The ancients discovered cacao -- the source of cocoa and chocolate -- much earlier than believed. And they first used it to brew alcoholic beverages, a new study has found. Recent chemical analyses of residues on pottery excavated at Puerto Escondido in Honduras suggests that the cacao seed was first used somewhere between 1400 and 1100 BC, Sciencedaily.com reported.
The study also found that much before the cacao bean flavour became popular, it was the sweet pulp of its fruit, used to make a fermented alcoholic beverage, which first drew attention to the plant. "This development probably provided the impetus to domesticate the chocolate tree," said Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania.
"An alcoholic beverage from the pulp, carrying on this ancient tradition, continues to be made in parts of Latin America." The famous chocolate beverage of the Mayan and Aztec kings, served on special occasions, came later. It was made from the cacao beans, often mixed with chillies, special herbs, honey, and flowers. The liquid was frothed into foam, and both inhaled and drunk.
McGovern has worked on techniques to determine what food and, more often, drink, once filled the ancient pottery and other food vessels that archaeologists find. And time and again, he has seen that alcoholic beverages go hand in hand with the earliest development of human cultures.
"The beverages of China and the Near East also became the prerogative of the elite, and were incorporated into religious ceremonies and celebrations," he noted.
"They were often of considerable economic value, just as the cacao bean was the medium of exchange in the Aztec empire, and they were traded, given in tribute, and offered as gifts to fellow rulers and the gods."