by patricia l. crown
When you enjoy hot chocolate in New Mexico today, you are part of a tradi-
tion that began well over a millennium ago. To explain how we know this
requires starting with a discovery made at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon
over a century ago. There, on August 20, 1896, as George Pepper, a Harvard
archaeology graduate student; and Richard Wetherill, a rancher and avocational
archaeologist, uncovered an “unpromising” room, they discovered broken
fragments of an unusual vessel form, and then an entire cache of 111 of these
vessels. This form was the cylinder jar. One hundred and sixteen years later,
research has demonstrated that Chacoans drank chocolate elixirs from these
unusual vessels. But what is chocolate? And how did it get to Chaco Canyon?
The Migration and Use of Chocolate
Chocolate comes from the tropical Theobroma cacao tree, which requires a
moist, frost-free climate. DNA studies indicate a probable origin in the upper
Amazon Basin. Indigenous groups in South America had many stimulant plants
in their environment (including several varieties of high-caffeine plants; see
sidebar), and there is currently little evidence that they used cacao. However,
human populations expanded the range of T. cacao north to include virtually all
parts of Central America and Mesoamerica where it could grow. Scientists do
not currently know how indigenous groups initially cultivated the tree outside
its natural range, but we can see the results of this effort in the distribution of
the plants far from the Amazon.
The earliest evidence for cacao use comes from the southern Pacific coast of
Mexico and the Olmec area (today’s Veracruz and Tabasco) in pottery that dates
to around 1900 BC. T. cacao could grow in this Mesoamerican region, and the
Olmecs had probably started cultivating the imported plant by this time.
from Chaco to Colonial New Mexico
Left: Cylinder jars in Room 28 at Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon. Courtesy of the Maxwell
Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico. Photographer: George H. Pepper. Catalog
Number 88-42-11, 1896 (detail). These jars were used for frothing and serving chocolate
drinks at Chaco Canyon.
Cacao beans, being ground on a metate. Photograph by Kitty Leaken, 2012. Metate and
cacao courtesy of Santa Fe chocolate historian Mark Sciscenti.
consumption & cuisine
Up until the modern era, people consumed chocolate in drinks rather than
as solid candy. Preparation of these early cacao drinks required harvesting
the ripe cacao pods, opening them to remove the beans, fermenting them in
the surrounding white pulp for a few days, drying the fermented beans for a
week, roasting them, peeling the papery shell off to reveal the nibs, and then
grinding the nibs on a grinding stone. The resulting paste could be consumed
immediately or formed into cakes that would last up to two years, making them
suitable for long-distance transport.
Preparation of chocolate drinks required four items: processed cacao nibs,
additives to flavor the drink and dilute the cacao, a special vessel form, and
a way to froth the drink. These four components of chocolate-drink cuisine
characterize versions from Central America to Chaco Canyon.
In the Olmec area, cacao drinks were served in globular, neckless jars called
tecomates. Archaeologists believe that these earliest drinks were concocted from
cacao nibs or made by fermenting the sweet pulp surrounding the nibs. From
this region, use of chocolate drinks made from the nibs spread widely. We
know some details of this use through written records, images showing people
preparing and drinking the elixirs, and archaeological evidence.
The Mayas drank chocolate from cylinder jars with hieroglyphic texts that
recorded their contents. They apparently preferred their drinks hot, and they
frothed the drinks by pouring them from one cylinder jar to another from high
above, creating a cascading stream of chocolate with surfacing bubbles, like a
waterfall. The Aztecs drank chocolate from decorated gourds or ceramic cups
with a goblet or truncated figure-eight shape. They also frothed their drinks by
the pouring method. Some other Mesoamerican groups used tubes or spouted
vessels to blow air into and create froth on their drinks. All of the effort put into
frothing vessels suggests that the froth was considered the most delicious part
of the drink, an interpretation confirmed by later historical documents.
Recipes collected at the time of European contact reveal the variety of choco-
late drinks consumed throughout Mesoamerica. Perhaps the most common
drink was made of cacao, ground maize, and water. More elaborate drinks
included honey, powdered chile, achiote (also called annatto, which would
have colored the drinks red), vanilla, and various flowers.
