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Archaeology

Cacao usage by the earliest Maya civilization

Foaming chocolate prepared in spouted vessels made a delectable Preclassic drink.

Abstract

The Maya archaeological site at Colha in northern Belize, Central America, has yielded several spouted ceramic vessels that contain residues from the preparation of food and beverages. Here we analyse dry residue samples by using high-performance liquid chromatography coupled to atmospheric-pressure chemical-ionization mass spectrometry, and show that chocolate (Theobroma cacao) was consumed by the Preclassic Maya as early as 600 bc, pushing back the earliest chemical evidence of cacao use by some 1,000 years. Our application of this new and highly sensitive analytical technique could be extended to the identification of other ancient foods and beverages.

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Figure 1: Early Maya use of cacao (Theobroma cacao): spouted vessel no. 13, which was found to contain cocoa residue.
Figure 2: Chromatographic analysis of residue from Maya cooking vessels.

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Correspondence to W. Jeffrey Hurst.

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Hurst, W., Tarka, S., Powis, T. et al. Cacao usage by the earliest Maya civilization. Nature 418, 289–290 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1038/418289a

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