Chocolate may have provided sweet impetus for extensive trade between ancient northern and southern societies in the Americas. Pueblo people living in what’s now the U.S. Southwest drank a cacao-based beverage that was imported from Mesoamerican cultures in southern Mexico or Central America, a new chemical analysis of Pueblo vessels finds.
Pueblo groups and an ensuing Southwest society traded turquoise for Mesoamerican cacao for about five centuries, from around 900 to 1400, proposes a team led by archaeologist Dorothy Washburn of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Surprisingly, large numbers of people throughout Pueblo society apparently consumed cacao, from low-ranking farmers to elite residents of a multistory pueblo, the scientists report online March 4 in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
“Since cacao was consumed by both Pueblo elites and nonelites, active trading for cacao must have occurred with Mesoamerican states,” Washburn says.
Washburn’s study was inspired by a 2009 report of cacao residue in three jars from an 800-room pueblo, known as Pueblo Bonito, in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon (SN: 2/28/09, p. 14). Pueblo Bonito dates to the 11th century, and Chaco Canyon was a regional center of Pueblo life from about 900 to 1130.
That initial evidence of cacao drinking in Chaco Canyon surprised many archaeologists, who long have assumed that cultures of the Southwest and Mesoamerica had minimal contact. Yet previous Pueblo finds in Chaco Canyon include macaw remains, copper bells and decorative items that must have come from Mesoamerica, remarks archaeologist Ben Nelson of Arizona State University in Tempe.
“To find that cacao consumption was much more widespread strengthens the case for regular exchange with populations in Mesoamerica,” Nelson says.
He has argued that leaders of ancient Southwestern societies appropriated selected aspects of Mesoamerican cultures for their own purposes, perhaps to justify their power and prestige.
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Washburn and her colleagues identified traces of theobromine, a chemical found in cacao plants, in 50 of 75 pitchers and bowls from Pueblo Bonito, surrounding Pueblo farming villages and 14th-century graves of high-ranking members of the nearby Hohokam society in Arizona.
Hohokam sites contain ball courts and massive platforms much like those in Maya and other Mesoamerican cities, Washburn says.
Other researchers have matched the chemical signature of turquoise from mines in New Mexico to that of turquoise found at several Mesoamerican sites, including the Maya site of Chichen Itza. In Washburn’s view, mines in the U.S. Southwest, but not Mexico or Central America, contain turquoise of high enough quality for mosaic tiles that were used in Mesoamerican designs.
Mesoamericans built 500- to 800-room pueblos in Chaco Canyon as administrative trading centers, she hypothesizes. Newcomers from the south brought a cacao-drinking habit with them and introduced the beverage to locals.
Excavations at several small Pueblo sites in Chaco Canyon suggest that turquoise was fashioned into jewelry and other luxury items there, Washburn adds. “Turquoise workers may have been paid in cacao, as was the case in Mesoamerica,” she says. “That would have given a nonelite population access to cacao that we found in their bowls and pitchers.”
Washburn plans to examine whether Pueblo groups in other parts of the Southwest used cacao. In particular, she wants to look for theobromine in vessels that display stylistic links to Mesoamerica, such as jars with indented bases. Theobromine-containing cacao plants grow in tropical parts of Mexico and Central America but not in the U.S. Southwest, she says.