Humans and chocolate: a 5,000-year love story

Humans have hankered after chocolate for centuries longer than previously thought, scientists said on Monday, tracing the earliest known consumption of its key ingredient to more than 5,000 years ago in South America.

Archaeologists have long believed that ancient civilisations in Central America started drinking concoctions of cacao – the bean-like seeds from which cocoa and chocolate are made – from around 3,900 years ago. 

But in a study that shifts the origins of chocolate centuries backwards, a team of scientists travelled to Santa Ana-La Florida, in modern day Ecuador, the earliest known archaeological site of the Mayo-Chinchipe civilisation.

They analysed artefacts from tombs and ceremonial pyres including ceramic bowls, jars and bottles as well as stone bowls and mortars for theobromine, a bitter chemical found in cacao. 

The team found starch grains characteristic of cacao in around a third of items examined, including the charred residue of a ceramic receptacle dated to be 5,450 years old. 

That suggests that humans have been consuming cacao for roughly 1,500 years longer than previously thought, and locates its discovery in the upper Amazon region. 

“This is the oldest trace of cacao identified so far and it’s also the only archeological trace of the use of cacao discovered in South America,” Claire Lanaud, geneticist at the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development and the study’s co-author, said.

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