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Salt is essential for life. As ancient civilizations evolved from hunters and gatherers to agrarian societies, it has not been clear how people acquired this mineral that is a biological necessity. However, an anthropologist at LSU discovered remnants of an ancient salt works in Belize that provide clues on how the ancient Maya at the peak of their civilization more than 1,000 years ago produced, stored and traded this valuable mineral.

Source: Salt: Mover and shaker in ancient Maya society

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Original article:

Washingtonpost.com

By Ben Gurino

New technology allows scientists to visualize ancient Maya cities like never before

In the autumn of 1929, Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her husband Charles flew across the Yucatán Peninsula. With Charles at the controls, Anne snapped photographs of the jungles just below. She wrote in her journal of Maya structures obscured by large humps of vegetation. A bright stone wall peeked through the leaves, “unspeakably alone and majestic and desolate — the mark of a great civilization gone.”

Nearly a century later, surveyors once again took flight over the ancient Maya empire, and mapped the Guatemala forests with lasers. The 2016 survey, whose first results were published this week in the journal Science, comprises a dozen plots covering 830 square miles, an area larger than the island of Maui. It is the largest such survey of the Maya region, ever.

The study authors describe the results as a revelation. “It’s like putting glasses on when your eyesight is blurry,” said study author Mary Jane Acuña, director of El Tintal Archaeological Project in Guatemala.

In the past, archaeologists had argued that small, disconnected city-states dotted the Maya lowlands, though that conception is falling out of favor. This study shows that the Maya could extensively “exploit and manipulate” their environment and geography, Acuña said. Maya agriculture sustained large populations, who in turn forged relationships across the region.

Combing through the scans, Acuña and her colleagues, an international 18-strong scientific team, tallied 61,480 structures. These included: 60 miles of causeways, roads and canals that connected cities; large maize farms; houses large and small; and, surprisingly, defensive fortifications that suggest the Maya came under attack from the west of Central America.

“We were all humbled,” said Tulane University anthropologist Marcello Canuto, the study’s lead author. “All of us saw things we had walked over and we realized, oh wow, we totally missed that.”

Preliminary images from the survey went public in February, to the delight of archaeologists like Sarah Parcak. Parcak, who was not involved with the research, wrote on Twitter, “Hey all: you realize that researchers just used lasers to find *60,000* new sites in Guatemala?!? This is HOLY [expletive] territory.

Parcak, whose space archaeology program GlobalXplorer.org has been described as the love child of Google Earth and Indiana Jones, is a champion of using satellite data to remotely observe sites in Egypt and elsewhere. “The scale of information that we’re able to collect now is unprecedented,” Parcak said, adding that this survey is “going to upend long-held theories about ancient Maya society.”

With support from a Guatemala-based heritage foundation called Pacunam, the researchers conducted the massive and expensive survey using lidar, or light detection and ranging. They mapped several active archaeological sites, plus well-studied Maya cities like Tikal and Uaxactun.

Lidar’s principles are similar to radar, except instead of radio waves lidar relies on laser light. From an aircraft flying just a few thousand feet above the canopy, the surveyors prickled each square meter with 15 laser pulses. Those pulses penetrate vegetation but bounce back from hard stone surfaces. Using lidar, you can’t see the forest through the invisible trees.

Beneath the thick jungle, ruins appeared. Lots and lots of them. Extrapolated over the 36,700 square miles, which encompasses the total Maya lowland region, the authors estimate the Maya built as many as 2.7 million structures. These would have supported 7 million to 11 million people during the Classic Period of Maya civilization, around the years 650 to 800, in line with other Maya population estimates.

“We’ve been working in this area for over a century,” Canuto said. “It’s not terra incognita, but we didn’t have a good appreciation for what was really there.”

Archaeologist Arlen Chase, a Maya specialist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who was not involved with this survey, said for years he has argued that the Maya society was more complex than widely accepted. In 1998, he and archaeologist Diane Chase, his wife, described elaborate agricultural terraces at the Maya city of Caracol in Belize. “Everybody would not believe we had terraces!” he said.

He gets much less push back now, he said. “The paradigm shift that we’ve predicted was happening is in fact happening” Chase said, which he credits to lidar data. He has seen lidar evolve from a “hush-hush type of technology” used by the military to map Fallujah streets to a powerful archaeological tool.

Chase, who previously used lidar at Caracol, where as many as 100,000 people lived, compares this technology to carbon-14 dating. Radiocarbon dating gives archaeologists a much more accurate timeline. Lidar is about to do the same for archaeologists’ sense of space, particularly in densely forested areas near the equator. Two years ago, researchers used lidar mapped dense urban infrastructure around Angkor, the seat of the medieval Khmer Empire in Cambodia.

“We’re just getting started in so many major sites around the world, whether it’s Angkor Wat, whether it’s Tikal in Central America or major sites in Egypt,” Parcak said.

For all its power, lidar cannot supplant old-fashioned archaeology. For 8 percent of the survey area, the archaeologists confirmed the lidar data with boots-on-the-ground visits. This “ground truthing” suggests that the lidar analysis was conservative — they found the predicted structures, and then some.

