Curious Collections: Chocolate Pots from Chaco Canyon main content.

Curious Collections: Chocolate Pots from Chaco Canyon

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Catalog no. H/3225.Photo: ©AMNH

More than 100 years after joining the Museum’s archaeological collection, a remarkable set of 11th-century pottery excavated in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon is at the center of a delicious discovery.

Found at Pueblo Bonito, one of the great ceremonial complexes of the Ancestral Pueblo peoples, the rare ceramics were collected for the Museum by George Pepper at the turn of last century. Only recently, however, have researchers looked to the set to search for chemical traces of the vessels’ long-lost contents. The results were electrifying: tests revealed the presence of theobromine, the biomarker for cacao, confirming the earliest known use of chocolate north of the Mexican border.

“The cool thing is the way the new Pueblo Bonito research validates the importance of our collections,” says David Hurst Thomas, curator of North American Archaeology in the Museum’s Division of Anthropology. “We have artifacts dug up a century ago, and those collections are invaluable for modern researchers using cutting-edge technologies and asking brand-new questions.”

To enjoy chocolate, which was highly prized in the Maya and Aztec cultures, Ancestral Puebloans would have had to obtain it from their Mesoamerican neighbors. Cacao trees require high rainfall and humidity, growing mostly in tropical areas far to the south of Chaco. Other imported goods, such as copper bells and Scarlet Macaws, had already been discovered at Pueblo Bonito, and the confirmation of chocolate adds to evidence of a robust commercial exchange. Even more exciting are the implications for cultural connections between these ancient societies. When trade carried cacao north to Chaco, special skills for preparing beverages and rituals surrounding chocolate may have traveled as well.

This story originally appeared in the Summer issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.