Everyone has encountered old, mystery chocolate. Sometimes it’s leftover Halloween candy from three years ago. Sometimes it’s a hardly recognizable M&M found in an old coat pocket. And sometimes, as is the case with archaeologists in southern Utah, it’s over 1,300 years old and is found in a stash of ancient pottery.
The chocolate residue, found at the Pueblo Alkali Ridge settlement, near Chaco Canyon, was discovered on 13 pots, according to a post by Western Digs. It is the oldest chocolate found in the U.S. The chocolate traces were evident by the presence of theobromine, a chemical found in cocoa. But theobromine is also found in Ilex vomitoria, a holly plant used to induce vomiting. This poisonous holly plant is only found in the southeastern U.S.
The ancient and mysterious chocolate pot.
Dr. Dorothy Washburn from the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology analyzed the theobromine traces and concluded it was, in fact, from chocolate. She reached this conclusion because the holly plant stayed relatively in the southeastern U.S., whereas chocolate was a widespread staple of Mesoamerican life, peoples who inhabited most of Central America.
The Field Museum of Chicago’s archives state that chocolate was first discovered by the Mesoamerican people around 250 C.E. They used the cocoa as a paste to make bitter drinks. The archive pointed out, “For these people, chocolate wasn't just a favorite food—it also played an important role in their religious and social lives.”
However, there is one large problem with this scenario. How did cocoa, which only grows in Central and South America, travel over 1,500 miles to the southern Utah settlement?
Approximately where the chocolate was found by archaeologists of the University of Pennsylvania.
Many archaeologists and anthropologists believe that the cocoa reached southern Utah through extensive trade routes, but Washburn disagrees. She believes the cocoa traces are telling of a large migration of the ancient Mayan people.
Teotihuacan, the capital city of ancient Mexico, had collapsed due to internal conflicts and Spanish conquest centuries before archaeologists believe the chocolate arrived in Utah. This large conflict could have caused large waves of immigration, perpetually in every direction, argues Washburn.
But, who cares about history? Honestly, the bigger, and more perplexing, question here for chocolate-loving Utahns is how long is chocolate edible? When is chocolate too old to eat?
Steve Hatch, the owner of Hatch Family Chocolates in the Salt Lake City Avenues, said, “As long as it is stored properly, chocolate can last quite a while. If the chocolate gets moldy, the chemical can crystallize. That’s when a candy bar has little white crystals on it. The cocoa butter starts to separate.”
So, is the ancient Pueblo chocolate all right to eat? Not quite, according to Hatch. “There isn't an exact date [when chocolate goes bad]. But a better question to ask is: Does it still smell like cocoa?”
And even though we can’t eat the chocolate, this "sweet" ancient find exposes a lot about our ancient ancestors.
Main photo courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.Thumbnail pic via FreeDigitalPhotos.net