“There is still much more ground to cover and work to do,” said Acuña, who will continue to study the large ancient Maya city of El Tindal.

Could you imagine, Canuto said, what might be found through a lidar survey of the Amazon? With technology like this, no forested frontiers are final.

 

 

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Modern chocolate shaped like Maya glyphs, the written language they used to communicate. ARINA HABICH/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Original Article:

sciencemag.org

By Joshua Rapp

 

Your Hershey bar may have been worth its weight in gold in Mayan times. A new study reveals that chocolate became its own form of money at the height of Mayan opulence—and that the loss of this delicacy may have played a role in the downfall of the famed civilization.

The study is on the right track, says David Freidel, an anthropologist and Maya expert at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who was not involved with the work. Chocolate “is a very prestigious food,” he says, “and it [was] almost certainly a currency.”

The ancient Maya never used coins as money. Instead, like many early civilizations, they were thought to mostly barter, trading items such as tobacco, maize, and clothing. Spanish colonial accounts from the 16th century indicate that the Europeans even used cacao beans—the basis for chocolate—to pay workers, but it was unclear whether the substance was a prominent currency before their arrival.

To find out, Joanne Baron, an archaeologist with the Bard Early College Network—a network of schools that focus on college-level teaching for high school–aged students—in Newark, New Jersey, analyzed Mayan artwork. She focused on published research and other available Maya images during the Classic Maya period from about 250 C.E. to about 900 C.E. in the southern Maya lowlands in modern-day Mexico and Central America. The objects—including murals, ceramic paintings, and carvings—depict typical market exchanges and tribute payments to Maya kings.

Chocolate didn’t pop up much in the earliest art, Baron found, but it became more prevalent by the 8th century C.E. That’s also around the time people seem to be using it as money—that is, an item widely accepted as payment for goods or services rather than a one-off barter. The Maya usually consumed their cacao as a hot drink, a steamy broth served in a clay cup. One of the earliest depictions of it used in exchange dates to the mid-7th century. In a painted mural displayed in a pyramid that may have been a central marketplace near the Guatemalan border, a woman offers a bowl of what looks like frothing hot chocolate to a man in return for dough used for making tamales. This early depiction suggests that although chocolate was being bartered at this point, it may not have been traded as a form of currency, Baron says.

But later evidence shows that chocolate became a little more like coins—in the form of fermented and dried cacao beans. Baron documented about 180 different scenes on ceramics and murals from about 691 C.E. through 900 C.E. which show commodities delivered to Maya leaders as a tribute, or a kind of tax. Goods like tobacco and maize grain are sometimes given as tribute, but the items that pop up most in these scenes are pieces of woven cloth and bags labeled with the quantity of dried cacao beans they contain, she reports in Economic Anthropology.

Baron believes the fact that Maya kings collected cacao and woven cloth as tax shows that both had become a currency at this point. “They are collecting way more cacao than the palace actually consumes,” she says, adding that the surplus was probably used to pay palace workers or to buy things at the marketplace.

Freidel says cacao was almost universally loved by the Maya. But it would have been far more prized than crops like maize because cacao trees are susceptible to crop failure and didn’t grow well near Maya cities.

Some scholars believe drought led to the downfall of the Classic Maya civilization. Baron speculates that the disruption of the cacao supply which fueled political power may have led to an economic breakdown in some cases.

Freidel says the rise in artistic depictions of cacao may not necessarily indicate increased importance as a currency. As the Classic Maya period unfolded, he says, more and more people wrote things down and painted murals or pottery scenes. “Is it actually getting more important or are we just learning more about it?”

He is also skeptical that the loss of cacao contributed to the Maya’s downfall. Cacao beans were not the only type of currency, Freidel notes—woven cloth and other goods like maize grain or certain types of green stone were also possibly used as money. “My guess is that one commodity crashing would not cause the system to crash.”

 

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Different varieties of sweet potato on display at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru. The sweet potato originated in the Americas and spread across the globe. Robert Scotland

Many botanists argued that humans must have carried the valuable staple to the Pacific from South America. Not so, according to a new study.

Carl Zimmer APRIL 12, 2018

Nytimes.com

Of all the plants that humanity has turned into crops, none is more puzzling than the sweet potato. Indigenous people of Central and South America grew it on farms for generations, and Europeans discovered it when Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean.

In the 18th century, however, Captain Cook stumbled across sweet potatoes again — over 4,000 miles away, on remote Polynesian islands. European explorers later found them elsewhere in the Pacific, from Hawaii to New Guinea.

The distribution of the plant baffled scientists. How could sweet potatoes arise from a wild ancestor and then wind up scattered across such a wide range? Was it possible that unknown explorers carried it from South America to countless Pacific islands?

An extensive analysis of sweet potato DNA, published on Thursday in Current Biology, comes to a controversial conclusion: Humans had nothing to do with it. The bulky sweet potato spread across the globe long before humans could have played a part — it’s a natural traveler.

Some agricultural experts are skeptical. “This paper does not settle the matter,” said Logan J. Kistler, the curator of archaeogenomics and archaeobotany at the Smithsonian Institution.

