In the ancient Mayan civilization, cocoa was not reserved for the elite.
Traces of the sacred plant appear in ceramics of all types of neighborhoods and dwellings in and around an ancient Maya city, researchers report September 26 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The finding suggests that, contrary to previous thought, cocoa was consumed at all social levels in Maya society.
“We now know that the rituals that the elite describe with cocoa were probably performed, like Thanksgiving, like any other ritual, by everyone,” says Anabel Ford, an archaeologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Cacao, from which chocolate is made, was sacred to the ancient Maya, consumed in rituals and used as currency. The cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) himself was related to Hun Hunahpu, the god of maize. Previous research has found cacao in ceremonial vessels and elite burials, suggesting its use was limited to those at the top.
To explore the extent to which cocoa has been used in Mayan society at largeFord and his colleagues examined 54 ceramic shards dating from AD 600 to 900 (SN: 09/27/18). Shards come from jars, mixing bowls, serving plates, and vases considered drinking vessels. All pieces were found in civic-residential and ceremonial areas of varying size and status in the city centers, foothills, mountain and valley areas around the ancient Mayan city of El Pilar on the border present in Guatemala and Belize.
To identify cocoa, the researchers looked for theophylline, a compound present in trace amounts in the plant. The team found the compound on more than half of the samples, on all types of ceramics and distributed across all social settings.
Future research will go beyond who consumed cocoa and explore the role of farmers in managing the critical resource. “A better question is to figure out who grew it,” Ford says, because those people likely had better access to the prized commodity.