An international team* associating archaeologists, anthropologists, biochemists and geneticists recently found for the first time archaeological traces of cocoa use in South America in pre-Columbian times.
The study was published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.
Scientists have discovered what are currently considered the oldest traces of cocoa dating back 5,300 years in ancient pots in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
As noted by researchers, this discovery marks the oldest proof of cocoa ever found.
Furthermore, it predates the domestication of the plant by Olmec and Maya civilizations by more than 1,500 years.
The pots containing cocoa were found in the Southern Ecuadorian Amazon, more precisely at the Santa Ana La Florida (SALF) archaeological site near Palanda, discovered 16 years ago by the archaeologist Francisco Valdez and his Franco-Ecuadorian team (IRD/INPC) (2).
The archaeological site (Santa Ana La Florida) is found within the area of origin of the Nacional cocoa variety grown on the Pacific coast of Ecuador. From there, all the fine cocoa produced in the country originate.
What is interesting is that the discovery of seashells such as spondylus and strombus from the Pacific Coast at the archaeological site indicates that people from the Pacific Coast and the Amazon were in communication thousands of years ago.
Scientists say that the Mayo Chinipe, which the oldest known Amerindian civilization in the upper Amazon, have been consuming the plant continuously from at least 5,300 years to 2,100 years before the present.
“Evidence of cocoa use was found by analyzing the starch grains characteristic of the genus Theobroma, traces of theobromine, a biochemical compound specific to mature cocoa beans, and ancient cocoa DNA found in ceramic vessels, some of which dated back more than 5300 years”, explained Claire Lanaud, a geneticist from CIRAD specializing in cocoa, and one of the lead authors of the study.
“The vessels came from tombs or domestic settings; they clearly showed that cocoa was used both as a funerary offering and for daily consumption.”
Scientists conducted DNA tests as part of a project on the past and present domestication of the planet.
The study was founded by the Agropolis Foundation.
After DNA sequencing was performed, the scientists demonstrated the presence of DNA fragments which are specific to the species Theobroma cacao, despite the fact that the remains were severely degraded because of the humid tropical environment in which they were found.