Alternative explanations remain on the table, because the new study didn’t provide enough evidence for exactly where sweet potatoes were first domesticated and when they arrived in the Pacific. “We still don’t have a smoking gun,” Dr. Kistler said.

The sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, is one of the most valuable crops in the world, providing more nutrients per farmed acre than any other staple. It has sustained human communities for centuries. (In North America, it often is referred to as a yam; in fact, yams are a different species originating in Africa and Asia.)

Scientists have offered a number of theories to explain the wide distribution of I. batatas. Some scholars proposed that all sweet potatoes originated in the Americas, and that after Columbus’s voyage, they were spread by Europeans to colonies such as the Philippines. Pacific Islanders acquired the crops from there.

As it turned out, though, Pacific Islanders had been growing the crop for generations by the time Europeans showed up. On one Polynesian island, archaeologists have found sweet potato remains dating back over 700 years.

A radically different hypothesis emerged: Pacific Islanders, masters of open-ocean navigation, picked up sweet potatoes by voyaging to the Americas, long before Columbus’s arrival there. The evidence included a suggestive coincidence: In Peru, some indigenous people call the sweet potato cumara. In New Zealand, it’s kumara.

A potential link between South America and the Pacific was the inspiration for Thor Heyerdahl’s famous 1947 voyage aboard the Kon-Tiki. He built a raft, which he then successfully sailed from Peru to the Easter Islands.

Genetic evidence only complicated the picture. Examining the plant’s DNA, some researchers concluded that sweet potatoes arose only once from a wild ancestor, while other studies indicated that it happened at two different points in history.

According to the latter studies, South Americans domesticated sweet potatoes, which were then acquired by Polynesians. Central Americans domesticated a second variety that later was picked up by Europeans.

Hoping to shed light on the mystery, a team of researchers recently undertook a new study — the biggest survey of sweet potato DNA yet. And they came to a very different conclusion.

“We find very clear evidence that sweet potatoes could arrive in the Pacific by natural means,” said Pablo Muñoz-Rodríguez, a botanist at the University of Oxford. He believes the wild plants traveled thousands of miles across the Pacific without any help from humans.

Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez and his colleagues visited museums and herbariums around the world to take samples of sweet potato varieties and wild relatives. The researchers used powerful DNA-sequencing technology to gather more genetic material from the plants than possible in earlier studies.

Their research pointed to only one wild plant as the ancestor of all sweet potatoes. The closest wild relative is a weedy flower called Ipomoea trifida that grows around the Caribbean. Its pale purple flowers look a lot like those of the sweet potato.

Instead of a massive, tasty tuber, I. trifida grows only a pencil-thick root. “It’s nothing we could eat,” Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez said.

The ancestors of sweet potatoes split from I. trifida at least 800,000 years ago, the scientists calculated. To investigate how they arrived in the Pacific, the team headed to the Natural History Museum in London.

The leaves of sweet potatoes that Captain Cook’s crew collected in Polynesia are stored in the museum’s cabinets. The researchers cut bits of the leaves and extracted DNA from them.

The Polynesian sweet potatoes turned out to be genetically unusual — “very different from anything else,” Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez said.

The sweet potatoes found in Polynesia split off over 111,000 years ago from all other sweet potatoes the researchers studied. Yet humans arrived in New Guinea about 50,000 years ago, and only reached remote Pacific islands in the past few thousand years.

The age of Pacific sweet potatoes made it unlikely that any humans, Spanish or Pacific Islander, carried the species from the Americas, Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez said.

Traditionally, researchers have been skeptical that a plant like a sweet potato could travel across thousands of miles of ocean. But in recent years, scientists have turned up signs that many plants have made the voyage, floating on the water or carried in bits by birds.

Even before the sweet potato made the journey, its wild relatives traveled the Pacific, the scientists found. One species, the Hawaiian moonflower, lives only in the dry forests of Hawaii — but its closest relatives all live in Mexico.

The scientists estimate that the Hawaiian moonflower separated from its relatives — and made its journey across the Pacific — over a million years ago.

But Tim P. Denham, an archaeologist at the Australian National University who was not involved in the study, found this scenario hard to swallow.

It would suggest that the wild ancestors of sweet potatoes spread across the Pacific and were then domesticated many times over — yet wound up looking the same every time. “This would seem unlikely,” he said.

Dr. Kistler argued that it was still possible that Pacific Islanders voyaged to South America and returned with the sweet potato.

A thousand years ago, they might have encountered many sweet potato varieties on the continent. When Europeans arrived in the 1500s, they likely wiped out much of the crop’s genetic diversity.

As a result, Dr. Kistler said, the surviving sweet potatoes of the Pacific only seem distantly related to the ones in the Americas. If the scientists had done the same study in 1500, Pacific sweet potatoes would have fit right in with other South American varieties.

Dr. Kistler was optimistic that the sweet potato debate would someday be settled. The world’s herbariums contain a vast number of varieties that have yet to be genetically tested.

“There are more than we could look at in a lifetime,” Dr. Kistler said.

