Friday, October 11, 2013

The Testimony of Chocolate

Chocolate was first used as a food in great megalithic civilizations of Central America. The domestication of the plant and knowledge of how to use it eventually spread widely in the New World. Since the civilization in which it arose originally is well understood, evidence of chocolate use elsewhere can be used as a marker of when and where this part of the broader Meso-American cultural package spread.

Four years ago it become possible to test pottery recovered by archaeologists for chocolate residues. This pottery, in turn, can be securely dated and associated with particular archaeological cultures by stratigraphic methods, carbon-14, tree rings in associated materials, and pottery styles (often in communities with associated cemeteries upon which ancient DNA testing has been conducted and for which reliable links to communities in existence at first European contact can be established).

This new solid physical evidence supports an interpretation of archaeological cultures in the American Southwest in the seven centuries before Columbus arrived in the New World favors an interpretation in which Mexican influences were present earlier and further North than previous consensus interpretations. Mexican cultural innovations were diffused more rapidly diffusion than had previously been believed. It also supports other archaeological evidence supporting folk migration and replacement rather than gradual cultural diffusion as far north as Utah and as far back as the 8th century CE.

An 8th century CE date would suggest that the diffusion of chocolate began with the Mayans rather than with the Aztecs, possibly with an interruption in the last 1st millennium driven by climate events.

In the context of Colorado, this tends to push back the time frame in which the Uto-Aztecian peoples ancestral to the Ute Indians of today arrived on the scene, and reinforces the linguistic inference that they are Mexican derived peoples, at least on a cultural and linguistic level.

Gambler's House exhaustively covers the new developments:
The initial discovery of chemical markers for chocolate on potsherds from Chaco Canyon in 2009 was a hugely significant development in understanding Chaco. The evidence for the presence of chocolate, a Mesoamerican product that couldn’t possibly have been locally grown and is very unlikely to have been gradually traded northward through a series of intermediaries, gave a huge boost to the “Mexicanist” school of thought about Chaco, which holds that many of the unusual aspects of the Chaco system are due to influence from Mesoamerica. . . . they also found traces of cacao in vessels of similar form from the later Classic Hohokam period in southern Arizona, and, most surprisingly, also in vessels from the “small-house sites” at Chaco and elsewhere that are thought to have housed the lower classes of Chacoan society. The previous evidence for chocolate came from distinctive vessels at the “great houses” that are the hallmark of the Chaco system and seem to have been used by elites (though exactly what they used them for remains unclear and controversial). This is exactly the kind of setting where it would be unsurprising to find unusual, exotic things, and indeed the great houses clearly contained many such things in addition to the chocolate. Finding this sort of exotic foodstuff in more mundane pots at the small houses implies that it may have been more widely accessible than previously thought, which has important implications for understanding the nature of the Chaco system.

Well, now things have become even more complicated. The same researchers who did that follow-up study have done another, this time looking at a much earlier period and a different part of the Southwest. They used their same techniques to test for the presence of chocolate in pottery at Alkali Ridge Site 13 in southeastern Utah, a very important early village site dating to the eighth century AD. Site 13 was one of the earliest large villages established in the northern Southwest during the Pueblo I period, and its architecture shows some striking parallels to later Pueblo I villages such as McPhee Village in the Dolores, Colorado area, as well as to some of the early great houses at Chaco and elsewhere that developed even later. The early Pueblo I period in southern Utah is also associated with the introduction of a new type of pottery, San Juan Red Ware, which was widely traded from an apparently rather restricted production area and probably used for ceremonial purposes of some sort. In addition to being a different color from the more common gray and white pottery of the area, San Juan Red Ware also featured a distinctive design system in its decoration, one without obvious local antecedents. Combined with the distinctive architecture, this has led some archaeologists to posit that there was a migration into southern Utah during early Pueblo I from somewhere to the south, bringing these distinctive traits.

In that context, looking for cacao makes sense, as that would be a clear sign of ties to the south and cultural distinctiveness. Dorothy Washburn, who was the lead author on both this and the previous study, has actually written mainly on design style in ceramics and other handicrafts, focusing on symmetry patterns. Based on the changes she has found in these patterns, she has argued for a very strong Mexicanist interpretation of Chaco, involving actual migration of people from far to the south bringing a distinctive pottery decoration style. She seems to have a similar view about Alkali Ridge, for similar reasons. . . .

Back when it seemed like chocolate was limited to cylinder vessels at Chaco great houses, that was easy to interpret: chocolate, like many other exotic goods found at these sites, was part of an extensive trading systems for elite goods, probably used for ritual purposes, which the elites of Chaco participated in (and perhaps dominated and directed). Finding it in the Hohokam vessels implied a similar system operating among elites at Classic Hohokam sites, which is consistent with some interpretations of Classic Hohokam society, plus the Hohokam in general show lots of evidence of contact with Mesoamerica in general so the presence of chocolate is much less surprising there than it was at Chaco. Finding it in the small houses at Chaco complicated the story somewhat and implied that the chocolate imported to Chaco wasn’t as restricted as had been thought, but since it was already known to be present at the great houses it’s not too surprising that the contemporaneous small houses had it too.

Alkali Ridge, though, is much earlier and much further north than any of these other sites. Getting chocolate there in significant quantities would have required a pretty elaborate and robust supply chain over a very long distance, much of which was inhabited by societies that are not generally considered to have been capable of this kind of long-distance coordination.... 
We now have evidence of chocolate from Utah in the eighth century, New Mexico (and to a lesser extent Colorado and Arizona) in the eleventh, and Arizona in the fourteenth. 
In theory, there could be methodological problems (perhaps the residues are actually some other local plant that is merely similar to chocolate), and there are still big gaps where pottery has not been tested for residues leaving a less detailed picture than one might hope. But, neither concerns seem like strong caveats on these discoveries.


Washburn DK, Washburn WN, & Shipkova PA (2013). "Cacao consumption during the 8th century at Alkali Ridge", Southeastern Utah Journal of Archaeological Science, 40, 2007-2013 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2012.12.017

No comments: