Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. John Henderson of Cornell University explores chocolate's long history in the Americas and explains how the beloved substance was used and discovered.
John Henderson is Professor of Anthropology at Cornell University where his research interests include the archaeology of Mesoamerica, the Olmec, and the Maya. Henderson has written numerous articles on the early uses of cacao, including a chapter on cacao consumption in the forthcoming, Food and Feasting in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Foodways Past and Present. He holds a Ph.D. from Yale University.
Dr. John Henderson - The Origin of Chocolate
One of the great lessons of archaeology is that things have unexpected Consequences.
In 1519, Cortez and his soldiers invaded Mesoamerica - now Mexico and Central America - in search of treasure. But a drink they found, made from the lightly fermented seeds of the cacao tree, would eventually have a greater impact than all the gold and silver of the Aztecs.
The original chocolate was not the familiar confection made with milk and sugar. It was a frothy drink, more likely to be gingered up with chile peppers than sweetened. It was served at just about every important social and ritual event and it was used as a medicine.
Chocolate was so important that cacao seeds were a standard of value in markets throughout Mesoamerica. In early Colonial markets, a single cacao seed would buy you a tomato, or a couple of zapote fruits, or a tamal.
Europeans took to the drink enthusiastically, both for its flavor and for its medicinal properties. Early European medical books prescribe it for everything from worms to obesity.
We ve tracked cacao drinks back to before 1000 BC, by identifying chemical traces of cacao in ancient pottery from Honduras. Surprisingly, the earliest cacao bottles would not work well for frothy chocolate; they are much better suited to an alcoholic cacao drink made by fermenting the pulp that surrounds the seeds. Perhaps ancient brewers discovered how to produce a chocolate flavor by leaving some of the seeds in the fermenting pulp, another example of an unintended consequence: chocolate as a by-product of sloppy beer brewing.
Ancient Mesoamerica was no doubt an amazing place, where money really did grow on trees.