Chocolate Beer: an Early Honduran Delicacy

In 1993, workers bulldozing a field not far from La Lima, in the Department of Cortés, recognized that they were disturbing a buried archaeological site. Named for the small village where it was located, Puerto Escondido became the focus of archaeological excavations for the next seven years.

Originally, these excavations were undertaken by the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History as cultural resources management, mitigation before a housing development would be constructed. What was found quickly changed the plans, and a green space was left to protect the buried site.

The reason: Puerto Escondido, occupied until about 1000 AD, was found to have a continuous history of occupation starting before 1500 BC. That made the site one of the earliest villages known from Honduras.

Research at the site found that the people living at Puerto Escondido enjoyed shell jewelry, beautiful pottery, and stone tools made of imported obsidian. And one other thing: chocolate.

Testing of bowls and bottles from the site for residues of the chemical theobromine– a distinctive chemical produced by the cacao plant, Theobroma cacao— led to the determination that cacao had been present much earlier than was then known; by 1100 BC, people at Puerto Escondido were drinking a chocolate drink stored in distinctive bottles with narrow, tall necks.

Not only was this around 500 years earlier than sites where cacao had been identified up until then: the bottle that contained the earliest cacao drink at Puerto Escondido was puzzling. Bottles used in Honduras and Belize after 900 BC have wider flaring necks. Actually called chocolate pots by some archaeologists, these resembled pots in which cacao was stirred with a wooden beater to bring up a foamy froth.

No one could have used a similar tool to stir up foam in the narrow bottle necks current at Puerto Escondido before 1100 BC. This change in bottle shape implied that the earlier chocolate drink was different. Since the froth was a major attraction for later cacao, the question raised was what would have encouraged early cacao cultivation and chocolate drinking?

The proposal made was that early cacao was used, as were a number of other plants, to make an alcoholic drink– cacao chicha or chocolate beer. The narrow neck bottles contained the liquid until it was poured into drinking cups. There was no need for a wider mouth on the bottles because the alcoholic cacao drink was not beaten to create a foam. Fermentation would have built some natural foam on this beverage, perhaps the feature later drinkers of non-alcoholic chocolate were trying to mimic.

At the time, specialists in archaeology of the region did not consider cacao as a possible source of alcohol, even though fermentation is actually one step in processing cacao pods to obtain chocolate nibs: the dehydrated seeds of the cacao pod, their chemistry altered by alcohol.

Once the proposal that initially cacao was cultivated as a source of alcohol was made, specialists were able to identify Mexica (Aztec) descriptions of a beverage described as “green cacao” that “intoxicated” people. Chocolate beer was restored to its place in the history of Precolumbian chocolate— all because of research at one early village in Honduras.

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