The sweetest story: Learn about the chocolate revolution at an HMNS Distinguished Lecture

On cold nights, one of the best comforts out there is hot chocolate. You come home from a long day’s work, take off your coat, defrost a bit (OK, we’re in Houston, so just go with me here), boil up some water, add in the mix and mmmm … hot chocolate.

Oh, the convenience of it all! But have you ever wondered what the real story of this drink was?


As modern Americans, we might consider hot chocolate to be a unique invention, seeing that much more of the chocolate around us exists in its hard candy form. But really, this drink harkens back all the way to early Mesoamerican cultures.

Cacao cultivation started as early as 1400 B.C. by the Olmec civilization. From residue left on pottery, we can tell that the Olmecs used the bean to create a fermented drink, most likely used in religious ceremonies. The Maya borrowed the Olmec’s cultivation techniques but created a drink far more recognizable to today’s chocolate connoisseurs, creating the first “modern” chocolate 2,000 years ago. The drink was associated with fertility and was also used in a ritual setting.
The Aztecs, in turn, borrowed from the Maya and seasoned it with vanilla, chili pepper and achiote to create a bitter, frothy drink called xocolatl. By this time, the beverage had become a luxury item for wealthy Mayans. Europeans would pick up on this when they came to the New World, and maintained chocolate as a luxury item for European courts until the Industrial Revolution would make chocolate accessible to the masses.

In 1828, the cocoa press was invented by Dutch chocolatier Coenraad J. van Houten. The press created a fine powder from roasted cacao beans, which dramatically lowered the production price. This, in turn, paved the way for British chocolatier J.S. Fry to make the world’s first chocolate bar in 1830. In 1875, the Swiss were the first to add powdered milk to the mix, creating milk chocolate.

Today chocolate is a worldwide industry, with 45 percent of chocolate revenue coming from Europe and two-thirds of cocoa produced in Western Africa. So to all the chocoholics out there, be grateful for the rich history of chocolate, which has made it so readily available to us today!

Can’t get enough chocolate history? Come to HMNS on Tues., Feb. 4 for “Chocolate, A Revolution in a Cup” as part of our Distinguished Lecture series. The lecture starts at 6:30 p.m., but come early for a chocolate frothing demonstration … and stick around after to taste unique chocolates from Araya Artisan Chocolate!

HMNS Distinguished Lecture
“Chocolate, A Revolution in a Cup”
Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D.
Tues., Feb. 04, 2014
6:30 p.m.

This lecture is cosponsored by Archaeology Institute of America Houston Society. Get tickets!

Teachers, get credit for hearing the chocolate doctor at a special Teacher Tuesday just for you:

ExxonMobil Teacher Tuesday
“Domestication of Plants: Chocolate”
Tues., Feb, 4, 5
8 p.m.

Examine the natural science and yummy cultural history of chocolate with hands-on classroom activities. Then attend lecture by Dr. Rosemary Joyce, who will tell how the cacao plant was domesticated to produce chocolate. Purchase tickets.


This weekend kids will be running around the lawns hunting Easter eggs. Others will be eagerly chomping down on chocolate Easter bunnies. None of them will even wonder where all of that good stuff came from.

It has been a while already, but the museum hosted a wonderful exhibit on chocolate. It told the story of the origin of the cacao tree (northern South America), and how it made its way into Mesoamerica, into the Maya and Aztec cultures. We also learned how the Spaniards brought the substance to Europe, and added sugar, rather than the chile peppers once used in Mexico. More people were able to drink it we were told, as consuming chocolate was the prerogative of the elite in the New World. 

Or so we thought. As someone once said, that’s not entirely accurate. Enter Pueblo Bonito, New Mexico.

Aerial view of Pueblo Bonito, December, 2009. Image Wikipedia  (Bob Adams photographer)

Excavations conducted in 2009 at Pueblo Bonito, New Mexico, showed that chocolate beverages were consumed at the site. At that time, 2009, this constituted “the first proof of chocolate use in North America north of the Mexican border.” In a recently released update on the project we read that out of 75 drinking vessels found at the site, no less than 50 still had minute traces of theobromine in them. What makes all this even more interesting, aside from claims of “first proof of chocolate use”, is that this consumption was not limited to the upper crust of society.

