Humans began exploiting cacao beans for alcohol before they started using them to make chocolate, according to new findings that push the earliest known use of cacao back about 500 years.
Residue scraped from pottery vessels dating to 1400 B.C. to 1100 B.C. indicate that residents of Honduras’ remote Ulua Valley fermented the sweet pulp of the plant to make an alcoholic drink well before they began grinding the bitter seeds and mixing them with honey and chiles to produce the equivalent of modern cocoa.
The consumption of fermented cacao is much more recent than the production of wine and beer, which date to about 5400 B.C. in Iran and around 7000 B.C. in China.
But the chocolate drinks, which had an alcoholic content of about 5 percent, had a special role in feasting, entertaining and binding indigenous groups together, said archaeologist John S. Henderson of Cornell University, who led the team reporting the find Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Before the study, the oldest known use of cacao was marked by the discovery of a bottle containing traces of the material excavated from a grave in northern Belize. The bottle dated to 600 B.C.
Henderson speculates the story is not over yet, and they might find evidence of cacao use even earlier than 1500 B.C. “We’re being conservative,” he said. “I think it goes back much farther than that.”