For his part, Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez plans on searching for more wild sweet potato relatives in Central America, hoping to get more clues to how exactly a thin-rooted weed gave rise to an invaluable crop.

Working out the history of crops like this could do more than satisfy our curiosity about the past. Wild plants hold a lot of genetic variants lost when people domesticated crops.

Researchers may find plants they can hybridize with domesticated sweet potatoes and other crops, endowing them with genes for resistance to diseases, or for withstanding climate change.

“Essentially, it’s preserving the gene pool that feeds the world,” Dr. Kistler said.

Caption1 The distribution of the sweet potato plant has baffled scientists. How could the plant arise from a wild ancestor in the Americas and wind up on islands across the Pacific? Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Caption2 Different varieties of sweet potato on display at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru. The sweet potato originated in the Americas and spread across the globe. Robert Scotland

Link https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/12/science/sweet-potato-pacific-dna.html

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Original Article:

heritagedaily.com

Written by Julie St Jean

 

Chocolate finds its way onto even the most simplistic dessert menus today to satisfy the sweetest sweet-tooth. In ancient Mesoamerica, chocolate was deemed a speciality food, achieving a sacred status.

The Maya and the Aztecs believed that cacao was discovered by the gods in a mountain and was to be given to the people following their creation. The Maya held a yearly festival to honor the cacao god Ek Chuah, which included several offerings and rituals to him. Although sustaining the high possibility that is was not a native Mesoamerican crop, the cacao tree was one of the ancient Maya and Aztec’s most prized.

The warm, liquid form of the chocolate consumed was very different from today’s hot cocoa, being laden with chili powder and other spices making it a hot and sultry treat popular with royalty while lay people occasionally enjoyed its healing qualities. The Spanish who moved into Mesoamerica were unfamiliar with the ‘savage’ flavors of the spicy chocolate and determined that it would not be popular as it stood and was not to sent back home without proper adjustments like the elimination of many spices and the addition of sweetening ingredients.

While archaeological evidence for cacao use by the Aztecs and Maya is rather limited, pictorial and iconographic evidence is quite substantial. The goal of this poster is to demonstrate the many ways in which the cacao tree was especially important ritually, medically and spiritually to the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica..

For nearly 3500 years the world has indulged in chocolate; chocolate bars, candy kisses, hot cocoa, chocolate ice-cream and numerous other forms. The idea of a chocolate treat is far from a modern one. The use of chocolate began in the New World with the ancient Olmec civilization (1500 BC-500 BC) in Mesoamerican and continued on through the time of the Maya and Aztecs before making its trek across to the Old World in the 16th century.

The formulation and serving techniques of the chocolate were somewhat different than today. Mainly consumed as an unheated liquid by the Aztecs and generally heated by the Maya, chocolate was the drink of choice for the elites and with the addition of hot chilies, maize, spices, peanut butter, vanilla and other flavor and texture enhancers, made the chocolate beverage a spicy and sultry drink enjoyed only by those who are able to afford it or by those who are specifically chosen to enjoy its benefits. Over the years, cacao, its components and chocolate in one form or another, have been used in more ways that just for a pleasure drink. It is known to have healing and preventative properties and has been documented in both ancient and modern medical journals.

Aztec. Man Carrying a Cacao Pod, 1440–1521

 

History of the Cacao Tree and its Cultivation:

The cacao (Theobroma cacao) tree is a member of Sterculiaceae family of evergreens. Today, we find the wild trees at various elevations (200-400m) in the Amazon Rainforest as well as the Orinco River basins. The tree produces fruits approximately the size and shape of an American football. Each pod contains an average of 40 seeds (commonly referred to as ‘beans’), which are what is used to make cocoa powder, cocoa butter and chocolate (Rissolo per. comm. 2005).

The cultivation of a cacao tree and its seeds is a rather involved and time-consuming process. In the wild, the trees can grow to a height of over 60 feet; however in a plantation setting it is typical to see them only at a maximum of 20 feet to ease the harvesting labour. The planted trees take four or five years to flower. Once pollinated, each flower begins to produce a pod with will grow to be about one pound in weight and contain about 40 seeds surrounded by a naturally sweet white pulp. The pods are unable to open on their own accord and must so be done with human (or animal) intervention.

The pods will ripen throughout the year and there are normally two main harvests. The pods are opened by hand and the pulp and are seeds extracted According to Coe and Coe (1996) the four steps needed to produce the cacao ‘nibs’ (shelled and de-germed beans) are: fermentation, drying, roasting and winnowing. These steps are still followed in today’s modern chocolate making cultures, regardless of the technologies available to them. The four stages are summarized below.

Fermentation is a confusing word choice as the cacao is not fermented into an alcohol, although it could be. As performed by the ancient people of Mesoamerica, the beans (seeds) are fermented for anywhere from three to six days, depending on the type of bean. During this time, chemical processes are occurring; the pulp liquefies, and drains away as the temperature increases and the seeds begin to germinate but are soon killed by the high temperature and acidity which is the desired effect as the chocolate will fail to taste like chocolate if this does not occur (Coe and Coe 1996, 24). Once fermentation is complete, the beans are dried on flat mats left out in the sun for one to two weeks. Roasting the beans for approximately 70-115 minutes at temperatures of around 215 degrees F is vital for the drawing out of the chocolate flavour.

