The world’s first chocolate drink was neither hot nor frothy but, given its alcohol content, might have given drinkers a buzz, suggests a new Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study.
Remains of the beverage, stuck on dirty pots dating from 1400-1408 B.C., extend the earliest known use of cacao — the source of chocolate — by at least 500 years, according to the authors.
Led by Cornell University anthropologist John Henderson, the scientists excavated the pots in the lower Rio Ulua Valley of northern Honduras. Although cacao plants are native to South America, most other early chocolate evidence comes from in and around Mexico.
“I’d guess that South Americans, navigating along the coast, took cacao pods with them as a source of liquid and it got established in coastal Mesoamerica, maybe in or near the Ulua Valley, and locals adopted the practice of fermenting the pulp (that surrounds the pods),” Henderson told Discovery News.
The researchers carefully extracted, and chemically analyzed, the residue. They also studied the gourd-shaped pots themselves. The chemical analysis revealed the presence of theobromine, a chemical limited to Central American chocolate plant species.
“There’s some disagreement among pharmacologists about what kind of physical response theobromine produces,” Henderson said. “In combination with the other compounds, (it was) probably a mild stimulant and a sense of well-being.”
Based on the shape of the excavated pots, the researchers guess the chocolate was served in liquid form, probably for special occasions such as births and weddings. Beyond that, they think the shape of the pots also suggests how the beverage was made.
The oldest northern Honduras chocolate pots had a long narrow neck, while the newer pots have wide necks that, even today, allow cooks to insert a wooden whisk device, known as a molinillo, for frothing the liquid. Since the oldest drinks probably weren’t frothed, according to the researchers, they were likely prepared from fermented cacao pulp, unlike other chocolate-flavored drinks made from the seeds.
Joan Steuer, president of Chocolate Marketing, the founder of Chocolatier magazine and a world-renown expert on chocolate, explained to Discovery News that the pulp, like grapes for wine, naturally ferments when left alone.
“When it ferments, it turns into a liquid that today is still consumed as a beverage,” she said.
Other studies have found that fermenting the pulp destroys half of the beneficial nutritional components, including antioxidants, but “it would have tasted sweeter and less bitter, with a cocoa butter richness and alcohol content,” she said.
Steuer, however, remains skeptical about the conclusions of the new study.
“How do we know that the beverage wasn’t just poured into the pots?” she said. “It could have been a frothy hot chocolate drink made from the cacao seeds, so I don’t think we’ve resolved that aspect of the findings.”
Also skeptical is Elaine Gonzalez, author of The Art of Chocolate. Gonzalez told Discovery News that other archaeological finds, as well as Mesoamerican tradition, indicate the Olmecs, predecessors to the Maya, were the first chocolate users. She doesn’t think they traveled as far down as Honduras, but were instead more centered around Veracruz and Tabasco, Mexico.
Gonzalez added that slightly later hot chocolate drinks, made with the pods, were complex, ritualistic drinks.
Gonzalez continued, “While not always added, sometimes consumers would even incorporate the ground bones of their ancestors, or possibly hallucinogenic mushrooms and flowers, so it would have been quite a drink.”
Henderson, however, believes that the brewing of the pulp was key to the drink, and possibly to today’s modern chocolate industry.
He said, “If we’re right about the earliest cacao drink being based on fermented pulp, then the discovery of the chocolate flavor, the ubiquity of chocolate drinks in later Mesoamerica, the use of cacao seeds as money, and the entire modern chocolate industry is a by-product of early brewing.”