In Mesoamerica, cacao was largely consumed by elites, particularly on
ceremonial occasions, and by warriors. Commoners might drink chocolate
on special occasions, such as weddings. Cacao was a form of tribute among
the Mayas and Aztecs, and a form of currency at contact, with set values for
purchasing goods or services. The beans were so valuable as currency that
resourceful individuals created counterfeit versions out of clay.
Chocolate in New Mexico
How does New Mexico fit into the history of chocolate use in the New World?
Archaeologists work with chemists to determine the presence of chocolate
by looking at organic residues in fragments of ceramic vessels from archaeo-
logical sites. In my ongoing research into Southwestern chocolate use, funded
E l P a l a c i o
by the National Science Founda-
tion, I collaborate with W. Jeffrey
Hurst, a nutritional chemist at the
Hershey Technical Center in Hershey,
Pennsylvania. For our analysis, samples
come from fragments, or sherds, of ceramic
vessels that are preferably unwashed. We burr the
exterior surface off to reduce the chances of contami-
nation, grind up a dime-sized fragment of the interior,
and analyze that with a technique called high-performance
liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry, which reveals
absorbed (rather than visible) organic residues trapped in the
pores of the ceramics.
In the case of chocolate, we look for theobromine, caffeine, and theo-
phylline, which together are biomarkers for chocolate. Theobromine and
caffeine also occur in some other New World plants, notably the holly plants
used to make drinks such as mate, consumed throughout much of North and
South America. We can distinguish the use of holly from that of chocolate
based on the ratios of theobromine to caffeine (which differ for each plant) and
the presence or absence of other residues, notably theophylline, which does
not occur in holly; and ursolic acid, which does not occur in cacao.
Chocolate drinks were definitely present in Chaco Canyon sites by AD 900,
and probably earlier. The cylinder jars found by Pepper and Wetherill show
chocolate residues. In shape, the Chaco cylinder jars most closely resemble
the Mayas’ preferred chocolate-drinking vessel, although the Mayan form
was no longer in use by the time that the Chaco cylinder jars were made. As
with the Mayas and Aztecs, Chacoans probably frothed the drinks by the
pouring method, since the vessels were made in sets of two to four jars. We
do not know what additives Chacoans used to flavor their drinks or at what
temperature they served them. However, cooks almost certainly sweetened the
bitter chocolate with something, perhaps honey or agave nectar, and probably
added other flavorants, such as ground corn or berries, to create different elixir
varieties and help the exotic chocolate supply last longer.
Our ongoing research is not complete, but the results suggest that cacao was
available in other parts of New Mexico prior to the Spanish entry into the South-
west. It was probably present by at least AD 800 – 900, and our research indi-
cates that cacao was present in Southwestern sites until at least the mid-1400s.
Because T. cacao trees would not grow anywhere in the New Mexico climate, we
know that it was brought from Mesoamerica. The Spanish mapped cacao trees
at contact, so we know where the closest cacao was growing in the 1500s; it is
likely that cacao was growing in similar areas centuries earlier, so these distri-
bution maps provide a good approximation of where the cacao found in New
Mexico might have originated, particularly because the trees have such specific
environmental limitations. The closest cacao would have been 1,200 miles south
of Chaco, along either the Gulf Coast or the Pacific Coast of Mexico.
Above: This map shows the historical distribution of
cacao, including the areas in Mesoamerica where it was
produced and the archaeological sites in Mesoamerica
and the Southwest where evidence of chocolate
consumption has been found. Adapted from a map
by Ronald L. Stauber, courtesy Patricia L. Crown.
This Red Mesa Black-on-white beaker,
ca. AD 950 – 1050, from Chaco Canyon, San Juan
County, New Mexico, is an early example of the type of
cylindrical jars found at Pueblo Bonito. This jar is on
exhibit in the exhibition New World Cuisine: The Histories
of Chocolate, Mate y Más at the Museum of International
Folk Art. It is currently being tested for cacao residue by
the Conservation Lab of the New Mexico Department of
Cultural Affairs. Courtesy of the Museum of Indian Arts
& Culture, Catalog Number 43334/11. Also on exhibit
in New World Cuisine is a sherd from one of the ca.
