In the ancient Mayan civilization, cocoa was not just for the elite.

Traces of the sacred plant appear in pottery of all types of neighborhoods and dwellings in and around a former Mayan city, researchers reported Sept. 26 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The discovery suggests that, contrary to previous thinking, cacao was consumed at every social level of Maya society.

“We now know that the rituals depicted by the cacao elite were probably performed, like Thanksgiving, like any other ritual, by everyone,” says Annabelle Ford, an archaeologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Cacao – from which chocolate is made – was sacred to the ancient Maya, consumed in rituals and used as currency. The cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) was himself associated with Hun Hunahpu, the corn god. Previous research has found cacao in ceremonial vessels and elite burials, suggesting its use was limited to those at the top.

To investigate the extent to which cacao was used in wider Maya society, Ford and his colleagues examined 54 pottery sherds dating from 600 to 900 AD.SN: 09/27/18). The sherds come from jars, mixing bowls, serving plates and vases believed to be drinking vessels. All of the pieces were found in residential and ceremonial civic areas of varying size and status from urban centers, foothills, highlands, and the valley surrounding the former Mayan city of El Pilar, on the present-day Guatemala-Belize border.

To identify cacao, the researchers looked for theophylline, a compound found in traces of the plant. The team found the compound on more than half of the samples, on all types of ceramics and distributed across social contexts.

Future research will move beyond who consumed cocoa and examine the role of farmers in managing the critical resource. “The better question is to find out who grew it,” Ford says, because those people probably had more access to the valuable commodity.

In Maya society, cacao use was for everyone, not just royals

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