Discovery of the sacred cocoa groves of ancient Maya

Picture of Cacaoyer

Cacao, the plant from which chocolate is made, was considered even more divine by the Maya than chocolate. Cocoa beans were considered a gift from the gods by the Maya, who even used them as currency due to their high value.

As a result, the Mayan kings of northern Yucatan strictly regulated the production of cocoa beans, with cocoa trees only being planted in the sacred forests. Until today, no modern scholar has been able to establish the exact location of these ancient sacred gardens.

Discovery Results:

Brigham Young University researchers, including professor emeritus Richard Terry and graduate students Bryce Brown and Christopher Balzotti, have collaborated with archaeologists from the United States and Mexico to identify sites where the Maya used to find the ideal combination of humidity, calm and shade for cocoa. trees. While the dry environment of the Yucatan Peninsula is unsuitable for growing cocoa, researchers have found that the peninsula’s enormous collection of sinkholes contain simply ideal microclimates.

As detailed in a study recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports, the team carried out soil analyzes on 11 of these sinkholes and found that the soil of nine of them contained evidence of theobromine and caffeine – combined biomarkers unique to cocoa. Archaeologists have also found evidence of ancient ceremonial rituals – such as stair railings for processions, stone carvings, altars and offerings like jade and ceramics (including tiny ceramic cocoa pods ) in several sinkholes.

To extract and analyze the sinkhole soil for cocoa biomarkers, specifically theobromine and caffeine, the team developed a new soil extraction method. This involved drying the soil samples and passing them through a sieve, covering them with hot water, centrifuging them and running them through extraction discs and analyzing the extracts by mass spectrometry. .

To increase the sensitivity of their tests, the research team compared the results of the soil samples to seven control samples with no history of biomarker exposure.

The findings of BYU’s study indicate that cocoa plantations played an important role in the ancient rituals and trade routes of the ancient Maya, impacting the entire Mesoamerican economy. A 70-mile Maya “highway” in the area that was the main artery of trade passes near hundreds of sinkholes, so it’s likely that the rulers who commissioned the development of the highway also controlled cocoa production.

Evidence of cocoa cultivation alongside archaeological finds also supports the idea that cocoa was important in the ideological shift from a maize god to a sun god.

In a sinkhole near Coba, Mexico, a village 45 minutes from present-day Tulum, the search team found the arm and bracelet of a figurine attached to an incense pot and several cocoa pods in ceramic.

They also found remnant cacao trees growing there, making it entirely possible that this sinkhole, named “Dzadz Ion”, was the location of a sacred cacao plantation during the Late Postclassic period (about 1000-1400 AD). ).

“Now we have these connections between religious structures and religious cultures cultivated in these chasms,” Terry said. “Knowing that cocoa beans were used as currency means that the sinkholes were a place where money could be grown and controlled. This new understanding creates a rich historical narrative of a Mayan landscape highly charged with economic value, political and spiritual.

Project researchers also came from University of California, Riverside, University of Miami, State University of New York, Kent State University, Universidad Nacional Autónoma of Mexico, the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia and the Cultural Heritage and Archeology in the Institution of the Maya region.

(Source: Brigham Young University)

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