AD 1000 – 1150 Pueblo Bonito jars tested by Patricia
L. Crown in her research discussed in this article.
Photograph by Blair Clark.
paseo de la amada
areas of major production
areas of secondary production
areas of scattered plantings
How did chocolate get to New Mexico from such a distance? We do not
know the answer to this question, but there are several possibilities. The
Mayas and, later, the Aztecs maintained an extensive trading network. Indeed,
Europeans first encountered cacao nibs during Columbus’s fourth voyage in
AD 1502, when some of his sailors met a Mayan trading canoe laden with
goods from Mesoamerica. It is possible that some of the long distance from
Mesoamerica to New Mexico was traversed by canoe, with the remainder on
foot. Mesoamerican traders might have brought cacao to New Mexico directly.
Or the Native American groups residing in New Mexico might have journeyed
south to obtain cacao themselves. It is also possible that cacao was traded
village to village along this extensive distance.
We may never know exactly how such commodities moved, but goods
may have moved through multiple channels in the past. Cacao was not the
only Mesoamerican commodity found in New Mexico: copper, live macaws,
pottery, pyrite mirrors, some shell species, and several plant species ulti-
mately derive from Mesoamerica. Interaction between these two vast areas
was probably continuous over thousands of years. We also do not know
what might have passed southward in exchange for cacao, although many
scholars argue that turquoise was a valued local commodity possibly traded
for Mesoamerican goods.
Because we have never found cacao pods or nibs in archaeological contexts
in Southwestern sites, it seems most likely that already-processed cakes of
chocolate were brought to New Mexico, rather than the unprocessed pods.
However, some images found in rock art and on pottery might represent cacao
trees or pods, perhaps evidence that Southwestern peoples had knowledge of
the actual plants rather than only the processed cakes.
The earliest Spanish documents do not describe chocolate in the American
Southwest. While it is possible that explorers did not notice chocolate
during the early expeditions into the Southwest, it is also possible
that the upheaval of the Spanish conquest in Mesoamerica
disrupted access to chocolate for the peoples of the South-
west. Although the Spanish initially found chocolate drinks
unpalatable, they recognized the importance of cacao within
the Aztec economy, and they maintained the fundamental
aspects of that economy, including cacao. Eventually, they
expanded the area where cacao grew as the demand for
cacao in Europe increased. The Spanish gradually adopted
chocolate drinks, adapting them to fit their own cuisine.
As the Mayas, Aztecs, and Chacoans had done before
them, the Spanish created special vessel shapes, including
the mancerina (a saucer with a raised inner lip) and jicara
(a cup that fit into the mancerina lip); created new recipes
with ingredients such as sugar and Old World spices (including
cinnamon, anise, and sesame); and frothed the drinks with the
(a wooden whisk).
Mancerina, eighteenth century, silver, Mexico.
Gift of the Fred Harvey Collection. International Folk Art
Foundation (IFAF) collection, FA.1979.64.4. On exhibit
in New World Cuisine: The Histories of Chocolate,
Mate y Más, at the Museum of International Folk Art.
The mancerina is a New World design for a chocolate
saucer, intended to protect the user from spills
(see Levine, this issue). Photograph by Blair Clark.
This chocolate storage jar is evidence of
the Colonial-era trade routes between China and Mexico.
The ceramic jar with celadon glaze was made in China
during the Kang Period (1662 – 1772) or slightly later.
The iron lid with lock and key were made in Oaxaca,
Mexico, during the eighteenth century and testify to
the preciousness of chocolate during this period.
IFAF collection, FA.1964.18.1V. On exhibit in New
World Cuisine: The Histories of Chocolate, Mate y Más,
at the Museum of International Folk Art.
Photograph by Kitty Leaken.