Here is another question that comes up right away. How did the chocolate get up there? New Mexico is too cold for cacao trees to grow, unless, of course, you use a greenhouse. It turns out that Pueblo Bonito was part of a trade network extending from the Southwest all the way south into what we call Mesoamerica. Another wonderful exhibit, called the Road to Aztlan explored commercial exchanges between these two culture areas. Parrots were sent north, turquoise was sent south. Now it seems that in addition to the parrots (much prized because of their feathers, it is thought), chocolate was also shipped north.

All of this dates back to about the 11th through 14th centuries AD, a time when some of the Classic period Maya had experienced their infamous “Collapse.” Sites like Chichen Itza and Mayapan traded places as the centers of power in Yucatan. The site of Tula, rather than Teotihuacan (already in ruins) and Tenochtitlan (a bit too early still for them to manifest themselves as a powerhouse) ruled the roost in Central Mexico. Maya chocolate aficionados were imbibing as early as the 11th century BC, maybe even earlier.

The glyph for “kakaw”  appears on many Maya pots and inscriptions. One of the pots is a chocolate drinking vessel found at Rio Azul, Guatemala. What makes this vessel so incredible is that it has a screw top. Notice in the images below: the neck of the vessel has a groove, the lid has two protrusions allowing one to place the lid onto the pot and then twist it to close it.

Rio Azul cacao vessel on display at the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología,
Guatemala City. (Photograph by Dirk Van Tuerenhout).
Lid for the Rio Azul cacao vessel on display at the
Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala City.
(Photograph by Dirk Van Tuerenhout).

2012: It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)

2012 – hype and reality

In upcoming movies (yes, plural), we are foretold the end of the world, set to happen in 2012. One trailer shows graphic images of massive tidal waves crashing over the Himalayas, wiping out all life on the planet. If one scans late night TV programs (think along the lines of preachers who come on in the wee hours of the morning) as well as the internet, you will find a great variety of references to this date and the impending doom associated with it.

Why? What in the world is this all about?

Many people think the Maya predicted the world to end in 2012.

I see two things going on here: hype and reality. There is a huge disconnect between the two. Let’s start with reality: timekeeping in the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans. Then we will address the fantasy world that has been built on top of that historical reality.

Among the Prehispanic, or Pre-Columbian people of the Americas, the ancient Maya were accomplished astronomers. Unlike us, the Maya had a different perception of time. They considered time passing in terms of cycles, we think of it as a never-ending linear progression of days growing into weeks, months, years, etc. With the Maya, time was counted in units of twenty, a trait they shared with other Pre-Columbian people in Mesoamerica. Moreover, the Maya also kept track of time for various purposes. Sometimes they counted the days for purely practical purposes, such as when to plant and harvest crops and sometimes they used the calendar for ritual purposes.

Aztec calendar stone on display at the
American Museum of Natural History, NY.
Creative Commons License photo credit: admiretime

Before we go any further, we need to acknowledge that in addition to the number 20, the number 13 was also extremely important to Precolumbian people, including the ancient Maya. We see the importance of thirteen reflected in the fact that they recognized no less than thirteen levels in heaven. Keep these two numbers in mind: 13 and 20. They will come back often further down.

Before we talk about the Maya calendars, we need to take a closer look at the basic units that they used to count time. The basic unit was a day, or kin. Maya specialists have identified up to eight additional (and much larger) increments of time, for a total of nine orders of time periods. The next level of day keeping was that of twenty days, or uinal. The third order – named tun – should be comprised of 400 days, but this is where the Maya introduced the “exception to the rule.” The tun consisted of 360 days (18 times 20 rather than 20 times 20). After that, no more exceptions and so we have:

20 tuns = 1 katun, or 7,200 days
20 katuns = 1 baktun, or 144,000 days
20 baktuns = 1 pictun, or 2,880,000 days
20 pictuns = 1 calabtun, or 57,600,000 days
20 calabtuns = 1 kinchiltun, or 1,152,000,000 days
20 kinchiltuns = 1 alautun, or 23,040,000,000 days.

