Chocolate Trade Between the Ancient Southwest and Mesoamerica


Trade between Mesoamerica and the Ancient Southwest in macaws, parrot feathers, copper bells, turquoise, turkeys, pottery was well known to archaeologists for some time.  

Only recently have we become aware of the large chocolate trade between Mesoamerica and the Southwest from the 9th Century on.

Researcher Patricia Crown had seen cylindrical vessels at Maya sites that previous researchers discovered contained chocolate. Using sophisticated new technology, the chemical building blocks of chocolate, theobromine and caffeine, were found in these vessels.


In 2009, Patricia Crown was looking at cylindrical vessels that looked like the ones she saw at Maya sites at the Ancestral Pueblo site of Pueblo Bonito. She saw these vessels contained pigment decoration that was applied in the same manner as the Maya used in decorating their vessels. She then ascertained that these vessels may also contain the chemical proof of chocolate. So she and her team analyzed the vessels in the lab.

In Room 28, at the Site of Pueblo Bonito, she found layers of these types of jars, and with further digging, found an astounding 200,000 ceramic items. She sorted out the ones that came from the cylindrical type and had them tested for theobromine and caffeine. Sure enough, the tests came back positive, and we now know that the Ancient Puebloans were trading for chocolate grown 1,200 miles to the south in Mesoamerica. These date to 1000 CE.

The Mesoamericans were drinking chocolate as a valuable beverage going back at least 3,500 years. They were using chocolate beans as currency. And we have recently found that they were using chocolate as a means of payment for work and services.

Further studies in smaller housing units in Mesoamerica, where poorer people lived, contain those cylindrical vessels that have tested for the presence of chocolate. So chocolate was a huge commodity in the Mesoamerican economy.

Patricia Crown followed up on these studies and did the same research on these vessels in smaller units in the Chaco Canyon, close to Pueblo Bonito and further afield, and found the same phenomena. Poorer folks had access to chocolate, probably as payment for services.

The Chaco culture had its florescence from 850-1150 CE. So chocolate was finding its way to the Chaco culture from Mesoamerica as early as 1000 CE, as we know from dating the Chaco vessels.

Then came the huge surprise, still a mystery. Dorothy Washburn, from the University of Pennsylvania, tested shallow “Abajo Red on Orange” bowls at the site of Alkali Ridge, far to the north of Chaco in Utah. And to her surprise, they contained theobromine and caffeine – in other words – chocolate!

The folks at Alkali Ridge were an extension of the Ancient Puebloan culture far to the south, and these Red on Orange bowls were different from the usual pottery found in the area. And they date to 780 CE, a full two centuries before chocolate at Pueblo Bonito.

This is an astounding find for many reasons. How did this happen? Why is this so much further north from Mesoamerica and yet the dates are 200 years earlier than the Chaco Culture dates? Why have there been no finds of chocolate between this Utah site and the New Mexico sites on the way to Utah? How did it arrive there? Who transported it? Mysteries now abound.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s