Chocolate Is 1,500 Years Older Than Previously Thought—and It Didn't Originate in Central America

From the bitter, cold drinks of Mesoamerica to the vast array of sweet, creamy treats available today, our love affair with the rich cacao bean has ancient roots.

But scientists have learned that this relationship goes back much further than previously thought. Rather than originating in Central America some 3,900 years ago, new evidence suggests that South Americans were cultivating cacao about 1,500 years previously.

“Unequivocal” evidence, researchers reported Monday in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, shows the tropical trees were domesticated some 5,300 years ago at Ecuador’s Santa Ana-La Florida site.

Archaeological and anthropological evidence has created a familiar picture of ancient Mesoamericans drinking an acerbic cacao drink—and even using the plant’s seeds as a form of currency.

But recent genomic data showed the highest levels of diversity for the plant could be found miles away in South America. This research hinted that the domestic tree may have originated in the upper Amazon region in the continent's northwest.

Evidence from ceramics found at the site confirmed the domestication and use of cacao in the area, which was once home to the Mayo-Chinchipe culture—an ancient community that lived in the Chinchipe basin of modern-day Ecuador and Peru.

Researchers found starch grains, traces of an alkaloid called theobromine that’s found in domestic cacao—but not its wild cousins—and tiny pieces of ancient DNA unique to the crop.

10_29_Cacao The pod from a cacao tree is split in two to reveal cacao flesh and seeds. Our relationship with the cacao bean goes back much further than previously thought. Rather than originating in Central America some 3,900 years ago, new evidence suggests that South Americans were cultivating cacao about 1,500 years previously. Getty Images

Native to Americas, the evergreen cacao tree is now largely cultivated in West Africa. It sprouts large, brightly colored seed-filled pods whose contents are pressed, roasted and ground to make a bevy of chocolaty delights.

Future study, the team wrote in Nature Ecology & Evolution, would try to trace how the domestic crop spread from the upper Amazon region to other parts of the Americas. The study authors did not immediately respond to Newsweek’s request for comment.

In other chocolate news, motorists in Poland were frustrated when a tanker crashed into a barrier and spilled tons of liquid chocolate onto a major road a few weeks ago. In spite of the tough cleaning job ahead, police officers and fire fighters reportedly saw the funny side of the incident.

Other sweet treats have recently been causing trouble. Australia’s Melbourne Zoo recently weaned its animal inhabitants off fruit when they learned it was harming their teeth. “Cultivated fruits have been genetically modified to be much higher in sugar content than their natural, ancestral fruits,” head vet Michael Lynch told the Melbourne Age. The animals will now be chowing down on leafy greens and vitamin-packed pellets.

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