Chocolate is humanity’s favorite food, and a new research paper published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution has proven that people have been making and enjoying chocolate for 1,500 years longer than previously thought. According to the study from researchers at the University of British Columbia in Canada, humans have been growing cacao (the principal ingredient in chocolate) for over 5,300 years.
The study looked at intentional cacao planting as opposed to cacao plants in the wild which thrive in the warm tropical climates of Central and northern South America. The researchers analyzed the DNA of modern cacao trees and discovered that new varieties started emerging over 5,000 years ago in indigenous settlements along the Amazon basin. The researchers were then able to prove that this farmed variety of cacao is the same as the cacao that was grown by the ancient Maya culture in Belize and southern Mexico.
Prior to the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th century, the principle way that chocolate was consumed in the Americas was as a drink. The theobroma cacao species that is found across Belize and the rest of Central America was used to make sacred drinks which were consumed during religious ceremonies and feasts. Cacao beans were so highly prized by the ancient Maya that they were also used as currency.
By studying pottery and other artifacts at ancient sites that still contain remnants of cacao beans, researchers were able to push back the earliest verified data for intentional cacao farming to more than 5,300 years ago. Researchers discovered traces of theobromine, a component of modern cacao beans, inside the pottery fragments and were thus able to analyze the plant’s DNA, showing that it was the cultivated variety as opposed to the varieties found nearby in the wild.
The ancient Maya believed that chocolate was the “elixir of life,” and there are records of Maya kings drinking up to 50 cups of chocolate per day. Today, chocolate is known as a superfood, rich in antioxidants, copper, manganese, iron, and other essential nutrients.
Ready to try some ancient chocolate recipes for yourself? The best way to indulge your passion for this sublimely delicious superfood is to visit the Belize Chocolate Festival in May or sign up for one of Chabil Mar’s chocolate tours. Chabil Mar is an award-winning beach resort located just steps from the Caribbean on the beautiful Placencia Peninsula in southeastern Belize.