The beans are roasted at a slightly higher temperature in order to produce cocoa powder. The final step is the removal of the outer shell of the bean (winnowing). Once winnowing has occurred, the beans can be ground into a paste, commonly known as ‘cacao liquor’, which is non-alcoholic (Coe and Coe 1996, 25). The process is time consuming and minimal chocolate is retrieved from each pod, but the value is so great and the time used in order to prepare the chocolate adds to the sacredness of the end product.

Cocoa Tree

Cacao butter is made up of the fat inside the nib. It is extracted during the drying process and the fat was and still is used not only as an addition to quality chocolate, but as an ingredient in many cosmetics and skin-care products. The word cacao most likely originated with the Olmecs who resided in the lowland region of Mexico on the eastern gulf coast (Dillinger et al. 2000 and Coe & Coe 1996). The tree obtained its modern name from the eighteenth century Swedish biologist, Carolus Linnaeus. While developing a system for classifying living organisms, he assigned the botanical name Theobroma cacao to the chocolate tree. Theobroma, in Latin, means “food of the gods,” while cacao refers to the native word for the plant (Coe and Coe 1996, 17).

In the most basic of terms, cacao is a culturally edible material which grows on trees in Central and South America. To the ancient lay people of Mesoamerica, it was so much more than a food item. Cacao seeds were actually so valued as to be used for currency, while the subsequent beverages were used as offerings to the gods and as the champagne-of-the-time. A 1545 Nahuatl (Mayan language) document provides a list of the prices of food items; a turkey hen is worth 100 cacao beans, a hare or forest rabbit or is worth 100 cacao beans, a large tomato is one bean and one turkey egg is worth three beans, among other food items (Coe and Coe 1996, 98-99).

There is doubt as to whether or not the cacao tree is native to Mesoamerica. Specific climatic conditions are required for the needy cacao tree to grow. Surprisingly, the trees have been reported to have grown and thrived in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula where the climate would normally be far too harsh. The area has a long, hot and dry season yielding a mere 50mm of rainfall a year. Cacao trees require year round humidity and plenty of rainfall (2000mm) into well-drained soil in order to grow and propagate (Gomez-Pompa et al. 1990, 247-249). Being a shade-loving species, the cacao is usually found growing under the canopy of taller, tropical trees and basking in the nutrient-rich soil made up of the abundant organic materials falling from the protective canopy-trees.

It is exceedingly difficult to recognize what the original properties of the wild populations of cacao trees prior to the Spanish contact were. South America has been considered to be the center of origin for cacao, but the question of when the transfer of the tree to Mesoamerica occurred still sparks controversy upon Mayanists as well as other archaeologists and historians (Gomez-Pompa et al. 1990, 249). However, there is absolutely no proof of South American usage of cacao prior to modern times and, according to Gomez-Pompa et al. (1990), it is unrealistic to assume that someone traveling from South America to Mexico could have (or would have) successfully brought the cacao seeds, while keeping them viable for the two-week trek, to be planted and cultivated in Mexico.

The seeds germinate quickly and will surely die if not kept moist and cool in the hot air that blankets the South American and Mesoamerican areas. It is therefore somewhat safe to assume that the trees do, in fact, grow naturally in the Mesoamerican area, but how? Unfortunately, at present, it unknown for certain whether or not these cacao groves occurred naturally or with human assistance. The answer may well lie in cenotes, (underground caves), or collapsed above-ground caves. These types of environments are similar to sinkholes and house a damp microenvironment virtually perfect for cacao growth. Groundwater in the cenotes is generally the food for the trees, which are by and large untouched by rainwater for half the year. Unfortunately, whether cacao trees naturally form and prosper or were originally brought into the area and planted in these sinkholes and cenotes, is still under investigation.

Iconographic and Archaeological Evidence:

Chocolate became popular as a drink among the Aztec upper classes, who could afford it. The custom was to serve chocolate after a feast, in a special cup (xicalli) made out of a calabash gourd. Royalty and upper elites ritualistically used elaborately painted pottery from which to drink the frothy concoction (Rissolo per. comm. 2005).

An impressive Mayan example of this is from a royal tomb in north-eastern Guatemala. It contained seven cylindrical containers, including a pot with a stirrup handle and screw-on lid. The notable piece was painted with hieroglyphs reading, “a drinking vessel for witik cacao, for kox cacao,” the still un-deciphered Mayan words which likely denote chocolate flavours (Coe and Coe 1996, 49 and Hall 1990). Laboratory analysis of its inner surface by came back positive for chocolate. All seven containers likely held varieties of the cacao beverage. There are thousands of these cylindrical vessels in collections, and the vast majority say right on them, ‘This is a vessel for chocolate,’ (Coe and Coe 1996).

