Amazon Scavenger Hunt: a Fun Way to Explore Rainforest Sustainability

Recently my daughter and I were making cookies when she asked me, “Where do chocolate chips come from?”

I considered the glib answer, “From the chocolate chip factory,” but decided to take advantage of a teachable moment and said, “Well, chocolate is made from seeds of the cacao tree that grows in the South American rainforest.”

If you know any six-year-olds, one question inevitably leads to another. So began a conversation about rainforest plants, animals and people that tested the limits of my understanding — all for the love of cookies.


Chocolate, cinnamon and vanilla beans, all from the Amazon.

As we enjoyed our cookies, we talked about other things in our house that came from rainforests. A quick online search later and we were off counting different foods, checking out the furniture and even kicking the tires on the car. As it turns out, a lot of things in our home originate in a rainforest. We easily found 30 items!


Example of mola on a quilt.

 Indigenous peoples sustainably use rainforest resources. Besides food, clothing, tools and homes, some cultures harvest rainforest animals and plants for ceremonial clothing that is passed from one generation to the next. Many cultures trade in non-food items like handmade baskets and bowls, and art produced by some cultures has found its way into our lives. The ornately patterned molas made by the Kuna Indian women of Panama can be found on purses, wall hangings or even quilts.


Example of another mola.

As a consumer, supporting companies and artisans that sustainably harvest these products can make a difference a world away. To raise awareness and enrich your child’s education, why not have your own Rainforest Celebration Day? Get your kids involved and try a rainforest product scavenger hunt or have a rainforest food-tasting party. Feeling crafty? Try making a mola out of fabric you have at home, or if like me you’d probably appliqué yourself to it, try making it out of construction paper instead! Brightly colored craft feathers (chicken, peacock, and pheasant) can be used to make necklaces, arm bands or if you’re really excited, headdresses or crowns for the little princesses in your life. 


Macaw feather headdress.

For more information on indigenous peoples, check out our John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas or the upcoming exhibit Out of the Amazon: Material Culture, Myth and Reality in Amazonia. The Cockrell Butterfly Center offers a taste of the rainforest, literally! Check out the vending machine downstairs, complete with edible bugs. Ask about our Wildlife on Wheels Rainforest topic to bring to your child’s school.

Experience a rainforest close to home with these ideas and your imagination. Happy hunting, and may all your scavenger hunts include cookies!

Educator How-to: Tectonic Chocolate Bars

The earth is vast and its surface seems huge. However, the earth’s crust only makes up 1% of the earth’s mass — subsequent layers (the mantle and the core) make up the other 99%.

So, why do we care about the earth’s crust (besides the fact that we live there)? It consists of tectonic plates that move around, and where they hit, we get nature’s most impressive formations — Earthquakes and Volcanoes. Because the crust is so vast, it is hard to see the minor changes that occur daily. We tend to notice the big changes like mountains and effects from earthquakes.

In Houston, we don’t get to see either of those things! Luckily, the Houston Museum of Natural Science has Nature Unleashed: Inside Natural Disasters on exhibit right now. In Nature Unleashed you can see how the earth’s tectonic plates shift and learn about the earthquakes that can result, build your own volcano and watch as it explodes molten rock along the mountain side. You can even experience the inside of a tornado, and see some of the aftermath found in several cities.

Nature Unleashed: Inside natural DisastersIf you can’t make it to the museum, you can always show the effects of tension, compression and shifting on the earth’s crust using a simple chocolate bar!


  • Snack-sized chocolate bars (Milky Way and Snickers work best because of the caramel)
  • Wax paper or plates to place candy on while working


  1. Tell the students that the earth’s surface is constantly changing. The crust is formed by tectonic plates which float on the plastic layer of the mantle called the asthenosphere. Where these plates interact, we notice changes on the earth’s crust. The chocolate on this candy bar is going to mimic some of those changes. This time I used Milky Way.

Structure of the Earth

  1. Have the students use their fingernail to make some cracks in the “crust” near the center of the candy bar. Ask them what they notice about the cracks in the crust?

Science Education

  1. Next, demonstrate tension by pulling the candy bar apart slowly. Notice how the crust shifts on top of the caramel layer. The caramel is the exposed upper mantle also known as the asthenosphere. It is this layer that allows the tectonic plates to move around. Sometimes this tension between plates can form basins or underwater ocean trenches.

Science Education

  1. The students should then place their chocolate bar back together gently. To demonstrate another way the earth’s crust moves, ask the students to move one half of the candy bar forward and pull the other half backwards. This is an example of a strike-slip fault. Notice how the chocolate changes at the fault line. This mimics the bending, twisting and pulling of the rocks that can occur at a fault.

Science Education

  1. Lastly, ask the students to push the two ends of the candy bar together. Notice how some of the chocolate pushes up and some even slides on top of another piece, showing how mountains can be created on the earth’s crust.

Science Education

  1. Now that you’ve seen what the earth’s crust can do, feel free to allow your students to eat their new landform creations! 

And don’t forget to come check out Nature Unleashed: Inside Natural Disasters showing now through September 14!

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).