by Bill Boyle
Utah’s love affair with chocolate may be much older than previously thought. San Juan County is where archaeologists have found the earliest traces of cocao in the United States. Cocao is the raw form of chocolate.
Details of the find are part of a new exhibit about chocolate at the Natural History Museum of Utah. The new museum is located in Salt Lake City.
Dorothy Washburn, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, made the discovery. She used pottery taken from Alkali Ridge, east of Blanding, from a collection held by Harvard University. Washburn found residue of cocao in pottery dating from 750 AD.
The tests that were used to make the discovery are very sophisticated. “It’s not like she found hot fudge stains in a pot,” explained Lisa Thompson, who helped develop the chocolate exhibit at the Natural History Museum.
Washburn used a solution to extract 1,250-year-old residue from the pottery. The material was run through a spectrometer, which found cocao markers.
The find may help archaeologists understand how much interaction took place between different cultures. Use of cocao is generally believed to have originated in Meso-America, where it was used as a ceremonial beverage by elites.
How it ended up in San Juan County is still unknown.
Thompson suggests that in 750 AD, at about the same time the cocao traces were left, a new type of pottery was found, Abajo Red on Orange.
The thought is that maybe the pottery and cocao came from a similar source, from trade of some type with Meso-America.
“It appears as if the ties between Meso-America and the ancient people in San Juan County were very deep,” said Thompson. She points to other evidence of the connection between the two cultures, including rare macaw feather artifacts.
The chocolate exhibit at the museum runs through May, 2014.