Spouted vessels are a rare elite drinking vessel of the Preclassic Maya. Colha, in northern Belize, has yielded several of these types of drinking vessels. Dry-residue analysis using liquid-chromatography show chocolate use as early as 600BC. These vessels were only manufactured in the Preclassic period (900BC-AD250) (Hurst et al. 2002, 289).

Residue analyses on several vessels from ancient Maya burial sites indicate offerings of chocolate to the deceased (Dillinger 2000, Hurst et al. 1989 and Hall et al. 1990). In fact, a majority of the pottery assemblages from Maya sites of the Postclassic (prior to the Spanish conquest) era contained vessels used to hold chocolate for the dead to utilize during his/her afterlife. Analysis if the residues of four Maya tomb vessels at the site of Rio Azul in Guatemala have shown that the vessel once contained theobrommine and/or caffeine which are both contents of cacao (Hall et al. 1990, 139).

Hall and his researchers surveyed the literature provided by the laboratories of the Hershey Foods Corporation Technical Center and determined that cacao is the only Mesoamerican food source which contained both theobrommine and caffeine. Therefore it has been deemed safe to conclude that any vessel which tests positive for these ingredients likely contained cacao in one form or another. Another 15 vessels which had a sort of locking mechanism, deemed by Hall (1990) to be a ‘child-proofing’ system, seemed to have once contained foods and liquids on which the deceased would subsist in the afterworld. As Hall (1990) states, many of the vessels had obvious inner rings of residue, some of which were slightly slanted, as if the pot was not entirely flat on the bottom.

This indicates the presence of a liquid having been stored. The glyphic writing on the outside of the vessels clearly display the Maya word for cacao along with additional un-deciphered glyphs, possibly eluding to the recipe of the contents, the maker of, or other general information about the contents which were once housed in the vessel (Hall, 1990, 139).

As suggested by the residue analysis, as well as iconographic evidence, the elites began frothing the chocolate to create a thick, foamy head using a Spanish invention called a molinillo. Prior to Spanish contact, the method mostly used to froth the liquid was pouring from extended heights into another vessel on the floor (Coe and Coe 1996).

Archaeological evidence from Mesoamerica, points to chocolate use beginning with the ancient Olmecs and carrying on through the time of the Maya and Aztecs. Evidence is sparse but comes from various parts of Mesoamerica. Whole cacao beans were recovered from Uaxactun, Guatemala, while in Belize, wood from ancient cacao trees has been uncovered along with ceramic vessels which tested positive for chocolate residues (Rissolo per. comm. 2005).

An example of a piece of iconographic evidence of the importance of cacao is a jadeite plaque uncovered inside a cenote in the town of Chichen Itza. The carved jade shows a man holding onto the trunk of a cacao tree covered with protruding cacao pods. The carving also contains the phonetic glyph for the word cacao pronounced ka-ka-w(a), or kakaw (Gomez-Pompa et al. 1990). An incense burner from the Late Classic period (AD 600-900) depicting a god surrounded by many cacao pods was uncovered in the Rio Bec region of Campeche (Gomez-Pompa et al. 1990 and Rissolo per. comm. 2005).

The only surviving written evidence from the Classic era Maya, are the extravagantly decorated vessels which joined the elite in their tombs. There is little else known about the peasants who actually grew and cultivated the trees, or how the May ate or drank their chocolate (Coe and Coe 1996, 45-46).

Ritual Use:

The use of chocolate had many ritualistic, spiritual and political meanings for the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica. According to similar creation stories of both the Aztec and the Maya, the gods discovered the cacao in a mountain named the Mountain of Sustenance (named by the Maya), along with other delectable foods. The Maya version tells the story of the Plumed Serpent (a god), who gave the people, recently made from maize by the divine grandmother goddess, Xmucane, the cacao on which to feast (Dillinger et al. 2000). The gods also provided maize, fruits and other desired foods.

When it comes to ritual use of chocolate, usually, only the male, elite and royals consumed cacao in a liquid form (Rissolo per. comm 2005), making the sweet treat one of high status individuals. Perceived as being an intoxicating food, the chocolate drink was a forbidden food for both women and children in a ritual setting (Dillinger et al. 2000, 2057s).

Priests would often prepare chocolate as a drink for religious ceremonies or offer cacao seeds to the gods. The Maya held a yearly festival to honor the cacao god Ek Chuah, which included several offerings and rituals to him; chocolate beverages, blood, dancing and other gifts such as the sacrifice of cacao-colored dogs and feathers, incense and cacao seeds (Rissolo per. comm.. 2005). According to Aztec history, a similar yearly festival in the capital city of Tenochtitlan took place with the sacrifice of a warrior captured from an enemy group during battle.

For forty days he was dressed up in the colorful feathers and jewels of the god Quetzalcoatl and ordered to dance for the appeasement of the god of war and the sun; Huitzilopochtli, all the while being treated like a god, but being caged at night. If he appeared agitated or nervous due to his impending doom, the captive would be fed a relaxing drink. He consumed a thick reddish liquid which would enable him to put his fears of eminent death aside and continue to entertain the god. The drink was an intoxicating chocolate blend with the color of blood. His dancing and movements seemed to welcome the death to come, as if he was offering himself willingly. Soon after which, his heart was carved out of his body to be offered to the god that would ensure the rising of the morrows sun (Coe and Coe 1996, 102 and Rissolo per. comm. 2005).