These numbers are enough to make one’s head spin. Suffice it to say that they reflect an awareness among Maya timekeepers of what we would call “deep time.” That in itself is interesting. They were not just happy-go-lucky, carpe diem types hanging out in the rainforest.

There were two calendrical cycles in use when the Spanish arrived on the scene, now almost 500 years ago: one cycle was 260 days long (referred to as Tzolkin) and a 365 day cycle (known as Haab).

The origins for the 260 day cycle remain unknown. Some have suggested that it represents the human gestational cycle; others think it is the result of multiplying two numbers important to Pre-Columbian people (13 and 20). There are thirteen Maya heavens; and, as mentioned earlier, they count in units of 20. It is therefore conceivable that they came up with a calendar round combining these two numbers. We have evidence that the 260 day cycle goes back as far 500 BC and very likely goes back in time even further. It is also important to know that this calendar is still in use among some of the Maya communities today, among them the Cakchiquel Maya in the Guatemalan highlands.

The 260 day calendar served a ceremonial purpose; it was the basis for prophesies. One’s birthday was recorded by this calendar and the deity associated with your birthday became closely associated with that person’s destiny. This calendar of 260 days was not divided into what we would call months; rather it was made up of a sequence of 260 days with each day identified by attaching a number of one to thirteen to one of the twenty Maya day names.

The second calendar, comprising 365 days, appears very similar to our own solar calendar. We add a day every four years to account for the fact that year is actually 365 days, 5 hours and 48 minutes long. The Maya arrived at their 365 days by coming up with 18 months (each 20 days long) and by adding 5 days at the end, for a total of 365 days. These five final days are known as Uayeb and were, in general, considered to be bad luck days.

 Page of an Aztec manuscript,
the Codex Borbonicus, a divinatory almanac.

The two calendrical systems intertwined to form a “calendar round.” The Maya referred to a day by the number and name it had within the 260 day calendar and its number and month name within the 365 day calendar. To enable us to grasp this potentially confusing concept, quite often these two calendars and the interaction between them is represented graphically as a set of meshing calendar wheels. Because the two calendars are of different length, a day will receive a particular name only every 52 years. You can think of this unit of time – 52 years – as the Maya equivalent of our century. The end of such a 52 year cycle was celebrated by all known Mesoamerican civilizations, among them the Maya and the Aztec. The Aztec had ceremonies aimed at pleasing the gods as one such 52 year cycle came to an end, in the hopes of ensuring that another cycle would follow. We do not know if the ancient Maya shared this belief. What we can say is that most people would not have had any use for a calendrical cycle longer than 52 years, as that was probably the upper limit of a human life in those days.

The priests, however…they were a different matter. They did count days over enormous spans of time, and this is how in this story we start to get closer to the doomsday hoopla scenario surrounding the year 2012.

Chichen Itza's Kukulcan Temple
El Castillo, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico
Creative Commons License photo credit: kyle simourd

The Maya stand out from other Mesoamerican cultures in that they also had a third way of reckoning time. We refer to it as the Long Count, with encompasses cycles each 5128 years long (with each cycle representing thirteen baktun cycles). We know that this system of counting deep time was in use, and used on carved stone monuments, from approximately 36 BC to 909 AD in our calendar. For most of those years, these dates appear on Maya monuments.

The dates that appear on Maya monuments refer to this Long Count system. Maya inscriptions listing events, names and places would place these within the context of how many days had elapsed since the start of the current 5128 year cycle. The current great cycle was thought to have started in 3114 BC. It will end 5128 years later in…. the year 2012.

And this is where the reality ends and the hype starts.

What does it mean, or, what did it mean to the ancient Maya, that the current cycle of time will come to an end in 2012, December 21, according to most movie scripts? Honestly? It means nothing at all. A new cycle will start and we will have more hype coming to a movie theater near you in another 5128 years, in the year 7140 AD.

My advice would be not to max out your credit cards, or do any other irresponsible things. Do not let these hucksters misrepresent the past; let them wallow in their ignorance. Some sources already got it right. As for us, I hope that you will join me in appreciating and marveling at the Maya’s ability to count time well beyond the horizon.

