Ancient farmers in present-day Utah may have sweetened lives with chocolate

Fri Jan 25, 2013 6:00pm EST
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By Eric M. Johnson

(Reuters) - Ancient corn farmers living in pit houses among arid canyons of what is now Utah may have sweetened their lives with a chocolate derivative imported from the tropics of Central America, recent archeological findings suggest.

An archeologist and team of chemists analyzing the remains of an eighth century village near present-day Moab found theobromine and caffeine, compounds found in a cacao tree native to Central America and from which chocolate is derived.

"We associate cacao use with the migration of corn farmers from Mexico into the Southwest," University of Pennsylvania archeologist Dorothy Washburn said on Friday.

But the new findings suggest that cacao, a bean that was ground up and used to flavor food and make drinks, may have arrived in the region hundreds of years earlier than previously thought, and from farther afield, she said.

The team analyzed roughly a half dozen polished and "very beautifully designed" ceramic bowls "with non-local designs" that belonged to farmers whose ancestors migrated north over centuries from parts of Central America, Washburn said.

The findings strongly suggest the bowls contained cacao, and predate earlier traces of cacao studied in jars and bowls found in masonry pueblos from the 11th and 12th centuries at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, Washburn said.

The Utah study, to be published in April in the Journal of Archaeological Science, is not definitive because water swished around the bowls and then analyzed did not contain a third compound that could prove the existence of cacao, Washburn said.

"We looked for it but didn't detect it," said Washburn, who conducted the study in 2012 with husband William Washburn and his colleague, Petia Shipkova, both chemists at drug maker Bristol-Myers Squibb.   Continued...