The offering of blood also occasionally consisted of priests lancing their own earlobes or kings lancing their penises with obsidian blades drizzling their own blood to cover cacao and offering it to the gods whom they were honoring (Rissolo per. comm. 2005). There are many, strong ethnographic sources (Thompson 1956) which demonstrate the importance of these two liquids; blood and chocolate among the Aztecs and the late Post-Classic Maya. They were both considered sacred and were thus regularly offered during ritual practices.

Baptisms of newborn babies and marriages required the ritual use of chocolate as well. The pre-Spanish Maya baptismal ritual consisted of cacao seeds ground up with flowers and pure water was used to anoint the heads, feet, hands and faces of the children, whole chocolate mixed with corn gruel was offered in special clay pottery to be used during wedding ceremonies (Rissolo per comm. 2005).

There were several types of drinks prepared for different occasions as well. Depending on the person for whom the drink was prepared, different ingredients were added or not added. Given the abundance of different types of chilies in the region, the drink could have been anywhere from mild to scalding and given the grinding techniques of various other additives, the drink may be thick, lumpy, or watery. Many recipes for chocolate drinks have made their way around the world. For example, Sahagun’s (who will be discussed in the next section) native informants give him a ‘menu’ of chocolate drinks which are suitable to be served to the ruler (Coe and Coe 1996, 89). Also, medicinally, drinks were prepared to have desired effects on the human body, which leads us into the medicinal use of the cacao and chocolate.

Medicinal Use:

Not only was chocolate used for ritual purposes but it was avidly used for medicinal reasons as well. Healing and preventative medicines as well as a tool for administering foul-tasting medicines were the two primary medicinal uses for the chocolate. Ancient Aztec sources can trace the use of the chocolate as a medical tool. Sources include the Badianus Manuscript, the Princton Codex and the Florentine Codex.

The Florentine Codex (1590 AD) contained an enormous list of medical uses for chocolate. It was prepared by priest Bernardino de Sahagun from Spain who lived and worked in the ‘New Spain’ for 60 years, collecting vital medicinal information regarding the use of chocolate for the body both internally and externally (Dillinger et al. 2000). Chocolate lessens agitation (Quelus 1730, 51), reduces angina and asthma (Villanueva y Francesconi, 1890, 231 and Hughes 1672, 153-154), reduces cancer (Villanueva y Francesconi, 1890, 239) and has a calming affect (Brillat-Savarin 1825, 100). It reduces emaciation (Hernandez 1577, 305), improves energy (Stubbe 1662, 3), relieves hoarseness (Quelus 1730, 76), reduces fever (Hernandez 1577, 305) and quenches thirst (Quelus 1730, 46).

It is also known to clean the teeth (Dillinger et al 2000, 2061s); of course modern-day dentists may disagree. The increase in sexual appetite, fertility and abetted longevity were other benefits of the chocolate. It is stated that Montezuma, prior to visiting his grand harem, would consume up to 50 goblets of a hot chocolate drink to ensure a suitable visit to each member in the group (Aguilera 1985, 119 and Dillinger et al. 2000, 2062s). Another benefit is that of consuming cacao-tree bark. It assists in reducing abdominal pain (Morton, 1981, 556-557). Externally, cacao was helpful in soothing burns, bronchitis and in disinfecting cuts. One can facilitate childbirth by eating the fruit pulp of the cacao pod. Even the leaves of the cacao tree act as antiseptics for external wounds (Morton, 1981, 556-557). Aztec soldiers marching off to battle were often given chocolate beverages to fortify and sustain them during battle (chocolate.org, Rissolo per comm. 2008). There are nearly 300 medicinal uses on de Sahagun’s list for the versatile cacao tree; however, he also added a warning label of sorts;

“[Green cacao] makes one drunk, takes effect on one, makes one dizzy, confuses one, makes one sick, deranges one. When an ordinary amount is drunk, it gladdens one, refreshes one, consoles one, invigorates one. Thus it is said: ‘I take cacao. I wet my lips. I refresh myself’ (Sahagun 1590, 119-120)”.

The Spanish Influence:

The arrival of Christopher Columbus and his officers brought an ignorance of the importance of cacao to the new world. Upon his return to Spain, Columbus toted a mere handful of cacao seeds. Only after Hernan Cortes came upon the chocolate, did its popularity in the Old World increase (Coe and Coe 1996). The bitter, spicy taste of the drink did little to satisfy Columbus and his men. They were unaware of the importance of the drink and could not bear to even choke it down. Upon its arrival in Spain, it was re- flavored with cane sugar (previously unavailable in Mesoamerica), allspice and honey to a sweet, smooth beverage. Whilst in Spain, it too, was an elite-only drink but eventually ‘chocolate saloons’ began to open, making it available to all people (Rissolo per. comm. 2005).

