Academic Minute
3:25 pm
Thu September 29, 2011

Dr. John Henderson, Cornell University - The Origin of Chocolate

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.

About Dr. Henderson

Dr. John Henderson - The Origin of Chocolate

One of the great lessons of archaeology is that things have unexpected

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

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.

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