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30 December 2007
Research group studies chocolate use from ancient pottery

Kennesaw State University Professor Terry Powis led a research group that determined man first used of chocolate about 1,900 BCE, about 700 years earlier than expected. Almost 4,000 years ago, residents of hot and humid Central America probably served chocolate, which comes from the beans of the cacao tree, as a cold beverage with different flavors, Powis said. Powis, an assistant professor of anthropology, spent three weeks in a Chiapas, Mexico lab gathering samples from ceramic jars and bowls that date from 1,900 BCE to 1,500 BCE The research from Powis' team appeared in the December edition of 'Antiquity.'
     Michael Coe, a retired Yale University professor of anthropology and co-author of the journal article, said the findings show that chocolate has been used far longer than researchers would have guessed a decade ago. "We now know how very old the chocolate process - turning raw cacao into chocolate - really is," Coe said. The study means that the Mokaya, the earliest sedentary villagers in Mesoamerica, probably drank some form of cold, liquid chocolate from elaborate bowls and jars, Powis said.
     Powis first tested for chocolate residue in the pottery of ancient Mesoamerica, the region that includes Mexico and parts of Central America, as a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. Powis says traces of chocolate can survive in the walls of pottery vessels for hundreds of thousands of years. "I was just sort of struck by the fact that they were calling these things 'chocolate pots' but no one had done any testing," he said. "A light bulb went off in my head." He found some positive samples that linked chocolate to 600 BCE. "After that, people were interested in the results and then that spurred a lot of research into this particular area of study," he said.
     Last year, he received a grant from the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. to continue his research. He hopes to bring four students to Chiapas next summer for more research into ancient Central American cultures. In Chiapas, Powis used sandpaper to lightly scrape residue from the pottery and he put the powder that came from the scrapings in vials. The powdery samples were sent to the Hershey Foods Technical Center in Hershey, Pa. and scientists there used a liquid mass spectrometer to confirm the existence of key chocolate chemicals such as theobromine and caffeine. Two of the 120 samples tested positive for chocolate.
     In November, the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said that archaeologists led by John Henderson of Cornell University studied the remains of pottery used in the lower Ulua Valley in northern Honduras about 1100 BCE and found that residue from the pots contained theobromine.

Sources: Associated Press, Rome News-Tribune (29 December 2007)

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