Society, Ritual, and Taste
In New Mexico, the earliest mention of chocolate comes from an inventory
dating to 1600. Chocolate was consumed by priests, soldiers, and wealthy
settlers in New Mexico, and records indicate it was used sometimes in payments
for goods and services. Documents suggest that the Spanish controlled access to
chocolate, along with many other luxury goods, in New Mexico (see Levine and
Snow, this issue). Chocolate was prized by all social strata and ethnic groups in
the Southwest, and the written documents suggest that Spanish officials and
priests served chocolate drinks to honor guests of high rank, and especially in
encounters involving negotiations, as a form of “gastro-politics.”
When groups use a special vessel form for drinking something specific,
anthropologists argue that it is because they want others to know, even from
a distance, that they are consuming that particular substance. The vessel form
need not be very functional, as long as it is distinctive from other vessel forms.
For instance, in our own culture, martini glasses are used to serve martinis and
are shaped in such a way that everyone recognizes what a person is drinking
from them, even from across the room. They are not particularly functional
as containers because they have such a high center of gravity and an open
form, so the signaling of what is being consumed overrides the physical func-
tion of that form. Cylinder jars, tecomates, goblets, spouted vessels, and the
mancerina/jicara duo probably all served the same signaling function for these
societies: anyone within the culture would recognize that someone, probably
of high status, was drinking chocolate when they saw them lift their cultur-
ally appropriate form to their lips. Such signaling is typically associated with
highly valued foods and drinks, rather than with more commonly consumed
staples, such as water.
Why did so many cultures prize chocolate? Those of us who love chocolate
find this easy to understand. Chocolate has many properties that make it a
valued food, in addition to its distinctive flavor. Chocolate has high nutritional
value, including significant amounts of fat, carbohydrates, dietary fibers, and
protein, as well as a range of vitamins and minerals. As many recent studies
confirm, it is a healthful food. Chocolate also has pharmacological effects as
a stimulant, and worldwide it has had many medicinal uses. For instance,
the Aztecs used chocolate to treat stomach and intestinal problems, control
coughing, and cure infections.
It seems unlikely that chocolate represented an important nutritional
component of the prehispanic diet in New Mexico, because it was probably
not available in sufficient and reliable amounts to add much to the diet. The
context in which Chacoans left the cylinder vessels provides some clues to
cacao consumption at Chaco. First, the fact that cylinder jars were deposited
almost entirely in caches (including that excavated by Pepper and Wetherill in
1896), rather than in association with individual burials, suggests that indi-
vidual people did not own the cylinder jars. In other words, if people owned
cylinder jars, they would likely be buried with their valued drinking vessels.
The jars are not found with individual burials, however (although they some-
times occur in rooms with burials, they were placed in locations away from the
individual burials). Instead, the recovery of the jars in groupings suggests they
belonged to the community or some subset of the community, such as a clan or
religious order. Hence, when that community left Chaco or no longer needed
the vessels, they deposited the jars as a group in these caches. Second, caching
suggests that whatever the activity associated with drinking chocolate, it was
probably ritual in nature, leading to special disposal of the vessels. Finally,
rituals associated with groups tend to concern the well-being of the community
rather than the well-being of the individual. There are not enough jars known
for every occupant of Pueblo Bonito or Chaco Canyon to have owned one. This
suggests again that only a subset of the entire community drank chocolate from
cylinder jars. Because it was a commodity that was hard to obtain, the subset
that had access to chocolate probably consisted of higher-status individuals
and/or perhaps individuals who belonged to a specific religious society.
Although we are far from understanding the extent of chocolate consumption
in New Mexico, putting chocolate in the context of the artifacts associated with
its use helps us to understand at least some aspects of how and why the people
of this area incorporated chocolate drinks into their lives.
There is still much to learn about the history of chocolate in New Mexico.
But we are absolutely certain that chocolate has been a favorite drink of the
residents of this landscape for over a millennium. And the lure of chocolate led
to its presence in some surprising places. According to George Pepper’s diary,
on September 13, 1896, twenty-five days after finding the first cylinder jar in
Chaco, Richard Wetherill felt too sick for dinner. George Pepper ate, though,
and washed his hair; then the two men walked to the kitchen attached to
the back of Pueblo Bonito, where they made and drank some hot chocolate.
