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Earth Notes

Earth Notes: Chaco Chocolate

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American Museum of Natural History
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A thousand years ago, the Ancestral Puebloans in Chaco Canyon crafted cylinder-shaped drinking vessels. They look like tall water glasses decorated with beautiful triangles and zigzag lines. Archeologists think these jars had a special purpose: they were used for drinking chocolate.

Patricia Crown, a researcher at the University of New Mexico, noticed the jars looked similar to vessels used by the Mayans for chocolate drinking. Crown tested pottery sherds from Chaco Canyon, and, sure enough, turned up chemical markers specific to cacao. The finding implies extensive trade or migration between the residents of the Colorado Plateau and their neighbors in Mesoamerica. Chocolate must have been among the goods carried up from the south, along with copper bells and scarlet macaws.

It’s not clear how Southwest people prepared their cacao. But the Mayans and Aztecs sweetened it with honey or added ground maize. They made the chocolate light and frothy by pouring it from jar to jar. Crown suspects frothing wasn’t just to improve the taste, but a kind of performance art, as well.

Around the start of the 12th century, the people of Chaco Canyon stopped using the chocolate drinking vessels—in a dramatic way. They piled up more than a hundred of the jars in a room and set fire to it. But they didn’t give up chocolate… they just drank it out of mugs instead.

Today, the Chaco Heritage Tribal Association is conducting the first-ever tribal led survey of the Chaco area, with Hopi, Zuni, and Pueblo people looking back to the lives of their ancestors.

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