It has long been believed that the use of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), from which chocolate is made, was controlled by the elites of ancient Maya society, but new research suggests that this was not the case. Previous studies looking at evidence for Maya cacao usage have largely focused on highly decorative types of vessels from elite ceremonial contexts, and have therefore supported the assumption that access to cacao was restricted to the powerful and wealthy. However, the recent study by researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, set out to explore the extent to which cacao was used in wider Maya society.
The team analysed ceramics from a variety of contexts from El Pilar, an important Maya centre in the Late Classic period (AD 600-900), on the border of modern Belize and Guatemala. The pottery sherds were subjected to laser mass spectrometry in order to identify the biomarker of theophylline, which signifies the presence of cacao. The analysis found traces of cacao in 56% of the sherds; not just in the drinking vessels, as might be expected, but in storage jars, mixing bowls, and serving plates as well. The study also revealed that cacao consumption was taking place in all sorts of contexts, in residential units as well as civic centres, and both near and far from Maya centres, indicating that it was much more widespread than previously assumed. The researchers stress that the fact that cacao appears to have been generally available does not diminish its value, but rather suggests that its importance for the Maya people extended throughout society, and was shared by everyone from the farmers growing the plant to the royalty with whom it has traditionally been associated.
The study has been published in the journal PNAS (https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2121821119).