That is the real story and that is worth remembering.

Apocalypto — 150 AD

The study of the ancient Maya is relatively new compared to that of ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. Our understanding of the Maya before the arrival of the Spanish may never reach the same level as we have for Old World cultures. However, major discoveries, utilizing new technologies paired with backbreaking archaeological work in steamy jungles and on freezing mountain peaks, continue to be made. That aspect, as well as the fact that Precolumbian cultures in general charted their own path, independent from the Old World, makes this such an interesting area to study.

Archaeologists drew on their knowledge of Classical archaeology when they started studying Precolumbian cultures. For example, they borrowed from Classic Old World archaeology by dividing Precolumbian history into three parts: the Preclassic, Classic and Postclassic. The underlying assumption here was that everything started out small and then grew into a more complex web of city states trading and fighting each other, only to succumb to the onslaught of the invading Europeans.

Humble beginnings, triumphant zenith and ultimate collapse. Simple enough, right? Not quite.

Creative Commons License photo credit: malias

There are major differences between Old and New World archaeology. Most known Preclassic Maya sites were small, with the beginnings of public architecture that would make later Maya sites so popular among tourists today. One site, however, left its humble beginning behind very quickly and grew into a huge city centuries before other Maya cities ever did. That site was El Mirador.

Located in the northern part of the Department in El Petén, Guatemala, El Mirador was first noted by archaeologists during pioneering mapping efforts in 1893. During the 1920s, the Carnegie Institutionwent from Campeche to Tikal and reported on their travels through the Mirador Basin. Subsequent aerial reconnaissance conducted in 1930 yielded the first photographs of these pyramids and the raised roads connecting them. In the 1960s, Ian Graham mapped the sitefollowed by additional mapping efforts in the 1970s and 1980s. One archaeologist who has spent most of his career working at El Mirador is Dr. Richard Hansen. Over the years, this project has seen tremendous growth, encompassing archaeology, biology, as well as community development.

Grand Jaguar 2
Creative Commons License photo credit: auntjojo

El Mirador can best be described with superlatives. Two of its platform-pyramid complexes are among the largest by volume in the world. Known as La Danta (or tapir) and El Tigre, these pyramids are 72 and 55 meters tall respectively. These magnificent buildings were part of a Preclassic community which some estimate may have had 100,000 inhabitants, perhaps even more. It is considered larger than the much better known Maya site of Tikal.  El Mirador may have been 38 sq. km in size. What makes this development even more interesting is the location: no major rivers in the vicinity, and as far away from the sea as one can get in Guatemala.

In is against this backdrop that archaeologists found evidence of a pitched battle fought on the top of El Tigre pyramid. Bone fragments were found together with hundreds of spear tips and arrow heads. Many of these projectile points were made from obsidian, or volcanic glass, which was traced back to a source in the Central Mexican highlands. Currently additional research is underway to help identify the two combatant parties.

It is tempting to see this event as part of a power struggle that played out during the early centuries of our era. We know that Teotihuacan, located in the Basin of Mexico, was meddling in Maya affairs during the fourth century AD. We know that central Mexican art forms, architectural canons and perhaps people were present at Maya sites such as Tikal, Copan and Piedras Negras. We do not really know what happened and why the city of Teotihuacan had extended its influence that far into Central America.

What remains equally enigmatic is why there would have been a battle. Is this an example of inter-site warfare? Was Tikal keen on disposing of a major competitor? Given the known chronology of Teotihuacan’s involvement in the Maya cities just mentioned, the suggested date of El Mirador’s demise, at 150 AD, may be a few centuries too early to make this a workable hypothesis.
This is just the beginning of this story. The last word on this topic has not been written yet. In the meantime, it is fascinating to get a glimpse into a single event – that of a violent conflict – fought at the top of a Maya pyramid now almost 2000 years ago. Apocalyptic indeed.

I would like to add one final point: the site of El Mirador and its architecture served as a source of inspiration for the Maya city portrayed in the 2006 Mel Gibson movie, Apocalypto. Dr. Hansen served as one of the movie’s advisors.