Chocolate is an ancient brew

The chocolate enjoyed around the world today had its origins at least 3,100 years ago in Central America not as the sweet treat but as a celebratory beer-like beverage.

by: Reuters | 19 Nov 2007
 

People in Central America were drinking beverages made from cacao before 1000 BC, hundreds of years earlier than once thought, a new study shows.

These early cacao beverages were probably alcoholic brews, or beers, made from the fermented pulp of the cacao fruit.

These beverages were around 500 years earlier than the frothy chocolate-flavoured drink made from the seed of the cacao tree that was such an important feature of later Mesoamerican culture.

But in brewing this primitive beer, or chicha, the ancient Mesoamericans may have stumbled on the secret to making chocolate-flavoured drinks. People in Central America were drinking beverages made from cacao before 1000 BC, hundreds of years earlier than once thought, a new study shows.

These early cacao beverages were probably alcoholic brews, or beers, made from the fermented pulp of the cacao fruit.

"In the course of beer brewing, you discover that if you ferment the seeds of the plant you get this chocolate taste," says John Henderson, a professor of anthropology at Cornell University in Ithaca.

In the 16th century, invading Europeans acquired a taste for the beverage and brought it back to Europe, which led to the rise of the modern chocolate industry.

An elite drink
The archaeological evidence recovered by Henderson and colleagues from a site in Puerto Escondido in modern-day Honduras suggests that the beer that probably preceded the chocolate beverage was popular among wealthy people at least as early as 1100 BC.

Chemical analysis of residues found on fragments of pottery vessels recovered from the site tested positive for theobromine, a compound found in cacao trees that were limited to Central America.

The vessels were found in the "fancier, bigger houses" in the village of Puerto Escondido in the Ulua Valley in northern Honduras, says Henderson.

He suggests the elite members of society would have drunk the beverage to mark special occasions such as births and marriages.

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