The Spanish, who prepared the chocolate drink for their own pleasure, did so quite differently from the ancient Mesoamericans and without the knowledge of the rest of Europe. The addition of hot and spicy additives was not palatable to the Spanish consumer and therefore substituted them with sweet additions such as cane sugar, cinnamon, honey and other flavor enhancers. In his History of the New World (1575), Girolamo Benzoni negatively states: “It seemed more like a drink for pigs than a drink for humanity………But then, as there was a shortage of wine, so as not to be always drinking water, I did like the others. The taste is somewhat bitter, it satisfies and refreshes the body, but does not inebriate, and it is the best and most expensive merchandise, according to the Indians of that country (Benzoni 1575)”

The chocolate was reserved for the higher classes as well and the Spanish government went to great lengths to ensure only the wealthy could indulge. They increased taxes on cacao product greatly to ensure only the elite could afford its benefits. Spain and Portugal kept it hidden from the rest of the world and at first only used it for medicinal purposes but the allure soon caught on. The allure was in fact so high that arguments as to whether or not chocolate could be considered a food or a beverage arose. To some, it satisfied and nourished the body like a solid food and therefore it must not be consumed during times of fasting. Eventually, much of the population, including the popes, agreed that it was not a solid food and therefore did not break the fast. By the late 17th century, chocolate became available to most of Europe and accessible to the general populations. Its popularity only increased and chocolate manufacturing companies like Hershey’s, Fry’s and Cadbury’s began opening around the globe to satisfy the people’s need for chocolate.

Conclusion:

The love for chocolate has not dwindled since its discovery. It is still a favorite among many cultures, societies, elites, royals and everyday people. The technologies, flavors, additives and reasons for consuming it have changed to allow for an increase and ease in production. Once a sacred liquid from ancient Mesoamerica; chocolate has found its way onto the dinner tables of the entire world. One need only look at the heart-shaped box of chocolates received on Valentine’s Day or the chocolate Easter egg found during a yearly egg-hunt to understand its importance in society today.

Written by Julie St Jean

 

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Original Article:

heritagedaily.com

An international team of researchers from the University of York, the Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico, Washington State University and Simon Fraser University have been studying the earliest indication of domestic turkeys in ancient Mexico.
The team studied the spatial remains of 55 turkeys, dating from between 300BCE-1500CE in various parts of pre-Columbian Meso-America.
They discovered that Turkeys weren’t just a prized food source, but was also culturally significant for sacrifices and ritual practices.
Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, Dr Aurélie Manin, said:  “Turkey bones are rarely found in domestic refuse in Mesoamerica and most of the turkeys we studied had not been eaten – some were found buried in temples and human graves, perhaps as companions for the afterlife. This fits with what we know about the iconography of the period, where we see turkeys depicted as gods and appearing as symbols in the calendar.
“The archaeological evidence suggests that meat from deer and rabbit was a more popular meal choice for people in pre-Columbian societies; turkeys are likely to have also been kept for their increasingly important symbolic and cultural role”.
Dr Camilla Speller of the University of York said: “Even though humans in this part of the word had been practicing agriculture for around 10,000 years, the turkey was the first animal, other than the dog, people in Mesoamerica started to take under their control.
“Turkeys would have made a good choice for domestication as there were not many other animals of suitable temperament available and turkeys would have been drawn to human settlements searching for scraps”
Some of the remains the researchers analysed were from a cousin of the common turkey – the brightly plumed Ocellated turkey.  In a strange twist the researchers found that the diets of these more ornate birds remained largely composed of wild plants and insects, suggesting that they were left to roam free and never domesticated.
The team also measured the carbon isotope ratios in the turkey bones to reconstruct their diets. They found that the turkeys were gobbling crops cultivated by humans such as corn in increasing amounts, particularly in the centuries leading up to Spanish exploration, implying more intensive farming of the birds.
Interestingly, the gradual intensification of turkey farming does not directly correlate to an increase in human population size, a link you would expect to see if turkeys were reared simply as a source of nutrition.
By analysing the DNA of the birds, the researches were also able to confirm that modern European turkeys descend from Mexican ancestors.
York University

 

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These are preserved maize cobs from the El Gigante rockshelter, Honduras, directly dated by AMS 14C. The largest cob, pictured at middle, is roughly 10 cm (4 in) in length. The first four cobs from the left date to the Late Formative period (approximately 2,200 years BP), while the cob at the far right dates to the Late Archaic, nearly two millennia older (approximately 4,100 years BP). Research on specimens from El Gigante reveals that ancient farmers selected for numerous traits, developing and cultivating a wide array of maize

This is the El Gigante rockshelter in the western highlands of Honduras.

 

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Mid-summer corn on the cob is everywhere, but where did it all come from and how did it get to be the big, sweet, yellow ears we eat today? Some of the answers come from carbon dating ancient maize and other organic material from the El Gigante rock shelter in Honduras, according to a team of anthropologists who show that 4,300 years ago maize was sufficiently domesticated to serve as a staple crop in the Honduran highlands.

Source: Maize from El Gigante Rock Shelter shows early transition to staple crop

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