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Chocolate's origin 1,500 years earlier than thought, archaeologists find

By Allen Cone
Chocolate's origin 1,500 years earlier than thought, archaeologists find
Archeologists have found that the cacao plant -- which chocolate is made from -- was grown 1,500 years earlier than previously thought, and in South America rather than Central America. Photo by jackmac34/pixabay

Oct. 29 (UPI) -- Researchers have made a sweet discovery: Cacao, from which chocolate is made, was grown 1,500 years earlier than previously thought, and in South America, not Central America.

Cacao was first domesticated farther south than thought around 5,300 years ago, according to an international team of researchers. The findings were published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

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In previous archaeological evidence, the first use of cacao dated to about 3,900 years ago.

"Today we all rely, to one extent or another, on foods that were created by the Indigenous peoples of the Americas," study co-author Dr. Michael Blake, a professor at the University of British Columbia's Department of Anthropology, said in a press release. "And one of the world's favorites is chocolate."

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Theobroma cacao, commonly known as the cacao tree, was grown in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica that extends from approximately central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica. Cacao beans were once used in the region as currency, as well as for chocolate drinks consumed during feasts and rituals.

"This new study shows us that people in the upper reaches of the Amazon basin, extending up into the foothills of the Andes in southeastern 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 1,500 years earlier," Blake said.

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Because cacao is important to contemporary Indigenous groups, the researchers searched for genetic evidence that the highest diversity of the cacao tree and related species is found in equatorial South America.

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They studied ceramic artifacts from Santa Ana-La Florida in Ecuador, which was the earliest known site of Mayo-Chinchipe culture from at least 5,450 years ago.

Three lines of evidence showed that the Mayo-Chinchipe culture used cacao between 5,300 and 2,100 years ago: Starch grains specific to the cacao tree inside ceramic vessels and broken pieces of pottery, residues of theobromine, which is found in the cacao tree but not in the wild, and fragments of ancient DNA unique to the cacao tree.

"These three methods combine to definitively identify a plant that is otherwise notoriously difficult to trace in the archaeological record because seeds and other parts quickly degrade in moist and warm tropical environments," said lead author Dr. Sonia Zarrillo, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Calgary and formerly at UBC.

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