Chocolate drinks had returned to Pueblo Bonito.
Many wonderful books on chocolate were consulted for this article. Two of
the best are Chocolate in Mesoamerica, edited by Cameron L. McNeil (Gaines-
ville: University of Florida Press, 2006); and Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods, by
Meredith Dreiss and Sharon Edgar Greenhill (Tucson: University of Arizona
Press, 2008). My research on chocolate has been funded by a grant from the
National Science Foundation (jointly with W. Jeffrey Hurst) and a Snead-
Wertheim Lectureship at the University of New Mexico.
Patricia L. Crown, PhD
, is distinguished professor of anthropology (archaeology) at the University
of New Mexico. She is the author of many scholarly articles on Southwestern archaeology and ceramic
analysis. Her books include Women and Men in the Prehispanic Southwest: Gendered Perspectives on
Labor, Power, and Prestige in the American Southwest (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press,
2000) and Social Violence in the Prehispanic American Southwest, coedited with D. Nichols (Tucson:
University of Arizona Press, 2008).
E l P a l a c i o
Caffeinated drinks have a long history in the New World. Throughout much
of North, Central, and South America, Native populations developed ways
to process the leaves, twigs, bark, or nibs of various plants into drinks with
caffeine. These drinks include chocolate, derived from the Theobroma cacao tree
pods (see article) and yerba mate, derived from Ilex paraguariensis leaves and
twigs. Ilex species are members of the holly family, found on every continent
except Antarctica. In South America, yerba mate remains a popular drink in
Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil, where people often share the drink from a
common hollow gourd using a metal straw. Other drinks made from holly
plants in South America include té o’ mate, made from Ilex tarapotina in northern
Peru; and guayusa, made from Ilex guayusa in Ecuador. In North America, early
explorers reported Native American groups in what is now the southeastern
United States drinking quantities of a beverage made from the toasted leaves
of Ilex vomitoria or Ilex cassine. Although the Native groups had many different
names for this drink, explorers generally called it “black drink.”
These drinks share some common characteristics. They were made from
plant parts that were toasted, broken or ground up, then diluted with water.
Preparation of both chocolate and black drink involved introducing air to
create a froth on the drink. All of these drinks were served from special
vessels with distinctive shapes. They were often consumed in social settings
In the case of black drink, historical documents provide detailed descrip-
tions of how important it was to populations in the southeastern US. Although
there is some variation in who drank it and on what occasions, most frequently
black drink was part of ritual cleansing and purging performed by men before
any important activity. Men consumed quantities, often from cups made of
seashells (or ceramic cups shaped like seashells), followed by vomiting. So
basic was this activity to social life that the plants were cultivated outside of
their natural range along the coastal plain. Recent research has shown
that holly was exchanged to create ritual beverages at Cahokia, near
modern St. Louis, as early as AD 1050. Cahokia is over 300 miles
from the closest known natural source of suitable holly.
leaves were found in a burial interpreted as that
of a medicine man in the Bolivian highlands dating to AD
500. These leaves must have come from much lower elevations
east of the Andes. Combined with what we know about the use of
caffeinated drinks in other parts of the New World, a picture is now
emerging of widespread exchange in the plants needed to make
these ritually important drinks. By at least AD 500 and perhaps increasing
in distribution over time, the peoples of the New World drank caffeinated
beverages, apparently in ritual contexts, and perhaps traveled great distances
to obtain the raw materials for them. — PLC
Yerba Mate and
the Black Drink
Catalina Delgado Trunk, El Señor
del Cacao (The Chocolate God), detail, 2011,
Japanese paper, 35
Collection. FA.2011.52.1. On exhibit in New
World Cuisine: The Histories of Chocolate, Mate
y Más, at the Museum of International Folk Art.
Photograph by Blair Clark.
Below: Cahokia Beakers used to drink the
ritual Black Drink, eleventh – thirteenth century,
from the collections of the Illinois State
Archaeological Survey. Photograph by
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