving all over.
“The bigger picture is, you can’t understand what’s happening in the [American] Southwest without understanding what’s happening in the areas to the south.”
Washburn acknowledged that her conclusions are controversial. Critics question how chocolate could appear to be so prevalent at Alkali Ridge, while there are no oral, epigraphic or any other references to its use — let alone any physical evidence of cacao plants themselves, like seed pods.
Perhaps more important, many archaeologists hew to the opinion that the great developments of ancient America — like the sophisticated complex at Chaco Canyon — were largely the handiwork of indigenous, uniquely North American cultures.
The prospect that the ancestral Pueblo were heavily, and directly, shaped by Mesoamerican migrants has meant that “there are a lot of archaeologists that aren’t happy,” Washburn said.
“This is causing the crumbling, or it is taking out the foundation, of their argument that the development of these high cultures … was an indigenous phenomenon. It. Is. Not. It is not.”
The research appears in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
• “Cacao consumption during the 8th century at Alkali Ridge, southeastern Utah,” Journal of Archaeological Science, No. 40, 2013